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Revolutionary Joy

Revolutionary Joy

Matthew 3:1-12; Isaiah 11:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

8 December 2019

 

 

            Matthew 3:1-12

 

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”  Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

 

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

            Because in the wider culture it is already Christmas season, we often overlook that the biblical lessons for the first few Sundays of Advent are filled with darkness, doom, and gloom.  The First Sunday of Advent is actually not about the first coming of Jesus, but the second coming, and the biblical lessons are about apocalypse and judgment.  The second Sunday isn’t much better, as we get this cantankerous wilderness prophet John the Baptist speaking of judgement, righteounses, and fire and requiring everyone to repent of their sins.  Not too many carols of the season include “burn with unquenchable fire” among the lyrics. 

            Yet this negativity is essential for Advent and Christmas to make sense.  The birth of Jesus is not about warm sentimentality, as much as we all enjoy our warm sentimentality.  It is about light in the darkness, blossoming desserts, the destruction of the weapons of war, in other words—the struggle between good and evil.  So, you can’t adequately prepare for the birthday of light and peace without spending some time waiting in the darkness. 

            Which is why we chose “Radical Joy” as our Advent theme.  No seriously.

 

            Early in the autumn I sat down to read the introductory essay of a new book of poems that had just arrived—Joy: 100 Poems, edited by Christian Wiman.  Wiman is one of the leading Christian poets of our age.  In 2017 he published this volume of 100 mostly contemporary poems about joy.  So much contemporary poetry is focused on pain and injustice, and he wanted to elevate that joy is there too.  He also was vividly aware that we live in deeply troubled times, and he writes about how many of his friends were suspect when he said he was working on a book about joy.  But he decided now is precisely when we need joy.

            Reading his introduction in the early autumn, that spoke to me.  The message was reaffirmed a few days later when I listened to the podcast of Krista Tippett’s interview of Ross Gay who has also been writing about the need for joy, delight, and gratitude precisely at this time.  Here’s part of what he said about joy:

 

I have really been thinking that joy is the moments — for me, the moments when my alienation from people — but not just people, from the whole thing — it goes away. And it shrinks. If it was a visual thing, like, everything becomes luminous.

 

            And for Ross Gay that moment of connection with other people is usually a connection in our pain and our suffering and the reality that we are all going to die.  That is the deep connection between us what he calls a “joy-ning” spelt j-o-y-n-i-n-g.  Despite all that is wrong with us and with the world, we can connect to each other and work together to create life.  Ross Gay says that is the source of our joy.

            In the interview Krista Tippet got him to talking about the community garden he works with in Indianapolis and how the public space of the garden and the act of gardening are joyful.  Here’s how Ross Gay describes it and how gardening makes his life better:

 

For one, it’s just fun to be in a garden, for me, dreaming about what could happen: that kind of mystical space, actually, of trying to figure out what this thing that I do here could be in five years, that kind of strange dreaming space that it is.

 

There’s also something really moving about putting a seed in the ground and it turning into something really different, and a lot of something really different and, potentially, on and on and on, a lot of something very different.

 

I’m crazy for smells, and a garden gives you smells. I’m nuts about that. I’m nuts about that.

 

And I know the soil makes you happy, too, put your hands in soil. We know that. There’s many things.

 

To walk out your door and get a little food — I can go on and on about this.

 

 

            What is joy?  And is it different from happiness, delight, and pleasure? 

            The poet Yehuda Amichai says that we are blurry when it comes to joy.  It is pain that our language is precise about.  He wrote, “I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness and blurry joy.” 

            Rainer Marie Rilke wrote that “Joy is a moment.”  I always felt the opposite, that joy is a cultivated attitude toward life and that happiness is what comes and go.  But I get what Rilke means.  Maybe we are using one word to describe too many different things?  The dictionary gives us three definitions: 1) “a condition or feeling of high pleasure or delight,” 2) “the expression or manifestation of such feeling,” and 3) “a source or object of pleasure or satisfaction.”  Joy, then, can describe the thing, the feeling, and the expression of the feeling. 

            Christian Wiman describes joy as “that durable, inexhaustible, essential, inadequate word.”  Indeed.  Which is why he gives us 100 poems.  Poets are the people with the vision and gift for language who might help us to better understand and better describe and better experience joy.  Here’s one of my new favourite poems from the book, entitled “From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee:

 

From blossoms come

this brown paper bag of peaches

we bought from the boy

at the bend in the road where we turned toward

signs painted Peaches.

 

From laden boughs, from hands,

from sweet fellowship in the bins,

comes nectar at the roadside, succulent

peaches we devour, dusty, skin and all,

comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

 

O, to take what we love inside,

to carry within us an orchard, to eat

not only the skin, but the shade,

not only the sugar, but the days, to hold

the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into

the round jubilance of peach.

 

There are days we live

as if death were nowhere

in the background; from joy

to joy to joy, from wing to wing,

from blossom to blossom to

impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

 

            Wow, I love that poem.  Partly because I know that experience.  Oklahoma, where I’m from, is a peach growing state.  And to me there is no eating experience that is better than a fresh peach, warmed by the sun, eaten on the side of the road, bought from the farmer’s fruit stand.  And the juices run down your chin and drip onto your clothes and you have sticky hands afterwards.  Nothing better. 

            In grad school every summer at the height of peach season, I’d round up a car load of friends, everyone had to bring along one song to share with the group, and we’d drive an hour to the peach orchards, buy our peaches, eat them, and then drive back.  Sometimes other people thought this a silly waste of time.  Yes, that was part of the point.

 

            In preparation for a worship season of Radical Joy I finally read C. S. Lewis’s memoir of his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, which is entitled Surprised by Joy.  Lewis has a rather unique understanding of what joy is.  For him it is something of a technical term he uses to describe “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”  Joy is an experience that comes in a moment and is fleeting, leaving us some sense of loss but also the longing to experience joy again.  He writes about the various times he had that experience—reading adventure tales and myths and walking among the hills are the primary ones.  Joy is a by-product, that arises from our experience of something else (like being the by-product of eating a warm fresh peach).  Lewis writes that if you aim for joy itself, you are missing the point and won’t experience it. 

            What he came to realize over the course of his intellectual and spiritual development, is that joy itself was a sign, given to us by God, and pointing us toward God.  For God is the true fulfillment of our longing, “the real Desirable,” according to Lewis.  So our experiences of joy are signs pointing us toward the true goal of our life.

 

            John the Baptist comes preaching judgement and repentance for the reign of God is coming.  But what does that mean?  What is God going to do when God gets here?  For that we need the vision of the Poet Isaiah:  righteousness for the poor, equity for the meek, the end of wickedness.  Peace will come to the natural order.  Children will lead us.  Children will play, which implies we all will.  There will be no hurt or destruction.  And knowledge will be everywhere.  This will be glorious. 

