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Revive the Spirit

Revive the Spirit

Isaiah 57:11-21

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

22 January 2023

               In her book An American Sunrise, recent United States Poet Laureate, and member of the Muscogee-Creek Nation, Joy Harjo, includes this song:

Do not get tired.

Don’t get discouraged.  Be determined.

Come.  Together let’s go toward the highest place.

               Harjo also includes this historical note about the song:

It is said that two beloved women sang this song as their band came over on the Trail of Tears.  One woman walked near the front of the people, and the other walked near the back with the small children.  When anyone faltered, they would sing this song to hold them up.

Do not get tired.

Don’t get discouraged.  Be determined.

Come.  Together let’s go toward the highest place.

               As I was studying the passage from Isaiah this week, one of the themes that stood out is that we as people of faith and hope affirm life, even, and especially, in times of danger. 

               This oracle in Isaiah was spoken to a group of people who had come back to their national homeland, a place many of them knew only from the stories of their parents and grandparents.  A place they had been exiled from for decades, living instead in the foreign imperial cities of their captors.  But now God has fulfilled God’s great promises.  God created a way through the desert, and the people have returned home again.

               Only to discover that restoring and rebuilding their way of life is more difficult work than they realized.  For one thing, they can’t all agree on what their new society should look like.  They disagree about what they are building.  And they are encountering opposition and challenges.

               So, in the middle of these difficult circumstances, the prophet speaks “Build up, build up, prepare the way.”  And what will enable and empower the people to accomplish the work is the presence of God.  God, who is reviving their spirits and challenging the wicked.

               The contemporary theologian Elizabeth Johnson reminds us that the universe is “an open-ended adventure” and that God’s Spirit is what draws us into the adventurous life.  She writes, “The indwelling Spirit of God moves over the void, breathes into the chaos, quickens, warms, sets free, blesses, and continuously creates the world, empowering its evolutionary advance.”

               God is the one present with us in all of our difficulties, helping us to face them with courage and hope.  The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God is the high and lofty one, but this high and lofty one, who inhabits eternity, is also with the lowly.  The high and holy one dwells with the lowly ones.  This is one of the key insights of our biblical faith, that God, the Creator of the universe, is present with us and in us.  And is in everything and everyone we encounter.

               And, so, Isaiah reminds the people, we draw strength and vision from the God who dwells in solidarity with us.  Because God is with us, we are revived.

               But, there are still the challenges, the difficulties, the obstructions.  Not least among those are the people who refuse to participate in God’s covenant.  Who reject God’s vision of the future.  Isaiah calls them “the wicked” and says that they are “like the tossing sea that cannot keep still,” making chaos for everyone else.  What will be done about them?

               This passage from Isaiah speaks of God’s anger.  Not a topic we generally spend much time on, preferring to speak of God’s love and mercy. 

               Recently I read an excellent book entitled The Angry Christian by Andrew Lester, a professor of pastoral care.  Lester includes a chapter of his book on the anger of God and Jesus, and he insists that we understand God’s anger as an expression of God’s love.  In fact, that even for us humans, we should realize that because we love, we get angry.  Lester writes of Jesus, “His experiences of irritation, frustration, indignation, and anger all arise when his values are threatened, and therefore, his anger is in the service of his love and God’s love.”

               Now, in the context of the Isaiah passage, God was once angry with the people for their covetousness, which Walter Brueggemann describes as “destructive acquisitiveness.” A greed that was not life affirming, but actually life destroying, and such was contrary to God’s vision for human life. 

               And God is, now, angry during the time of restoration because there are those who threaten the peace and well-being that God is working to create for people.  Because God loves the people and wants the best for them, God is upset when those dreams are thwarted by those whose values and actions don’t affirm life and well-being.

               I’m upset this week . . .

               But, Isaiah tells us, don’t worry too much about those folks, because God will take care of them.  Instead, you people who are affirming the values of life, who are participating in God’s dream of well-being for all creation, you folks will have your spirits revived and you will experience peace.

               Elizabeth Johnson declares that “the Creator Spirit dwells at the heart of the natural world, graciously energizing its evolution from within, compassionately holding all creatures in their finitude and death, and drawing the world forward toward an unimaginable future.”

               God is there, present with us and in us, compassionately holding us in our sufferings and losses, and working with us to move forward, to build a better future.

               “Build up, build up, prepare the way” the prophet declares.  People, peace, to the far and the near.”

               And so when our Spirits are revived, we are capable of building a new community of well-being and peace.  The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes, “Thanks to hope, we reach into the realm of that which does not yet exist and bring that which is future into the present.”  We draw inspiration from our dreams and visions of a better future and work right now to make the present more like that.

               I have to tell you that I feel very excited about our ministry here at First Central.  In my almost thirteen years, there have been many moments of excitement, full of vision and opportunity, and right now is at the top of that list.  Why?

               We’ve come through great challenges and difficulties, and we did so with integrity and care.  But those difficulties were also opportunities for growth and innovation and change.  And now there’s a vitality in the congregation that is palpable.  Worship attendance, in person and online, is very strong.  We’ve got so many children in Sunday school.  We draw and keep new visitors. 

               I’m excited by what our To Be More capital campaign envisions for our future.  Remodeling various spaces in our building so that we can improve our programs for kids and families, invite more people into the building to use it, and even hopefully generate income from rentals to help fund our programs. 

               I’m excited by the skills and vision of our young adults.  And feel that in the decades ahead, we will continue to be served by smart, capable, effective leaders. 

               I’m excited by all the children and their families and am confident that now is the time for us to focus our attention and resources on developing and strengthening the ministries and programs that help to nurture them.

               I’m excited by how the challenges of doing hybrid (on-line and in person) worship well has opened up new opportunities for creativity, for God is clearly doing a new thing in the life of Christianity.

               And while there are certainly new post-Covid challenges to how people want to volunteer and commit their time, I believe this too creates a chance for us to refocus on how we help people create and cultivate their spiritual path.

               I’m going to have more to say about all of these things in my State of the Church address next Sunday during the Annual Meeting and in the months to come.

               But the key takeaway is that God has been present with us, reviving our spirits, healing our hurts, and empowering us to move forward in courage and hope to create the community we’ve envisioned.

               God’s light has come and is shining upon us.  Let’s join God in the work of building the future we’ve dreamed of.

               And, so, I want to return to that Creek song I opened with, and let it be a rallying cry:

Do not get tired.

Don’t get discouraged.  Be determined.

Come.  Together let’s go toward the highest place.

Armageddon or Awesome

Christmas Eve Sermon, 2022

               What a year filled with wonders it has been!

               Just a couple of weeks ago humanity made a breakthrough that the Washington Post described as “the biggest news of the decade.”  And, yes, this is only the second year of the decade.

               That news was that we had achieved a fusion ignition and with that the first huge steps to maybe solving humanity’s clean energy problems.  Megan McArdle waxed poetic:

As you might already have heard, you are literally made of stardust. Most of the atoms in your body were forged in the core of some ancient sun, as lighter elements fused into heavier ones; you are the vicarious survivor of star fire and supernovas. Now your species is making stars — tiny ones to be sure, and very ephemeral, but nonetheless we are inching toward mastering the very process that made our world. This shift from product to producer would be wondrous even if it didn’t hold out hope for an energy revolution as profound as the shift from horsepower to fossil fuels.

