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I Listened

I Listened

“At the River Clarion” by Mary Oliver

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 July 2019

 

 

Last week I spent beside a river.  The North Loup River, to be exact.  I was at Kamp Kaleo, our United Church of Christ campground here in Nebraska, for Faith and Fine Arts Camp.  I was teaching the writing group.

The first morning, I was awake early and so I wondered down to a bench beside the river and watched the sunrise play off the fast flowing water.  The river was high, from all the spring and summer rains.  All the sandbars were covered and the banks were not exposed.  The river was rushing by on its journey through the Sandhills. 

Later in the week we tubed on the river, always a joyful experience.  The high point was either shooting some mild rapids, when I squealed with childish glee, or when we rounded a bend and there was a big, red, Angus bull standing in the river.  We all promptly paddled our tubes to the other side.  Fortunately, the bull seemed confused but not alarmed at the loud tubers floating by.

 

Back in June I also spent some time beside another river.  Our family camped at Pike’s Peak State Park in northeastern Iowa.  Yes, there is another Pike’s Peak than the tall mountain in Colorado.  Apparently explorer Zebulon Pike enjoyed naming places after himself. 

This Pike’s Peak is a tall hill along the Mississippi River that overlooks the confluence with the Wisconsin River.  Our first night we walked to the overlook and were stunned by the natural beauty—the rich green forested hillsides, the many islands dotting the river at that point, the sunlight on the water.  Over the next four days I walked to that overlook two or three times a day and every single time the view and the river were different—the light changed, the colors were shifted--sometimes dominated by blue and another time by pink—and then the final morning a thick fog blocked any view of the river below.  Standing at the overlook I felt as if I was in the Caspar David Friederich painting Wanderer above a Sea of Fog.

 

According to Lauren Krauze, “[Mary] Oliver’s work often invites readers—by way of her own example—to gaze upon their grief, despair, and loneliness.” 

Krauze continues, “but she does not belabor those aspects. Instead, her words encourage readers to turn toward something larger. This shift in focus from an intimate, personal experience to the interconnected movements of the wider world appears throughout her work as an element that seems both elemental and mystical.”

That occurs here in the poem “At the River Clarion.”  Oliver, sometime after the death of her wife and more immediately to this poem, the death of her dog Luke, sits on a rock in the river in order to grieve and in her grief she listens to the river so that she might learn from it.  “We do not live in a simple world,” she writes. 

Death and suffering and pain grieve and afflict us.  Mary Oliver is right to teach us both to gaze at these realities and then also how to live with them. 

Consider these lines from “I Go Down to the Shore,”

 

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall--
what should I do?  And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

 

            Or these lines from the poem “Flare,”

 

Nothing lasts.

There is a graveyard where everything I am talking about is,
now.

I stood there once, on the green grass, scattering flowers.

 

            The poem “Flare,” from which these lines come, is partly about her parents.  She grew up in a “dark and broken” home where her father abused her.  She writes of her father as “a demon of frustrated dreams” and “a breaker of trust.”  She writes of her anger, her refusal to carry her parents’ baggage forward, of crying out with the voice of child in misery, disappointment, and terror. 

            And yet, she closes the poem,

 

When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world.  Notice
something you have never noticed before . . .

 

Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves. . . .

 

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.

 

 

            How could she do this?  How did she survive her trauma, find healing and wholeness, and become an inspiration for others.  In a profile from The New Yorker, Ruth Franklin writes, “Walking the woods, with Whitman in her knapsack, was her escape from an unhappy home life.”

            She learned to pay attention to nature, to listen.  In the poem “At the River Clarion” she wrote, “all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking.”  In “I Go down to the Shore” the sea speaks to her grief. Throughout her poetry she hears the creatures of the natural world speaking to her and she learns from them.

            In the poem “Hearing of Your Illness” about her fellow poet James Wright, she writes of lying down in a field near a “black creek and alder grove” and talking to them about his illness and coming death.  She writes,

 

I felt better, telling them about you.
They know what pain is, and they know you,

And they would have stopped too, as I

was longing to do, everything, the hunger
and the flowing.

 

That they could not--
merely loved you and waited
to take you back . . .

was what I learned there, so I

 

got up finally, with a grief
worthy of you, and went home.

 

            Debra Dean Murphy writes that this intimacy with the created world is “in keeping with the kinship of creaturehood described in the opening lines of the Bible.”  And she quotes theologian Douglas Christie on the contemplative life:

 

The capacity and willingness to become small, to acknowledge the primacy of the living world, to open oneself completely to the life of the world, and to do so without any aim beyond the simple pleasure of the gesture itself: such unselfconscious simplicity and innocence can become the foundation of a more responsive and reciprocal way of being in the world.

 

           

            One of the oldest of human questions is “Where is God when we suffer?”  Mary Oliver is not a philosopher or theologian; she develops no robust theodicy, no logical defense of the goodness of God in the face of human suffering.  No, she is a mystic, who provides no final or sufficient answer to this question; “I don’t know who God is exactly,” she writes. 

Instead she speaks to us by her example.  She models a type of life that gazes at our suffering and yet finds a measure of healing by listening to the natural world.  For by listening, she encounters God.

            Jason Oliver wrote in the review America, that Mary Oliver is a type of panentheist, which he characterizes as “her ability to see God in all things and all things in God. In a spider under a stairwell and a favorite pond, the flowers along the beach . . . , a cleaning woman in an airport bathroom and a young man with a gift for constructing with lumber but not with language, Oliver sought and saw revelation. It is this quality that gives her work the luster of the eternal.”

            In “At the River Clarion” she encounters God in everything—in the river, in butter, the lilly, the forest, the leaf of grass, but also the ghetto, the dying ice caps, the hands of those desperately preparing their weapons, and the tick that killed her beloved dog Luke.  She writes,

 

Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and
each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond measure.

 

For her, consolation arrives in discovering God all around us.

 

            Mary Oliver teaches us—in the midst of our grief, if we but listen, we can hear God speaking to us.  And so the poem ends,

 

And still, pressed deep into my mind, the river
keeps coming, touching me, passing by on its
long journey, its pale, infallible voice

singing.

           

            So, find your river this week.  Find your place to sit and listen.  For only if you listen, can you hear God speaking.


Pay Attention

Pay Attention

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

7 July 2019

 

 

On January 17 of this year, Mary Oliver, America’s most beloved poet, died.  Oliver was not only the nation’s most popular poet, she was also a deeply spiritual writer.  Her collected works, for instance, is entitled Devotions.

And so last winter Katie and I decided that in Oliver’s memory, we wanted to spend a month of worship focused on her poetry and the spiritual and theological ideas it conveys.  We launch that series today, with this, one of Oliver’s most popular poems, “The Summer Day.”

 

 

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

 

 

            In a 2017 article in The Christian Century entitled “Why we need Mary Oliver’s poems,” Debra Dean Murphy wrote, “Oliver’s poems are not religious in a classic sense, but they do have designs on their readers. They are occasions for transfiguring the imagination and a summons to wonder and delight.”

            For example, here’s a segment of a poem entitled “Humpbacks” about whale watching off the coast of Cape Cod.

