Sermons Feed

In Labor

In Labor

Micah 5:2-5a and Luke 1:39-55

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

19 December 2021

            Six and a half years ago, as I was awaiting the birth of our son Sebastian, like many other American parents of recent decades, I read the bible for parents, otherwise known as What to Expect when You’re Expecting.  Of course I was able to skip over the pregnancy parts and go right to the details about those first few days and weeks.  I must have read the section on the first couple of days at least three times before he was born and then consulted it as a reference more than once in those days.  I remember in those early months reading ahead so I’d be prepared for the next developmental stage.  But also the growing sense over the first few months that I now knew my baby and was more comfortable taking care of him.  And then that weird feeling sometime when he was one or two when I donated the book to the Thrift Shop because I didn’t need it anymore.

When you are expecting your first child you are riven with wonder and anxiety in equal measure.  For all the joy, there’s also fear.  The nervousness that you will make a catastrophic mistake with this fragile infant in your care.  It’s easy to look back on those emotions later with mild amusement, but they were not amusing at all at the time.

And this experience of the expectant first parent so adequately grasps the themes of this Advent season.  We come with expectations of joy and wonder, but also all the fears, uncertainties, and anxieties of our time.

Even Micah the Old Testament prophet knows how effective this metaphor is.  He writes about daughter Zion who is in labor as an image for the people awaiting the coming of the Messiah.  In his commentary Marvin Sweeney writes that “The oracle employs the metaphor of a woman giving birth to express the necessary interval until the rest of the [the] kindred are sufficiently restored so that they might bring about the new era of peace.”  The “necessary interval.”  Peace is coming, justice is coming, joy is coming, but there’s a “necessary interval.”

Of course the images of pregnancy and labor pains pervade the Bible.  God tells the prophet Jeremiah that even before he was formed in the womb, God knew him.  The Psalms rejoice in God’s knitting us together in our mother’s wombs. In Romans Paul uses the image to describe how all of creation is groaning as if in labor to await the revelation of the children of God.  And in Revelation the culmination of history is also likened to a woman giving birth.

In her classic text God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Phyllis Trible taught us to understand how central are the images of pregnancy and labor to our biblical understanding.  She wrote:

God conceives in the womb; God fashions in the womb; God judges in the womb; God destines in the womb; God brings forth from the womb; God receives out of the womb; and God carries from the womb to gray hairs.  From this uterine perspective, then, Yahweh molds life for individuals and for the nation Israel.  Accordingly, in biblical traditions an organ unique to the female becomes a vehicle pointing to the compassion of God.

            What Phyllis Trible goes on to demonstrate in her classic text is that the Hebrew word for compassion, used repeatedly to describe God in the Old Testament, has its roots in the word for womb.  Divine compassion, divine love, divine care is, thus, like the love of a mother for the child she carries within her own body.  This fundamentally maternal, feminine, uterine image is, then, one of the central themes of our faith.

            And, so, the prophet Micah imagines a woman in labor, awaiting the restoration of Israel’s children so that the age of peace might dawn.  As Phyllis Trible writes, the image of the divine womb is about imagining that “wholeness and well-being may happen.”  Micah’s dream is for an age of well-being in which all of us feel secure, all of us are at peace, when together we shall be fed.

And for Micah that age will be ushered in by the child born in Bethlehem. 

This Advent season we’ve been emphasizing the topsy-turvy nature of the biblical story.  How God works through the unexpected.  Two weeks ago I drew parallels with fairy tales, where frogs turn out to be princes and beautiful women are sometimes witches.  Katie’s play emphasized how those who think they are wise, often are not, and that God’s gifts are found in surprising places.  And today we have the wonderfully comic story of two pregnant women and the children leaping in their wombs, followed by Mary’s song that the mighty will be brought low and the lowly will be lifted up.  The Bible is constantly telling us to be ready for the unexpected.

And Bethlehem is a core symbol of that idea.  For Bethlehem is the home of David.  As Calvin Miller writes in his commentary, “Instead of another boring, bloody generalissimo, there would arise a shepherd king.”

Let’s remind ourselves who David was and why he was so central to the biblical imagination.  He was the shepherd boy, who didn’t look like a potential king.  The last of a series of brothers.  Small even.  From a rural village.  Yet, he was the one of which the story is told that as a boy he had the courage to face the giant and prevail.  He was the one who defied King Saul’s paranoia and violence and defeated Israel’s enemies and established a just kingdom centered in Jerusalem around the worship of God.

Walter Brueggemann has a fascinating little book in which he explores the roles that David played upon the Hebrew imagination.  And the stories about David start as those of the outsiders, the subversives.  Brueggemann writes, “One may then understand this narrative to be hopeful, because it tells, generation after generation, that the marginal ones can become the legitimate holders of power.”  One of the conclusions Brueggemann believes we can draw from the David stories is that “This Yahweh is not committed to the moral civility of entrenched order.”  In other words, the status quo social arrangement doesn’t have some divine imprimatur.  God imagines something different and takes action in history to bring it about.

Now, of course, the story and image of David gets taken over by the power elite eventually.  The rule he established in Jerusalem becomes a hereditary monarchy and that monarchy begins to justify itself by its claims to be Davidic.  And while they might be biological descendants of David, rarely are the kings spiritual descendants of David, for they often seem to represent the complete opposite of the original Davidic idea. 

But, Walter Brueggemann writes, the people will not give up on the ideal of David the underdog, David the unexpected, David the beloved of God.  And so the Hebrew imagination also upholds an idealized David, often used as a counterpoint against whichever descendant of David is currently sitting upon the throne.  This idealized David, according to the Brueggemann, is “the bearer of the promise, the one who keeps the future open against every vexed present.”

Brueggemann goes further, “The very name of David in these traditions asserts that God has dreams and intentions, that history is not closed, and that the person of David is a means for God’s purposes to come to fruition in the future.”

And it seems to be this idea that underlies Micah’s use of David.  Micah, the eighth century prophet, is critical of the regime in Jerusalem.  They are unjust and unrighteous.  Therefore, they are unworthy of any claims they make to be descendants of David. 

And so Micah draws upon the memory of David to subvert the current authorities.  He imagines that just as God picked a shepherd boy from Bethlehem to topple the king and defeat Israel’s enemies and establish a new order, God can do that again.  God will bring forth a new shepherd king who will bring about a new era of peace and security. God still has dreams.  The future still is open.  God’s promises will be fulfilled.

But, right now, we are in the necessary interval as we wait for God to act, to bring all of this about.  Right now, we are in labor.  We are expecting.

So, what can we expect when we are expecting?  Some fear, some uncertainty, some anxiety.  Everything isn’t right yet.  We shouldn’t resign ourselves to the way things are.  We should still be dreaming.  We should imagine different future possibilities.  We should also learn to expect the unexpected.

What else can we expect while we are expecting?  We can expect wonder, hope, beauty, joy, and delight.  And if we believe God is acting in human history to bring about God’s dreams, then we can also expect justice and righteousness and security and peace, because that’s what God has promised us.  That’s who God is at God’s core. 

For God is love.  God is compassionate.  God is like a mother nurturing us within her womb.

Or, as Frederick Bauerschmidt writes in his beautiful little book The Love that Is God, “This divine kindness is the endless sea of love upon which our created being floats.  This is the love that can heal the failures of our human loves.”

So, we wait, in labor, with our hopes and our fears.  But even during this interval, we rest in the deep, nurturing, compassionate, mothering love that is God.


Look & See

Look & See

Philippians 1:6 & Baruch 5:1-9

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

5 December 2021

            Today is one of the rare occasions when even our Protestant lectionary gives us an apocryphal text for the Old Testament lesson.  And so we have this passage from Baruch, a book that claims to be written by the student and scribe of the Prophet Jeremiah, but likely came much later, probably in the century just before Jesus was born.  And it draws upon various images and words from other Old Testament writings, including today’s passage which relies a lot upon the Book of Isaiah.

            And I have paired that with one sentence from this week’s epistle lesson, a reminder that we are not finished, that God is still working on us.  Hear now these ancient words:

Philippians 1:6

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

Baruch 5:1-9

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,

   and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.

Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;

   put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;

for God will show your splendour everywhere under heaven.

For God will give you evermore the name,

   ‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory’.

Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height;

   look towards the east,

and see your children gathered from west and east

   at the word of the Holy One,

   rejoicing that God has remembered them.

For they went out from you on foot,

   led away by their enemies;

but God will bring them back to you,

   carried in glory, as on a royal throne.

For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low

   and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,

   so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.

The woods and every fragrant tree

   have shaded Israel at God’s command.

For God will lead Israel with joy,

   in the light of his glory,

   with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God within us,

For the Word of God among us,

Thanks be to God.

            Of course I am not the resident musical theatre geek.  That would be Katie Miller.  But I am a gay man, so that gives me license to have opinions about musical theatre. 

            The theatre world, the popular music world, actually vast swaths of American arts and culture, have been mourning and eulogizing Stephen Sondheim, who died last week at 91 after a long career as a composer, songwriter, and creator of one Broadway hit after another.  Few Americans have had such a lengthy and rich influence on our culture as Sondheim has.  So it was good this week to read and watch the many tributes of him and his work.

            The Sondheim show I’m most well acquainted with is Into the Woods.  I first saw it as a teenager when the local college performed it.  And I was impacted by its storytelling.  The first act, which is a fun and enthusiastic mish-mash of various fairy tales, concludes with what appears to be the happy ending, only for the second act to descend into complexity, darkness, and ambiguity, raising rich questions about how we tell our stories and, therefore, how we live our lives. 

            In a tribute that appeared this week on the Atlantic’s website, Amy Weiss-Meyer wrote about Into the Woods and Sondheim’s overall approach to endings.  She said, “He never believed in simple happy endings, but he knew exactly how to take advantage of his audience’s yearning for them.”

            Yes, we do long for a happy ending.  We long for everything to turn out right in the end.  That if we work hard and do the right thing, life will be good and blessed.  But, that’s not what always happens.  Sometimes, despite our best efforts, things don’t turn out the way we expected them to.

            Back in the summer when the church staff picked our Advent theme, we began by acknowledging that we had no idea what to expect pandemic-wise come December.  Would we be in the midst of another winter surge or would vaccinations lead to a decline in infection rates or something else? 