               And that was just the biggest breakthrough of the year.  We also launched the James Webb Space Telescope and have already been overwhelmed with the beauty and detail of the images of our universe that it is sending back.

               There have been radical advances in Artificial Intelligence, battery storage capacity, and vaccines for all sorts of deadly diseases. 

               We’ve even proved that humanity can launch a spacecraft to deflect the orbit of an asteroid.

               When I read the science news, I am constantly excited at the abilities of humanity.  We are truly an amazing species.

               But, we also are a rather stupid species.  In 2022 Russia also launched a completely senseless and brutal war against Ukraine.  We’ve watched in horror as natural disasters around the globe have devastated communities and landscapes.  And we know that these horrors have been made worse by the changing climate that we had at least thirty years warning of and did very little to address. 

               It’s also been a year in which we can read the news and come away sad, frightened, angry.

               This is the paradox that it is to be a human being.

               The Guardian, early this fall, framed humanity’s future as a “race between Armageddon and awesome.”  Humanity is currently faced with a number of choices such that if we make the right ones, we create an awesome and amazing future for our descendants—a future that achieves many of humanity’s millennia-old dreams.  Or, if we make the wrong choices, then we might just live through a new Dark Age.  And it seems that there’s little chance for an outcome somewhere in between those options.  Armageddon or awesome.

               And so we end this year like we do every year, reading this ancient story about how God became a human being, born as a child to a teenage mother in a backwater town with animals and shepherds to celebrate this humble birth.

               The story of Jesus has always presented us a choice between Armageddon and awesome.  There is the way of the world, with its violence and poverty and injustice, or there is the way of Jesus, a life centered on love, grace, and service. 

               Jesus came to show us how humans can live.  What we are capable of.  That the divine image within us can lift us up to unimaginable glory. 

               This Christmas, let’s choose awesome. 

Find the Wonder

Find the Wonder

Isaiah 11:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

4 December 2022

               George Bailey feels that his life has been wasted.  He hasn’t done the things he’d hoped to do.  His dreams have not come true.  He’s made sacrifice after sacrifice and toiled away at a job he’d rather not have, only to now be facing financial ruin.  Has it all been in vain?  He feels he has no future to look forward to.  And so he’s ready to jump from the bridge and end it all.

               When Clarence the Angel prevents him from destroying himself.  Then Clarence gives him a tour of what the world would have been like without George Bailey—a cruel place, robbed of joy and delight for the people he cares about. 

               Which finally leads George to see how wonderful his life has been, and he runs through the town excited at seeing all the old familiar things that long ago he had started taking for granted.

               It seems that one thing George Bailey had lost, before his angelic encounter, was the capacity for wonder.  Cody Sanders, the American Baptist chaplain at Harvard, writes that “Wonder is a characteristic of human flourishing, without which we may be unable to survive in ways we would deem desirable.”  Yeah, that describes George Bailey, forlorn and lost, standing on the bridge in the snowstorm.  But once that capacity for wonder is restored, George doesn’t only survive, he flourishes.

               Early in the autumn as the staff met to consider Advent worship themes, we were pondering the idea of “what will come.”  What does the future hold?  And is the future threatening or not? 

               I had just finished reading a bunch of books about the changing climate and what we need to do to live faithfully and resiliently during this time of human history, and a theme in many of those books was how to retain our hope and joy despite the strong possibility that life will become harder in the decades ahead. 

               As the staff pondered these ideas, the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, and its conceit of an alternative future, entered into our conversation and eventually led to our Advent theme for this year “It’s a Wonder-filled Life.”  We decided to explore how wonder is crucial to our survival and how wonder can remind us that the future doesn’t have to be threatening. 

               Later in the autumn I read Cody Sanders’ essay “Feeling Our Way through an Apocalypse” in the book Doing Theology in Pandemics.  He writes about how the last few years have evoked many emotions in us, particularly fear, anger, and sadness.  These feelings are good and proper and correct given what we’ve experienced.  But his worry is when those feelings become moods and then persistent attitudes on life.  In particular, how sadness can lead to immobility and resignation such that we quit working for a better world.

               So he advises that we need to cultivate other experiences and emotions in order to learn how to feel our way through this season of our lives.  He writes about the importance of grieving in community as a way to address the losses we’ve encountered. He advocates for practices of gratitude that will help us to experience the world as gift, which can help us to dismantle injustices.  And he encourages us to direct our lives to wonder.

               Cody Sanders is concerned about the ways that fear can become the dominating way we interact with un uncertain and dangerous world.  Instead, he invites us to approach the world with wonder.  If we are constantly surprised by all the ordinary things around us, how does that reshape our lives?

               Sanders writes,

Wonder helps us suspend our habitual ways of looking at the world.  Wonder lures us into creative engagement with our surroundings.  Wonder induces receptivity and openness and connection to our environment.  Wonder prompts us to consider life from new perspectives.  Wonder entices us into relational aspects of reality, giving us a vision of our relatedness to the world, to other beings, and to sources of ultimacy, or the Divine.

               Wow!  That sounds like a super power.  More creativity, more connection and belonging, more openness.  Getting to see and experience the world in new ways.  Finding deeper relations with everything around us, including the source of meaning in our lives. 

               And isn’t this exactly what happens to George Bailey when Clarence the Angel intervenes to save his life?

               This week I asked Liz Loveday to help me find some poems about wonder and one she sent along was this by William Martin from The Parents Dao De Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents:


               One of the greatest works on human emotions is Upheavals of Thought by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum.  And in that over 700 page book, wonder plays a key role in our emotional and moral development.

               Nussbaum writes that we humans are born into a world we do not control, a world that can be alarming and frightening to a newborn.  The world can also be a place of delight.  The world, for most babies, is both at the same time.  Those first days and weeks and months and years of a human life are vital in shaping how we encounter the world.  There’s strong evidence that the more we are held as newborns, the more likely we are to view the world as worth living in.  And it falls to our earliest care givers to help us take delight in the world, to experience it with wonder, to cultivate our abilities to see and experience the good and the beautiful and the exciting.  Imaginative play becomes central to developing these early skills, as evidence shows that children who are more playful are more likely to be show love, inclusivity, and generosity. 

According to Nussbaum, wonder becomes the key element in leading to compassion.  This is true developmentally—the better capacity we have developed for wonder as a child the more likely we are to be compassionate throughout life.  But it’s also true for the adult skill of compassion.  We are more likely to approach a person or situation with compassion if they or it evokes some of our wonder.

Wonder truly is a superpower that can save lives!

In her commentary on Isaiah’s vision, pastor Stacey Simpson Duke states, “Isaiah’s declaration stands in direct contrast to the terror and brutality that pervade our world.” 

When the world as we know it has ended and is starting anew, when things are uncertain, alarming, maybe even terrifying, Isaiah’s vision speaks, wonderfully, to God’s dream that the world can and will be a better, more peaceful, more just, more beautiful place. 

Yet, she acknowledges that it can be difficult for us to view this vision as applicable to us now.  Our lives are ravaged by lions.  Snakes coil hidden in our lives ready to strike.  Bears prowl.  Duke asks, “How is Isaiah’s word also a word of security for now, for people living in unstable and frightening times, and not just a word about a secure future?”