            Isaiah is describing the revolutionary change that God intends for the Earth.  This is a vision of a more just world.  It is also a vision that delights us and fills us with joy.

            Back in that On Being interview, Krista Tippet asks Ross Gay about the connection between justice and joy. 

 

Ms. Tippett:  I wanted to talk to you about justice and how you grapple with that reality, that aspiration, that concept.  And there has been an evolution of that.  You have brought together the idea of longing for justice and working for justice with also exalting the beautiful and tending to what one loves, as much as what one must fight.

 

Mr. Gay:  Tending to what one loves feels like the crux.  And I’m very confused about justice, I think.  I feel like the way we think of justice is absolutely inadequate, often.  Often.  Not everyone.  And I am curious about a notion of justice that is in the process of exalting what it loves.

 

Ms. Tippett:  So here’s something you wrote somewhere.  You said, “I often think the gap in our speaking about and for justice, or working for justice, is that we forget to advocate for what we love, for what we find beautiful and necessary.  We are good at fighting, but imagining, and holding in one’s imagination what is wonderful and to be adored and preserved and exalted is harder for us, it seems.”

 

 

            John preaches judgement upon our sinful and troubled world.  He calls for us to repent, to change our ways, to become righteous people.  Righteous and just.  And the justice he’s working for, demanding that we work for, is God’s vision of a peaceful, playful world that Isaiah has described for us.  A vision that is wonderful and adorable that we should exalt and celebrate. 

            Joy is radical because it is a sign of the great Desirable—God.  Joy is renegade because our troubled times want us to be cynical and despairing, angry and fearful.  Joy is revolutionary because it imagines and insists upon a beautiful, wonderful vision of our future together upon this earth. 

            Resist the forces of cynicism and fear.  Instead, “bite into the round jubilance of peach.”  “Put your hands in soil.”  Ask a one year old what joy is and laugh knowingly when “cookie” is the answer.  Hold in your imagination what is wonderful.  And rejoice at all the good things of God.


Kingdom, Power, & Glory

Kingdom, Power, & Glory

Exodus 33:17-23

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

24 November 2019

 

 

            This autumn our worship series has been exploring the Lord’s Prayer, going line by line, and examining in some detail the meaning of the phrases and their theological and spiritual implications.  Today we arrive at the very end, to the final line of the prayer as many of us know it, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.” 

            For my text today I’ve chosen an Old Testament story, when Moses the leader of the Exodus and the lawgiver of Israel, while in conversation with God asks God if he can see God’s glory.  Hear now the word of the Lord.

           

Exodus 33:17-23

 

The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”  Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”  And God said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.  But,” God said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”  And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

            Two weeks ago I told Sebastian, our four-and-a-half-year-old son, that I was preaching on “Deliver us from evil.”  He asked, “Are you talking about the part with the 'power'?”  I told him it would be the next week, and he responded “Yea!”

            For some months now, during our bedtime routine, when I pray the Lord’s Prayer, Sebastian has taken to repeating the various phrases after me, so he is slowly learning the prayer himself.  Besides adding butter to the prayer for our daily bread, he has one other interesting affectation when we pray the prayer.  When we get to “thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,” when he says power, he thrusts his fist upward. 

            I have no idea where he got this.  Maybe some superhero image? 

On Wednesday I picked him up at preschool to bring him to Wednesday night church.  He immediately asked, “Are you talking about the power?”  “Not tonight,” I answered.  “That’s Sunday.”  He then responded, “Well, I want you to talk about the power a lot.”

I’m now getting sermon advice and feedback from my four-year-old.

Clearly “the power” is his favourite part of the prayer.

            On Facebook this week, I posted that story, and Pam Branscome replied, “What’s so attractive about power? Even a 4-year old knows!”

            Indeed.  In a life that is often complicated and messy, when we aren’t sure what to do, when other people are often telling us what to do, where things sometimes don’t make sense at all, we humans want at least a little power.  A little choice, freedom, authority.  Right?

            Today, then, let’s ponder what is this divine power we are praising?  How is it connected to God’s glory and God’s reign?  And how does the divine power affect our lives?

 

            This final line of the prayer that so many of us have memorized appears in modern translations of the Gospel of Matthew but not in Luke’s version of the prayer.  Yet, even in Matthew it is apparently an addition to the text and not original.  The line seems to have originated from the Didache, a first century Christian text that almost made it into the canon, and which remained an influential source for understanding the early Christian life.

            Despite it probably not being original to the Gospel, it is still a grand ending to the prayer.  Theologian Timothy Bradshaw describes how it “catches the mood of the whole prayer.  It expresses trust and joy in God.”

            God is the goodness we crave, so we focus our attention and our desire on the highest good.  We are drawn to God’s glory, magnify our praise, and rest in contemplation of the one who love us.  And through that love we are strengthened and encouraged.

 

            The Exodus passage I opened with is a somewhat odd story.  During the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt, they are in the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula where Moses is in conversation with God about what will happen next.  This is the time when God is sharing the covenant.  Part of the covenant, the Ten Commandments, will be written on stone tablets by God. 

            In this moment of intimate, divine presence, God and Moses are talking, and Moses asks to see God’s glory.  God warns that the glory is too much for a man to see and live, but God will grant the wish, to a degree.  Moses will be protected in a cleft of the rock, somewhat shielded from divine power by God’s hand.  And he won’t see the face of God, only the backside.  Is there even a little humor in this story?

            While exploring the concept of God’s glory this week, I was drawn to this uncanny story by the theologian Sallie McFague.  McFague died last week after a long career as one of the great theologians of our time.

            If you read my column in the church newsletter, you know I first encountered her work while a student at Oklahoma Baptist University when Warren McWilliams picked her brand new book The Body of God for his Contemporary Theology class.  In an exchange with Dr. McWilliams’s daughter this week, she conveyed her dad’s message that he taught several of Sallie McFague’s books over the years and that “they usually stretched students, especially the more conservative ones.”

At the time McFague’s interests resonated with my own, as I was trying to reconcile my theology with science and to incorporate a more ecological way of thinking into my worldview.  She indeed stretched me.  McFague’s book was the first work of feminist theology I read, and the first work of eco-theology.  She is often described as an eco-feminist theologian.

            Her first major contributions to theology were in analyzing the role of metaphors in talking about God.  I referenced her work in this vein in the very first sermon in this series, when we discussed the name of God that opens this prayer, “Our Father.”  McFague taught that all speech about God is metaphor.  The traditional metaphors for God, including names like Father, King, and Lord, have served important functions in the life of the church.  But she wondered if, in our contemporary context, they were helping us.  She wrote that the metaphors and the names for God we used should heal and not harm.  So, in her work Models of God, she proposed the images of Mother, Lover, and Friend for talking about God.

            McFague’s interest eventually became focused on ecology; she even spent some time working with the Dalai Lama on this topic.  She wanted to renew theology to help us address our ecological concerns.  Her book The Body of God: An Ecological Theology was a bold proclamation moving the Christian church forward. 

