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Radiant Joy

Radiant Joy

Matthew 1:18-25

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

22 December 2019

 

 

            Matthew 1:18-25

 

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

 

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.

 

 

 

            What’s the first thing the angel says when he appears to Joseph?  It’s what angels usually say when they appear to human beings in the Bible.  I assume it’s what any  human being seeing an angel would need to hear first—“Don’t be afraid.”

            We preachers spend days thinking about and studying the biblical texts we preach on.  Sometimes the story is one we’ve already studied and preached on numerous times before.  That’s the case with this story in Matthew.  When I preached on it for you in 2010 I focused on the scandalous aspects of the story.  The young woman is pregnant, and her soon-to-be husband is about to set her aside.  Though for progressive thinkers in the 21st century the scandal lies in the statement from the angel that “the child conceived in Mary is from the Holy Spirit.”  Social scandal, theological scandal.  But, of course these days, scandals are routine, daily, and banal. 

            What captured my attention this week was that opening line of the angel—“Don’t be afraid.”  Let’s ponder for a moment what Joseph had reason to fear.  The most immediate thing was this heavenly creature.  We can imagine bright light, which no one likes to see in the middle of their sleep.  We can imagine some stature, authority, and strength which are likely intimidating.  What else?  Wings would be a little scary if there are wings like some have imagined.  Sometimes angels are pictured with swords, and that would be frightening.  We aren’t even sure that this angel is humanoid, if the angel looks like the cherubim or seraphim with their beastly appearances, then I can imagine being pretty frightened.

            But beyond the angelic visitation, what does Joseph have to fear?  The dishonor that could be done to his reputation?  The social stigma?  The loss of affection and love?  Shame, guilt, what else?  He’s once again been made aware of his human vulnerability, and we humans aren’t too keen on being reminded of our vulnerability.

            Fear, then, is a quite natural emotion for Joseph to be experiencing.  In fact, you can imagine him tossing and turning with anxiety, having trouble sleeping, and then his sleep is invaded by what would at first appear to be a nightmare.  Anyone ever had an experience like that when you were stressed out, anxious, and afraid?  Of course you have.  So, we get it. 

 

            I just recently read The Monarchy of Fear by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum.  It’s the book she wrote in the wake of the 2016 presidential election when she diagnosed that fear had become a dominant force in American politics, which is dangerous.  Nussbaum has spent her career studying the emotions and their intersections with political thought.  In the introduction to this book she wrote, “Fear all too often blocks rational deliberation, poisons hope, and impedes constructive cooperation for a better future.” 

            Interestingly, in her first chapter she argues that fear is in fact the first human emotion.  It is the first emotion that newborns experience as they encounter a strange world and are incapable of providing for themselves and are reliant upon caregivers.  Fear is rooted in our extreme vulnerability and narcissism as infants.  Of course a healthy developmental process—where we are cared for, receive affection, attach to supportive adults, and learn coping skills—helps to mitigate the power of fear. 

But it can re-emerge.  She writes, “The narcissistic anxious world in which we began swells up again in time of need and fear, jeopardizing our halting steps toward moral adulthood and constructive citizenship.”  When we are afraid, it’s like the helpless, narcissistic infant inside of us takes over again.

            Nussbaum goes on in the book to document how fear feeds anger, disgust, and envy and together these negative emotions form a toxic brew.  Toxic for our individual moral character and happiness, and particularly toxic for society.  She identifies this toxic brew as affecting contemporary American life.  I would add to that some other negative emotions like cynicism and despair.

           

So, Nussbaum’s philosophical thoughts on fear resonated for me with the opening words of the angel to Joseph.  Here, then, is how I want to read the story from Matthew this year.

In the midst of Joseph’s fear, God sends a message—I am coming to be with you, I’m going to be born as a child, so don’t be afraid. 

I’m proposing that we read this message as spoken to us to.  Imagine that you are tossing and turning in your sleep with anxiety.  You are awakened by the blinding light of an angel appearing.  And then the angel delivers a message from God, “Anxious people of Omaha, don’t be afraid.  I’m being reborn.  I’m going to be with you.” 