            We then realized that this idea of expectations was the right way to orient our focus.  Of course there is the other meaning of “expecting” that has to do with being pregnant, of waiting for a baby to be born.  And the last time we used expectations in our advent theme, in 2015, it was precisely this idea that shaped our worship.  The joy and excitement and risk involved in waiting for new life.  “Wonderful Expectations” was our theme.

            But in 2021 our expectations are more unclear, complex, ambiguous even.  As like to be full of anxiety as they are hope.  Much less that we’ve learned the very hard way the last two years that what we expect might not happen and that we must be somewhat ready for the unexpected.  Though, how can you ever really prepare for what’s unexpected?

            So, we focused our idea for Advent worship around this ambiguity of waiting.

            In her Atlantic tribute, Amy Weiss-Meyer reflected on how Sondheim’s wisdom about endings speaks precisely to the moment we are in in the course of this pandemic.  She wrote,

Sondheim’s work was at its strongest when it lingered in the pain of the dawning realization that no ever after ever lasts long. His music and lyrics looked squarely at life and insisted, gently and eloquently, that of course it was never going to be exactly how we wanted it to be, that messiness and ambiguity were to be expected, and could even be part of the beauty. Voices overlapped, words whizzed by, anxiety and sorrow and joy were written into the very structure of the songs.

            So, maybe this Advent, our spiritual growth will be measured by how much we’ve learned that messiness and ambiguity are to be expected and can even be “part of the beauty?”

            And beauty is precisely what today’s scripture lessons imagines for us.  “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction” we are instructed by the author.  And instead, we are to clothe ourselves forever in beauty, the beauty of the glory from God.  Wow, just wow!  One of grandest statements in our scriptural tradition, I think.  Definitely, worthy of our attention when we find ourselves in the midst of sorrow and affliction.

            And then the passage continues.  We will be robed in righteousness and crowned with glory.  God’s going to show off our splendor, everywhere.  And we will receive the name of “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.”

            After these wonderful lines, the author invites her readers to arise and stand and look and see that their children are coming home, rejoicing.  They were carried away in exile by our enemies, and all have suffered, but God has spoken and the reunion is about to occur, just look and see. 

            And the road we children will be traveling home on, instead of being through a difficult wilderness, will be made smooth and plain and easy so that we might travel in safety.  And there will even be fragrant shade trees all along the way.

            If Paul in Philippians declares that God is still working on us, something like this vision from Baruch is the work that God is trying to complete.  God is turning us into our best selves.

            What amazing images.  What joy, what excitement.  Baruch describes about as happy an ending as one could imagine. 

            But dare we imagine that ending?  Can we truly hope for it?  Are we fools if we expect it?

            Frederick Buechner has a profound little book entitled Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, in which he reveals the ways in which our Christian story has all three types of endings.  It isn’t simply a happy ending; it messier and more ambiguous than that.

            This week I read again through the chapter on how the gospel is like a fairy tale.  The primary point Buechner makes is that in the Gospel, as in most fairy tales, our expectations get messed up.  The noble king might really be the villain.  The beautiful woman might end up being the witch.  The poor and dirty peasant is likely to be the hero of the story.  Or, as the gospel tells it, this child, born in a barn, in a small town on the edge of the great empire, to a teenage mother who was pregnant before she was married.  Among the most marginalized figures one could imagine—that’s the truly human one, the child of God, the savior of the world, the king of kings, the prince of peace, etc., etc., etc.

            Buechner also writes that “Like the fairy-tale world, the world of the Gospel is a world of darkness.”  The Gospel understands that all its visions, hopes, and dreams come in the midst of sorrow and affliction.  In fairy tales the characters learn to see beyond this world and its darkness to the place of beauty and joy.

            And so the spiritual wisdom that Frederick Buechner wants to cultivate within us is that same sense of vision.  He writes,

If with part of ourselves we are men and women of the world and share the sad unbeliefs of the world, with a deeper part still, the part where our best dreams come from, it is as if we were indeed born yesterday, or almost yesterday, because we are also all of us children still.  No matter how forgotten and neglected, there is a child in all of us who is not just willing to believe in the possibility that maybe fairy tales are true after all but who is to some degree in touch with that truth.

            To see the possibilities of beauty and joy and hope is to see like children again, full of amazement and wonder.  And isn’t that part of what we enjoy about the holiday season?  Doesn’t it, at its best, break through our adultness and return to us a sense of magic and splendor and awe?

            We don’t want to give up longing for, hoping for, even expecting the happy ending.  While at the same time we have to learn that messiness and ambiguity are also to be expected and are themselves part of the beauty.  I like the poem by Hafiz that was read earlier, even when we are lonely in the darkness, there is an astonishing light in our own being.  Or as Baruch imagines, beyond the sorrow and affliction are splendor, joy, and peace.


Reconstructing Thanksgiving

Reconstructing Thanksgiving

Matthew 6:25-33

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 November 2021

            Six ancestors of mine traveled on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock in December 1620.  Four of them died in the first winter.  The teenager Elizabeth Tilley lost her parents, aunt, and uncle.  The adolescent John Howland, who arrived as an indentured servant to the colony’s governor John Carver, survived the winter, but his master and mistress did not.  John and Elizabeth later wed and lived long lives in which they produced a large family and gained wealth and status.  I am rightly proud of my ancestors and draw strength from their example of endurance, courage, resilience, and faith. 

            Wanting to know more about these family heroes, I’ve read a lot in the history of the colony.  I’ve gained a better understanding of the theology that animated them, of the great risks they encountered and overcame, of their roles in forming the values of democracy, representative government, and religious freedom. 

            But any reading of that history also informs one of the colony’s relations with the indigenous people and how that relationship was far more complex and ultimately violent and unjust than the Thanksgiving myth we learned as kids presented the relationship as being.  Last week in our worship, we explored those critical questions and deconstructed the myth.  Which leaves us asking: Once we’ve interrogated the myth with these critical perspectives, what value can this 400th anniversary hold for us?  For me it is very personal—how to look at my ancestors with honesty—to value what there is to value, to honor what there is to honor, and to regret what deserves regret and remorse.

            In biblical studies, in the study of how we interpret scripture, there is an understanding that we humans take three broad approaches to scripture, and these somewhat align with developmental stages.  We first approach scripture with naiveté, accepting the stories at face value.  Then, usually beginning in adolescence or young adulthood, we realize that there are critical questions we want to raise about the text.  For some people, of course, these critical questions lead to a deconstruction of belief that results in disbelief.  For others, the asking of critical questions can lead to no longer taking the stories at face value, but continuing to find some value and truth in them.  Those folks then usually advance to the third broad approach, which is called post-critical naiveté.  In this phase, we are aware of the critical problems and continue to interrogate the text with them, but we don’t get stuck in the critical mindset.  We move on to embrace the stories again looking for what truths they tell, what values they hold, what meaning they might have for us. 

            It is this broad interpretative approach that has guided my study of the Thanksgiving story as I prepared for this worship series to mark this 400th anniversary.  We can’t accept the Thanksgiving story that we once did with no exploration of the critical questions.  Our commitments to fairness, justice, honesty, integrity compel us to ask those questions.  But I don’t believe that means rejecting the story completely and disposing of it as having no meaning or value or importance to us.  It is more than a relic.  I believe we can still learn from and be inspired by it.  That’s my goal in today’s sermon.

            To help us in this exercise, I first want to turn to an idea from Hispanic theology.  That might seem a little surprising when we are basically concerned about the interactions between a group of English people and Wampanoag Indians.  But Mexican-American theology is derived from the colonial experience and the mixing of various races and ethnicities and the liminal spaces along national frontiers.  It can enrich our understanding of how theology intersects with culture and identity.

            And in particular I want to look at the concept of fiesta.  This summer I read the book Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise by Virgilio Elizondo.  Elizondo presents fiesta as one of the “symbols of new creation.”  He writes, “The tragedies of [Mexican-American] history have not obliterated laughter and joy, warm friendship and the capacity to love.”  He writes that in their culture there exists a “propensity for celebration.”  This is the fiesta, which he then describes as “the mystical celebration of a complex identity, the mystical affirmation that life is a gift and is worth living.”  And very importantly, this celebration comes in the midst of and acknowledging “the very contradictions that are of the essence of the mystery of human life.” 

            Elizondo then ties the concept of fiesta to some of Christianity’s oldest and deepest values.  He writes,

From the very beginning Christianity saw itself living out a new universal love that would not be limited by cultural or religious boundaries.  This new love came through many cultures but at the same time transcended them by opening them up to the wealth and riches of other cultures.

            Elizondo concludes that this is part of God’s “new creation.”  The new identities formed through the mixing of cultures represents the fullness of the kingdom of God which “bypasses human segregative barriers.”

            For three days in the autumn of 1621 a group of Wampanoag and English sat down to eat together.  They celebrated the harvest, which could only have come about from the Wampanoags helping the colonists learn how to farm in this new land.  They were also honoring an alliance which had formed for their mutual benefit.  They didn’t fully trust one another.  They weren’t close friends.  But, they were practicing the ancient rites of both people to honor one another with hospitality, generosity, and gratefulness. 

            And, so, that celebration we call “the First Thanksgiving” was an opening to a possible future.  It was the beginnings of a fiesta and might have led to more learning from one another and true friendship and cooperation.  And we know that for some English and Wampanoag it did.  There are stories of true friendship, of cooperation, of mutual respect, even if the atrocities of colonial history are far more dominant. 

            So, can we still honor that moment in time as a moment when possibilities crossed boundaries?  When a little of God’s plan for the world broke through fear and racism and skepticism, if just for a moment? 

            One reason I think we can is what Thanksgiving has come to mean across the centuries.  In every community I’ve ministered in, Thanksgiving is the one time a year when people of various faiths and ethnicities generally come to together for worship and fellowship.  Interfaith Thanksgiving services are common throughout this country.  Omaha’s is today at 5 at First Christian Church.  Why are those held this week?  If not because we contemporary Americans see in that past event an opportunity.  Maybe an opportunity that wasn’t fully taken then and still now isn’t fully taken, but we are trying.  And so I love that this is the week every year when I’m most likely to join in worship with Jews and Muslims and even sometimes Indigenous people. 