            My copy of the book is falling apart from overuse.  It came apart even more this week, as I was reviewing the work, remembering McFague and her influence upon me.  And, thus, I came across her discussion of God’s glory, centered in this uncanny story from the Book of Exodus where Moses asks to see the glory of God.

 

            McFague describes this Exodus story as “a wonderful mix of the outrageous and the awesome,” because it implies a physicality to God.  That God has a body with a face and hands and a backside.  What she finds in the story is the revelation that “God is not afraid of the flesh.”  Here is an incarnationalism that she wants to lean into.  What if we took this idea seriously, that God has a body.  If so, can we see God’s body in the things around us?  She imagines so.  Here’s what she says,

 

Like Moses, when we ask, ‘Show me your glory,’ we might see the humble bodies of our own planet as visible signs of the invisible grandeur. . . .  We might begin to see the marvels at our feet and at our fingertips: the intricate splendor of an Alpine forget-me-not or a child’s hand.  We might begin to realize the extraordinariness of the ordinary.  We would begin to delight in creation, not as the work of an external deity, but as a sacrament of the living God.  We would see creation as bodies alive with the breath of God.  We might realize what this tradition has told us . . . . we live and move and have our being in God.  We might see ourselves and everything else as the living body of God.

 

            If we were to do that, if we were to lean into the idea that God is physically present with us, and that physicality is contained in the world around us, how would that alter our understanding of God?

            McFague continues:

 

We would, then, have an entire planet that reflects the glory, the very being . . . of God.  We would have a concrete panorama for meditation on divine glory and transcendence: wherever we looked, whether at the sky with its billions of galaxies (only a few visible to us) or the earth (every square inch of which is alive with millions of creatures) or into the eyes of another human being, we would have an image of divine grandeur.  The more we meditated on these bits of the divine body, the more intricate, different, and special each would become. 

 

            She writes that we would become more compassionate toward painful bodies: “We cannot in good conscience marvel with aesthetic delight at the one and not identify with the pain of the other: bodies are beautiful and vulnerable.”  She continues, “Praising God in and through the beauty of bodies entails caring for the most basic needs of all bodies on the planet.”  Thus “the aesthetic and the ethical unite.”

            If we experience God’s glory this way, not as something remote, but something present in all physical existence, then we will reconceive our notions of power.  According to Sallie McFague this organic model rejects the image of God as king where “the world is the realm of a distant, external ruler who has all power and expects unquestioned obedience from his subjects.” 

            Instead, we would locate divine power in the ordinary bodies all around us and that would lead us to wonder.  Which would make us better people, more responsible to ourselves, to our neighbors, and to the earth.         

            To see the world as God’s body would transform our understanding.  We would then “reconstruct [our] lives and [our] work to help our earth survive and prosper.”

 

            We mourn this important thinker who has helped to guide the Christian church into a new and better sensibility, a richer understanding of the Gospel, and a deeper commitment to the issues of the world.

 

            McFague’s interesting reflection upon God’s glory didn’t enter deeply into the topic of divine power.  For that I returned this week to Rita Nakashima Brock and her classic book Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power.  Brock writes that our conventional notions of power are “colored by our experiences of life in societies of male dominance.”  But these conventional notions are mistaken.  The real power of life is born into us and has the capacity to heal, make whole, encourage, and liberate.  This power emerges from our hearts.  This is the power of incarnate love.

            For Brock divine power is found “in the community of those who heal and minister to each other.”  The power Jesus proclaimed and participated in is available to us in the church.  She writes, “the community sustains life-giving power by its memory of its own brokenheartedness and of those who have suffered and gone before and by its members being courageously and redemptively present to all.”

            Divine power arises in us, then, when we work together to heal our broken hearts. Divine power arises out of our vulnerability.  Our capacity to feel deeply, which brings to us both pain and ecstatic delight.  Divine power is the connection we feel to one another, the nurture and care we provide, sharing from our vulnerability to help heal each other. 

            Divine power is not distant and remote, but deep within each and every one of us.  It is born into us, and we nurture it in relationship and community.  God’s spirit works with us and through us to give us the support and encouragement we need to survive and thrive. 

           

            If Christ is going to reign in us, then we need to see God’s glory evident in everything around us and in ourselves.  We need to reconceive our notions of power away from domination and toward healing.  We need to tap into the power already present in us and in our relationships.

What we learn from these thinkers is that we are already vessels of God’s glory and God’s power.  Our spiritual task in prayer is to awaken that vitality, so that it might be for us a source of energy and strength.  Filling us with all the other good blessings of God.

            In prayer we are led to contemplate God in all of God’s beauty and awesomeness.  To delight in goodness and enjoy the blessings.  To rest in God’s love and by that love to receive strength and encouragement.  

            The final line of the Lord’s Prayer, this grand statement of adoration and praise, is a realization—the goodness we crave, the fulfillment of our desires, the love of God, is already with us.  To pray is to be attentive to this reality. 

            So, let us pray as Jesus taught us to pray, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.  Amen.” 


Deliver Us from Evil

Deliver Us from Evil

Leviticus 25:8-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

17 November 2019

 

 

            We are nearing the end of our autumn worship series on the Lord’s Prayer.  Today we come to the line “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” 

            The earlier scripture reading from Habakkuk was a prophetic cry for deliverance.  Our reading from the New Testament is a passage from the Letter of James about temptation.  Hear now the word of the Lord.

           

James 1:12-18

 

Blessed is anyone who endures temptation.  Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love God.

 

No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and God tempts no one.  But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.  Do not be deceived, my beloved.  Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Parent of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.  In fulfillment of God’s own purpose she gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of her creatures.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

            Back in 2017 Pope Francis caused a kerfuffle in some quarters when he said that the wording of the Lord’s Prayer should be altered.

 

[Lead us not into temptation] is not a good translation because it speaks of a God who induces temptation.  I am the one who falls.  It’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen.  A father doesn’t do that; a father helps you to get up immediately.  It’s Satan who leads us into temptation – that’s his department.

 

            Pope Francis’ point is a fair one.  “Lead us not into temptation” does seem to imply that God tempts us.  Do we really think that God could be leading us into wrongdoing?  I would call that bad theology.  One reason I think it is bad theology is because James rejects the idea in his letter we just read.  James stresses that God doesn’t tempt us; we are tempted by our own desires. 

Various biblical scholars have noted that “lead us not into temptation” is the best translation of the actual Greek words of the Lord’s Prayer as we find it in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Even if the theology makes us uncomfortable. 

Earlier this year the Catholic bishopes of Italy did change the Italian translation of the Lord’s Prayer to read “do not let us fall into temptation.”  Other national bodies in the Roman Catholic Church are considering whether to make changes to the prayer.