               The answer, she writes, is in the vision itself.  “According to Isaiah, the transformation from a culture of fear to a world at peace begins with a stump.  Out of something that appears finished, lifeless, left behind, comes the sign of new life—a green sprig.”  And this, she reminds us, is how hope starts “it emerges as tiny tendril in an unexpected place.” 

               Something we might fail to notice if we have not cultivated our capacity for wonder, right?  Something we might fail to notice if we aren’t looking with the eyes of a child delighted with the world.

               Just as George Bailey didn’t see how good his life was, how full of meaning, how significant its positive effects on other people, until Clarence the Angel evoked his capacity for wonder.

               So, one of the keys to human flourishing, to living a desirable to life, to becoming more compassionate, to feeling our ways through uncertain and alarming times, is to find the wonder.  As the poet said, “find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life.”

               This Advent, as you decorate for the holidays, as you prepare your gifts for loved ones, as you celebrate with friends, as you drive around at night and look at the Christmas lights, as you bake cookies, and sing carols, and snuggle by the fire with a warm mug of apple cider, use this as a time to cultivate your wonder, for the kind of life you desire depends upon it.

An Ending & A Beginning

And Ending & A Beginning

Luke 21:5-19

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

13 November 2022

            Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel is noticeably different from everything else we’ve read this autumn.  It isn’t a parable.  It isn’t really a story about Jesus.  It is Jesus giving answers to questions about end of the world.  Particularly here about the end of the Temple and how that relates to the end of time and the coming reign of God.

            This sort of discourse is known as “apocalyptic.”  The common understanding of the word apocalypse suggests catastrophes at the end of time.  But the literal translation of the Greek word into English is “unveiling.”  Apocalyptic discourse, then, lifts back the veil to expose what’s really going on—how history and the cosmos really function as a contest between good and evil.

            So, with those words of introduction, let’s listen to Jesus:

            Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”  And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’  Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”  Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.  This will give you an opportunity to testify.  So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.  You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.  You will be hated by all because of my name.  But not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.

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.

            A month ago Katie and I were in Sioux City, Iowa for the Joint Annual Meeting of the Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa Conferences of the United Church of Christ, our denomination.  This was our first in person gathering since June 2019, so there was much warmth, joy, and celebration as we actually saw people in the flesh, rather than a Zoom box.  We got to hug and shake hands and share meals and drinks and laughter.  And you could just feel the strengthening of connections, the relaxing of tensions, the sense that we had come through some difficult days together.

            As usual, a table with books for sale was there in the exhibit hall.  I’m a sucker for such a thing, of course.  And I walked away with a small stack of books, including some new children’s books for our children’s library here at church.

            One volume I was deeply interested in, and have already read, is a collection of essays by prominent theologians entitled Doing Theology in Pandemics: Facing Viruses, Violence, and Vitriol

            In her foreword for the book, Pamela Lightsey states, “This book makes clear that a pandemic is a kind of apocalypse—a revealing.” 

            As I reflected on this idea and the ways it is fleshed out in the book’s essays, it became clearer that we’ve lived through an apocalypse in both senses of that word—a major catastrophe that ended the world as we knew it and a moment when the veil is pulled away and hidden truths are revealed.

            Think of what all was revealed.  The failures of governments and health care systems.  The health impacts of systemic racism.  The way different socio-economic classes were impacted.  How refugee meat packers and minimum wage store clerks died so that others could be safe and comfortable at home. 

How fraught and fragile our systems of childcare and education are.  How unprepared each of us was.  How at risk we were for mental illness, and how little prepared society was to support those needs.

How supply chains do and don’t work and what the impacts of those disruptions would be on normal life.  How workers had had enough and quit.  How sectors of our economy are now rapidly adjusting.

How much we can and cannot trust our family, friends, neighbors, or fellow citizens to put the common interest above self-interest.

And without all the normal escapes and distractions to occupy our attention, we were able to watch when George Floyd was murdered and so there was a massive uprising against police brutality and systemic racism, a major reckoning impacting every sector of society, and the ensuing backlash.

And in these years we’ve been compelled to pay more attention to the effects of the changing climate and how we’ve come so close to the brink of catastrophe so stupidly.  How governments seem incapable of effectively dealing with all of the major dangers we face.

And piled on top of all of that a rise in autocracy, a senseless and brutal war in Europe, and threats of more war in the Pacific.

“Permacrisis” was picked as the word of the year by a British dictionary.  I’ve also seen the word “polycrisis” recently. 

So, this reading from Luke, which a few years ago would have seemed to us kind of crazy, doesn’t sound so crazy anymore.

This summer, while on my sabbatical, I read a lot on how we as a community can be faithful and resilient as the climate changes and impacts everything about lives.  It was sobering reading, some writers more hopeful and comforting, and some less so.  The theologian Timothy Gorringe opened his book with the question, Is a dark age coming? And came to the conclusion: “I think we have to say that civilizational collapse is likely.”  His subsequent chapters do lay out what we might do to prevent it and what we should do to survive it, as faithful followers of Jesus.  His main advice is a “rigorous return to the traditions, practices, and virtues that Christians have nourished for so many centuries.”  For the small communities of the church to focus on being the church and doing what we do best because that’s what we can do “to keep human beings human in the dark ages already upon us.” 

He sounds a lot like the final verse from today’s Gospel, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  Vital to our faithfulness will be remaining grace, generous, hopeful, and joyful in these times.  That is the gift from God we give ourselves, our fellow congregants, and the wider world.

The great theologian Rita Nakashima Brock contends that what has happened to all of us is a form of moral injury.  Our moral consciences have become “ungrounded from our pre-catastrophe identities.”  And while she provides some insights in how to care for ourselves and heal from the trauma, she also believes this apocalypse is an opportunity to change things for the better, and we absolutely must take the opportunity.

“How do we feel our way through an apocalypse?” asks Cody Sanders, the American Baptist chaplain at Harvard.  Because we’ve been living through the end of the world as we knew it, Sanders says we have been overwhelmed by fear, anger, and sadness.  All of these are appropriate emotions, but he worries that they might become pervasive moods.  In order to avoid that, we need to care for ourselves and one another.  We need to care for these emotions.  How?

First, he gives us a dose of reality—this “Isn’t the first ending the world has faced, and there are many endings yet to come.”  Which is the value of reading this crazy passage from the Gospel of Luke.  Jesus’s listeners did live through apocalyptic times, when the Temple was destroyed, and then a generation later Jerusalem itself was laid waste.  Christians lived through the fall of Rome and the sacking of Constantinople.  My grandparents and great-grandparents dealt with world wars, the Great Depression, and the Spanish flu. 

In other words, we’ve been through these times before.  And we can look to the past for wisdom and guidance.  And be reminded that the world can be made otherwise, that we can create a better world, that times like these are also vital opportunities, and, thus, periods of hope and growth.

So, we need to cultivate other emotions that care for the fear, anger, and sadness, we are feeling.  We need to grieve our losses, we need to practice gratitude for our blessings, we need to cultivate a sense of wonder at what is good and beautiful in the world.  And he recommends that these skills are best acquired in communities, like the church. 

Where does Jesus leave his questioners and listeners?  In typical biblical fashion he reminds them, “do not fear.”  Be aware and be realistic of what is happening.  Times will be difficult, but we can do difficult things.  And the reason is because God is with you.  Jesus says he will give us the words and the wisdom we need.  And “by your endurance you will gain your souls.”