            This is also the time of year when even the most secular Americans generally focus, at least some of their attention and dollars, on helping other people.  Through this holiday and Christmas, Americans donate food and clothing and money and volunteer their time to help the poor and the hungry and unhoused.  And we have a record of being one of the most generous of nations.  Is that because we’ve spent centuries now practicing Thanksgiving?  Being grateful for our blessings and then from that, sharing those blessings with others?  Surely, the focus of this holiday has had a pedagogical effect upon us as a people.

            So, there is much in the Thanksgiving story that requires critical questions and compels our regret and remorse, but there are also ideals to value.  To pick up and develop and do an even better job of living into them.

            And maybe that’s how we Congregationalists, at our best, have used the story.  I mentioned last week that Margaret Bendroth, the longtime Congregational archivist, has claimed that the way we embraced the Pilgrim story is what helped us to avoid fundamentalism and to become the progressive denomination we have. 

            Bendroth writes that Congregationalists used history to unite them, rather than shared doctrine, biblical interpretation, or denominational structure.  And all along they edited out aspects of that history and embraced others.  The values they embraced from the Pilgrims were adventure, freedom, and an openness to possibilities.  Obviously that romanticizes and maybe even white-washes a group that was rather dogmatic.  But it’s not like those values are absent from the Pilgrim story, they are present. 

            She writes that Congregationalists at their best learned to study and reflect on their history and to ask questions about it.  Which led to living with ambiguity and embracing the new.  That enabled Congregationalists to be more open to liberal interpretations of scripture when those arose and to embrace modern advances more easily. 

            She writes that the focus on history also meant that Congregationalists understood that there’s wasn’t only one story, one perspective.  That there were others.  Which led to Congregationalists being at the forefront of ecumenical developments. 

            And in recent decades the UCC has been open about embracing the moral complexity of its past and trying to learn from it in order to create a more just world and a better future.  Bendroth concludes her book by writing:

The past is as real and as consistently challenging as the people who created it, and its demands are not easily satisfied.  The most important work of any religious tradition is to recognize—sometimes to celebrate and other times to fiercely mourn—its enduring power.

            What, then, does this 400th anniversary mean for us? 

            It’s a chance to examine our story, to ask questions about it, to realize the ways it has shaped us for good and bad.  And to then learn from it. 

            To learn what was wrong.  What we don’t want to embrace.  What we don’t want to follow.  What we want to repent for.

            But also to learn what was of value.  What can inspire us and make us better.

            To learn what opportunities and possibilities it did present.  And how we can emulate those in our time and our place.  And do better.

            So, we need a fiesta—a celebration, that crosses the boundaries of identity and culture, and helps to imagine and embody the kingdom of God. 

            400 years after that meal between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag, we can do that.  And what better holiday than this one?  Happy Thanksgiving.


Deconstructing Thanksgiving

Deconstructing Thanksgiving

Joel 2:21-17

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

14 November 2021

            This autumn marks the 400th anniversary of the event that later was called “The First Thanksgiving”—the day of feasting when a group of Wampanoag warriors joined with the Plymouth Pilgrims to eat their harvest.

            This event has not only taken on a mythic role in the wider American consciousness, it is a significant story to us as Congregationalists, who are among the direct religious descendants of those Pilgrims.  This congregation normally holds a huge Thanksgiving dinner, a tradition we can date to at least the late 19th century, with some stops and starts.  While the pandemic has prevented us from once again holding the turkey dinner, we do look forward to hopefully gathering again in a crowded parlor next year to celebrate family and friends and give thanks to God in an event that harkens back in some ways to that meal in the autumn of 1621. 

            But this is 2021, and we have learned that some parts of our history don’t sit as comfortably with us as they once did.  What critical questions should we ask about that history and how it’s been used?  What meaning should this event hold for us now, as we want to honor our heritage but address a history of colonialism, conquest, and racism? 

            So, we are not going to simply celebrate the 400th anniversary of that meal, but intentionally explore the difficult questions and look for what approach is best for us in 2021.  This week, then, I’ll be preaching on the theme “Deconstructing Thanksgiving” and next Sunday “Reconstructing Thanksgiving.”

            Let’s begin with Pilgrim Edward Winslow’s description of that harvest celebration at Plymouth Colony:

Our harvest being collected our governor sent four men fowling together so we might rejoice together in a more special way after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. In just one day the hunters killed as much fowl as if their hunting party had been larger. The fowl fed the company almost a week at which time, among other recreations, we drilled with our fire arms. Many of the Indians joined us including Massasoit, the greatest king, and some ninety of his men. We all entertained and feasted together for three days. The Indians went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, the captain, and others. And although it is not always as plentiful as it was at that time, yet by the goodness of God we are so far from want that we often wish you could partake of our plenty.

            The Pilgrims disembarked on December 22, 1620 in the midst of a harsh New England winter.  Disease, starvation, and exposure to the cold killed half of them that winter.  In the familiar parts of the story, that spring they finally made direct contact with the local Wampanoag Indians and were helped by Samoset and Squanto, who we more appropriately should call by his name Tisquantum, and the local paramount sachem Ousamequin, whom we are more likely to recognize as Massosoit, which was actually his title and not his name. 

            The Wampanoags formed a mutual-self-defense alliance with the Pilgrims and then taught them how to survive—where to hunt and fish and how to grow their crops.  And so at the end of the growing season, the Pilgrims did as so many human societies have done throughout history, and held a harvest celebration.

            But is this event properly called “The First Thanksgiving?”  Not really.  For one thing, the Pilgrims themselves did not call it a “day of thanksgiving.”  When the Pilgrims did hold days of thanksgiving those were days of fasting, prayer, and spiritual discipline, usually to address an immediate need or concern in the life of the community.  Our Pilgrim ancestors wouldn’t recognize what we do on the fourth Thursday in November as a day of thanksgiving, but would recognize it as a harvest celebration.

            Only about a century later were days of Thanksgiving and harvest celebrations combined in some of the colonies.  The first national day of Thanksgiving was declared by President George Washington, though some in Congress at the time complained that this was executive overreach and something best left to the states. 

            The tradition of various local communities and states holding celebrations developed through the 19th century, but with little connection to the Pilgrims.  The holiday for honoring the Pilgrims was Forefather’s Day, which fell on December 22 and marked the landing on Plymouth Rock. 

            In 1827, magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale began advocating for a national day of Thanksgiving.  Her efforts eventually resulted in Abraham Lincoln declaring the second national day of Thanksgiving during the Civil War.  After that time it became a regular event.  FDR tried to move the date from the fourth Thursday in November to the third, causing great controversy.  It was only in the mid-twentieth century that Congress officially made the fourth Thursday in November a permanent federal holiday. 

            The connection of this day with the Pilgrims and their meal became more prominent around the Pilgrim anniversary year of 1870, and Congregational churches played an important role in that development.  There’s an insightful book entitled The Last Puritans by Margaret Bendroth, who was the longtime archivist of the Congregationalist archives.  That book discusses how Congregationalists have used our history, and particularly stories about the Pilgrims to shape our identity and mission.

            Because Congregationalists were a non-creedal people, they had no core doctrine to unite them.  Because they believed in the freedom of local churches and individual Christians, they did not have a tightly developed denominational structure.  So, what drew them together and kept them united was a shared origin story, from which they derived identity and mission.  She writes that as Congregationalism moved out of its New England home into the vast stretches of this continent in the late nineteenth century and began to compete more in new towns and cities with various denominations, that Congregationalists drew upon their Pilgrim heritage in a form of branding, to identify who they were as distinct from Presbyterians and Baptists and such. 

            She also ties these developments with the trauma of the Civil War.  She writes, “The post-Civil War decades were a time of general yearning for public ceremonies of memory, especially in the wake of epic personal loss on both sides of the conflict.”  We who have experienced this devastating pandemic recognize that yearning.

            Reading her book, you realize why Congregationalists in early Omaha, Nebraska, out here on the frontier, invested so much in celebrating an annual Thanksgiving dinner. 

            Margaret Bendroth also argues that our focus on the Pilgrim past helped us to avoid fundamentalism and turned us into the progressive denomination we’ve become, but I’ll talk about that in next week’s sermon.

            So, a study of the history reveals that the conventional understanding of this holiday and its ties to the Pilgrim past, are not exactly what we thought it was.  What we do on the fourth Thursday of November is not really a direct descendant of what the Pilgrims did in 1621-- the history is more complicated than that. 

            And so far we’ve only discussed the white European descendant aspects of the history.  There is, of course, far more to the story.  There is the perspective of the Wampanoags who joined in the harvest meal. 

            Beginning in the 1970’s, some Native Americans began recognizing the Fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning.  And in subsequent decades more attention has been paid to understanding their story and the impacts upon them of the Thanksgiving myth many of us learned and enacted in grade school. 

One of the simplest points to grasp is how often around this time of year school kids make pilgrim hats and Indian headdresses to wear.  The Indian headdresses are usually a circle of brown construction paper to which was attached a feather shaped piece of construction paper that the kids color.  But, these types of headdresses were worn by Plains Indians and are not remotely authentic to the headdresses of the indigenous people of New England.  In this simple way authentic Wampanoag culture gets erased from our collective memory.

So often, the way the story was told and used, has represented a form of white supremacy.  The local tribes helped the Pilgrims, gave them their land, and then disappeared.  Of course it was always more complicated than that, but so many children’s story books do present something like that.

In our Facebook group this week I posted a Washington Post article that briefly summarizes some of the Wampanoag perspective.  If you want to delve further, I recommend the book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving by David J. Silverman.

New England’s indigenous people had been dealing with Europeans for a century.  They developed sophisticated trading relationships with them, but also learned to mistrust them.  The Europeans were known to attack at the slightest misunderstanding.  Even worse, they had a history of enslaving people.  Even Tisquantum, whom most of us know as Squanto, had been abducted decades before when he went to trade with a ship.  They captured him and sold him into slavery, and he spent years endeavoring to return to his homeland.  In the process he learned English and European ways and thus could facilitate the relationships between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags.  We are mistaken if we see his role as merely being generous and hospitable, for deep trauma and suspicion were clearly also part of Tisquantum’s motives.

The Europeans also brought new diseases.  From 1616-1619 a plague spread throughout the region wiping out whole villages.  The Wampanoag called it The Great Dying.  The area where the Pilgrims settled was vacant because Patuxet, the village that once stood there, had been destroyed in the plague years. 