Let’s agree that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we aren’t worried that God is going to compel our wrongdoing.  What, then, is the general idea?

             In this petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we admit that we humans are weak, that we can and do fall to temptation and sin.  And the prayer is asking for God’s help to avoid this situation.  In fact, we are asking God to go further and to deliver us from evil.  We might summarize the petition this way: “God please help us to avoid the worst parts of ourselves and our fellow humans.”

 

            The second part of the petition--“Deliver us from evil”—has a couple of different shades of meaning.  One is what I just mentioned—save us from the evils we are capable of ourselves. 

“Deliver us from evil” also means something similar to the cry of the prophet Habakkuk—save us from the evil that others do to us.  Or the evils run rampant in the world.  The great Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of Habakkuk that he was a “tormented man” “distressed at the fact that violence prevails” who was “agonized by the thought that God tolerates evil.”  In that context, the prayer is a plea for God to act decisively in response to evil.

 

What then is evil?  Why do we do it?  Why do we personally do bad things, and why do we humans do bad things to one another?  And how do we fix it?  How do we become better people?  How does God deliver us?  These questions take us beyond the particulars of the prayer into the wider field of moral development.

So this week I looked back at a delightful book I read last year entitled Wickedness.   The book was written by the English philosopher Mary Midgley.  Midgley died in October 2018 at the age of 99.  In her obituary the Guardian described her as a “philosopher who brought a sharp critical intelligence and a gift for vivid metaphor to her writing on human behavior.” 

In Wickedness Midgley addresses the reality that “people often do treat each other abominably,” and she wants to know how and why this happens.  Wickedness appears to be a part of our human nature, but our human nature also contains many wonderful and good things.  Why do we do the bad things, when we are capable of great things?

            Midgley writes that we need to think of “wickedness not primarily as a positive, definite tendency like aggression. . . but rather as negative, as a general kind of failure to live as we are capable of living.”  Evil, she argues, arises from our failures to manifest our amazing positive capabilities as human beings.     

How, then, are we to be delivered from evil?  We must first learn not to deceive ourselves about our actual nature.  We need to acknowledge our failures.  She writes, “To deny one’s shadow is to lose solidity, to become something of a phantom.  Self-deception about it may increase our confidence, but it surely threatens our wholeness.”

            Even the author of James emphasizes this point.  In verse 16 he writes, “Do not be deceived, my beloved.”  We Christians try to avoid self-deception by making confession of sins an important part of our spiritual practice and our worship life.  Every week in our liturgy we draw attention to and acknowledge that we are weak, that we do bad things, that we are responsible for our actions.  Rarely does the confession receive the emphasis in a worship service, but its presence helps us to avoid the self-deception that Midgely believes can get us into trouble.

Once we have avoided self-deception, the next step in avoiding evil is to better understand our motives.  James emphasizes that we are tempted by our own desires, not by some outside force.  What, then, are the desires that entice us to bad behavior?  Other questions about our motives are also important.  What are our hidden biases?  How do anger, fear, and aggression lead us astray?  What role does resentment play in our actions?  Introspection and self-examination are critical.

In order to better understand our motives, Mary Midgely writes that we must strengthen our ability to think and reason well.  For Midgely this is an important point.  She stresses that our wickedness, our evil, is intelligible.  And if intelligible, then we can work to address the problem.  Evil is not some mysterious force that overpowers us.

Developing our moral judgement, according to Midgely, is a matter of developing our inner lives and creating “a map by which we can orient ourselves and plot our own course when we have to make decisions.”  Which means we need to have thought through various possibilities ahead of time.  But even the best conceptual schemes encounter unexpected possibilities.  We are fallible creatures. 

For Midgely, what explains most of our inexcusable actions is negligence.  She writes, “The general recipe for inexcusable acts is . . . a steady refusal to attend both to the consequences of one’s actions and to the principles involved.”  To put it simply, we must learn to think well in order to avoid wickedness.  She worried that technology has the tendency to keep us distracted from what we are doing, which over time will make us worse.

Overcoming self-deception, understanding our motives, and improving our thinking all lead to the next concern, which is handling our fear, anger, and aggression.  Midgely writes that these are natural emotions that do function for good purposes.  In fact, their function is to point out for us when something is wrong.  These emotions themselves can alert us to the presence of evil.

But these emotions also have the tendency to lead us into wickedness.  Later in the Letter of James, he writes, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”  If we are to be delivered from our evil, then we must learn how to effectively handle these emotions.  James writes, “you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”  Endurance through trials makes us more resilient, more complete.

Mary Midgely also emphasizes that life is full of conflict, and that we must develop the skills to handle this.  We must learn self-control and deliberation and the development of good habits.

Lest that moral project sound daunting, one thing I appreciate about Mary Midgely’s analysis is her emphasis that the best way to avoid evil is to strengthen our good capacities.  For wickedness seems to arise out of an emptiness in the individual.  Individuals with rich and varied interests and full lives are not empty and, thus, evil doesn’t really have much room to grow.

James seems to make a similar point—“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Parent of lights.”  Earlier in the letter he wrote, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously.”  The good gifts of God are abundant and freely given.  Let us learn to enjoy the blessings of God, enjoy the good life we have.  The focus on the good helps us to endure temptation and is one of the ways God delivers us from evil.

 

To review then: avoid self-deception, better understand your motives, improve your thinking, develop the skills to better handle your fear, anger, & aggression, and lead a rich, full life that focuses on your strengths.  Do that, and you will be equipped to avoid temptation and will be less likely to contribute to the evils of the world.

 

            When we pray this prayer, we are asking “God please help us to avoid the worst parts of ourselves and other humans.”  And God has promised to help us.  The prayer is a starting point that should launch us down the path of developing moral character.

            When we pray as Jesus taught us to pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” let those words also be a commitment to do the good, joyful work of becoming our best selves.


Forgive Us Our Debts

Forgive Us Our Debts

Leviticus 25:8-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

10 November 2019

 

 

            In our worship this autumn, we have been exploring the Lord’s Prayer, taking it line by line and considering the various meanings and applications of its words and phrases.  Today we arrive at the petition “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” 

            As background for understanding what Jesus was talking about when he referred to debts, I’ve chosen for our scripture lesson today a passage from the Book of Leviticus.  Hear now the Word of the Lord.

           

Leviticus 25:8-13

 

You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years.  Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land.  And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.  That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines.  For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.  In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

            Back in July of 2010 on my second Sunday as your pastor, I made a mistake in worship.  As I was leading the Lord’s Prayer I said “trespasses” instead of “debts.”  Afterwards Val Himes asked me, “Are we going to be saying ‘trespasses’ now?”  I assured her we weren’t, and fortuitously the lectionary provided the Lord’s Prayer as the Gospel text a few weeks after that, so I got to discuss my mistake.