 

We wait, not knowing
just where it will happen; suddenly
they smash through the surface, someone begins
shouting for joy and you realize
it is yourself as they surge
upward and you see for the first time
how huge they are, as they breach,
and dive, and breach again
through the shining blue flowers
of the split water and you see them
for some unbelievable
part of a moment against the sky--
like nothing you’ve ever imagined--
like the myth of the fifth morning galloping
out of darkness, pouring
heavenward, spinning

 

            Yes, Oliver’s poems are a summons to wonder and delight, and there is a deep theological connection to this idea.  As Debra Dean Murphy points out, “the gift of wonder, of a posture of receptivity that Christians sometimes speak of as part of our vocation—the calling to live more fully into our humanity as persons bearing the [image of God], to mirror the divine dance of mutual presence, mutual receptivity, mutual love.”

            The summons to wonder and delight is a summons to be more fully human, to be more like God, to fulfill our calling.

 

            Which is why I paired today’s poem with the eighth psalm, that lyric to the glories of humankind.  The God who created all things has made even us, with mindful attention and care.  We are crowned with glory and honor and given power and dominion.  God desires that we flourish.

           

            A key theme in my own theology and in my preaching is this idea of living our best lives.  It is contained in the ancient Christian idea that “the glory of God is a humanity fully alive,” and the reformed idea that the chief end of humanity is “to glorify God and enjoy God forever,” and the claim about the resurrection that we Christians “are the eternal beginners.”

            But in the last couple of years I’ve been reading more about trauma and resilience.  One of the things so many writers in trauma studies tell us is that the traumatized person continues to carry their wounds with them.  That some possibilities at human flourishing are forever cut off.

            Maybe Mary Oliver helps us to connect these two disparate themes.  For all the inspirational quotes drawn from her writings, they acknowledge darkness.  The dangers and violence of the natural world.  And the great harms inflicted by human beings.  As a child she was sexually abused by her father.  In 2005 her spouse of over forty years, Molly Malone Cook, died of cancer.  Pain and suffering are themes of Oliver’s poetry.  Consider, “The Fish.”

 

The first fish
I ever caught
would not lie down
quiet in the pail
but flailed and sucked
at the burning
amazement of the air
and died
in the slow pouring off
of rainbows.  Later
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him.  Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea.  Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain,
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.

 

 

            So, how does a woman who experienced pain and trauma end up writing inspirational poetry that summons us to wonder and delight?

            By teaching us to pay attention. 

            The primary spiritual and human practice revealed in Mary Oliver’s writing is to “pay attention.”  For instance, it’s there explicitly in the final line of her essay “Upstream”—“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

            Debra Dean Murphy writes that Oliver’s poems point “readers to the gift of presence—reminding us, in poems that are often deceptively simple, of what it means to attend to what is before us in any given moment.”  She teaches us to attend to our natural world and the myriad creatures and happenings around us.  She also teaches us to attend to our own inner states, our physical bodies, and the body of our beloved.  We cannot begin to wonder at or to love that which we have not noticed, carefully.

            We notice this in the poem “The Summer Day” when she draws our attention not to grasshoppers in general but to a particular grasshopper, the one in her hand.  She can speak with affection for it because she has taken the time to attend to it. 

 

            Which makes her a powerful poet of our time, when we can be so easily distracted.  Franklin Foer wrote about this in The Atlantic after Mary Oliver’s death. 

 

In the age of surveillance capitalism, the biggest corporations redirect the gaze, exploiting the psyche’s vulnerabilities for profit. Even silenced phones light up with notifications that break eye contact and disrupt concentration. YouTube plays videos in an endless loop, queued on the basis of intimate data, so that the emotional rush of one clip stokes the desire to watch the next. Facebook, the ultimate manipulation machine, arrays information to exploit the psychic weaknesses of users, with the intent of keeping them on its site for as long as it can. The hand touches the phone upon waking, even before it can rub the eye or reach across the bed to wake the spouse.

 

He pointed out that Oliver herself was not directly criticizing these developments, but her writings teach us to live differently. 

 

            What are we going to do with our “one wild and precious life?”

            Will we be distracted?  Will we fail to enjoy the world God created?  Will we miss a chance to love and be loved? 

Or will we heed the “summons to wonder and delight” by attending to what is before us at any given moment?  And thereby fulfill our call “to live more fully into our humanity as persons bearing the [image of God]?”

 


Inspired

Inspired

I Thessalonians 1:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

9 June 2019

 

 

Today we come to a letter written by the apostle Paul, which most scholars believe is Paul’s very first letter written to a congregation he founded.  Which makes this the oldest text in the New Testament.  Hear now, these words of grace and peace:

 

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Heavenly Parent and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.

 

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Parent your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.  For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that God has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.

 

And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.  For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.  For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for God’s Son from heaven, whom God raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

 

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.

 

            When I was only a college student, I received one of the great gifts of my life—a library.  The pastor emeritus of my home church, the Rev. Dr. Weldon Marcum, had lived with Alzheimer’s for some years at that point.  According to his wife Elizabeth, Dr. Marcum told her he wanted to pass along his pastoral library to me.  So, on two occasions when I was home from college, I drove over to the Marcum’s house and boxed up his library and took it home with me. 

            I have built my own library over the decades, of course, but the core of mine is this collection of books from a mid-twentieth century small town pastor.  And one source I continue to use on a regular basis are the little red commentaries on the New Testament by the Scottish theologian William Barclay.  Barclay’s commentaries have been guides to biblical study and preaching for decades of Christian ministers.

            The inside front cover of the commentary on First Thessalonians is signed by Dr. Marcum, who had a lovely signature, and dated April 1960, when he apparently bought the book. 

            In his introduction to First Thessalonians, Barclay sets the context for this letter. Thessalonica had for six hundred years been a great city, and its population at Paul’s time was 200,000.  It was a free city, as Barclay writes, “that is to say it had never suffered the indignity of having Roman troops quartered within it.  It had its own popular assembly and its own magistrates.”  Plus, its main street was the major road that connected the West with the East.  This was a wealthy, prosperous, cosmopolitan city.

            Barclay continues by pointing out that Thessalonica is in Macedonia, in a territory “saturated with memories of Alexander [the Great].”  Thessalonica itself is named for Alexander’s half-sister, for instance. 

Why should the memory of Alexander matter for understanding Paul’s first letter to a Christian church?  Barclay reminds us that Alexander “was almost the first universalist. . . . He dreamed of one world dominated and enlightened by the culture of Greece.”  Barclay continues, “Alexander declared that he had been sent by God ‘to unite, to pacify, and to reconcile the whole world.’”

Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ, was developing precisely the same sort of vision.  The Christian church was to be God’s universal agent, reconciling the world through the formation of a better humanity and a new social order. 

Barclay concludes, “If Christianity was settled in Thessalonica it was bound to spread East along the Egnatian Road until all Asia was conquered, and West until it stormed even the city of Rome.  The coming of Christianity to Thessalonica was a crucial day in the making of Christianity into a world religion.”

 

            And at the time of this letter, that vision seems to be working out.  People everywhere have been hearing about the church in Thessalonica and their joyful example of Christian faith.  They are now worthy of imitation by others.

            Presuming that we too would like to be a congregation known far and wide for our vital Christian faith, what is it that the Thessalonians did so well that we might learn from them?

            Notice in verse three—“your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Faith, hope, and love will become an important triadic formulation for the apostle Paul, and that formulation appears here first in his commendation of the Thessalonian Christians.