An interesting point I learned in studying for this sermon—it wasn’t just the lack of contact with other humans that made the indigenous people susceptible to illnesses.  It was also their clean living.  They had existed for millennia with clear air and water, eating healthy, nutritious meals, and without the forms of agriculture and urban filth that brought most Europeans in contact with the great diseases that plague humanity.  The paradox was that the cleaner, healthier living of the indigenous people meant they didn’t have the immunities for the diseases the less healthy Europeans brought.

Why did Ousamequin and the Wampanoag welcome the Pilgrims?  According to David Silverman, we should try to understand his motive.  Many of his people had been killed by disease.  His power was diminished.  He and his people were a sitting target for rival groups, particularly the Narragansetts.  Along came a small and weak group of English people and Ousamequin gambled that he could develop a relationship that would be of mutual benefit.  The Plymouth colony would be a connection to European trading goods.  It would provide access to European medicine.  And the colonists had guns that would help in any battles with his rivals.  As David Silverman points out, it wasn’t friendliness that motivated Ousamequin, but desperation.

Ousamequin’s decision was not embraced, even by all the Wampanoag.  In the years that followed sachems who disagreed with him would at times try to unseat him.  Not all of them treated the Pilgrims as friends, many treated them as threats.  The Cape Wampanoags in particular had a lasting negative impression of the Pilgrims because they had stolen the native’s corn and desecrated their burial grounds. 

So, the relationship was more political and self-interested than the history we may have learned as kids.  Even the full story of that harvest dinner isn’t what we might have thought.  The Pilgrims didn’t initially invite the Wampanoags to join them.  In the midst of their celebrations the Pilgrims started firing weapons.  Because of their mutual defense agreement, Ousamequin and ninety warriors rushed to Plymouth thinking they were coming to a battle.  Only when all these armed warriors showed up, did the Pilgrims invite them to join the dinner and the natives went and hunted deer to add to the meal.

How did Ousamequin’s decision play out over time?  It did help him during his lifetime to remain paramount sachem and to hold off rivals.  It increased his wealth and power.  But with the longer term perspective we can only conclude it was a mistake.  Even Ousamequin’s sons Wamsutta and Pumetacom regretted their father’s decision.  As David Silverman writes, “Ingratitude was an especially repugnant quality in the tightly knit, kin-based Indian world in which people were expected to give without restraint and show appreciation to those who did.”  And over time the settlers not only failed to show gratitude to Ousamequin for saving them and protecting them, the settlers became demanding and aggressive and violent.  And so Ousamequin’s son Pumetacom, known to American history as Philip, went to war against the one-time allies in 1675 in what we know as King Philip’s War, which resulted in the destruction and enslavement of many Wampanoag’s.

But the Wampanoags were never eliminated.  The people remained, resilient and strong, particularly on the Cape and on Martha’s Vineyard and there has been a revival of their cultural life in recent decades and a growing focus on telling their story.

And so we ask the critical questions and recognize that the history is more complicated than many of us learned.  Which leaves us asking: Once we’ve interrogated the myth with these critical perspectives, what value can this 400th anniversary hold for us?  Next Sunday we will continue this exploration. 

Today, I want to give the final word to Wampanoag elder Ramona Peters, “Gratitude is the most powerful Thanksgiving story, from my perspective as a Wampanoag.  When young children grasp gratitude in a real way, beyond ritual, our country will be greater.”


Remnant

Remnant

Zechariah 8:1-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

25 July 2021

            Last week when Stephen and I were selecting hymns for this Sunday, I mentioned that a good fit for this text from Zechariah would be the hymn “Marching to Zion.”  But then I couldn’t find it in either of our hymnals.  Of course it was under a different name in the New Century Hymnal—our opening hymn today, “Come, We Who Love God’s Name.” 

            Now, if you look, there are actually two settings of this hymn in our hymnal.  The one we sang, number 379 set to the tune St. Thomas and also number 382 set to the tune Marching to Zion.  I grew up with the second setting.  Stephen the first setting.  That we sang Stephen’s preferred setting may say something about our professional relationship.

            While we were selecting the hymns I sang the other version for him—“Don’t know it at all,” he said.  “Must be a regional thing.” 

            I happened to notice that the setting I’m used to is in the Disciples of Christ Chalice Hymnal which describes it as “lively” and “rhythmic” and “clearly for joyous Christians.”  So, I wish Stephen were here today so I could tell him that it’s not a regional thing.  One setting is for joyous Christians and the other setting is for the other type.

            Joy is what the prophet Zechariah wants to evoke.  His oracle celebrates with wonderful images the return of the people to life and land after the traumas of the exile.  There are images of fertility and agricultural plenty, of peace and justice, of prosperity and social strength.  I particularly enjoy the elderly people sitting in the streets watching the children play.  He imagines a time when no one will experience fear.

            Last year, only a few weeks into the pandemic, the great UCC bible scholar Walter Brueggemann published a book entitled Virus as a Summons to Faith in which he tried to draw upon the insights of the Old Testament to guide us in our moment of crisis.  In the foreword he wrote that “Humankind faces a pressing and daunting learning challenge.  We are called to learn how to peaceably relinquish the old world and how to imaginatively give birth to a new world in which all life can flourish.”

            He wrote about how catastrophes, particularly plagues, had impacted the writers of the Old Testament.  From the prophet Jeremiah he drew lessons on how to wait “until the dancing begins again.”  And from Isaiah about how to prepare for God’s new thing.  Brueggemann advised focusing on prayer and authored prayers to fit the moment.  He held out hope that despite the catastrophe, we might learn lessons about how to live better with one another and with creation.

            Zechariah’s vision of the joyful and peaceful remnant resonates with this hope we’ve had since the beginning of the pandemic, that we will once again return to abundant life together.

            Yet, I can’t quite preach this text as I had planned to: we stand at a strange moment in this pandemic.  Many are vaccinated and have enjoyed returning to relatively normal life this summer.  As a society, we’ve looked forward to when enough people would be vaccinated and our kids will be, so that we could definitively move beyond the immediate crisis and into the longed-for future. 

            The efficacy of these vaccines and the speed of their development were such marvels.  Some people viewed getting the shot as a ticket to freedom and a return to life.  For others it is the fulfilment of a moral obligation, a way to demonstrate love of neighbor, a patriotic duty, or a civic good.  To me, it has been the excitement and adventure of being a part of one of the greatest achievements in the history of the human species. 

            Yet, just on the verge of fulfilling our desires for restoration, the news grows dim again.  Already this week I saw people canceling and postponing events, yet again.  Some people began wearing their masks again.  Parents were discussing what to do about kids and school this autumn.  And now there’s the added frustration—do we have to go backwards when we were so close to victory?

            So, Zechariah’s vision of the future remains that—a vision of the future.  We aren’t quite yet at the joyful restoration of the remnant, when we no longer need to fear.

            This week, while remote working from Lake Okoboji, I read the book Radical Sacrifice by the English literary critic Terry Eagleton.  The book is about the concept of sacrifice and it’s meaning in the contemporary world, but along the way, he explores a handful of other, related topics.  For instance, in a discussion of love, he writes, “Mutual love has something of the contagiousness of mutual laughter, as the other’s delighted response serves only to enhance one’s own.”

            I thought about my excitement last January when I got my first shot.  It was like a year’s worth of anxiety and fear physically lifted off of my shoulders.  I did a lot of laughing.  And dancing.  And I went for a walk along the Field Club Trail listening to music by the Scissor Sisters and I couldn’t stop smiling.  Joy and love and excitement are contagious.

            From this discussion of love, Terry Eagleton moves on to the topic of giving and generosity.  He writes, “It is of the nature of God to be prodigal, ecstatic, overbrimming, one for whom excess is no more than the norm.”  He writes about how God’s squandering of God’s self creates a different and deeper economy. 

            Zechariah’s vision is about that.  Abundance, peace, joy, justice, faithfulness, prosperity, and playfulness.  God’s dream for God’s people is one of wild generosity, where we all get to join together in something new and wonderful.

            Eagleton goes on to describe how when we give each other a gift, we make meaning in the process.  We take some object and invest it with purpose and intention and meaning when we give it to someone else.

            That made me think of one of the gifts in my office.  It was given to me by some church members in Oklahoma City when I was leaving that congregation to come here eleven years ago.  This couple traveled around Oklahoma City and collected dirt in various shades of red and layered them in a jar so that I could take a little bit of Oklahoma with me.  In that way, they invested dirt with meaning.  And I can look at this jar with fondness and appreciation.  Love and joy are contagious.

            Zechariah encourages us to be strong, not to fear, to be faithful, for God is still at work, drawing us through this period of crisis, with a joyful and peaceful vision of what is yet to come.

            At the close of today’s worship we will sing the hymn “O Day of God, Draw Near.”  The biblical Day of the Lord brings judgement, but also peace and light.  We will sing, “Bring to our troubled minds, uncertain and afraid, the quiet of a steadfast faith, calm of a call obeyed.”

            And in the hymn we will sing in a minute, “O Holy City, Seen of John,” pay attention particularly to that third verse, “Give us, O God, the strength to build the city that has stayed, too long a dream, whose laws are love, whose ways are your own ways.”

            May we travel through our time of plague and crisis with vision, courage, and most importantly, joy.  Let us not become discouraged, so close to our goals.  Let us be faithful to the exciting and adventurous call of God to create a new and better world.


Seeing

Seeing

Zechariah 1:1-17

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

18 July 2021

            This summer our worship theme has been “Restore.”  After all the events of the last year and a half, we—as individuals, families, a congregation, and the wider society—are in a period of restoration and transformation.  And to aid us in our spiritual reflection upon this experience, we’ve turned to the stories of the ancient Judeans as they returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt their society and culture. 

            Today we hear from the prophet Zechariah, who along with the prophet Haggai, encouraged the people in the building of the Temple.  Hear, now, the word of the Lord:

Zechariah 1:1-17

In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah son of Iddo, saying: The Lord was very angry with your ancestors.  Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord of hosts: Return to me . . . and I will return to you . . .  Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the former prophets proclaimed, “Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.”  But they did not hear or heed me.  Your ancestors, where are they?  And the prophets, do they live forever?  But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your ancestors?  

So they repented and said, “The Lord of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as God planned to do.”