As faithful followers of Jesus, we have felt all the emotions, as we’ve lived through this apocalyptic time.  We’ve been afraid, angry, and sad.  And as faithful followers of Jesus, we aren’t going to get stuck there, are we?  We have been grieving our losses and are cultivating a rich emotional and spiritual life, full of gratitude, wonder, generosity, and joy.  This is a time of opportunities, a time for vision and mission.  This is a new beginning, and we Christians are the “eternal beginners.”  W are beloved children of God, called to serve, with gifts to give the world.   

Good, Hard Lessons

Good, Hard Lessons

Luke 16:1-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

18 September 2022

            “This is one of the strangest and most difficult of Jesus’ parables.”  So writes Brandon Scott, one of the foremost authorities on the parables.  As you listened I’m sure you thought it sounded weird.  Just know that the scholars and commentators feel the same.

            Amy-Jill Levine, that other scholar of the parables whom I like to draw upon, reminds us that the stories Jesus tells are often supposed to be disturbing.  And that we can get too lost in trying to find their “meaning.”  Instead, she asks us to “allow ourselves to be open to various interpretations” because then the parables can become tools “for good, hard lessons learned with a sense of playfulness.”

            With a playful attitude then, let’s try to unpack this story Jesus told.  Then we’ll try to make it mean something for us today.

            Brandon Scott says we run into problems with this parable when we make two interpretative mistakes at the beginning.  First, we have a tendency to turn parables into allegories and in this case that means we try to make the master into God.  But, clearly, that doesn’t work.  Which is one reason we are uncomfortable.  So, give up the notion of trying to make this allegory, trying to make it tell us something about God.

            The second mistake we make is reading our own capitalist economic system into the story.  That wasn’t the economic system of Jesus and his compatriots.  They existed in a very different system built upon patronage.  So, as Brandon Scott writes, “Capitalist assumptions obscure the social structure implied by the parable.”

            What social and economic system, then, is the story operating in? 

            Scott first points out some facts about the characters in the story.  These are men of wealth.  Wealth far in excess of anything the average person listening to the story would be familiar with.  The debts are also very large debts.  The characters can read and write, also not widespread in the time period.  These, then, are all wealthy elites and the person listening would have understood it as such.  This is a story, then, about how wealthy elites treat and mistreat one another.

            Now, the average listener would have been familiar with debts.  Usury was forbidden by the religious economic laws of Jesus’ time, but even that society had found ways around the laws and customs.

            And as a result, we know from historical sources, that many common landowners had lost their property to the wealthy because they were unable to pay their debts.  Many people who had been self-sustaining farmers had fallen to become tenant farmers.  Families that had once sustained themselves were now peasants.  Some were even sold into slavery.  The burdens of debt were massive in first century Palestine, and a wealthy elite had benefited from the system.  Brandon Scott reminds us, “The request to ‘forgive us our debts’ in the Lord’s Prayer is not an idle spiritual request, but a peasant’s plea of desperation.”

            The manager, then, in this story, seems to be the property manager for the truly rich guy who owns a lot and is gaining even more property because of these exorbitant debts.  The master might even be an absentee landlord, and the manager the one doing the real work of overseeing the properties and accounts. 

            But he isn’t an employee as we understand it in our current system.  The master would be his patron, and he would be a client.  Any power, authority, or wealth the manager has is because he is in the service of the master.  If the master dismisses him, the manager can’t simply go get another managerial job elsewhere, he has lost his patron.  And as the manager tells us in the story, if he loses his status, he fears he’ll be reduced to begging or digging in the mines.

            Patronage systems work by doing the bidding of those above you in the hierarchy.  You don’t have much freedom or agency unless you are on the top of the social pyramid. 

            So, what is it that the manager does when he loses his position?  He goes to the various folks who owe the master money, who haven’t yet heard that he’s been fired, and he reduces their debts to the master.  This is a way of getting back at the master, for the master will now lose his profits, and it is a way of currying favor with other potential patrons who might support this shrewd manager who saved them money.

            Where the story surprises both its original listeners and us, is that the logical outcome would be for the master to become furious when he learns of this scheme.  Instead, in the story Jesus told, the master praises the manager for his shrewdness.  And then Luke adds those strange comments to the end of the story.

            Brandon Scott writes that this ending makes it difficult for any of us to make sense of the story and what Jesus meant.  He then asks us to consider, “what if the strategy of the parable teller is to frustrate our efforts to fit it together, to make sense of it, to relieve its tension?”  Amy-Jill Levine would say that any meaning of the story slips away from us, inviting us to use our imaginations and engage playfully in meaning-making ourselves.  And in that process maybe learn some good, hard lessons.

            From my study and reading of this parable over the years as a pastor and teacher and simply as a faithful reader of the Bible, I’ve come to a way I understand it, that I offer to you today.

            Part of what’s going on here is that Jesus is making fun of the wealthy elites and the way they treat each other.  But he’s doing more than that.  If that alone were the goal, then he’d end the tale in the predictable fashion.  Instead, Jesus surprises the listeners with his ending.

            Which invites us to think about the entire social-economic system.  I think his original listeners were able to walk away puzzling about how strange and weird the patronage economy of their time was.  And in that puzzling, maybe begin to engage in criticism and imagination of something better.  What might that something better be?

            The clue is contained in the story itself.  What puzzles us is a strange act of grace.  Of unmerited, undeserved favor.  Power, debts, greed, shrewdness—those don’t surprise us.  What surprises is the strange, maybe even foolish, act of grace that ends the story.

            Maybe Jesus’ listeners then began to ponder—what would a social and economic system built around grace look like?

            One reason I think this is the direction we can head in listening to Jesus’ story, is that so many of the other stories he told seem to point in the same direction.  Many of the parables he tells about rich men, property managers, debts, money, income, etc. have really surprising outcomes.  But grace, as opposed to merit, desert, or what one has earned, seems to be a common theme.

            What then are we supposed to do with this story today then?  Clearly we don’t operate in a patronage socio-economic system.  We aren’t, generally, peasants losing our land to greedy landlords. 

            There’s an old adage that a sermon is best when it models the form of the story you are preaching.  Earlier this week I realized that the best way to approach this text, then, would be to craft my own parable that exposes absurdities in our own socio-economic system and invites us to imagine alternatives.  But I don’t think I’m that gifted of a story-teller.  Especially to write something so clever in just a few days.  After all, I’m not Jesus.

            But I do think that Jesus’ story can invite us to use our imaginations to think about how absurd our socio-economic system is.  Maybe reading about the disputes between Elon Musk and Twitter are a good example—elites treating each other poorly.  I invite you to think of your own examples.

            Because even if our economic system is an improvement upon the patronage and debt system of first century Palestine, I think we can all agree that our current system is clearly not an expression of the kingdom of God.

            There remains too much inequality, too much injustice, too much greed and exploitation.  It could be fairer, with more grace and generosity and kindness.

            This summer on my sabbatical I read a number of books on climate change.  Not about how the climate is changing, as that has become obvious, but more about what we can and should still do if we are to live resiliently and faithfully in this time of world history. 

            In one of those books, by the British theologian Timothy Gorringe titled The World Made Otherwise: Sustaining Humanity in a Threatened World, he has a chapter entitled “Economics as if the Planet Mattered.”  Because, of course, it does.  The planet does matter.  But our current system isn’t very good at taking that to account. 