            But notice that faith, love, and hope are connected to work, labor, and steadfastness.  The Thessalonians embody these virtues and ideals in their daily actions. 

            Because of this, and some other hints, scholar Victor Paul Furnish suggests that the congregation’s members are mostly artisans and that maybe this early Christian church was located in an artisan’s workshop.  Paul was himself an artisan, a tentmaker.  So he would have found affinity with those like himself. 

            The core revelation is, as Furnish writes, “faith, love, and hope [are] constitutive of the believer’s new existence, and thus of the church’s life.”  To live lives of faithful work, loving labor, and steadfast hope is what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be a church. 

            Furnish explains the relationship, “As the community’s trusting response to the reality of God’s electing love, faith provides an opening in the world for that love’s transforming power, and for the hope it nurtures.”

            So, if we are to be like the Thessalonians, this is how we too should live.

 

            But notice something else from Paul’s letter.  The Thessalonians have not done this alone—they have been empowered by the Holy Spirit. 

            Today is Pentecost, the third most important day in the Christian calendar, the day on which we celebrate both the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the church.  For the two are intimately connected—the Spirit makes the church, as the power that enables us to live the lives to which we are called.

            At its simplest, we believe, as Victor Paul Furnish writes, that the Holy Spirit is our “present, vital relationship” with God.  The Holy Spirit is God’s “empowering activity” that enables us to live as if all of God’s plans for humanity and history have already come true.

            The Holy Spirit is not just some individual gift we receive; the Spirit is given to and embodied in a community of people.  Nathan Eddy writes that this “is central to the cooperative way God works in the world.”  And David Burrell adds, “What distinguishes a ‘living and true God’ from idols is precisely this new life that forges community freighted with expectation.”

What we celebrate today, then, is God’s vital presence in us, together, which empowers us to live lives of faithful work, loving labor, and steadfast hope, which will reconcile the world through the formation of a better humanity and a new social order.  This is our mission as a church.

 

And let’s take this one step further.  In his commentary David Burrell makes this interesting statement: “They will have to come to know this God through coming to know and appreciate one another: formation of the community becomes the new revelation.”

We did not live in first century Palestine.  We did not walk along the shores of Galilee or the streets of Jerusalem with Jesus.  We can read the stories of those who did, but we were not there. 

How, then, do we experience a vital, personal revelation of God in Christ?  It is through one another.  We come to know who God is through our loving communion with other human beings.  This is also one of the profound implications of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the truth of Pentecost.  What we need is here, in each other, in the ways we encourage one another to live lives of faithful work, loving labor, and steadfast hope.

So, may it be said of us, “We always give thanks to God for you who have become examples to all.”

 


Hey Jude

Note: I dedicated this sermon to the memory of Dr. Donald Wester, Professor of Philosophy at Oklahoma Baptist University.  He died the weekend it was delivered.  And it is a sermon that embodies what he taught me about truth.

 

Hey Jude

Jude

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

1 June 2019

 

 

Let me begin today with the opening lines of the Letter of Jude:

 

Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, To those who are called, who are beloved in God the Father and kept safe for Jesus Christ: May mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance.

 

Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.  For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. 

 

            Jude may be the strangest book in the New Testament. 

For one thing, we know almost nothing about its context and details.  Duane Watson writes “Nothing definite can be said about the author, origin, or date of the Epistle of Jude.”  We aren’t much better when it comes to what it teaches.  William Countryman concludes, “It is not easy to discern what Jude’s own theological principles are.”  So there is no scholarly consensus about who wrote the book, to whom it was written, or even really what the book is all about.

There isn’t even much agreement about its language and style.  One commentary described the letter as “pure invective” and a “string of insults.”  Bart Ehrman simply calls it “nasty.”  While Duane Watson describes the “rich vocabulary,” and Willis Barnstone calls the letter “a Dantesque visionary work.”  Barnstone clearly admires the letter; he writes, “With a firm hand, Jude gathers image and word to produce an intellectual dream and spiritual wandering unique in religious literature.”

Just listen to verses 12 and 13.  In describing his opponents, the author writes, “They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved forever.”  Wow!  That’s amazing writing.

As William Countryman writes, “Jude is relatively marginal to the canon.”  Other than the fact that 2 Peter quotes from it extensively, the letter has generally been ignored in the history of Christianity.  It never even entered the New Testament canon of the East Syrian Christians.  And Martin Luther “consigned it to the appendix of his German [New] Testament.”

So, given all of this confusion and disagreement and ignoring, what should a preacher make of Jude? 

On Tuesday I texted a church member, “Today I have fallen down a rabbit hole studying the Letter of Jude. Didn’t expect this to be so fun.”

This is not going to be a sermon that tells you “what the text means.”  Fortunately, last weekend I finished reading a book that said sermons shouldn’t do that anyway.  In Time and the Word Ephraim Radner wrote,

 

Our goal is not to give a definitive or certainly final meaning to the text—a simple “message” or application.  Rather, our figural goal is to lead and go with our people into a realm of meanings, and trace out its parameters and interiors.  It should be a realm in which, of course, we do not leave our listeners as disoriented wanderers, but as creatures taken by the scriptural forms themselves, so as to lead them further, or into a clearing, or back out again, in some posture of transformed wonder.

 

            So, what world do we enter when we read the Letter of Jude?  Will we experience “transformed wonder?”  Let’s see.

 

            “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James.”  Jude is really Judas.  A common name in ancient Palestine.  This isn’t Judas Iscariot, who of course took his own life after betraying Jesus.  But in order to avoid confusion, the King James Version only called Judas Iscariot “Judas” and instead called this author “Jude.”  That decision stuck.

            This Jude is the brother of James.  Which James?  Well, the famous James in the early church was James the Bishop of Jerusalem, who was a brother of Jesus.  We know from the Gospels that Jesus also had a brother Judas.  So, is the author of this letter one of the brothers of Jesus?  That seems to be implied and is what even ancient historians understood.  This author uses his family connections as the source of his authority.

            But is it really Jude the brother of Jesus or some later author claiming to be such?  On that you’ll find no agreement.  Even among contemporary, critical scholars.  One of the most liberal commentaries I read placed the origin of the book in the lifetime of the historical Jude, while another of the most liberal commentaries I read concluded that there is no way Jesus’ brother could have written the letter, meaning that the author was intentionally deceiving people.

 

            What is the letter about then?  The author is concerned with false teachers who have infiltrated the church and are leading people astray with their immorality.  He encourages those reading the letter to stand firm in the faith.  That much is relatively clear and straightforward, but beyond that the meaning is murky.

            For one thing, this short letter is full of many allusions.  There are references to angels, to Sodom and Gomorrah, to arch-villains of the Old Testament—Cain, Balaam, and Korah.  And then the author quotes from two books that aren’t in the Bible—The Assumption of Moses and First Enoch.  Complete copies of these books have not survived into the twenty-first century.  The first one, The Assumption of Moses, tells a story of Satan fighting with the Archangel Michael over the body of Moses.  While First Enoch supposedly records the visions of Enoch, who was one of the descendants of Adam listed in the genealogies of Genesis.  The book is a wild apocalypse full of mystical visions and stories of the cosmic battle between good and evil.  It also influenced the writer of the Book of Revelation.