On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah: In the night I saw a man riding on a red horse!  He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen; and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses.  Then I said, “What are these, my lord?”  The angel who talked with me said to me, “I will show you what they are.”  So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, “They are those whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.”  Then they spoke to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have patrolled the earth, and lo, the whole earth remains at peace.”  Then the angel of the Lord said, “O Lord of hosts, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which you have been angry these seventy years?”  Then the Lord replied with gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.  . . .  Proclaim this message: Thus says the Lord of hosts; I am very jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion.  And I am extremely angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was only a little angry, they made the disaster worse.  Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with compassion; my house shall be built in it, says the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem.  Proclaim further: Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity; the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God within us,

For the Word of God among us,

Thanks be to God.

            Back in 2012, the youth group was on a mission trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Pat Lange, Emma Ferber, John Hodgson, and myself were the adult sponsors.  One day that week, our group went for lunch at Bette’s Kitchen, near Manderson, where we sat under the arbor and enjoyed our meal while looking out at the beautiful hills. 

            Bette, the owner of the restaurant, is a descendant of the Lakota holy man Black Elk.  I asked our guide if this was in fact Black Elk’s land, as I knew he had lived near Manderson.  The guide said that it was, and that Black Elk’s cabin still stood downhill from where we were sitting, in a grove of trees.  He pointed out the trail and invited me and others to walk down there.  A small handful of us did.

            When I moved here to Omaha eleven years ago, Bud Cassiday recommended that I read Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt.  When I did, I was immediately struck by its power, beauty, and wisdom.  I’ve been something of a Black Elk fan ever since.  So I jumped at the chance to see the holy man’s cabin.

            The cabin was old and not maintained.  Inside, the walls were covered with graffiti.  I wish it were a preserved historical site like the homes of so many prominent persons.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed visiting the cabin, taking in the view, and imagining the wise old man sharing his vision in this very spot.

            Black Elk’s Great Vision began with two men coming from the clouds carrying long spears from which lightning flashed.  He is summoned on a journey to meet the Grandfathers who are the Powers of the World.  They tell him that he will receive power from the thunder beings and that they shall take him to the center of the world where he will see, and the sun will shine, and he will understand. 

On his journey, Black Elk defeats drought, who is a blue giant.  This victory brings rain upon the earth.  Black Elk plunges his red lightning stick into the ground and it becomes a tree of life in the center of the nation's hoop, bringing peace and abundance to the people.  The people chant and shout with joy.

Near the end of his great vision, he has this moment of epiphany:

And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.  And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.  And I saw that it was holy.

This is a great, holy, eschatological vision that we have not yet achieved—many hoops making one circle, humanity living in solidarity with creation, everyone being sheltered and provided for.

In their commentary on the book of the Hebrew prophet Zechariah, Carol and Eric Meyers write,

The prophet ‘sees’ in the objects or persons around him meanings that transcend the normal qualities of those figures.  The prophet’s perception of reality is extraordinary.  The conventional properties of realia are transformed.

            Because the prophet sees things that others don’t, the prophet’s role is “to clarify in visions and oracles the world about him and to articulate a hopeful vision of the future.”

            Through new perception and insight, the prophet makes sense of the world and inspires future possibilities.  That’s what people need after a trauma, during a time of restoration.  This new perception is what Black Elk offers to the Lakota, what Zechariah offered to the Hebrew exiles, and what we in our own way require now in our own season of restoration.

            Zechariah’s visions may, when we initially read them, sound strange to us.  But that strangeness can evoke our sense of wonder, leading us to search for deeper understanding.  What do all these images mean?  Well, we honestly lack the ability to see and understand without a little expert guidance, so I’m thankful for the scholars who help us to figure things out.  

            Maybe the first aspect of the vision we notice is the nighttime setting.  It’s dark and the foliage would make it even darker.  Carol and Eric Meyers, in their commentary, point out that myrtles are “dense shade-creating shrubbery.”  This is a “setting of darkness,” they write, in which it should be very difficult, if not impossible, to make out the color of horses or to see clearly what’s happening.  Yet, Zechariah does see.  That’s the significant thing—he does see in the dark. 

            Sometimes our life situations are too dark and difficult for us to see.  We wonder where God is?  If we can ever hope or love or rejoice again?  If there is any path forward?  If anything makes sense anymore? 

            In those moments we need the help of others who can see for us and who can help us to gain our own insight and perception.  There, even in the darkness, is something to draw our attention, that can help us move forward, that can restore us.

            So the first important lesson from the vision is gaining the ability to see in the dark.  But what is it that Zechariah sees?  First, a glen of myrtle trees.  In his commentary on this vision, Marvin Sweeney draws out the importance of the myrtle.  He writes that “Myrtles play a role in ancient mythologies” because of “their evergreen character.”  People believed that “their long roots reach to the depths of the subterranean waters.” 

            So, myrtles go deep, into the very depths of creation, where creation itself first overcame chaos. 

            After a time of trauma, when we are healing, we too must go deep into ourselves.  The healing begins by restoring our sense of self, by reconnecting with what’s important to us, by tapping into that higher power that helps us to transcend our current situation.

            There’s more to the myrtles.  They were also used in the Jewish festival of Tabernacles as part of the ritual.  Now, Tabernacles was the festival during which Solomon first dedicated the Temple and during which the restorers of Zechariah’s time will also rededicated their Temple.  During these religious celebrations, branches of the myrtle tree are used “to symbolize the rebirth of creation.” 

            So, according to Marvin Sweeney, the myrtles in Zechariah’s vision suggest going to the “center of creation and the cosmos” in order to experience “rebirth and new creation.”

            And then there are the horses Zechariah sees in his vision, inside the myrtle glen.  Horses who patrol the earth.  Carol and Eric Meyers write that “the horses with their riders go everywhere, see everything that needs to be seen.”  Horses, in the ancient world also conveyed the idea of speed.  That there are three horses represents totality.  So, the idea contained in this image is that God goes everywhere, is watching everything, sees all.  God has plans for the entire world.  The work that the Judeans are doing rebuilding the Temple is only a part of something much bigger than they realize.

            And what is God’s plan for the world? 

            Well, something that may unsettle us in the Book of Zechariah are the references to God’s anger.  When the Judeans were exiled in Babylon, they came to understand their history in this way—they had been disobedient and sinned, breaking the covenant, and that God had brought calamity upon them.  Now, we don’t usually share their interpretation of trauma and suffering, but we do understand how this is a narrative that a traumatized people might use in order to cope with their circumstances. 

            Let’s sit with their explanation for a moment to better understand it.  What did they think God was angry about?  What had their ancestors failed to do?  What was the disobedience that brought about the calamity?

            Well, for Zechariah, as it was for Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and so many of his predecessor prophets, God’s anger was directed at injustice.  In chapter seven of Zechariah, we read:

Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.

            Breaking these rules is what angered God.  And what did God do?  First God sent prophets to appeal to the people and call them to change.  But when the people still didn’t listen, God acted to end the injustice.

            So, if we sit a while with the ancient Judean view of God’s anger, we might find that it does resonate with us.  We too want God to act against injustice.  We too want a world where there is no oppression, where truth and kindness and mercy are the order of the day.  Right?

            But, Zechariah doesn’t stop there.  In his nighttime vision there’s another vital piece.  God’s no longer angry; God is compassionate. 

So, even if these exiles used God’s anger to explain what had happened to them, they are by this time beginning to move beyond that explanation to a different understanding.  In their new understanding God is compassionate and God is comforting the people.

            The great bible scholar Phyllis Trible in her classic work God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, helped us all to understand that the Hebrew word for compassion originates in how a mother nurtures her baby.  So, when Zechariah declares that a compassionate God is comforting the people, you should picture God as divine mother, soothing her crying child. 

            So, now that we’ve followed some expert help, we can see and understand better.   Zechariah’s vision, when we initially read it, seemed strange to us.  But when we open our eyes, when we develop the ability to see, what is revealed is a wonderful vision of hope, healing, and future possibilities. 

            The vision began in darkness and rises up into comfort.  Here’s a lesson for us: When we are troubled, hurt, and traumatized, we can’t see the path forward, the world does not make sense, we are on the verge of losing our hope—

            But God is working in the darkness and the depths, seeing all, and transforming all, in order to bring about justice, compassion, and comfort.

            The theologian Serene Jones, in her writing on trauma, states that the ability to wonder is “the complete opposite of the truncated, shut-down systems of perception that traumatic violence breeds in its victims.” 

            Zechariah and Black Elk both teach us to wonder at the strange things they see.  Wondering breaks us open to new possibilities, which is part of healing and restoration.  Serene Jones writes, “Wondering is the simple capacity to behold the world around (and within you), to be awed by its mystery, to be made curious by its difference, and to marvel at its compelling form.”

            So, even when it’s dark, let’s look at what is happening around us, and be open to what it might teach.


Called to Freedom

Called to Freedom

Galatians 5:1, 13-15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones Royal Lane Baptist Church

4 July 2021

Hello friends.  It has been sixteen years since I preached from this pulpit and eleven since I consecrated Barrett and Jackie’s wedding here.  So it is good to be home today with you.

I bring you greetings from the First Central Congregational United Church of Christ in Omaha, Nebraska, where I have pastored these last eleven years.  And from your fellow Christians in the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ.

This being Independence Day, I have selected for my text one of Saint Paul’s great proclamations of freedom, found in the letter to the Christians in Galatia.  Hear now the word of the Lord:

Galatians 5:1, 13-15

For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God within us,

For the Word of God among us,

Thanks be to God.

               So, the congregation I pastor in Omaha, First Central Congregational, is the oldest Protestant congregation in Omaha and one of the oldest in the State of Nebraska.  We were founded in 1856 by a small band of pioneers who imagined that someday Omaha would be a major city on key trade routes and that it needed the presence of good, faithful people.  Those early founders, besides being boosters for the new territory, were also abolitionists, who came to ensure that when the territory voted on whether it would be slave or free, that they would vote for it to be a place of freedom.  This pioneering, pilgrim, prophetic spirit has never left this old and venerable church.

            And that congregation, because of its rich history, has an extensive archive.  Occasionally I have a reason to look at the old ledge size membership books, which are kept in special boxes and you have to wear special white gloves when handling them.  As a history geek, I’ve relished exploring those archives and learning more about my congregation, its ministers, and prominent lay people.