            He wants to return to the most basic sense of the word “economy,” which in its Greek origin means “household management.”  What do we need to do to properly manage our household?  What all is included in the household?  Does our circle of concern expand to all creation?

Gorringe invites us to consider the question “What is it that people need in order to live well?”  That seems like a key consideration for us as we try to live in this time as faithful followers of Jesus.

            Now, Jesus didn’t tell his story and then lay out a set of economic policies to be implemented.  And I’m not either today. 

            Instead, I believe Jesus wanted his faithful followers to start asking themselves such questions.  To begin criticizing what was wrong about the system they lived in.  To playfully imagine alternatives.  And then to start trying them out.  Make those changes in their own lives that they could make in order to further the values of a better, more gracious, more generous world. 

And I think that’s what Jesus wants for us, his faithful disciples today.  To imagine a better world.  And to do what we can in our daily activities to make a better world—kinder, more loving, more gracious.  A world where everyone and everything can live well.  Those are the good, hard lessons I believe we can take from this very strange story that Jesus told.



Matthew 18:1-5

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

22 May 2022

            Back in February of 2012, a full decade ago now, I traveled to the Claremont School o Religion in Claremont, California  for a conference about how folks who were imagining and embodying new ways of being church for the 21st century might engage in conversation with Process theology.  At the conference I led a breakout session entitled “Blogging, Social Networking, and Process: Adventures in Ministry.” 

In the early years of my ministry, I was often a pioneer, engaging new internet communication tools to connect with people and carry out ministry.  For example, I remember the days of using AOL instant messenger to chat with my youth.

            In my breakout session, I highlighted these positive for the church’s use of the new technologies:

  • The internet was Open-ended, adventurous, and egalitarian.
  • You could easily share your stories, reflect upon them, and watch them develop over time.  And this was true both as an individual and in telling the story of the church community.
  • I said we were able to be present with people, because we were understanding that presence is not limited to physical location.

I felt that these new technologies presented opportunities to advance theological and ministry goals.  My model of pastoral leadership has always been to use persuasive power through the presentation of possibilities to excite people's sense of adventure, so that through their free agency, together we will choose how to move forward.  I felt these new technologies enabled and expanded that.

            My presentation also talked about some of the concerns raised by these new technologies:

  • The danger of creating a community within the community that leaves out those not engaged in social media or who are not tech savvy
  • Wondering whether social media can violate our ministerial boundaries or whether it actually revealed that the ways we’d previously understood this was a mistaken notion, and that these new technologies were compelling ministers to live more openly without a facade or division between our private and professional lives?
  • And what about privacy anyway? 
  • And, presciently to this worship series we are currently engaged in, a decade ago in that presentation I talked about the challenge of keeping up with all of the constant changes in technology and wondered whether keeping up would be a distraction from other, important aspects of ministry?

Of course over the ensuing decade, with all we now know about social media and mobile technologies, the concerns often seem to outweigh the strengths.  I wasn’t sure what I thought anymore about those ideas from my presentation a decade ago.  Plus, the more I prepared for this worship series--about how the effort to keep up with the ever-accelerating pace of change is negatively affecting us spiritually--the more anxious I became.  Clearly one aspect of the Time Fatigue we’ve been focused on this month in worship is the role that the internet, social media, and mobile devices has played in changing everything about our lives.

Given my enthusiasm, optimism, and hearty embrace of new technologies a decade ago, this spring I jumped at reading a new book The Internet is Not What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning by Justin E. H. Smith.  Smith is a very insightful philosopher who teaches at the University of Paris. 

To my relief, on page 2 of his book, Smith affirmed my excitement of a decade ago.  He states, “As recently as ten or fifteen years ago, one could still sincerely hope that the internet might help ‘to bring people together and to strengthen the social fabric.’” 

According to Smith, the positive goals for the internet are rooted in three centuries of utopian dreams and technological and scientific achievements.  Those positive dreams are actually deeply rooted in our human nature and our hopes for the human future. 

Yes, in the last decade the internet has turned in a negative direction, but he keeps pointing out that it didn’t have to end up that way, and doesn’t have to remain that way.  We can shape it in that more utopian direction if we so desire and so act. 

How do these negative developments connect to the spiritual crisis we’ve been discussing the last few weeks?  Smith identifies four new problems with the internet that have become apparent in the last few years.

First, there exists a new form of exploitation.  Whereas once human labor might have been exploited by others for economic gain, now our very selves, our lives are the resource being exploited. 

Second, is that this new economy is an extractive one, but not in the sense of material resources, rather, it extracts our attention.  Smith writes that “the largest industry in the world now is quite literally the attention-seeking industry.”  Companies work to gain and keep our attention, using tools we have learned are actually addictive and compulsory.  He writes:

Most of our passions and frustrations, personal bonds and enmities, responsibilities and addictions, are now concentrated into our digital screens, along with our mundane work and daily errands, our bill-paying and our income tax spreadsheets.  It is not just that we have a device that is capable of doing several things, but that this device has largely swallowed up many of the things we used to do and transformed these things into various instances of that device’s universal imposition of itself.

            And this focusing our attention has moral implications.  It robs us of time and attention that should be focused on other things, particularly people.  This, he believes, has impacts on our empathy.  How often have you found yourself immersed in your phone when you should be interacting with the people, the nature, the things around you?  We’ve all done it to some degree. 

            The third new problem has already been hinted at—so much of our lives are not concentrated in a single device.  This was supposed to be about utility and efficiency and freeing us up.  And there is so much about the new technology that does make life easier.  But do we feel freed up from drudgery for more important things?  Or do we feel enmeshed in even more drudgery?

            The fourth problem is that “human beings are increasingly perceived and understood as sets of data points.”  This is how we are viewed by the big data companies.  And Smith believes it is inevitable that this type of thinking will permeate through every other aspect of our culture, and we will all be viewed as data points in algorithms instead of full human persons.  Remember what I said last week about the theological importance of personhood.

            So Smith warns that we have ended up in a dangerous place with unhealthy relationships to our new technologies.  But he reminds us that it didn’t have to be this way.  However, he thinks we can’t just stop, quit, or go back.  There are good things and benefits to these technologies.  As a society, we could make the choices and take the steps to bend the internet back towards those utopian hopes of humanity.

            But, meanwhile, we live with this vital but dangerous tool that is a major culprit in our time fatigue and our growing sense of disorientation, disconnection, anxiety, and even depression.  All the topics we’ve been exploring the last four weeks in worship.

            So I return to the theologian Andrew Root’s quote that I used in my first sermon of this series to clarify our current spiritual crisis:

We long to find a true fullness that draws us not through time, into some future, but more deeply into time itself.  We long to live so deeply in time that we hear and feel the calling of eternity.  We yearn to find once again the infinite in time, to find the sacred in the present, and therefore to be truly alive!

            Andrew Root, then, turns to this gospel story in Matthew 18 to help us understand how God is calling us to something different and better that transcends and heals our time fatigue.  Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

            Root draws a typical preacher’s three lessons from this passage.  First, it is “a direct call to humility.”  To quit comparing ourselves to others.  To quit focusing only on ourselves.  To open ourselves to other people.  To admit that we need other people.  To be vulnerable.

            Second, we are invited by Jesus into real relationships with real persons, giving of ourselves, receiving from the other.  And in this we experience Jesus.  Recall everything I said about loving relationships with persons in last week’s sermon.