            This quoting from non-canonical sources as if they speak authoritative divine truth has always bothered some people.  Some commentators write it off as Jude simply quoting from popular books his audience would have read.  While the feminist scholar Sharon Ringe is encouraged by what she describes as “openness to witnesses from outside” which she thinks “offers a helpful model to those of us who work in a world marked by religious pluralism.”

            Many contemporary scholars believe that this letter was written in the second century by someone claiming to be Jude who wasn’t, and that his concern is defending orthodoxy against heretics.  These heretics seem to believe that they are now free from any law and therefore can do whatever they want, even engage in licentious behavior.  Jude’s worry is that Christians believe the correct things as a matter of doctrine, for believing the right things has an effect upon one’s ethical behavior.  His opponents then aren’t “real Christians.”  Bart Ehrman writes, “It is not too hard to imagine that they [the opponents] would say the same thing about him.”

            If this is what the Letter is about, then it should raise some serious concerns for us.  I found those concerns best articulated by Sharon Ringe in a series of questions that she suggests this letter should elicit in us:

 

Who decides what is an acceptable formulation of the faith or what values conform to the gospel when interpreting it for new times and places?  According to what criteria are those decisions reached?  Who benefits by those decisions, and who is harmed and rejected?

 

            These are the very questions currently dividing the United Methodist Church, as they grapple not just with very different views on the status of LGBTQ people, but more fundamental questions of interpretation, truth, and authority.

 

But not every scholar thinks the Letter of Jude is about defending orthodox belief.    

            Duane Watson believes the letter is not an attack on heresy overall, but is clearly written to one specific church, even if we don’t know which one, to advise them how to deal with some people who have infiltrated their community.  Watson claims that “Jude provides us with a model for dealing positively with demoralizing situations in the church.”  And the way to positively deal with the opponents is to ourselves live a more vital faith.  Watson writes that Jude doesn’t want his readers to simply denounce their opponents but to “fortify personal and community holiness and promote spiritual growth.”

            William Countryman, in his commentary that appears in the book The Queer Bible Commentary, thinks all of these other scholars have gotten Jude wrong.  He writes, “Jude’s goal is at least partly that of protecting the simplicity of the Christian faith” against a group of teachers who are trying to set up “a new religious elite.”  According to Countryman the opponents are a sort of early Gnostics who taught that beyond the grace of God there were other levels of salvation to be achieved through our own effort.  In this particular case that came about through “controlling a multiplicity of supernatural powers,” thus all the references to angels in this letter.  Jude, then, is a defender of the earliest, simplest, most egalitarian form of Christianity, one that taught that “there are no additional requirements [to stand in God’s presence].  We already stand there.”

Countryman acknowledges that Jude’s style of harsh insults and bullying gets in the way of our interpreting the letter properly.  But what Jude is doing is reminding churches that they must make judgments about these things.

Do we as an open, welcoming, inclusive church ever make judgments that certain ideas are forbidden here?  Let’s imagine one scenario, and it’s a real life one.  A few years ago I was talking with one of our rural pastors about a situation that arose in their congregation.  An avowed white supremacist moved to town and came to the UCC church since they publicly welcomed everyone.  He sought to join the church, and the church decided they had to discuss it.  Of course they were uncomfortable with the very idea of discussing it.  And they ultimately decided that the man wasn’t welcome as long as he continued to publicly espouse and advocate for white supremacy.  Making that decision was a real struggle for the congregation. 

But it is precisely a moment like this when the Letter to Jude might come in handy.

Maybe the best answer to what this Letter is about was the simple statement I read by Andrew S. Jacobs in a Jewish commentary on the New Testament—Jude has an “overall concern for authority, morality, and truth.”

 

See why I told you that I wasn’t going to be able to tell you definitively what this text means?  Instead all I can do is invite you into a “realm of meanings” to engage all of these questions, ideas, images, and possibilities.  And invite you to experience the wonder of this text.  What will you take away from it?

And with all of that then as a form of introduction, why don’t we finally actually listen to the letter? 

I also had to puzzle over which translation to use.  My favourite is Willis Barnstone’s.  He’s the critic who thinks this letter is great literature akin to Dante.  However, I’m going to make one set of changes to Barnstone’s translation.  He likes to leave all the Biblical names in their original Hebrew forms instead of the common ways we know them from most English translations.  I do like that, but it can be confusing for listeners who aren’t sure who the people are by their Hebrew names.

Are we ready then? 

Hear now, the Word of the Lord from the Letter of Jude:

 

Jude a slave of Jesus the Messiah
And brother of James, to those of you
Chosen ones who are loved in God the father
And kept safe in Jesus the Messiah.

May mercy, peace, and love abound in you.

 

My loves, I’m writing hastily to you

Concerning our salvation that we share.

I am in need of writing you to plead

With you to contend for the faith that was,

Once and for all, handed down to the saints.

Some men have secreted in among you,

Men who were long ago marked down in writings

For condemnation, who were judged the ungodly,

Who twist the grace of God into depravity,

And who deny the being of our one master

And lord who is Jesus the Messiah.

 

I want you to remember, though you know

All of these things, that once the lord rescued

His people out of Egypt.  Later he

Destroyed all those who lacked belief.  And angels

Failing to obey in their dominion, leaving

Their proper residence, he locked them in

Eternal chains under a deepest darkness

To wait for judgment on the giant day.

Just like Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities

Around them, like the fornicating angels

Who fell into unnatural sex, they all

Serve as examples as they undergo

The punishment of everlasting fire.

 

Likewise those dreamers who defile the flesh

Deny authority and they blaspheme

The glorious beings, and yet the archangel

Michael, when he was matched against the devil,

Contending over the body of Moses,

He lacked the audacity to retort

With a slandering insult, but he said,

May the lord punish you!

These people slander what they do not know,

And like the unreasoning beasts they know

Things naturally and in them are corrupted.

A plague on them!  They go the way of Cain

And lose themselves in the error of Balaam,

Driven by gold, and die rebelling like Korah.

 

They are reefs and stains in your love feasts.

They come into your banquets shamelessly,

Caring only for themselves, rainless clouds

Driven by gales that uproot autumn trees

And leave them fruitless and twice dead; wild waves

Of the sea foaming their own shame, and stars

Wandering to blackest aeons saved for them.

 

Enoch, seventh from Adam, prophesied,

Saying, “Look, the lord comes amid his myriads

Of holy ones to pass judgement on all

And to convict each soul of the ungodly,

For each harsh thing ungodly sinners spoke

Against him.”  They are grumblers and complainers,

Walking around in search of flesh, their mouths

Talking loud, flattering to gain a victory.

 

My loves, remember the words of prophecy

Said earlier by messengers of our lord

Jesus the Messiah.  They told you,

“In final days there will be scoffers walking

Around, ungodly ones in search of flesh.”

They cause divisions, these sensual men,

And in them there is no spirit at all.

 

My loves, be strong.  Build on the holy faith

And pray in holy spirit.  Keep to love

Of God.  Keep looking forward to the mercy

Of our lord Jesus the Messiah, who leads

Us to eternal life.  Pity some who waver.

Save them by snatching them from the fire,

And pity others who are afraid, but hate

Even their garment which is stained by flesh.

 

To him who has the power of guarding you,

To keep you from a fall, to set you blameless,

Exulting in the presence of his glory,

To the only God our savior through Jesus

The Messiah, our lord, glory and majesty,

Dominion and authority before

All aeons, now and into all the aeons.

Amen.

 

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.

 


Now Behave!