            The Lord’s Prayer is familiar to any of us who grew up in a Christian church, but it is likely that we memorized slightly different versions. There are even two different versions in the Gospels, one in Matthew and one in Luke.  But various denominations also have their preferred translations.  Some folks don’t say the final lines at all, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”  While others make the ending even longer with “forever and ever.” 

These variations are rarely matters that affect the basic substance of the prayer, except for the line that is our focus for today.  Depending on which translation you read or which church you attend, you will be praying for forgiveness from sins, trespasses, or debts.  And while there are clear overlaps of meaning in the use of those words, there are also distinct differences of substance, particularly when we come to debts.

 

Our liturgist earlier read the parable of Jesus about the Pharisee and the tax collector.  The one arrogant and the other contrite and penitent.  The theologian Timothy Bradshaw points out how this story “powerfully exemplifies the call for wholehearted and honest repentance in the eyes of God.”  The story suggest that God desires our “honesty and genuineness of heart” in prayer in order to cultivate a personal relationship. 

So, when we come to this line of the prayer, we are being honest with ourselves and with God about our human condition and about our own failings.  We take responsibility, and we seek to restore broken and damaged relationships.  This petition affirms that personal relationships are at the heart of human life.

Now some think the petition works as a quid pro quo—you won’t be forgiven until you first forgive.  That transactional way of understanding it misses the broader perspective on authentic personhood and the value of relationships.  Rather, we are to cultivate an overall approach to the world that is gracious, merciful, and forgiving.  Oscar Cullman explains it this way, “We can ask for God’s forgiveness only if while praying we are ourselves in the realm of forgiveness that [God] wills.  We must know that God’s forgiveness is not some property, but belongs to [God’s] inmost being, [God’s] infinite love.” 

God forgives us out of a free act of grace—a gift—not something we earn by our own actions.  But if we expect to receive grace and never pass it along to other people, that’s not how grace works. 

Because we are secure in the belief that God extends grace toward us, we are then freed to extend grace to others.  We are secure in forgiving others, aware that our own value, worth, and integrity rests in our identity as God’s beloved children.

Timothy Bradshaw summarizes this attitude: “Praying for forgiveness in a positive sense is realigning our life with the generous outreaching movement of God into the darkness of the world.”  We are joining up with God’s generous, gracious love of the world in an attempt to heal its brokenness.

 

These sorts of spiritual ideas, then, are part of this petition, regardless of which word we use, though the word “sins” maybe best express these ideas.

“Trespasses” is an interesting and somewhat old-fashioned concept.  It contains a particular perspective on sin—that when we sin we have crossed a boundary that we should have respected.  The idea compels us to consider what rules we have broken, what limits and lines we have crossed, what standards we have violated, and particularly where we have disrespected the personhood of others.  How have our actions violated other’s dignity, integrity, and worth?

And then the return.  How have others disrespected us, violated our boundaries, harmed our personhood?

The focus is on setting right our personal violations and reinforcing our boundaries which others have crossed.  There are times in our lives when this perspective is a particularly valuable way of praying.

 

What about “debts?”  We in the Reformed Protestant tradition have generally preferred to pray the prayer with these words.  Now many people simply think of ‘debts’ as another old-fashioned way of talking about sins, similar to ‘trespasses’ in that regard.  But debts has a completely different layer of meaning and it ties back to the Leviticus passage I opened with.

In the Levitical law there is this provision for the year of Jubilee.  Every fifty years the Hebrews were supposed to celebrate this special, holy year, and during that year there were four actions that were to be taken by society: 1) the fields were to be left fallow, 2) all outstanding debts were to be forgiven, 3) slaves were to be set free, and 4) every family that had lost its land was to be restored to it. 

This is a radical, economic vision for society.  In essence it meant that every fifty years society would be reset and everyone would have a fresh start. 

Jesus seems to have been deeply influenced by this tradition of the Jubilee.  When he stood up to preach in the synagogue at Nazareth and proclaimed that “this is the year of the Lord’s favor,” he was probably proclaiming the Jubilee.  And throughout his teaching he emphasizes these social and economic principles. 

What seems to be the case for Jesus is that he wants to reorder human society so that these principles are more a part of every year of human life and not just a once in a generation fresh start.  He wants a society were people are set free, where they are not burdened by debt, where everyone has the opportunity to provide for themselves.

We know that first century Palestine suffered under the weight of great debt.  The taxes of Herod the Great and the Roman empire had become a burden upon the people.  Many of the peasantry had lost their own land and were now working and living as tenant farmers on the property of wealthier people.  Many were still weighed down by the burdens of the debts they had taken on and what they owed to the government.  This is the context for many of the parables of Jesus.

In the midst of this economic and social crisis, which led to banditry and ultimately insurrection, Jesus came preaching a more humane and egalitarian society developed along the great ideals of the Hebrew tradition. 

 

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” is not simply about setting right our personal failings, as good as that teaching might be.  The prayer is asking for a reordering of human society.  And we who pray it are committing ourselves to become part of this movement.  This is one of the practical ways in which “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is fulfilled.  God’s kingdom comes when human society is set right.  And that begins with forgiving our debts and starting fresh, as in the Jubilee.

Now, what can we make of that in 2019?  Our modern economy runs on credit and debt.  Jesus’ vision is an even more radical reordering of our economy than it was of the ancient one. 

At its simplest, we as Christians should work for an economy that is more humane and more egalitarian, because that’s the kind of society God wants.  That, at least, means opposing exploitation, conspicuous consumption, inequality, and environmental degradation.  That, at least, means living more simply, more sustainably, more generously.

But there’s more we can do.

If you’ve been following the United Church of Christ news, you probably were excited by what happened in Chicago at the end of October.  Trinity United Church of Christ, in coordination with the national setting of the UCC, this summer raised $38,000 and with that was able to buy $5.3 million dollars of medical debt.  Now, I don’t really understand how debt gets turned into securities that one can purchase for such small amounts, but that’s what happens.  They bought the debt of almost 6,000 families in only three zip codes.  And what did they do once they bought that debt?  Well, they didn’t hire a collection agency, they forgave it.

We aren’t the only Christians forgiving debts.  Earlier this year the Assemblies of God Grand Rapids First Church of Wyoming, Michigan was able, with only $15,000, to buy $1.8 million of debt, which they forgave, helping 2,000 families in western Michigan. 

This is now becoming a movement, and the United Church of Christ is going to make forgiving medical debt a major initiative of the denomination.  On this coming December 3 the UCC will raise money specifically for that purpose.  And they are inviting churches and other entities to partner in this effort.

The Rev. Patrick Duggan, Executive Director of the UCC Building and Loan Fund, wrote in a commentary this week that 52% of all debt is medical debt.  Unlike in the time of Jesus, when taxes were burdening people, in our time medical debt is one of the leading causes of poverty and inequality.  So, as followers of Jesus we are called to help solve that problem.  Rev. Duggan proclaimed: “Alleviating medical debt has the multiplier effect of improving many elements of basic living for millions of families that struggle to make a living.  It hits at the core of a major cause of poverty in the United States.  Ending poverty in all forms is the core mission of Jesus Christ and is the heart of the mission of the United Church of Christ, a just world for all.”