That, I believe, is the message God has for us on the Fourth Sunday of Advent in 2019.

 

            Pretty much every year about this time, I remind you that the great fourteenth century German mystic Meister Eckhart proclaimed:

 

It would be of little value for me that 'the Word was made flesh' for man in Christ as a person distinct from me, unless he was also made flesh for me personally so that I too might be God's son.

 

Eckhart taught us to view the birth of Christ not solely as a past historical event, but as everlastingly present. The birth of Christ is on-going, in that through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is born anew in us.  The ongoing importance of Christmas and the incarnation is that we become the newly born children of God as God is present with us.

            So, if we are going to be reborn this year, what do we want that to look like?  What is going to be different in our new selves? 

            Well, the answer we, your ministers are proposing, is that in our new birth we radiate with joy. 

            When we picked this year’s Advent theme “Radical Joy,” we knew were proposing something that seems counterintuitive.  How can we be joyful in a time such as this, when the toxic brew of fear, anger, hatred, division, and violence is such a part of our daily lives?  Wouldn’t it be a shirking of moral concern, of ethical responsibility, of realistic, rational response to current events?

            And yet there are a handful of voices calling us to be joyful in precisely such a time as this because we must.  It is times like this which require joy the most.

            These last four weeks we’ve explored this idea in word and song and a wildly entertaining radio play.  And what we’ve concluded is that 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.  And runaway Joy is always already there, inside us, waiting to be shared with other people. 

 

            What would it mean, then, to let joy be born in us this year?  To radiate with joy? 

            The poet Derek Walcott records a conversation he had with fellow poet Adam Zagajewski, in which Walcott asked Zagajewski if Zagajewski believed in happiness.  Walcott records that Zagajewski answered that he did not, but that he did believe in joy.  And added “Joy is an illumination, a benediction, a visitation.  In the twentieth century, it required nothing less than a belief in angels.”

            Walcott then reflects upon this answer:

 

What does such a visitation of delight do but confirm the reality of the soul, the redemption of experience, the affections of hope, of gratitude to the light and to the unheard music that light contains . . . but most of all confirming a calling.

            Is this what will happen to us if we are visited by delight and joy?  It will confirm our souls, redeem our experience and hope, fill us gratitude, and confirm our calling?  Our calling to be fully human, to follow Christ, to be more like God, to be creatures of faith and love?  That seems to be what the poets are telling us.

            According to Naomi Shihab Nye in her poem “So Much Happiness” which was read earlier in the service, nothing, not even us, can contain joy, so it “flows out of [us] into everything [we] touch.”  In other words, it radiates from us.  Meaning that if joy is born in us, we alone can’t contain it.  It becomes viral and it spreads to other people.

            Our Reformed tradition has long taught that the chief end and purpose of human life is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.  Enjoyment is our primary purpose and calling.  To enjoy God and all that God has given to us.  An even more ancient Christian wisdom is that the glory of God is a humanity fully alive.  To enjoy life, to live abundantly, is what we are here for. 

Sometimes that is difficult.  Our traumas and pains make that difficult.  Our social circumstances, the injustices of the world, its violence and poverty, make that incredibly difficult.  And periods of social upheaval, such as this one, with its toxic brew of fear, anger, disgust, and envy, make that difficult. 

            But enjoyment still our work.  The work of being human.  Of finding those things, even if they are little and momentary, to delight in and celebrate. 

 

Let’s draw these threads together.  In the midst of our fear, God is speaking to us, “Anxious people of Omaha, don’t be afraid.  I’m being reborn.  I’m going to be with you.  I am going to be born anew in you this year.” 

Let’s make that a new birth of enjoyment.  Why?  Because I think joy can help conquer our fear.  Joy has a tendency to become viral.  Joy can spawn some hope and some faith and some love.  All those good things we need to live fully as God’s children and begin to set things aright.

Let’s radiate with God’s glory because we are fully alive, enjoying all the blessings of this world given to us by God. That, my friends, is the message of Advent and Christmas. 

            Rejoice, rejoice, for God is with us, Emmanuel, is coming.

             


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.