Now Behave!

Titus 2:11-15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

26 May 2019

 

 

            Continuing with our series based on some of the letters in the New Testament, today we come to Titus.  The Letter to Titus presents itself as having been written by Paul to one of his former companions who is now leading churches and missionary efforts on the island of Crete.  Hear now these words of instruction:

 

Titus 2:11-15

 

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

 

Declare these things; exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one look down on you.

 

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 words, and one exclamation mark, to summarize the Letter to Titus: Now behave!

            This author comes across as a stern parent, though the core message is that in response to God’s grace, we should be zealous for good deeds, living self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.

            The book is about proper order for leaders, the church, and the home.  This letter provides instructions on appointing elders and bishops for the church and their qualifications.  Titus is warned about false teachers who are trying to deceive the people, and he’s told to rebuke the deceivers “sharply.”

            Titus is also supposed to teach his congregants how to live good lives.  There are specific instructions for old men, wives, young men, and slaves, with an emphasis on obedience and submission to authority.  Also enumerated are a number of good behaviors such as controlling passions, being gentle, and acting courteously.  The letter also adds that we should “avoid stupid controversies” and speculations.

 

            So, if you were here last week when I preached on the Letter to Philemon, you might be confused.  The Letter to Philemon promotes a new social order based on radical equality.  Instead of telling people what to do, it encourages them to freely choose the right thing.  Instead of telling slaves to submit to masters and wives to husbands, the Letter to Philemon treats all people as partners together in God’s mission, of equal worth and dignity, thus subverting hierarchy and patriarchy.

            You might then be wondering, can these two letters be written by the same person?  After all, both claim to be written by Paul the apostle.  Yet, the social relations described in Titus sound less Paul and more like the ideals of family life promoted by the Roman empire, as influenced by Stoic philosophy.  What’s going on here?

 

            Well, you wouldn’t be the first to ask such questions.  In the ancient church, some wondered if Paul really authored the Letter to Titus.  At the beginning of the 19th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher was the first modern scholar to speculate that some of the letters attributed to Paul might not have been written by him.  That conclusion that has now received widespread agreement among biblical scholars. 

Strong consensus exists that Titus, along with First and Second Timothy, were probably written by some second century church elder making a claim for Paul’s authority in order to give his own advice to churches.

So, that would explain why this letter contains such a different social vision than what we read last week.  At best, this author is trying to give churches advice on how to avoid persecution given their social environment.  But at worst, this author comes across as supporting the status quo of social life in the empire, with its patriarchy, slavery, and economic exploitation.  Which puts this letter at odds not only with Paul but the overwhelming tradition of the New Testament.

In the early centuries of Christianity there were many debates around questions of equality, leadership, and church order.  Bart Ehrman writes:

 

Paul’s churches split in lots of ways. . . .  Some Pauline Christians thought women should be treated as equals and given equal status and authority with men, since Paul did say that ‘in Christ there is neither male nor female.’  Other Pauline Christians thought that women were equal with men only “in Christ,” by which they meant “in theory,” not in social reality.  These Christians were keen to tone down Paul’s own emphasis on women, and one of them decided to write a set of letters

 

In the long run a view very much like that of the author of Titus gained power, with the more radical interpreters of Jesus and Paul sidelined for much of Christianity’s history.  Robert E. Goss calls Titus “a tremendous power play within the history of the Church” and one with long lasting, negative consequences. 

 

           

            What, then, are we to do with Titus?

            Do we think this letter contains any word for us?

            As I pondered these questions leading up to writing the sermon this week, I thought of our Puritan ancestors.  Look again at the description of upright living and social and family order described in Titus, and it sounds very like the Puritans.

            The Puritans believed that we are called by God to live virtuously and that our personal virtue has implications for the family and wider society.  A virtuous life is one of “simplicity, modesty, and charity” to quote the historian Amy Kittelstrom.

            But there exist a set of interesting historical outcomes to the Puritan way of life.  Their emphasis on virtuous living gave birth to democracy, to liberalism, to universal human rights, to our current denomination, the United Church of Christ, and its vision of Christian ethics rooted in equality, freedom, and inclusivity. 

            How did this come about?  Well, that’s a more complicated historical story than I have time for in today’s worship.  There are many historians who have treated the matter.  I recommend Amy Kittelstrom’s The Religion of Democracy as one good recent book on this evolution.

            Without getting into all the details, let me sketch a little bit of what happened.  One feature is that the Puritans and early Congregationalists understood themselves to be finite Christians who sin.  Their finitude and sinfulness affected their ability to know. Therefore, they understood that they only possessed some truth and could not claim full, infallible knowledge.  These theological understandings gave rise to intellectual humility, curiosity to learn from others, and critical examination of ideas. 

            The emphasis on moral virtue also focused attention on improving the self.  To cultivate the self meant to grow spiritually, morally, and intellectually.  So a live of virtue included valuing education.  The Puritans were highly literate, teaching both sons and daughters to read.  They read the Bible constantly, while they also read the great classics and the best intellects and authors of their own age.  They founded schools wherever they went.  Remember that Omaha Public Schools began in the basement of the First Congregational Church.

            Over the course of a couple of centuries as the Spirit moved these once very conservative Christians, they developed ideas of tolerance, charity, and freedom of thought. They embraced historical-critical scholarship of the Bible, which taught them to consider questions like “Who wrote the letter to Titus?”  They began to ponder whether the ethical commands of a book like Titus are best understood not as absolute moral laws to govern people in all times in places, but as descriptions of a historical context.  Ultimately they decided that the Letter to Titus was wrong about slavery, about women, about church organization. 

 

            I think we can learn from our forebears how to handle this letter.  Much of its particulars about family and society we disagree with, because they do not reflect the best human wisdom and are even contrary to the social vision of the rest of the New Testament.

            Instead, I want to suggest two things we can take away from reading the Letter to Titus.  First is that we should live virtuous lives as expressions of gratitude for God’s grace.  For us those virtuous lives will be more equitable and just, while still being expressions of love, gentleness, and courtesy. 

And the second takeaway is that virtuous lives were once before the fertile ground in which freedom and inclusion came to fruition.  May our leaders, our churches, and our homes be gardens for the Holy Spirit to bring forth a new and better world in the time to come.


The Basis of Love

The Basis of Love

Philemon

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

19 May 2019

 

 

            For this Easter season our sermon series is based on some of the letters in the New Testament.  Much of the New Testament is composed of letters written by faith leaders to congregations.  Letters are often intimate, personal sorts of communication.  And the letters in the Bible are too.  They also speak to the church.  The ancient church and the church of today.  And in their speaking they teach, encourage, convict, correct, advise, and inspire.  What can we learn from them?

            We thought we also would use this series to preach from some of the letters we rarely get to in worship.  And today is one of those days.  Our text is the short letter of Philemon.  Hear, now, St. Paul’s words to his brother in Christ, Philemon.  I’ll be reading from an adaptation of the translation by Ted Jennings.

 

Paul, a prisoner of messiah Jesus, and Timothy the brother;
To Philemon the beloved and our fellow worker,
to Apphia our sister, and Archippus our fellow soldier,
and to your assembly in the house:
generosity to you and peace from God our father and the leader Jesus messiah.