 

So, let’s join up with God’s generous, gracious love of the world in an attempt to heal its brokenness.  Let’s take responsibility for our own actions and seek to restore damaged relationships.  Let’s be a more humane and egalitarian society.

And we commit ourselves to such things, when we pray as Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.


Our Daily Bread (& Butter)

Our Daily Bread (& Butter)

Luke 11:5-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

3 November 2019

 

 

            Today, in our series based upon The Lord’s Prayer, we reach the petition, “Give us this day, our daily bread.”  In the Gospel of the Luke, Jesus teaches his disciples the prayer and then tells a parable.  That is our lesson for today.  Hear, now, these teachings of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.

           

Luke 11:5-13

 

And Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’  And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’  I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

 

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  

 

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?  Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Parent give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!”

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

            In April of 2018, Katie Miller and I attended a denominational meeting in Cleveland focused on the current problems of theological formation in the life of the UCC.  While there, discussing these issues with various denominational leaders, a wonderful story of theological formation emerged back home.

 

The first night I was gone, Michael was carrying out the bedtime routine with Sebastian.  After reading a couple of books and beginning to rock, Sebastian said they needed to pray.  Now, this is usually something I do with Sebastian, so Michael was a little surprised, but went ahead.  They prayed for family and friends by name and then Michael, knowing my routine, ended with the Lord’s Prayer.

Just as Michael was about to say “Amen,” Sebastian (who was only two at the time) grabbed Michael’s face and said, “You forgot the bread.”

Michael then realized that he had, in fact, forgotten to say, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  So, he went back and added it.

Colleagues in Cleveland were thrilled with this story of theological formation that’s working.

Then I returned to Omaha.

My first night back I was doing the bedtime routine.  As I was about to finish the Lord’s Prayer, Sebastian grabbed my face and said, “You forgot the butter.”

“The butter?”  I asked.  Then I remembered that in the blessing his daycare uses before meals they mention bread and butter.  I told him, “The butter’s in the prayer you use at school.”

He said, “I want to use it at home.”

I then asked, “You think we should add butter with our bread in the Lord’s Prayer?”

“Yes,” he answered.

Then I ventured, “You think that would be an improvement?”

“Yes,” he answered again.

 

            Sebastian wasn’t wrong.  The bread would be better with butter.  When I’ve told that story I’ve had other people laugh and say we should add jam or honey as well.

            Nineteen months later, Sebastian is still praying the Lord’s Prayer asking for daily bread and butter. 

            This is, I believe, more than a humorous story.  Pastor’s do like telling cute stories about their kids and grandkids because they provide such good material.  But I also think Sebastian was onto something about the theology of the prayer.  According to the Polish scholar Anna Wierzbicka, “Bread is a metaphor that stands not only for food but also for all the other good and necessary things in life.”

            Sebastian, on some level, grasped this and wanted to add butter because butter is another good thing that blesses our lives.  When we ask, in the Lord’s Prayer, for our daily bread, we are praying for all the good things of God that sustain our lives.  We are asking those blessings for ourselves and everyone else as well.

 

            Bread is, of course, a potent symbol in the biblical story.  This fact is explained well in Walter Brueggemann’s little book The Bible Makes Sense, which I recommend for anyone wanting a handy introduction to how to read and interpret the Bible. 

            Brueggemann writes that when we read the Bible we enter into what he calls a “life-world,” which he describes as a “network of symbols, words, gestures, and images that give meaning and coherence to our experience.”  The biblical life-world nurtures our imagination and invites us to play with images from the biblical history.  Imagination is key here, as he explains that imagination is “the gift of vitality that enables the believing community to discern possibility and promise, to receive newness and healing where others only measure and count and analyze.”

            For Brueggemann the paradigm example of how the biblical life-world invites our imaginations to play with a symbol is the image of bread, particularly the idea of bread in the wilderness. 

            During the exodus from Egypt, the children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula and were running out of provisions for feeding themselves.  They prayed to God for deliverance, and God provided manna—this mysterious substance that appeared in the morning and could be baked into bread to feed the people. 

            Key to this story is the setting—the wilderness.  That too became a central biblical image.  Brueggemann describes it as “a place of precariousness without food, without defense or resource.”  He continues, “The center of this memory is in the wonder that in this place where death seemed certain, God is present, having also submitted to the conditions of the desert.” 

            Out of that amazement of God’s presence and deliverance in such a setting, the biblical tradition has developed a rich use of these images.  The Isaiah passage read earlier is one example.  That is a poem for despairing exiles to remind them that God is present with them in their distress and it draws upon the exodus memory for its images.  In the Gospels we have the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes.  Of those Brueggemann writes that Jesus transformed wilderness into a place of nourishment—“a place of abandonment into one of caring power, a place of death into a time of life.” 

            And the image of bread continues to spread through the tradition.  In the Gospel of John Jesus describes himself as the bread of life.  Bread becomes a central image of the Eucharist.  The Book of Revelation imagines a wedding feast that will be celebrated at the end of time, when food represents the abundance of God’s salvation and setting everything right.

            So it is no stretch for us to use the Exodus memory of bread in the wilderness and apply it to our lives.  Most of us are never going to be lost wandering in a wasteland looking for food.  But we do experience metaphorical wildernesses as we grieve, as we are anxious and afraid and depressed, when we are seriously ill, when our jobs and relationships suddenly end.

            “Give us this day, our daily bread” is our appeal for God to be present with us in these times, to provide for us, to bless us, to deliver us.  So, yes, it is more than just bread.

 

            But bread is also important not just because of the rich imagery of the biblical tradition.  Bread in the prayer is also literally bread.  The staple food that sustains us.  The common, ordinary aspect of our daily life.  You wouldn’t be surprised to learn that in other cultures where another food is the staple, such as rice in East Asia, they adapt the language and metaphor.

            An essential aspect of the prayer is that we are praying for something very basic, very ordinary.  We are praying for God to give us what we need every day of our lives if we are to live and flourish.  The prayer expresses a shared human condition—that we need help.  We cannot do this on our own.  We rely on help from a higher power.  We rely upon each other. 

            “Do not worry,” is one implication of the prayer.  And especially of the parable that Jesus teaches right afterwards in the Gospel of Luke.  Do not be consumed by worry, anxiety, and fear, because God is going to provide for you.  God is a loving parent and will not turn away from God’s beloved children.  What you need will be there. 

            I know even in my own life there are times when it seems that what I need isn’t there.  And, yet, usually if I take the time to quiet my anxiety and pay attention, it is in fact there.  The thought that will turn a situation around.  The friend who can provide the support, care, or advice that I need.  The simple beauty in nature that lifts me momentarily out of myself.  The hilarious incident that makes me laugh when I didn’t think laughter was possible.