            A few years ago I found the sermon that one of my predecessors, the Rev. Dr. Harold Janes preached at First Central on Reformation Sunday, October 31, 1948 entitled, “Why We Are Protestants.”  I’ve come to cherish that sermon and rely upon it to express some of the deep values of the congregation I serve, values I know Royal Lane shares as well. 

According to Dr. Janes there are four key Protestant values—salvation is by individual faith and not mediated through the church, the significance of religious liberty, the priesthood of all believers, and the holiness of ordinary life.  Of course, these four values hang closely together, but today, being Independence Day, I want to talk about religious liberty.

Religious liberty has become a controversial topic in our society.  In recent years, various segments of conservative Christianity have begun to defend their discriminatory actions by claiming their religious freedom.  Because of this, many younger people seem to view religious liberty as a problem, instead of a cherished value.  All of this alarms me. 

So, I think it is important for us to explore this topic.  What is religious freedom and how should we as people of faith understand this current debate?  

To begin answering that question, let me first return to that 1948 sermon by Dr. Harold Janes.  This is his description of religious liberty as understood by our Protestant tradition:

[The Protestant] is certain that no one religious group or order has a complete insight into all of God’s truth.  Each group sees a part of the truth.  “We know in part,” as Paul said.  Only as we share our truth with each other is it possible for us to have a growing knowledge of God’s purpose for our lives.  Only as we have freedom to search for that truth, without ecclesiastical or political restrictions, will the Lord be able to reveal that truth unto us, and so the true Protestant declares himself in favor of complete religious liberty and echoes the words of Paul, “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”

This is a rich passage, and in order to better understand all these ideas, I want to return to the Epistle lesson for today, from Galatians, for it is also the passage that Dr. Janes quoted in his 1948 sermon.  This passage comes as Paul is arguing for the freedom of grace as opposed to what he calls the slavery of the law.  Followers of Jesus, according to Paul, do not need to be bound by obedience to the law because they live according to grace and love.  We are free, not having to earn our salvation by work and effort.  But our freedom is not license to do whatever we personally want.  Our freedom is shaped by love, the kind of self-sacrificial love revealed in Jesus.  The kind of love that respects and values our sisters and brothers.

The great Scottish Bible scholar William Barclay, commenting on this passage, wrote:

Now Christianity is [a] true democracy, because in a Christian state everyone would think as much of his neighbor as he does of himself.  The Christian is the [person] who through the indwelling Spirit of Christ is so purged of self that he [or she] loves . . . neighbor as . . . self.

Barclay then picks up on Paul’s final statement:

In the end Paul adds a grim bit of advice.  “Unless,” he says, “you solve the problem of living together you will make life impossible and unlivable at all.”  Selfishness in the end does not exalt a [person]; it destroys him.

As both Dr. Janes and William Barclay point out, our Christian tradition of liberty is rooted in the love of neighbor, the removal of selfishness, and humility about our own views.  Liberty, then, is a form of love towards others that enables us to live together.  This is the essential quality of religious freedom.

When the Pilgrim and Puritans, the spiritual ancestors of my current denomination the United Church of Christ, came to this continent, it was to freely practice their faith.  However, once they arrived, they weren’t so good about passing along that same freedom to others.  This was particularly a problem for the Puritans.  They went to war with the Natives.  Burned some they thought were witches.  Tried to force Anne Hutchison to conform to the doctrines of the majority.  And ran off Roger Williams, who then established Rhode Island, the first colony devoted to complete religious liberty and the founder of the first Baptist congregation in America.  I’ve always been proud of my own ancestors who were on the Mayflower and those who left with Roger Williams because they believed in liberty.

            Roger Williams is the key early American person who promoted the equal liberty of conscience.  For Williams the core problem was the same as that which St. Paul referenced— how are we to live together in love.  Williams was troubled by the settlers’ treatment of the Native Americans and by the human tendency to impose the ideas of a majority upon a minority.  He was troubled by these things because they violated individual consciences, and he held individual consciences to be “infinitely precious” demanding respect from everyone.

Writing about Roger Williams, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum says, “Williams thinks of consciences as delicate, vulnerable, living things, things that need to breathe and not to be

imprisoned.”  Therefore, it is essential for consciences to have that breathing space.  In a just society, everyone will respect each other’s conscience, and give each other space.

From these Baptist ideas would develop the American tradition of religious liberty.   Should you want to read a history of the development of that tradition and all its complexities, I highly recommend Martha Nussbaum’s book Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality.  In it she presents the six principles that have guided America’s complicated history balancing religion with the public life of a pluralistic democracy.

Essential to the American tradition derived from Roger Williams is the idea of a public space in which everyone’s views are allowed to interact.  For this public space to exist, everyone must be granted equality and mutual respect.  It does not mean that you have to agree with everyone else, quite the contrary.  It means that in the public sphere you cannot try to impose your views on someone else.  Instead, you must grant them the respect and the equality that is their fundamental human right.  You must acknowledge their dignity, their conscience.  Or, as St. Paul put it in the letter to the Galatians, quoting an even more ancient text, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And this, my friends, is why I’m so deeply troubled by the recent misuse of the concept “religious freedom.”  Let me state emphatically, and so that I am not misunderstood—in the public sphere no one has a religious right to discriminate against another human being.  Discrimination, not treating another person with the respect that they are entitled to, refusing equal treatment—these things are direct contradictions of religious liberty.  They are hostile to it.

It is brazen dishonesty to wrap biases in the language of religious freedom.  It risks substantial harm to the Republic.  To the entire American democratic experiment.  And even to the Christian gospel.

It is Orwellian to use a term to describe its exact opposite.  This dishonesty must be resisted.

Dr. Harold Janes warned in 1948, “We [should not] be deceived by those who claim they are interested in religious liberty when they are only interested in liberty to impose their interpretations of religion upon others.”

Religious liberty, as historically understood, as rooted in the biblical tradition, as enshrined in our Constitution, demands equality of all persons, demands mutual respect of all persons, demands that in the public sphere everyone be treated the same.

Now, that does not mean that these issues are simple.  They are in fact quite complex, with broad gray zones that can be difficult to interpret.  Legislators and judges must constantly examine those areas where the values of our society create complexity and conflict.  They must examine and decide with reason and compassion, nuance and patience.

The task of ensuring the equal liberty of conscience for all falls not to our public officials, but to us.  It is a social practice.  It begins with overcoming selfishness and our human tendency to exclude those who are different from ourselves.  It manifests in kindness and hospitality.  It is guided by humility and generosity.  For it is rooted in the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And, as such, the equal liberty of conscience then develops into a robust defense of human and civil rights.  Because we value religious liberty and the rights of conscience, even of those who are different from ourselves, we fight to end racism, for Native American rights, the equality of women, the full inclusion of persons with disabilities, and the equality of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and persons who are transgender.

As Paul so clearly stated: You were called to freedom.  Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self- indulgence.  Love one another.


New Realities

New Realities

Malachi 4:1-3

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

27 June 2021

            This summer our worship theme is “Restore.”  We are ourselves living through a season of restoration, as many aspects of our lives return after more than a year of distance and isolation.  We are also doing new things and creating a new normal, both restoring and transforming the lives we once had and the lessons we learned during the worst of the pandemic.

            And that pandemic along with the reckoning for racial justice, violence in our streets, the tumultuous election, the attempted insurrection, and more have left a collective trauma upon us and really every person in the world.  How do we heal and grow from these experiences we’ve been through?

            To explore these concerns, we’ve turned to stories in the Hebrew scriptures about the return from exile of the Jewish people as they worked through their collective trauma and tried to restore their society, their culture, their religious faith.  Our reading has opened up insights on the emotions and resilience and courage.  But also some lessons in what not to do, especially the tendency of traumatized people to hurt others.

            Today, we read a passage from the Book of Malachi, and I want to use it as a launching pad to explore the importance of imagining and enacting new realities as part of the process of healing.  Hear now the word of the Lord:

Malachi 4:1-3

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.

But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.  You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.  And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God within us,

For the Word of God among us,

Thanks be to God.

 

            This oracle of the prophet invites the people, invites us, to use our imaginations.  Let’s imagine a day burning like an oven—no stretch for us who have endured some awful heat the last month.  On this day, God’s justice will arrive.  The wicked and the evildoers will meet their just rewards.  And the righteous will go out leaping because a new day has dawned, bringing healing.

            Don’t you like the image “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings”?  We can picture it.  Even sing about it.  It’s an evocative image of newness, hope, possibility.

            And this imagining of a new, good, joyful reality is what I want to focus on today, as we continue to explore the theme of Restore.

            One of the best books I’ve read on trauma and healing is The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk.  There was a point this last winter when in a few weeks four different people mentioned the book in conversation, so I finally thought, “I’d better read that.”  And it is a thorough, informative look at the way trauma affects our bodies and various approaches to healing.

            In the early chapters of the book, Van Der Kolk explains what research has revealed about trauma and its impacts on our minds and bodies.  That research has shown how dramatically it can affect us, reorienting our minds and deeply impacting our ability to live well.  He writes,

We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.  This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.

            Van Der Kolk then goes on to explain further,

Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions.  It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.

            In detail in the book, he discusses these impacts and how a traumatized person can begin to view everything in their reality through the lens of the negative experience.  And how this can damage their relationships and sense of well-being.

            Brain research has shown how trauma physically impacts the brain.  He writes, “We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive.”

            One of my favorite quotes to use, that has often shaped my preaching and ministry, comes from St. Irenaeus—“The glory of God is a humanity fully alive.”  Another is our Reformed teaching that the chief end of humanity is to “glorify God, and to enjoy God forever.” 

            To live fully, with enjoyment and glory, to be our best selves—these are central ideas in Christian theology and in my own approach to ministry. 

            But the research on trauma studies shows how difficult that can be for people who have experienced real trauma, those who suffer from various forms of PTSD.  Or those who have been traumatized by poverty, injustice, and oppression.  Plus, all of us experience less debilitating forms through grief, depression, illness, loss, or the even the world events of the last year and a half. 

            And so we face a spiritual challenge.  To develop resilience, to hope, to heal, to rise up again.

            This brief passage from the Book of Malachi contains one of the ways we do that—through imagining and then living into new realities.