When I remember you in my petitions, I always thank my God, 
hearing of the love and loyalty which you have for the leader Jesus and for all the holy ones, 
I plead that the sharing of your loyalty may become effective in the acknowledgment of all the good in us for [the] messiah .
I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love,
because the wombs of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.

 

For this reason, though I am bold enough in the messiah to command you what is necessary,
yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of our love—
being only Paul, an old man,
and now also as a prisoner for Jesus messiah.
I am appealing to you concerning Onesimus
to whom I gave birth while in prison.
Formerly he was useless to you,
but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.
I am sending him, that is, my own womb, back to you whom I was yearning to keep with me (so that he might help me in your place while in prison for the glad-news).
But I preferred to do nothing without your consent,
in order that your good [deed] might be voluntary and not something obligatory.

 

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for an hour
so that you might have him eternally,
no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved comrade—
especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the leader [Jesus].

So if you consider me your partner, welcome me by welcoming him.
If he has wronged you in any way, or owes anything,
charge that to my account.
I, Paul, wrote this with my own hand: I will repay it.
I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.

 

Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord!
Refresh my womb in the messiah.
Confident of your heeding, I wrote you,
knowing that you will do even more than I say.

 

One thing more—prepare a room for me,
for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Jesus messiah, sends greetings to you,
and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
The generosity of the leader Jesus messiah be with your spirit.

 

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.

 

            So, let me begin by confessing that I have never before preached a sermon on the letter to Philemon.  Why have I avoided it over 31 years of preaching?  And why have I decided to preach from it today?

            Well, Philemon is pretty short, and on the face of it, rather lacking in substance.  It doesn’t appear to treat any of the major doctrines of the church or any topics of major significance to us.

            But the reason for avoiding it is more than that.  The Letter to Philemon is a problematic text, for Paul sends a slave back to his slave owner.  Which means that this text has a horrific history in the Christian church, particularly in White, Protestant America.  For this letter was one of the many Biblical texts that slave owners used to justify that evil, dehumanizing institution. 

            And, frankly, no attempt to explain how ancient slavery was different from American slavery, or attempts to explain the cultural context of the early church and their need not to appear too politically revolutionary, made me at all interested in preaching from Philemon. 

            It has been difficult enough to preach from Ephesians and Colossians, letters attributed to Paul, that discuss slaves submitting to their masters.  Of course, his authorship of those letters is often disputed, but never for Philemon, which scholars widely accept as authentically written by Paul.

            So, Philemon seemed to be one of those text sort of unofficially and quietly excised from the canon.

           

            Then, in September 2017, Professor Ted Jennings came to town.  Ted is a retired professor of the Chicago Theological Seminary, one of Katie’s profs.  He is also well renowned, especially among queer scholars.  We and the Metropolitan Community Church of Omaha invited Ted for a weekend of activities, which culminated in a joint worship service here where he preached but also included a Saturday evening dinner and workshop plus a presentation in our First Forum.

            I was so thrilled to meet Ted, after having read his books and essays.  Of course he turned out to be a very down-to-earth person and great fun to hang out with.  Sebastian, Katie, and I took him to the zoo, where he and Sebastian had a grand ole time.  If he lived nearby, I think he would have become Grandpa Ted.

            So, that Saturday evening when I sat down in the sanctuary of MCC-Omaha to hear Ted’s workshop, I was filled with anticipation and then was utterly blown away when he started talking about Philemon.  Especially when he said that Philemon is Paul’s “attempt to develop what we might call a radical democracy as an expression of messianic politics.”

            For the next 45 minutes I was mesmerized, as this scholar opened up for me a text I had simply ignored, turning it into something that now seems to be essential.  So I have looked forward to my own chance to finally preach from Paul’s Letter to Philemon.

            How is this text, which slave holders used to justify themselves, actually a paradigm example of radical politics?

 

            Ted began by calling Philemon not a “letter” but a “postcard,” because of its brevity.  That’s a fun image to hold in our minds when reading it.

            For Ted the key to interpreting this postcard is the way Paul describes all the people mentioned.  You may have noticed that quite a few names were listed in the greeting and the closing and in the body of the text.  All of these other Christian disciples are working with Paul or are members of the church that met in Philemon’s house. 

How does Paul describe them all?  Brother, sister, beloved, co-laborer, fellow worker.  Every single time the descriptions are egalitarian in meaning.  These are people who worked together as equals and partners.  This despite their status—whether male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile.  Bringing into expression the idea Paul declares in Galatians that in God’s reign these distinctions will not and do not exist.

In pointing out that all these varied people are co-laborers with Paul in the work and mission of Jesus, Ted Jennings draws upon the scholarship of French philosopher Alain Badiou.  Somehow, despite being a philosopher and someone who has read and researched a great deal in the writing of the apostle Paul, I had missed that a number of European philosophers, mostly radical leftists, have embraced Paul as the origin of radical egalitarianism and radical democracy.  So, after Ted pointed that out to me, I read Alain Badiou’s book on Paul.

French philosophers sometimes write incomprehensible sentences, but wading through those I was amazed at Badiou’s book, which revealed Paul to me in dramatically new ways.  Of Paul, Badiou writes, “[His] project is to show that a universal logic of salvation cannot be reconciled with any law.”  Badiou describes the letters of Paul as “militant documents sent to small groups of the converted.” 

On this point about a diverse group of disciples being co-workers together, Badiou points out that “All equality is that of belonging together to a work.”  To have true equality there must be “a shared egalitarian endeavor.”

And so the key message for interpreting the postcard to Philemon is that equality is rooted in a shared project, which all can work on together, and all can benefit from.  What is that project in Paul’s case?  It is his mission from God, to share the good news of Jesus Christ, and bring about the salvation of humankind.

Being co-workers in the mission, makes all of these disciples saints.  “Holy ones.”  Those inhabited by God.  Ted Jennings draws out the implications of using this word, “To name these quite ordinary people ‘saints’ or holy ones is to say that each and together they . . . are inhabited by the infinite.  Their value is thus not calculable, but incalculable, infinite, and so on.”  Here is the ground of what in the modern world would become our ideas of inherent humanity dignity and our declaration that all people enjoy basic human rights.

So how should ancient Christians apply these ideas of radical equality in their lives and social situations?  Well, the postcard to Philemon addresses that head on by discussing slavery.  What does Paul really think about slavery?  Especially if he calls slaves “holy ones,” sharing in the glory and power of God, of incalculable worth and dignity, co-workers in the mission, beloved brothers and sisters.

I think you are starting to get the idea of what he thinks.  In this postcard, his radical vision of social equality subverts slavery and the entire hierarchical, patriarchal system upon which it is built.

But why, then, does he send Onesimus back to his master Philemon?

Notice in verse 8 that Paul first tells Philemon that he could order him to do something.  He could stand on his authority and leadership role.  After all, Philemon owes Paul his life. 

But Paul’s not going to order anything.  Instead, he hopes Philemon will freely make the right decision on his own.  Paul appeals to Philemon’s womb.  Most English translations translate this as “heart.”  The idea being that our emotions reside in our heart.  But the actual Greek word is best translated as “womb.”  It is this even more ancient idea that our emotions come from lower down, in the gut and the groin.  Plus, womb is a very evocative image for these men.  You might be surprised that Paul uses womb language a lot, though most translations cover that up.  One of these days I should address that more directly in a sermon or class.  But for our purposes today, suffice it to say, that Paul is appealing to the core of Philemon’s being and feelings, the source of life and compassion within him, asking him to freely do the right thing.