            We pray with the confidence that every day God is providing for us what we need.  And sometimes that is literally bread.

           

Which teaches us something about prayer.  Prayer is not some extra activity that we must make time for in our lives.  Oh, sure, there are types of prayer that might require some set aside quiet time, but not prayer at its most basic and ordinary, for we can pray in the midst of our work and play and commutes in traffic. 

My favorite writer on prayer is the Quaker Richard Foster who has a great book simply entitled Prayer.  In a chapter on “Praying the Ordinary” he writes, “Prayer is not another duty to add onto an already overcommitted schedule . . . our work becomes prayer.  It is prayer in action.”  Everything we do can be a form of prayer.  Our ordinary lives can be lived attuned to and in gratitude for God’s presence and blessing.

 

            Our daily bread, then, is a rich image that connects us to the biblical life-world.  It is a reminder that God provides every day our most basic needs.  It teaches us that we can pray every moment of our ordinary lives.  And there is still more we can say about this image. 

            It is a reaction to consumerism, by reminding us that what we need will be provided for us and comes to us from God, not the almighty dollar.  It teaches us to live more simply with what we truly need and not get lost in consuming all the luxuries that surround us.

            The petition also teaches us, as theologian Timothy Bradshaw writes, that time has meaning.  We should not overlook that we are praying for something “this day” and that thing is our “daily bread.”  Bradshaw points out that these words imply that God is present in time, working in time, giving meaning to our human time.  I can imagine a whole sermon developing just this idea.

 

            And, of course, there is the connection to communion.  When Jesus taught the prayer, he had not yet instituted the Lord’s Supper, but it is impossible for us Christians to pray these words and not be connected to the celebration of communion and all that this meal means to us as a matter of worship, fellowship, and spirituality. 

            Timothy Bradshaw writes, “Prayer for our daily bread is prayer to the one who desires communion with us.”  God wants to be in a daily, personal, ecstatic, loving relationship with us.  And God wants us to have that sort of meaningful relationship with one another, with all people, with all creation.  To comprehend the deep and intimate ways we are all connected to one another.

 

            On this Sunday we commemorate All Saints Day, when the Christian church remembers and celebrates its saints—all of those people who have preceded us in this life of faith.  In our congregation we name those who have died in the last year, a long list this year as you can see in your insert. 

            Our Christian faith teaches us that life is greater than death, hope is more powerful than despair, love and joy and beauty and adventure and peace—these are the things that ultimately matter. 

            And so the lives of these saints continue on in the presence of God and in the memories of those they loved and taught and cared for.  They remain a part of our communion, now and for all time.

            Even that is a part of this prayer.

 

            So, aware of all the rich meanings connected to these simple words, let us pray as Jesus taught us to pray.  And maybe, like Sebastian, add what will remind you of God’s presence and blessing every day of your life.

            Give us this day, our daily bread (& butter).

           


Your Will Be Done

This fall we are exploring the Lord’s Prayer, each week considering a different phrase.  Today we arrive at “Your will be done.”  For our Gospel lesson, I have selected another passage in scripture, where Jesus prays for God’s will to be done—it is the moment in the Garden of Gethsemane where he is awaiting his arrest.  Of this prayer, theologian Timothy Bradshaw writes, “Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane reveals an honest human turning to God for help in desperate danger.”  Hear, now the prayer of Jesus, from the Gospel of Matthew.

           

Matthew 26:36-39

 

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”  He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated.  Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.”  And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

            Harold Bloom, America’s best-selling literary critic, died this week.  The obituary in The Guardian proclaimed that “Bloom magisterially reaffirmed the centrality of the great works of literature in western culture.”  In doing so, he wrote best-selling books and generated controversy in academic and critical circles.

            I pulled Bloom’s books off my shelf and perused them again this week.  A few of what I have are poetry anthologies he edited, including one of my favorites The Best Poems of the English Language from Chaucer through Robert Frost.  The book is not just an anthology, Bloom introduces each poet with insightful essays.  That book sits on a shelf within easy reach of my desk, as I pull it down often when I am writing a worship service, looking for just the right poem to read, or even seeking a good turn of phrase.  It is no exaggeration to say that that one book of Bloom’s has been deeply influential in shaping not only my own understanding of poetry, but also our worship as a congregation.

            In the introduction to that anthology he wrote, “The work of great poetry is to aid us to become free artists of ourselves.”  Let’s return to that idea in a moment when we get to talking about the human and divine wills.

            Bloom was also a fascinating biblical critic.  He was Jewish, but with rather unconventional religious beliefs that were deeply influenced by Gnosticism.  In his best-selling Book of J, which is on my shelf but I haven’t yet read, he argued that one of the key writers of the Torah must have been a woman.  Bloom delighted in the character of Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament.  In an essay he wrote on the Book of Exodus which I admire, he wrote that “Yahweh is an uncanny personality, and not at all a concept.”  He was critical of the monotheistic faiths for the ways in which they tried to tame God.  He wrote, “To see the God of Israel is to see as though the world had been turned upside down.”  He suggests a stance toward God that is “appreciative, wryly apprehensive, intensely interested, and above all attentive and alert.”  Also “perhaps a touch wary” and “prepared to be surprised.”

            On Facebook this week, I posted a few of my favorite quotes from his book How to Read and Why. 

 

"Why read? Because you will be haunted by great visions."

 

"Reread what is most worthy of rereading, and you will remember what strengthens your spirit."

 

"We read to find ourselves, more fully and more strange than otherwise we could hope to find."

 

            That’s one reason he enjoyed reading the Bible—because it is uncanny and strange and compels us to find ourselves such. 

            Of course, he was a great proponent of reading Shakespeare, arguing that Shakespeare invented our modern sense of the human self.  The most important text for that is Hamlet.  About the character Hamlet, Bloom wrote, “Hamlet primarily is brooding upon the will . . . .  Does one have a will to act, or does one only sicken unto action, and what are the limits of the will?”

            Hamlet is such a compelling story precisely because the Danish prince can’t decide what to do.  He is struggling over what is the correct course of action and what his duties are.  And in that way he is not dissimilar to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane also struggling in a desperate situation about what he should do.  Timothy Bradshaw writes, “His Gethsemane prayer was the point of agonizing conflict between human well-being, freedom from pain and evil, and trust in the divine will.”

            We modern humans are shaped by an understanding of the self in which we create ourselves through acts of our own wills.  By the choices and decisions we make and the actions we take.  We are autonomous and self-created.  Which means that we often struggle with exactly what we are supposed to do and be.  We wrestle with our choices in decisions both small and great.  Should I take the job?  Should I buy those boots?  Am I really in love with this person?  