            Here’s what Bessel Van Der Kolk writes about the importance of imagination:

Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives.  Our imagination enables us to leave our routine everyday existence by fantasizing about travel, food, sex, falling in love, or having the last word—all the things that make life interesting.  Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities—it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true.  It fires our creativity, relieves our boredom, alleviates our pain, enhances our pleasure, and enriches our most intimate relationships.

            Since trauma compromises the ability to imagine, it can have devastating effects on our well-being and our enjoyment of life.  So, part of healing from trauma is learning to imagine again.  For imagining, over time, can actually heal the brain.

            But if our ability to imagine is compromised, how do we start to imagine new realities? 

            Another book I’ve read recently on healing from trauma, by Mark Wolynn, emphasizes the importance of having new experiences and how practicing those new experiences slowly retrains the brain.

            How many of you were a nervous the last few months the first time you were in a crowd, or went to a restaurant, or took your mask off around other people?  Yet once we did those sorts of things, we became a little less nervous and took bigger steps. 

            Wolynn emphasizes the value of new experiences that “engage our sense of curiosity and wonder.”  Also those that bring “comfort or support, or feeling compassion or gratitude.”  He writes,

On a neurophysiological level, each time we practice having the beneficial experience, we’re pulling engagement away from our brain’s trauma response center, and bringing engagement to the other areas of our brain, specifically to our prefrontal cortex, where we can integrate the new experience and neuroplastic change can occur.

            So, we begin to rewrite the brain as we have these new positive experiences that help us to imagine new realities.

            Last week I had a most marvelous experience.  I drove back home to Miami, Oklahoma for their first ever Pride Festival.  Miami, Oklahoma—my birthplace and hometown and the place four generations of my family lived—has a population around 12,000 and is located in the northeastern corner of the state.  I was thoroughly shocked about a month ago when someone sent me a Facebook post about their upcoming Pride Festival in Riverview Park.  At first I donated some money to the effort, but pretty quickly realized that young Scotty Jones would not forgive grown up Scott if he didn’t go to this event.

            Riverview Park, where the Festival was held, was the site of so many events in my childhood and adolescence—family reunions, church picnics, Independence Day fireworks, and more.  But here I was, in this place of such rich memory, watching drag queens perform and trans kids march. 

            Hundreds of people showed up.  There were twenty or more vendors.  A large area for crafts.  Bouncey houses for kids.  Food trucks.  And a performance stage that ran all afternoon.  I sat on my lawn chair in the shade with one of my high school teachers and everyone who stopped by said, “Did you ever imagine this would happen?”  And the answer was, of course, “No.”  But here it was.

            Someone did imagine it.  And they then made it real.  And here, in an unlikely place, a new reality came into being.

            And I’ve watched this week on the Facebook group organized around the event as parents have posted pictures of bringing their queer kids to this, their first ever Pride, and what a good and affirming and welcoming experience those kids had.  In Riverview Park in Miami, Oklahoma.

Mark Wolynn does give us some particulars about what we need in order to imagine new realities.  He writes,

We will need sentences, rituals, practices, or exercises to help us forge a new inner image.

            Aha!  Worship!  Church!  Prayer!  Spiritual practice!  We already come equipped with tools of hope and healing.  We can sing a hymn like “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,” and that singing, that physical act of our bodies, helps to rewire our brains.  Or we read passages from ancient scripture that invite us to imagine “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” and something happens in our prefrontal cortex that helps us to develop courage and strength. 

            And so this place becomes a sanctuary, where we are safe and comforted.  In this space, we hear and say and sing good words.  We see beautiful images.  We encounter encouraging, smiling faces.  And we begin to imagine, and our brains begin to change, and our bodies begin to relax, and new realities begin to emerge, and healing is possible.

            I return to Bessel Van Der Kolk, who writes that for people to heal, they need to have experiences “rooted in safety, mastery, delight, and connection.” 

            Then, he adds, “to be welcomed into a world where people delight in them, protect them, meet their needs, and make you feel at home.”

            I experienced that last week in Miami, Oklahoma—when home felt even more welcoming. 

            And I experience that here every week—a place of comfort, support, and delight.  Where God brings healing as we make this home a new reality.


Danger!

Danger

Ezra 7:25-28

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

20 June 2021

            Last week we read from the book of the prophet Haggai as he encouraged the people to finish rebuilding the Temple after they had returned to Judea from exile in Babylon.  This week we get the story of the priest and scribe Ezra.  Some decades after the Temple was rededicated, Ezra was commissioned by a new Persian king to lead yet another band of exiles back to Judea in order to purify religious practice.  Our text today begins with part of the proclamation of the Persian king Artaxerxes and concludes with Ezra’s own recorded thoughts on this commission.  Hear now the word of the Lord:

Ezra 7:25-28

“And you, Ezra, according to the God-given wisdom you possess, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River who know the laws of your God; and you shall teach those who do not know them.  All who will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on them, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of their goods or for imprisonment.”

Blessed be the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king to glorify the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, and who extended to me steadfast love before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty officers.  I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God within us,

For the Word of God among us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

            When the Babylonians conquered Judah, they took the elite members of society as hostages back to Babylon.  They left a remnant of Jews in the land, mostly poor peasants.  Some of those people eventually left Judea and traveled to Egypt and formed a new Jewish community there in the town of Elephantine, where they even constructed a Temple.  And so for a couple of generations there were at least three different Jewish communities—the old elite living in Babylon, the peasants left in Judea, and the group of refugees who’d traveled to Egypt.  And each developed independently their own understanding of the faith and culture. 

            What comes down to us in the Old Testament is primarily the faith and culture developed by the exiles in Babylon.  We know about the Jewish community in Egypt because of modern archaeological discoveries.  The Egyptian Jews seem to have developed a more pluralistic, cosmopolitan culture and faith.  While the Babylonian Jews formed a more tight-knit community centered on the written word.  It is the Babylonian Jews who finally wrote down and edited and treasured the texts that later formed the canon of Hebrew Scriptures and gave birth to Judaism as it’s been known through the millennia.

            When the exiles in Babylon returned to Judea, they encountered people who had lived in the land throughout that time but they didn’t recognize them as Jews.  These poor peasants continued to practice the faith and culture that had been handed down to them, but they had missed out on the developments of the faith that had occurred among the exiles.  Plus, they had learned to live with the other people around them, including marrying and having children.  The returning exiles viewed the remnant in the land as practicing an impure, unfaithful version of the faith. 

            But for the first generation or so that didn’t matter too much.  The focus of the first returnees was on restoring some sort of society and rebuilding Jerusalem. 

            So, after the Temple had been rebuilt, Ezra, who was a priest and scribe living in Babylon determined that he should organize a group to return to Judea and institute proper worship.  He received the backing of King Artaxerxes for his effort.  He organized a group of priests and Levites and had them prepare themselves for a spiritual mission.  They viewed themselves as a new Exodus.

            And when they got to Jerusalem, they were shocked by what they encountered.  The faith and culture were not pure.  It was not focused sufficiently on the Hebrew Torah that had been written down while in exile.  Even the earlier returnees had grown laxer in their practice and had begun to intermingle with the non-exiles and foreigners. 

            Ezra, using the authority he had received from the Persian emperor, set out to rectify the situation.  To educate people about the true faith.  To impose proper rituals upon the Temple worship.  And to rid society of its foreign elements.

            And right about here, if not before, you should be sensing the danger of what’s to come.  For Ezra is one of the most complicated figures in our religious heritage.  On the one hand, Ezra is largely responsible for the Hebrew text we are able to read today.  He and his scribes valued the written word.  They accumulated, preserved, and edited the texts that had been written down before them.   And they wrote much of it themselves.  If we are “people of the Book” it is because we are spiritual descendants of Ezra.

            And of course this accomplishment, centering the Hebrew faith upon written text, moral commands, and religious practices, gave birth to Judaism as a faith that has survived the millennia, despite much war, violence, persecution, and being spread around the globe.  Of all the ancient cultures of the near east, it is the one people group whose literature and faith survives into the modern day.  And Ezra is a key figure in that story of survival.

            But, Ezra is also something of a fundamentalist.  Unlike the prophet Haggai who we read last week, Ezra’s was not a universal vision.  Both visions are present in the Hebrew Scriptures.  One tradition inclusive of diversity and another that is not, but is exclusive, focused on purity.  Ezra falls within that second group.  He wanted to purify the faith and the people and to exclude all the elements which posed a danger to the long-term survival of the Jewish people.

            And so what Ezra did is he required that all the returned exiles, including those who had already been living in Judea before he returned, to divorce their non-exile wives and set aside their children from those marriages.  So any wives who were foreigners or any wives from the old remnant of people who had lived in the land.  The returning exiles were only able to remain legally married to other returned exiles. 

            On one day he gathered all the people together and all the men were compelled to take this action.  The wives and the children were set aside and disinherited.  And no surviving texts record for us what happened to them.

            This is one of the truly terrifying stories contained within our Bible.  Even if we work to understand it, it horrifies us.  As it should.

            We get that this was a traumatized people, trying to do something new and move on from their trauma.  And research shows how fears of the other can manifest themselves in traumatized people.  I talked two Sundays ago, when we started this summer worship series, that these ancient forebears didn’t always succeed at creating something better.  Sometimes they failed and created more trauma.  And this is the clearest example of the ways in which a traumatized people can traumatize others.  So it’s important that we rumble with these stories in order to learn.  And in this instance what we learn is what not to do.  Not to focus on purity in a way that excludes and leads to division and violence.

            Back in the winter Katie introduced us, via Zoom, to one of her professors Rachel Mikva who talked to us about her book Dangerous Religious Ideas.   This is an excellent book, that I highly recommend.  We still have some copies in the church office too, if you’d like to purchase one.

            In the book Mikva explores how key religious ideas can be good, vital, and helpful to our spirituality, yet also have dark sides that can be exploited in ways that lead to harm.  She explores these ideas in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Ultimately she is focused on how all of us can and should develop a self-critical faith, so that we can handle these dangerous ideas.

            The two dangerous ideas she spends most of the book on are scripture and chosenness.  Ezra is a key figure in both of these ideas.

            Why is scripture a dangerous idea?  She writes, “As long as there is scripture, people will wield the word as a weapon against each other in order to justify their own biases.  As long as there is scripture, we have to reckon with the painful silences of those voices left out of the canon.  As long as there is scripture, some people will turn their back on other God-given ways of knowing.”