At the time of writing, maybe Onesimus was an escaped slave, in danger of capture and the violence and evil that could result from that?  Under Roman law, if he was absent from his master without approved leave, he could have been crucified. But we really don’t know the details or how all these people are connected.  Ted Jennings describes it as “Just a tiny glimmer of a complex situation.”

Onesimus has come to Paul, maybe seeing in Paul someone who would help him.  Onesimus has now been working with Paul, and they’ve become very close.  Paul even describes Onesimus as his child, his own heart or womb.  One can hardly imagine more intimate language than this. 

Paul sends this man he loves home to Philemon, urging Philemon to freely do the right thing. 

And what is that right thing?  The action is never clearly stated, but is implied.  Philemon should voluntarily send Onesimus back to work with Paul, who is now an old man and a prisoner, in need of the help.

Ted Jennings asks, “What has just happened here?”  Are we to imagine that Paul is asking Philemon to legally set Onesimus free?  Maybe that’s a possibility.  Here’s what Ted says,

 

There is nothing here of the manumission of the “slave.”  Perhaps Onesimus remains, as far as the outside world is concerned, according to the legal order of the empire, a slave.  But among us he is both brother (fully equal) and beloved. Here the messianic movement of Paul finds a concrete way of abolishing the separation of slave and free.  The reform of the empire was not in question, still less a revolt of slaves.  Rather the invention of a new sort of sociality in which these distinctions are overwhelmed.  (neither slave nor free).  In the messianic reality taking shape in the now time, the messianic time.

 

            Ted was helped in this interpretation by his friendship with Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist who was murdered by the South African government.  Biko told Ted,

 

We are not negotiating with the apartheid state for our freedom.  Here and now we act as and so become free. They are not to ‘give us our freedom.’ We are already living free.

 

           

            So what Paul is putting into practice here is a new social order, based upon radical equality.  Where all types and kinds of people work together to fulfill God’s mission. 

            And what motivates them is not law or duty, but feeling, desire, love.  We are to act freely from our love for one another. 

            And to do all of that will subvert the hierarchy, the patriarchy, the exploitative economics. 

           

            This postcard became part of the canon, so that it would continue to be a word to the church.  What does it say to us today?  Surely we do not need to be convinced of the evils of slavery.  But does its message of radical equality, of life lived on the basis of love, address any of the social issues of our time?  Of course it does.


Amazing Things

Amazing Things

Luke 24:1-12

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 April 2019

 

            When our foremothers and forefathers a century ago, in the midst of the First World War, designed this worship space, they chose English Gothic Revival instead of the style more traditional for Congregationalists--New England Meeting House.  English Gothic Revival, with these massive wooden beams rising to the sky and these brilliant stained glass windows behind the choir, both medieval and modern in their dancing colors.  In 1947 our Aeolian-Skinner organ was installed with a premier concert by the greatest organist of his time, the Frenchman Marcel Dupre.

            As we watched the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris burn on Monday, it wasn’t a stretch to see how our worship life was deeply connected to that glorious building.  For it helped to pioneer our architectural language, our use of color and light, even our music.  Western polyphonic music began in that building, inspiring what we sing here every week to the glory of God.

            And so we watched the destruction not of some distant building, but a grandmother and sister of this space we all cherish.

 

            And what a catastrophe it was.  An 850 year old building, that took two hundred years to construct, almost destroyed in an hour and a half.  Reports say that the building came within 15-30 minutes of utter destruction, that if hundreds of firefighters had not risked their lives to stop the flames spreading into the north tower, then the entire structure could have collapsed.

            According to an article in The Guardian, “On French television, a historian of religion, Jean-François Colosimo, described the scene as ‘images of the end of the world.’ The fire, he said, seemed to communicate ‘the extreme fragility of our situation.’”

            The next day Katie Miller read for me a tweet she had seen, that this destruction was a harbinger of what we will experience throughout this century as ancient structures, including glaciers, forests, and islands, will be destroyed rapidly before our eyes.

            John Pavlovitz blogged, “Watching the flames swallowing up such a universally beloved testament to the staggering creativity that humanity is capable of, we recognize how tethered to each other we are, how fragile and fleeting everything here is—and how starved for beauty we all are these days.”

            So many read deeper meanings into what we were watching.

            One of the glories of our modern age is the shared, global experience, whether that be sharing in wonder like watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, or sharing in celebration like on New Year’s Eve 1999, or sharing in terror as we did on September 11, 2001.  Monday was another of those shared global experiences, with people all over the world watching together, remembering, and grieving. 

            The art critic Jonathan Jones wrote of the cathedral,

 

It is the human plenitude, the sense of hundreds of anonymous masons working in humble collectivism, and thousands of people across time sharing our awe for what they built, that gives Notre Dame its mystique. A great cathedral is a vast living organism. It’s like being inside a whale, the vaulting a sublime rib cage above you. Unlike a symmetrical classical building a gothic cathedral is not an image of order but living disorder where flying buttresses sprout, mighty columns soar, lofty galleries conceal prayers and plotters.

 

            “It is the human plenitude.” 

Pavlovitz wrote, “It isn’t just wood and glass and concrete giving way today, it is a sustained wound to our shared humanity—one we would do well to remember.”  He then continued:

 

There is nothing we do or create or feel or breathe individually or collectively, that doesn’t touch the rest of us. The best of our faith traditions, the greatest of our Constitutions, the most profound expressions of our creativity, and our most noble personal convictions tell us that we are inextricably bound together.

 

            And it was lost on no one that this occurred on the Monday of Holy Week. The most sacred time of the year for Christians, the busiest week for any Christian worship space.  I learned the news on Monday while sitting with Bob Vassell at Ellie Bucknam’s funeral lunch.  This congregation had just mourned a woman who radiated joy and delight and who contributed to this congregation for more than fifty years. 

Over the last few weeks the griefs have been never ending.  Ellie’s was the third funeral for a church member in four days.  Other church members had received awful medical news.  Dear friends of mine experienced the suicide of a 13-year-old grandson.  Another church member was lingering near death this weekend, and then this morning’s news of the horrendous attacks in Sri Lanka.

            Here we were, heading toward Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and I always try to emphasize that these days not only celebrate an ancient event, but they are in tune with human emotion and psychology—that we all have Good Fridays in our lives.  And it felt to me as if I was surrounded by Good Friday experiences this year, fearing that I might be overcome.

            And the devastated cathedral was one more worldwide grief. 

 

            And yet. 

            And yet, Jesus proclaims all things new.  Christ rises again, the firstborn of a new creation.  When Peter sees the empty tomb, we are told “he went home, amazed at what had happened.”

            And yet, there are amazing things.

            Tuesday was beautiful.  Warm and sunny with clear skies.  As I walked to and from lunch I saw trees leafing and flowers blooming.  A clump of dandelions surprised and delighted me, a hopeful sign that winter had ended.

            This morning for our sunrise service we gathered in a cemetery in the dark and lit a flame and sang about the light having risen again.  The sun wasn’t up yet.  And that was the point.  We are people who celebrate the new light, even when it’s darkest.  That is the essence of our Easter faith.

            On that beautiful, warm Tuesday as I walked to lunch, I looked to see the latest news—the rose windows were spared, the great organ didn’t burn, though it was damaged by smoke and water, the catastrophe was not as catastrophic as it could be.  So, there will be a resurrection.