            Sometimes the mere act of choosing makes us anxious and afraid.  Sometimes we wish the choices were made for us.  Sometimes we feel like a character in a Jean-Paul Sartre novel, burdened by our very freedom. 

            And, so, what does it mean for us to pray to God, “Your will be done.”  How does God’s will and our wills interact? 

 

 

            Growing up a Southern Baptist in the late eighties and early nineties, “What is God’s will for your life?” was a common question.  It seemed that we needed to really work at figuring out what God’s will is and in particular what God wanted for each of us. 

            And so a popular devotional study of the time was Experiencing God by the Canadian Baptist Henry Blackaby.  The subtitle to that was “How to live the full adventure of knowing and doing the will of God.” Blackaby and his partner Claude V. King turned the study guide into a published book.  My high school Sunday school teacher gave me a copy as a gift when I graduated college (Ironically at a point when I had become rather more liberal).  This week when I pulled that book off the shelf to re-examine it, I found this written by her in the front:

 

Congratulations on your recent graduation.  God is working in your life, remember, [And then she quoted the book of Jeremiah] “’For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not calamity to give you a future and a hope.’”

 

The note suggests that God has a plan for my life, and it is my job to discern what that is and then obey it. 

            Henry Blackaby was more sophisticated than that in his take.  For instance, he wrote, “’What is God’s will for my life?’ is not the best question to ask.  I think the right question is simply, ‘What is God’s will?’  Once I know God’s will, then I can adjust my life to Him and His purposes. . . . Once I know what God is doing, then I know what I need to do.”

            Also for Blackaby, God’s plan for our lives is about a personal, spiritual relationship.  He wrote, “[God] wants you to experience an intimate love relationship with Him that is real and personal.”  He elaborated on this:

 

Knowing God does not come through a program, a study, or a method.  Knowing God comes through a relationship with a Person.  This is an intimate love relationship with God.  Through this relationship, God reveals Himself, His purposes, and His ways; God accomplished through you something only He can do.  Then you come to know God in a more intimate way by experiencing God at work though you.

 

            I like the emphases on relationship, experience, and joining up with the work God is already about.  But even as a young man I grew uncomfortable with the idea that God has some firmly determined plan that I either fit in or not through my obedience.  That troubled me for a host of reasons.  One reason was that I observed some people who took these ideas to the extreme, praying for God’s will about what clothes to buy or what to eat for dinner.  And seeing God’s plan at work every time they got a good parking space.  There is a fatalism to such views that eliminate our human freedom and autonomy and makes the life of faith mechanical rather than creative.  Theologian Timothy Bradshaw writes that for people who feel the need to discern God’s will “from moment to moment can lead to a dehumanizing of the creaturely person.”  He even says that doing so risks a kind of insanity.

            In college I began to feel that surely we don’t have to discern God’s will in each and every moment for every little thing, but instead our lives our shaped by our faith in such a way that God trusts us to make the right decisions on our own.  Bradshaw articulates this as well, “We know the will of God sufficiently to conduct our lives with confidence—we tend to know when we are against the grain of divine intention.”

            We shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time trying to know the will of God, because God has already made that abundantly clear in scripture and the life of Jesus.  The passage from Isaiah read earlier today is one example.  Or think of Micah 6: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  We can absorb the teachings of Jesus and the scripture and let these guide us in the broad direction of our life.

 

            In an undergraduate philosophy course on Evil and Suffering, we read an essay by Lewis Ford on God’s persuasive power.  Ford was a Process Theologian, meaning his views were shaped by the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead that placed process not substance as the primary element in reality.  You may know that I wrote my dissertation on Whitehead.  Reading Ford’s essay was one of the lures that drew me into process philosophy.  Ford died earlier this year, and for his funeral they requested comments from those who had been influenced by his work.  In the short response I submitted, I included this statement, “I am grateful to his scholarship which freed me.”

            Ford argued that God’s power is never coercive.  God does not control or compel.  God only persuades.  He wrote,

 

Divine persuasive power maximizes creaturely freedom, respecting the integrity of each creature in the very act of guiding that creature's development toward greater freedom. The image of God as the craftsman, the cosmic watchmaker, must be abandoned. God is the husbandman in the vineyard of the world, fostering and nurturing its continuous evolutionary growth throughout all ages; he is the companion and friend who inspires us to achieve the very best that is within us. God creates by persuading the world to create itself.

 

            I once heard John Cobb, another Process theologian, put it succinctly, “God is not a jerk.”

            As my professor, Dr. Bob Clarke, explained it, yes God has a will for your life, which God presents as a lure that entices you to follow.  But, you are free to contribute to your life plan with your choices, then God’s persuasive lure and your choices work together.  So, it isn’t about obedience to one particular plan that you either follow or you are completely in the wrong. 

            As a young college student, figuring out my own beliefs, I found these ideas completely liberating.  And they’ve remained core aspects of my theology ever since. 

 

            So, let’s return to the Lord’s Prayer and what we mean when we pray “Your will be done.”  Timothy Bradshaw, whose book Praying as Believing, is my guide for this entire sermon series, is not a Process theologian, but on this particular point he is deeply influenced by that way of thinking.  He argues that God’s work is a “joint enterprise” with us: “God implements [God’s] will only through the will and activity of [God’s] faithful people.”

            He continues:

 

In praying ‘Your will be done,’ we share the very vision of God’s creative and re-creative purpose: the heavenly [Parent] has entrusted creation . . . to us: we acknowledge that and responsively offer ourselves for [the] kingdom.

 

            Bradshaw supports the idea that “the self is created by act[s] of will” and that we human beings are “creative centre[s] of activity and decision.”  It is just that our “human will is most fulfilled when we [identify] with the divine.”  We are, therefore, also praying for an “inner transformation of the heart.” 

            That doesn’t mean blind obedience to some fatalistic plan, but an act of solidarity and trust built upon a personal, loving relationship.  To pray “Your will be done,” is to freely commit ourselves to the goals of the creation—communion, peace, joy—and to therefore shape our own wills by those goals. 

Bradshaw writes, “When we pray for the will of God to be done, this takes our life forward into the future of God, something we cannot chart safely but must launch out into with the venture of faith.”  John Cobb names this the “call forward.”  We have been lured and persuaded and now we too desire the same ends as God, and therefore we move forward into a new future filled with possibilities, trusting the goodness of God to do its work on us and on the world. 

And so we conform our will to God’s will as an active of creative freedom, of adventure, of hope.  What of those times when we are deciding what to do?  There is no one path forward that is your destiny that you must discern.  There are endless possibilities that are open to you and remain within the persuasive lure of God.  What we choose and who we become is a joint project, fully of playfulness and novelty.

I began with Harold Bloom who wrote that “The work of great poetry is to aid us to become free artists of ourselves.”  That is also the work of prayer.  Particularly this prayer.  The Lord’s Prayer, and it’s petition “Your will be done.”

Let us, then, pray as Jesus taught us to pray.