            And third, Jesus calls us to be transformed.  To become like children.  Children are attentive to the world and therefore experience curiosity, wonder, delight, and affection.  They aren’t yet caught up in the ever-increasing rate of change in our social lives.  They aren’t yet part of the rat race.  Instead, their lives are full of the resonance we desire.  They become our mentors as we learn how to live a better life, how to experience time for everything.

            I ordered and started reading Andrew Root’s book because I thought it was going to be about what churches needed to do in our ministries in the twenty-first century.  Afterall, he’s a youth ministry professor at Princeton whose earlier work has focused on such things.  I was thoroughly surprised by the rich and revealing intellectual and theological creativity as he analyzed and discussed the underlying spiritual crises that churches and church people encounter.  Reading the book on my monastic retreat last December was an epiphany that led to fertile study and exploration of these themes over the last six months.

            Andrew Root does get to the practical things that the church needs to do to minister faithfully and effectively spiritual crisis.  What is the antidote to our time fatigue?  His answer-- to care for children. 

            Because to focus on children is to escape the focus on our current time and to take a long view.  As I said a few weeks ago, the youngest among us will live for another century or more.  What we do for them now—how we shape them and educate them and care for and love them will have lasting impacts long, long after most of us are gone.  And if they also grow up caring for children and furthering those lessons, the time horizon for our ministry lifts beyond even one century.

            To care for our children also means we are drawn into relationships of wonder, affection, and delight, relationships of resonance and fullness, the obvious antidote to the experience of alienation, time fatigue, and spiritual crisis.

            And Andrew Root believes that any congregational community which prioritizes caring for children is a congregation that will be shaped by humility, vulnerability, giving and receiving, transformation, and thus we will learn to prioritize loving relationships with persons in all aspects of our lives.  In other words, a congregation that prioritizes caring for children is one that becomes more caring towards everyone and everything.  We are spiritually shaped and transformed by our love of kids to become more loving people.

            And so he concludes his book, “The ecstasy of witnessing eternity in time [in caring for children] will ignite the good life of giving and receiving ministry in the world.”

            To draw these four weeks together then.  In our struggle with time—how to tell it, how to keep it, what to do with it, how fast or slow it goes—what we truly long for is a feeling of fullness, of being fully alive, of living the good life. 

            We get to that when we open ourselves to God to transform us, to make us new creatures.  That transformation occurs through loving relationships with persons.  We can open ourselves to love by practicing the spiritual gifts of wonder, curiosity, attention, delight, and affection.  The gifts of resonance.  Which our children have in abundance, and are willing to share, because “sharing is caring.”

            So, if you want to transcend your current time and feel fully alive, the best gift any congregation has to offer you is a chance to care for children.

Time Fatigue

Time Fatigue

Ecclesiastes 3:1-14

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

1 May 2022

            Back in November I was having a rough time and my spiritual director said, “You need to a retreat.”  He advised that I come stay at the Incarnation Monastery, a Benedictine community of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska that is housed in North Omaha near Miller Park.  I responded, “Yes, that’s exactly what I need.” 

            And so arrangements were made for early December.  I felt decadent taking a little time in the middle of Advent for spiritual reflection and prayer.  Which is, of course, ironic, since that’s part of the point of Advent.  But preachers are often themselves so busy helping others with their spiritual lives that we don’t take the time for ours. 

            I only spent two days away, but it was exactly what I needed to rest, recharge, refocus, and spend time really thinking and praying about some things I needed to spend time really thinking and praying about.

            Now, the rhythm of a monastic retreat is unusual.  Waking very early for prayer.  Services of prayer and song throughout the day.  During some of those sitting in silence for twenty or thirty minutes.  A two hour period in the afternoon where no one is supposed to talk.  Going to bed early. 

            The strange marking of time compels you out of your routines.  You notice different things about your body, your spiritual energy.  It opens up vast time for reflection and contemplation.

            Completely unplanned, while I was away for those two days I read a book about how the church tells time.  The book is entitled The Congregation in a Secular Age by the Princeton theologian Andrew Root.  That book was the perfect read in that setting.  And I was struck by what Root had to say.

            Root identifies the core problem facing contemporary churches and church people to be time related.  Modern life moves at a speed and according to values that are at fundamental odds with the way the church keeps sacred time.  And modern uses of time have led to all sorts of problems for humans.  We long for something different, and he argues that the church’s approach to time is what people really need.

            He writes, “We long to find a true fullness that draws us not through time, into some future time, but more deeply into time itself.  We long to live so deeply in time that we hear and feel the calling of eternity.  We yearn to find once again the infinite in time, to find the sacred in the present, and therefore to be truly alive!" 

            I read that sentence and thought “Yes!”  That is exactly what we long for.

            And, so, I returned from the retreat and said to the church staff, “How about a series on time for the season of Easter?”  And they agreed.  One reason this seemed timely is that we’ve all had our time-keeping screwed up in the last two years of the pandemic.  We don’t know what time it is, while also feeling that we’ve lost time or wasted time, that we were bored.  While others felt like they gained valuable and rich time to spend on themselves or with family or exploring new hobbies and interests, or learning new skills.  Plus, as more folks return to normal activities, they are contemplating whether they want to be as busy as they were before the virus or whether they want to build in more down time.  Time—how to tell it, how to keep it, what to do with it, how fast or slow it goes—all of that is in the current stew of our lives, and so our worship for this Easter season will focus around these ideas and questions.

            So, to begin, let’s talk about time fatigue. 

            Andrew Root was talking to a local pastor who said, “I mean, these should be exciting times.  Everyone knows we need change.  But instead of creating energy, it creates depression.”  He began to notice that this was common in the churches he visited and spoke to.  He was hearing it from ministerial colleagues.  There’s a lot that needs to be done, people even know some of what it is, but they seem to lack the energy they once had for it.  Why is that?  And this was written even before a global pandemic, though it was published in the middle of it.

            What Root eventually diagnosed is that for individuals and even for institutions like churches, the problem is a “feeling that you just couldn’t find the energy to keep pace” with the speed that society now undergoes change. 

            If the twenty-first century world seems to be moving faster, that’s because it is.  One dimension that is rather obvious is the speed of technological change and how quickly a new technology becomes obsolete and is supplanted by another one, compelling folks to constantly get the newest and latest or fall behind in efficiency, skills, or even coolness.  Technology has, then, increased the speed of communication, transportation, and industrial production. 

            Which has, in turn, affected our social lives.  Even they can now move at a faster pace.  It’s a marvel and wonder to video chat with your grandchildren who live on another continent, when only a few decades ago you would have relied mostly upon mailing letters back and forth. 

            Social and fashion trends arise quickly and just as quickly are replaced.  Political debates are no longer in depth conversations occurring over months and years.  Through social media we can all keep up with hundreds or thousands of more friends and acquaintances than we once did, even knowing what they cooked for supper or the highlight of their vacation.  And we can all watch the livestream of the child’s first walk.

            I don’t need to belabor these points.  You are aware of them in your own lives.  And you’ve read articles, I’m sure, exploring both the good and bad outcomes of all these changes.  Instead, I want to focus in on one spiritual aspect of the new, faster pace of life. 