            Jonathan Jones wrote

 

A cathedral can endure the loss of its stained glass and other fineries . . . .  It’s precisely this endurance that makes medieval architecture so special. Almost a thousand years after its original creation Notre Dame still speaks to us. Like cave paintings, it connects us with some primal aesthetic urge. Now our time faces a challenge. . . . If we can reawaken the creativity this building embodies it will be a great moment of artistic renewal . . .

 

            Pavlovitz drew a broader lesson,

 

We all belong to one another.  The more we remember that, the more beauty we will make together in this place.  And the world needs beauty now more than ever.

 

            Happy Easter to you! 

            Christ is risen!  Alleluia!

            Alleluia!  Amen!

 

           


Enter the Gate

Enter the Gate

Psalm 118:19-29

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

14 April 2019

 

You might have noticed that Luke’s version of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem is a little different from the other gospels.  No children singing.  No shouts of “Hosanna.”  No waving palm branches. 

But other features are there—the rejoicing crowds, Jesus riding a humble beast, the street theatre protest that generates opposition from the authorities.

Luke has Jesus respond to the latter with the phrase, “I tell you, if these [people] were silent, the stones would shout out.”  We often hear that as an affirmative image—even creation will rejoice at the coming of the Messiah.  But that may not be the meaning here.  When stones shout, it is usually because they are tumbling in tumult.  We might think of the destruction in the wake of an earthquake.  The meaning here is more likely, “If you try to silence these people, then you will bring judgment down upon you.”  A far more sobering image and one that reminds us that today’s rejoicing has sinister undertones that will play out over the week ahead.

 

Luke, like the others who told this story, draws upon the celebratory words of Old Testament processionals.  In this case, Psalm 118 which I just read.

Psalm 118 is likely an “entrance liturgy,” according to Walter Brueggemann.  Used to celebrate a “royal victory in battle.”  We are to imagine that the people have sung this Psalm before as part of a public event welcoming home triumphant warriors.  It’s the song of a military victory parade.

The psalm has a clear structure.  It opens with a summons to the community to gather in thanksgiving to God. 

Then, it narrates the story of God’s deliverance.  The people are in distress, they are surrounded by wicked nations intent on harming them.  They have confined us and are buzzing about like bees, stinging us like poisonous thorns.  But there is no need to fear—in the midst of our distress, God is with us, God whose love is steadfast and endures forever.  God will rescue us, has rescued us, and brought us to a broad place where we might find refuge and live.

Finally, it is the time to celebrate the rescue, with singing and a parade.  Give thanks to God, whose love is steadfast and endures forever.

 

Psalm 118 is the last of six Hallel psalms, used by the Hebrew people as part of the Passover celebration.  So they had long been lifted from their original context in a military parade and used around the festival table to celebrate God’s rescue of the people from evil and destruction.  According to scholar J. C. McCann, these psalms “offer a perspective from which to face the reality of continuing oppression: recollection of God’s past activity as a basis for petition and grateful trust in God’s future activity on behalf of the people.”

Walter Brueggemann elaborates on this idea.  The voice speaking in the psalm “was being strangled and constricted in distress” but has been delivered by God into a broad place where they can breathe.  Brueggemann writes, “Fear can be a powerful reality, but refuge in God can bring hope, even in the face of such trauma.”

One of the central messages in the Biblical tradition is “do not fear.”  And here, once again, is that same message.  In the midst of distress and trauma, don’t be ruled by fear.  Take courage.  Be ruled instead by faith in God’s steadfast love that endures forever.  Just as God has rescued God’s people in the past, God will rescue us.  We can look forward in hope to a time of rejoicing, a grand celebration.

 

So, when Luke uses Psalm 118 to tell his story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, all of these layers of meaning come into the story.  First the obvious parallel—a parade, a triumphal entry, to celebrate God’s deliverance of the people.  Making Jesus appear like a royal figure in the Biblical tradition, a fulfillment of ancient expectations and longings. 

Also, the parallel with Passover.  The people join together in an ancient religious festival to celebrate God’s deliverance.  Jesus participating in this idea, creating it anew. 

The Passover celebrates the Exodus, so Jesus is a new Moses, leading the newly delivered people on a new Exodus, forming a new people who will renew the covenant with God.

And the meaning can also be stretched that Jesus is the new Passover lamb, the sacrifice who will make the deliverance possible.  Though that implication awaits a later chapter in the story of this week.

Luke’s use of Psalm 118 also carries with it the deeper pastoral message that Walter Brueggemann locates in Psalm 118—do not fear.  Here at the start of a week that will include threat and danger, betrayal and arrest, persecution and torture, death and uncertainty, Luke is reminding us of this central biblical message—don’t be ruled by fear.  Yes, there are dark nights of the soul.  Yes, we experience Good Fridays in our lives.  But even in these darkest and most dangerous of moments, don’t be overcome by fear. 

For just as the Psalmist has written—God’s love is steadfast and endures forever.  God will rescue us.  We will celebrate in song “This is the day the Lord has made.”

In other words, here, before Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Luke is hinting that Easter will come.

 

This year for Lent we have invited you to take a sojourn—not to go on a spiritual journey, but to explore the spiritual in your daily lives.  I have asked you to be attentive to the ordinary ways that you connect to God.

This has been a “pilgrimage in place” to borrow a phrase from a clergy friend of mine.  And that most definitely describes these final days before Easter.  Today we begin Holy Week.  And though the first few days don’t have many activities, they can be a time to begin to focus our attention on what we need to do this week.

I am hopeful that this year you will choose to set aside some of your time to join in recognizing these days.  You might do this privately through your own devotional and spiritual practices.  In fact you should do that.  Whether it is reading the stories in the Gospel, going on a long walk to meditate, listening to Mozart’s Requiem, Handel’s Messiah, or the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar, or one of my favourite Holy  Saturday activities—rereading The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis.  I hope you will engage in some special spiritual practice this week that draws you into the emotional and psychological import of the days ahead.

I also invite you to join us in worship, as we will explore these emotions together.  The celebration and joy of Easter only authentically come after the dark night of the soul of Good Friday and the experience of communion and betrayal of that communion on Maundy Thursday. 

In Ancient-Future Time, Robert Webber writes,

These are days to be set aside to enter into a worship that is the source of our entire spirituality, a moment in time that defines all time for Christians, a moment in time that is the very sum and substance of our spirituality for every season, every week, every Sunday, and every moment of every day.

Now, we don’t stop everything else we do in order to experience these holy days; they occur in the midst of our obligations to job and family.  Which is important.  That reminds us that these emotions and experiences occur in the midst of our routines, in our daily lives as human beings.  They are part of the human condition. 

This isn’t just a story we read.  It is a story we participate in.  The people march in a parade to symbolize their deliverance.  They join in an ancient festival meal that reminds them that they too are God’s people, experiencing God’s love.  The sing as part of Jesus’s ride into Jerusalem.  And we too act out the story—we wave the palm branches, sing “Hosanna,” process in together.  Every layer of this story is about seeing ourselves in the story, re-enacting it in our lives. 

Why?  Because it is the human story.

Today, by acting out the story once again, may we will feel deeply within our own psyches the great promise—God’s love is steadfast and endures forever.  So do not fear.  Have faith, rejoice, and give thanks.