            Having myself grown up in a tradition that was overtaken by fundamentalists who insisted on the inerrant and infallible word of God and that their interpretations were the authoritative and correct ones to the exclusion of all others, I know how dangerous scripture can be.  The Bible can become a weapon.  And as a gay may I’ve been clobbered by fundamentalists abusing scripture.

            Scripture doesn’t have to be this way, of course.  We can have a critical faith, that weeds out what is terrifying and unethical, and treasures what is good and just and loving.  Scripture inspires us to be our best, helps us to make sense of the world, comforts our sorrows, shapes a community with a mission to others. 

            So, I’m grateful for those teachers and professors and scholars who early in my life helped me to understand the dangers of mishandling scripture and how to embrace a more open and vital faith.

            It is easier for us to see how the religious idea of chosenness can be dangerous.  As Mikva writes, even the Hebrew prophets saw and warned about “complacency, chauvinism, and parochialism” that can result.  And we’ve seen throughout history how campaigns for purity lead quickly from exclusion to violence. 

            So, is there any good side to chosenness?  Over the centuries Judaism came to understand the idea of being “God’s chosen people” not that they had some special identity separate from other nations, but that they were given a responsibility to bring peace and healing to the world. 

            Which is closer to Haggai’s vision, not Ezra’s.

            What should we learn, then, from reading a text like the Book of Ezra?  I think rumbling with our stories can teach us what not to do as much as it can what to do.  Reading this story invites us to empathize with the characters we encounter.  What horror did the divorced wives and children experience?  What were the feelings of the men forced to divorce their wives and cut off their kids?  Can we even get into the mind of Ezra and understand what might lead someone to do such an awful thing? 

            As we try to empathize and understand a story like this, we learn and grow our emotional capacity, and we develop a self-critical faith.  Which we can then apply to our own lives and situations.  And maybe develop ethical principles to guide us in considering the hot button issues of our time, like how to treat transgender children or migrants at the border.

            As we are engaged in our own season of restoration and transformation, let’s beware of the dangers that lie ahead even during this season.  Let’s not be tempted into the paths revealed in this story.  But let’s instead be inspired by the universal, inclusive, compassionate vision we also find in scripture.  So that we might lay a foundation for a better future for all.


Take Courage

Take Courage

Haggai 2:1-5

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

13 June 2021

            In her latest best-selling memoir Untamed, Glennon Doyle writes about “the cost of living a brave, openhearted life.”

            She writes,

            I am a human being, meant to be in perpetual becoming.  If I am living bravely, my entire life will become a million deaths and rebirths.  My goal is not to remain the same but to live in such a way that each day, year, moment, relationship, conversation, and crisis is the material I use to become a truer, more beautiful version of myself.  The goal is to surrender, constantly, who I just was in order to become who this next moment calls me to be.  I will not hold on to a single existing idea, opinion, identity, story, or relationship that keeps me from emerging new.  I cannot hold too tightly to any riverbank.  I must let go of the shore in order to travel deeper and see farther.  Again and again and then again.  Until the final death and rebirth.  Right up until then.

            Glennon Doyle rose to fame first as an evangelical mommy blogger and memoirist who developed a large following of readers, primarily other evangelical moms.  Over time she organized her audience into a massive philanthropy.  And she kept evolving.  Four years ago, I was surprised that she was one of the keynote speakers of our United Church of Christ General Synod.  At the time I’d never heard of her, not falling into the evangelical mommy demographic myself.

            But by then Glennon had radically altered her life.  She had divorced her husband, fallen in love with and married the soccer great Aby Wambaugh, left evangelicalism and joined Naples UCC (which is pastored by my friend Dawson Taylor), and awoken to social justice activism.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed her talk at General Synod and then heard her again at the Iowa Conference meeting in 2018. 

            This latest memoir recounts how she so radically transformed her life and the spiritual and emotional resources she drew upon to live a brave, openhearted, untamed life. 

            She claims that transformation is always on-going and that we must develop the ability to courageously let go of the past in order to move openly into the future.  This work is not easy either spiritually or emotionally.  But wholehearted living is the result of overcoming our fears and living courageously.

            The prophet Haggai proclaims in his oracle that the people are to take courage and not fear.  They are to be strong, but it is an emotional and not a physical strength that is called for.  What they need is spiritual courage to complete the task of rebuilding the Temple.  And the prophet is the one encouraging them with vision, hope, and inspiration.  [A note: my interpretation of this passage relies heavily upon the commentary by Carol and Eric Meyers.]

            Last week we read the proclamation of the Persian emperor Cyrus allowing the Jewish people to return to Judea and to rebuild Jerusalem.  But now a number of years have passed and the restoration has not yet been accomplished.  Now under a new Persian emperor, Darius, and a new Jewish governor, Zerubbabel, the work is renewed, largely at the instigation of Haggai and his oracles of encouragement.

            When the people returned to Jerusalem they faced many challenges—rebuilding a society, providing for themselves, acquiring resources, fending off opponents, and more.  The rebuilding of the Temple had started but not been completed.  And so Haggai, much like the old prophets before him, receives a word from God that he then proclaims to the people.  And this is a call to take up the work again, to rebuild the temple, and to see it to completion.

            And it seems that Haggai was successful.  Because of his preaching, the rebuilding began anew and it was completed in a short time and the new Temple was dedicated.  Some scholars believe that the written book of Haggai which we have today was prepared for the dedication ceremony and was read aloud as a reminder to the people of who and what had inspired them to do the work.

            Part of the task of the prophets was to help people comprehend their experiences, including the suffering and trauma they had encountered.  And then to help them to face the challenging tasks of restoration.  In order to do that, Haggai had to ease their uncertainty, help to clarify their world, and then provide hope.  From this the people would develop the emotional strength to carry on this work. 

            The passage I read a moment ago from the Book of Haggai most scholars believe came a few months into the work on the Temple, when people began to see what they were building and began to have doubts and to lose their energy and focus.  The purpose of this oracle was to inspire them to keep at the task, to renew their energy.

            And so Haggai raises a question.  It seems that as the people have watched the new Temple arise from the ruins of the old one that they’ve begun to question its glory.  Surely the new Temple does not match the glory of the old Temple built by Solomon.

            Now, at first glance this seems to be about a physical comparison.  That some in the crowd believe that this new building isn’t as grand and beautiful as the old one.  But we would misunderstand this proclamation if we understood the question this way. 

            The fact is, it is very unlikely that anyone physically present at this rebuilding of the Temple would have seen and remembered the old one.  It had been almost 70 years since the old Temple was burned.  And life expectancies in this era, especially of a traumatized, exiled people, were not that long.  Almost two full generations, according to the ancient reckoning, had passed.  So maybe the workers’ grandparents had seen the Temple?

            What’s more, almost none of those grandparents would have seen anything but the exterior.  Only the priests could enter the Temple building and only the High Priest into the Holy of Holies.  Even the old Temple of Solomon was rather plain on the outside.  The ornamentation and the gold, silver, and bronze embellishments were mostly on the inside.  So, any physical comparison is highly unlikely, except that maybe the people have read about the original Temple and what they see rising around them doesn’t fit the description?

            It’s also the case that by the time the Babylonians burned the Temple, much of its treasures were long gone, stolen by various other invading armies over the centuries.  So even before the conquest of Jerusalem, the Temple had long not been as glorious as what the ancient historians recorded at the time of Solomon.

            So, what might the people have in mind if they were grumbling about it not matching a former glory?  Carol and Eric Meyers, in their commentary, point out that the people would remember that the old Temple had been a part of the royal complex of Jerusalem.  It had been imagined by King David and built by his son Solomon.  Their royal descendants maintained the Temple.  And stories of kings are often connected with the Temple, like the restoration of the Temple in the reign of the boy king Josiah.

            What is different this time is that Judea has no king.  No king is building this Temple, the people are.  No king has conquered other territories and is bringing back their riches to adorn the Temple.  There aren’t the great trade alliances of the past, by which goods and artisans arrive in the city to help with construction.  The new Temple, then doesn’t reflect the royal and national glory that the people once had.  They are not independent, they are ruled by a vast empire headquartered far away, and they are but a small and lowly piece of a much larger puzzle. 

            And, so, the challenge for the prophet Haggai is to inspire the people to find glory in a new way.  Not in the old ways of the kingdom.  In fact, Haggai has already engaged in a bold act of people-making.  He has already inspired and organized the people to do something that they once relied upon a monarch to do.  They are building the Temple. 

            Haggai is forming a new national identity, centered not on a monarch or a political structure, but around religious faith and moral demands.  A new Jewish identity focused on God.  And as such, Haggai is vital to the develop of Judaism throughout the millennia, helping to turn it from only the faith of a small ethnic group, into a global faith focused on religious practice and moral living.

            Haggai had a universal vision.  He basically tells the people—“If you build it, they will come.”  He believes that once the Temple is built, God will use it as an instrument to bring the world together in peace and abundance.  The Temple will become the center not of a new, small nation, but of an international community of peace.

            And God will bring this about.  Because God is not only the sovereign of the Jewish people but is the divine ruler of all.  No matter how good, wise, and benevolent the Persian emperors Cyrus and Darius are, God’s rule is even better.  Here is how the Meyerses describe this idea in their commentary on the passage:

The well-being for which the [Jews] yearn will become available to them, but not only to them.  In the future time, when other nations recognize [God’s] universal rule, those nations too will achieve well-being.  The power of [God] as universal ruler will not be exploitative.  In contrast to human emperors, [God] will establish universal plenty.

            It is this vision that Haggai says the Temple represents, not a restoration of what had once been, but a transformation into something new, bold, and wonderful.  So, take courage,  people, for God is doing something new here and you get to be a part.

            To help us take courage against our fears, Glennon Doyle shares one of her mantras, that she finds particularly helpful in parenting her children.  She tells them, “This is a hard thing to do.  We can do hard things.” 

            Haggai is saying something similar to his people.  And I think it’s a powerful message for us.  In the midst of fear and uncertainty, when we too face the crises of life, we can keep our vision focused on restoration and transformation and take the courageous action necessary to rebuild and renew. 

            Because God is with us.  God’s Spirit fills us with divine power and divine glory.  This presence is the source of our courage.

            So, we too can do hard things.