            Andrew Root calls it “the fatigue to be me.”  And he draws upon the work of the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg in his book The Weariness of the Self, which I read this winter after reading Root’s book.  Ehrenberg identifies that there has been a radical increase in the rise of depression diagnoses and treatments in the last fifty years.  He then sets about to understand why.  And the conclusion he comes to is that people are worn out trying to keep pace with modern life.  Particularly, they are worn out trying to be themselves.  Worn out trying to be the best version of themselves.

            Part of what happened by the end of the twentieth century is that for many people in the wealthy West, there was a radical expansion of freedom and choice.  This came about through the demise of traditional social roles and expectations and the revolutions brought about by movements for civil and human rights for various groups of people.  All of these, of course, are good developments in the history of humanity. 

            But where even in the mid-twentieth century the social role and expectations for many people were decided for them, now most people had the freedom to decide for themselves.  Who will they marry, and will they stay married?  Will they have kids or not?  What career will they explore?  Where will they live?  How often will they move or change jobs?  What religion or spirituality will the practice, if any? 

            And along with them came new emphases.  To be unique.  To have self-esteem.  To live an authentic life.  To live your best life.

            And, yet, that doesn’t work out quite for everyone.  Not everyone has the financial resources or social connections.  There are unforeseen circumstances like illness, divorce, financial setbacks, and more. 

            And the shadow side to all this freedom is that you might be constantly wondering if the life you’ve chosen is the best one?  You might constantly be wondering what would happen if you made other choices?  Would that life be better, richer, more enjoyable?  You might get plagued by the question, “Am I living my best life?”

            Ehrenberg writes that depression then rose as a result of more and more people running out of energy to keep up with the new expectations of choosing, curating, and creating a rich, full life.  Root summarizes this idea when he writes, “But I don’t have the energy to meet this demand.  If I had the energy, the openness of identity construction would be exciting.  But without it, the choice and openness is depressing.”

            This is one of the particular spiritual crises of our contemporary age.  A fatigue that sets in with the ever accelerating pace of life.  An inability to keep up.  A time fatigue that leads to weariness.

            But what we truly desire is a richness of time, a fullness of time.  Maybe that’s a chance for time to slow down and let us focus, like I was able to on that monastic retreat.  Maybe what we long for is a sense of time larger than ourselves and our own choices and actions?  A sacred time that is bigger and more mysterious and that extends through the ages?

            Last week I stood at the graves of ancestors who lived four hundred years ago.  My Pilgrim ancestors who had traveled on the Mayflower to Plymouth.  John and Jane Tilley, who died during that first winter, and whose remains are interred on top of Cole’s Hill in Plymouth with those of all the others who died of starvation, illness, and exposure.  The monument is engraved with these words:

History records no nobler venture for faith and freedom than that of this pilgrim band.  In weariness and painfulness . . . in hunger and cold, they laid the foundations of a state wherein every [person] through countless ages should have liberty to worship God in [their] own way.

            I stood at the gravestone of their daughter, Elizabeth Tilley Howland, who survived that winter and lived to a ripe old age.  Her epitaph reads, “It is my will and charge to all my Children that they walk in the fear of the Lord and in Love and Peace toward each other.”  Those are words I quoted at my own ordination 25 years ago.

            And I found the grave of John Howland, her husband, and the young man who came to the colony as an indentured servant, almost died when he fell off the boat during a storm, and yet lived to be the last man of the original group of pilgrims, raising a large family and rising to wealth and prominence.

            This sacred connection through the ages is a different way of marking time than the fast pace of our contemporary age.  The whole purpose of our trip to New England last week was to explore the past, our history, our story, in order to gain a richer understanding of ourselves.

            Today we celebrate the 166th anniversary of the founding of the First Congregational Church, when Omaha was only a small settlement on the Missouri River and no one knew for certain what would become of this village or this congregation.  And, yet, here we are.  Because of the faith and vision of those founders and the generations that followed them in the work and ministry.

            A highlight of our trip was a visit to the Congregational Archives in Boston, where we found documents and information that were lacking in our own vast archives.  The great reading room looked out over the old Boston graveyard that contains such luminaries as John Hancock.  The room was decorated with the portraits of great pastors and thinkers of our movement.  It was not hard in such a space to feel a deep and abiding connection, a communion even, through time and space. 

            I was delighted that the archives had a copy of the 50th anniversary program of the congregation, celebrated in 1906.  I had not seen this booklet before.  And it’s closing paragraph resonated with me and Susan and Deb:

The church has passed through many and varied experiences, both of discouragement and of hope, during its history.  In them all it has endeavored to maintain its witness for [the One] who is the Light of the World.  And now as the shadows fall on its first half century, it is girding itself for the years to come, praying for grace to keep the faith and to commend it to [humanity] by word and life.

            This paragraph resonated because it felt so true of us in 2022.  That we too have “passed through many and varied experiences, both of discouragement and hope” and yet despite it all we too endeavor “to maintain [our] witness” to God “who is the Light of the World.”

            These deep connections help us to tell time in a different way.  To transcend the pace of contemporary life.  To step away from busyness towards fullness.  To focus on transformation, rather than change.  To seek resonance, rather than relevance. 

            And these are the ideas we’ll explore in the coming weeks of this series, “A Time for Everything.” 

The Last Enemy

The Last Enemy

1 Corinthians 15:1-26

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

17 April 2022

            “The last enemy to be defeated is death,” writes Saint Paul at the close of this proclamation of the resurrection.  In all of his writings Paul viewed death as a malevolent power.  Death was a force, often personified, which struck randomly and with abandon.

            Seven years ago in my Easter sermon, I contrasted the ancient view of death with our own.  I preached,

We do not share the ignorance of our forbearers that led to their fear of death as a malevolent power. Death is no longer such a mystery to us. We have a better grasp of biology and understand death as part of the life cycle of a biological organism. For many of us in the developed West, life itself is no longer "nasty, brutish, and short."

            Those sentences felt right seven years ago.  But they don’t feel quite right to me anymore.  Six million people have died in the last two years of a novel coronavirus.  We watch with horror the atrocities being committed in Ukrainian cities.  We are more attuned to the violence in our own nation.  Last year, 2021, was the deadliest in American history, it was just reported this week.  So, I believe we now understand our ancient forebearers better, and why they viewed death as a malevolent force and not simply as a biological fact. 

            In the spring of 2020, before the pandemic, the economists Anne Case and Agnus Deaton released their book Deaths of Despair detailing how the United States was already in the midst of a epidemic of death.  Our life expectancies were declining, after more than a century of dramatic increases.  Why, in our advanced society, was death on the rise?  The kinds of deaths on the increase were related to suicide, drug addiction, and alcohol abuse.  These were self-inflicted, preventable deaths.  And yet they were dramatically on the rise.  Their book was an attempt to explore and explain this shocking phenomenon.

            And what they identified was a rise in despair.  These sorts of deaths followed from unhappiness, depression, a lack of meaningful work, a lack of purpose, feeling left out and left behind by society.  They revealed that we have a serious social problem that we need to be aggressively addressing.  Unfortunately this revelation came just as the world shut down for the pandemic and focused our attention elsewhere.

            But their analysis is a wake-up call to us that we were already experiencing an epidemic of death, resulting from a epidemic of despair.  And so we have been living through a shift in our society and now, I can’t say the same things about our understanding of death that I did seven years ago.  Now I feel much closer to Saint Paul and the ancient writers of the Bible—death feels like a malevolent force, an enemy, and not simply a biological fact.

            So I turn to ancient wisdom.  Some of the most ancient wisdom we have—The Epic of Gilgamesh, that ancient Mesopotamian story that is in many ways the fountainhead of our literary tradition.   The Epic of Gilgamesh deals profoundly with issues of death and grief.

Gilgamesh is the king of great-walled Uruk.  His friend and companion is Enkidu. Together, they survive many dangerous adventures, only for Enkidu to die of some mysterious illness.  And Gilgamesh's grief overwhelms him.  He flees his city and his responsibilities and sets out on a journey around the world seeking immortality, an answer to the problem of death.  A way to defeat this enemy.

Near the end of his journey, Gilgamesh finds Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim is the builder of the ark and the survivor of the great flood.  His story pre-dates the account of Noah in Genesis, and many scholars think that the Noah story is simply the Israelite retelling of this even more ancient story.

When Utnapishtim sees Gilgamesh, he asks him why he looks so bad:

Why are your cheeks so hollow?  Why is your face so ravaged, frost-chilled, and burnt by the desert sun?  Why is there so much grief in your heart?  Why are you worn out and ready to collapse, like someone who has been on a long, hard journey?

Then Gilgamesh answers in one of the great laments in world literature:

Shouldn't my cheeks be hollow, shouldn't my face be ravaged, frost-chilled, and burnt by the desert sun?  Shouldn't my heart be filled with grief?  Shouldn't I be worn out and ready to collapse?  My friend, my brother, whom I loved so dearly, who accompanied me through every danger—Enkidu, my brother, whom I loved so dearly . . . the fate of humankind has overwhelmed him.  For six days I would not let him be buried, thinking, "If my grief is violent enough, perhaps he will come back to life again."  For six days and seven nights I mourned him, until a maggot fell out of his nose.  Then I was frightened, I was terrified by death, and I set out to roam the wilderness.  I cannot bear what happened to my friend—I cannot bear what happened to Enkidu—so I roam the wilderness in my grief.  How can my mind have any rest?  My beloved friend has turned into clay—my beloved Enkidu has turned into clay.  And won't I too lie down in the dirt like him, and never rise again?

Utnapishtim responds to Gilgamesh, basically scolding him for his grief and lack of gratitude and then warning him that he must change his life:

You have worn yourself out through ceaseless striving, you have filled your muscles with pain and anguish.  And what have you achieved but to bring yourself one day nearer to the end of your days?

Yes: the gods took Enkidu's life.  But man's life is short, at any moment it can be snapped, like a reed in a canebrake.  The handsome young man, the lovely young woman—in their prime, death comes and drags them away. . . . suddenly, savagely, death destroys us, all of us.

In this ancient story, we encounter death as the last enemy.  Death as the malevolent power.  The grief and anguish expressed by Gilgamesh, we understand.  The descriptions are vivid and remain true of us in our sorrow.  Their expressions of hope and longing for new life, resonate with us as well.  I read these ancient words and they speak to me even more powerfully after our experiences of the last few years.

            And, yet, Saint Paul tells us “The last enemy to be defeated is death.”  Death has been defeated.  Jesus the Christ died and rose again so that we might all rise again. 

Jesus himself told us “I am the resurrection and the life.”  We use those words to begin a Christian funeral service.  And at the close of that service, when we commit a body to the ground, we pray this prayer:

In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our sister or brother, and we commit her to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless her and keep her, the Lord make his face to shine upon her and be gracious to her, the Lord lift up his countenance upon her and give her peace.

            This year it seemed fitting that on Good Friday afternoon we had a funeral.  For Mary Guin Knoll who died in February and wanted to wait for a spring funeral.  Mary Guin was 99 ½ years old and our eldest member at the time of her death.  Mary Guin was a school librarian, including at Bryan High School here in Omaha while some of our other members were students there.  I loved one story that her son Jeff told about her on Friday.  He said that every year when the list of most banned books was released, Mary Guin would doublecheck that all of them were in the school library and, if not, be sure to order them for her collection.

            Mary Guin lived a long and good life, and over her death and burial these ancient Christian words were spoken.  They were spoken because for us Christians, resurrection is our response to the power of death.  We proclaim a greater power, and so death has no ultimate power over us.  How can we comprehend this?

There are a couple of significant verbs in Paul’s opening remarks on resurrection.  He declares:

Now I remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you also stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

There is something revealing in this phrase, "which you in turn received."  The Scottish theologian William Barclay says, we do not have to invent the gospel for ourselves.  This good news is not something we have to discover.  We don't have to be like Gilgamesh and travel around the world, striving and enduring hardship, searching for good news.  The good news has been proclaimed to us, we only have to receive it.

We receive the good news because we have witnessed it enlivening other people.  We have observed how the gospel changed someone's life.  How a beloved mentor lived differently than other people because of their faith.  How an acquaintance from church faced their impending death with courage and hope.  How a catastrophic loss was faced with resilience and dignity.  We believe the gospel to be true because we have witnessed its effects in the world.  This is not belief in the abstract, in some intellectual sense.  It is belief built out of our relationships with other people.

And we have learned that we do not lose community when we die.  Ruth Robinson, my beloved kindergarten Sunday school teacher of whom I have often spoken, is long deceased.  But because she played a significant role in the formation of my own faith, Ruth is here with us now.  She continues to participate in the body of Christ, because of the faith I received from her.  She continues to influence the world for good because of what she taught me that I now try to pass on to others.

And I’ve now taught many children and teenagers.  Some of them are now in their thirties and have children of their own.  Those young people, who will outlive me, already live lives changed by their encounter with the gospel.  Long after my own death, I will continue to participate in their faith and witness.  The little ones here in this congregation will be alive a century from now, hopefully remembering us and telling our stories. 

Just as this morning, at the close of our Easter Sunrise Service, we gathered around the grave of the Rev. Reuben Gaylord, who founded this congregation in 1856.  To honor his faith and legacy among us still.

We do not leave the body of Christ at our deaths, but continue to participate in the on-going life of the church.  We share in ecstatic fellowship with our fellow Christians, including all who came before us and all who will come after us.  The circle is unbroken.  And the circle continues to grow, reaching out farther and farther, spreading our life and our influence.  By participating in the life of Jesus, we are in communion with God and therefore with all of creation in an interrelated whole.  When this perishable body ceases to function anymore, this life will go on.

This truth of the resurrection, this good news, is something in which we stand.  That’s the other significant verb in Paul’s opening remarks.  We stand, we hold firm.  The good news we have received fills us with the hope . . . . and the courage . . . to live as Jesus lived.

Jesus lived a certain kind of life, which was very different from the way most people live.  Jesus lived in solidarity with the poor and the outcast, and he challenged the powers which enslave people: Things like purity codes used to exclude those who are different.  Religious practices that separated people from God rather than drawing them closer.  Economic practices which robbed people of land and the ability to provide for themselves.  Imperial policies which used violence to oppress.

So when the forces of domination crucified Jesus it was a challenge to the way Jesus had lived.  It would have been easy to interpret that the life Jesus lived was a waste and, therefore, no model for how anyone else should live.

But that is not how Paul and the other apostles interpreted the crucifixion of Jesus.  Instead, they saw the crucifixion itself as the moment which revealed God's victory and glory and love.  Why was this?  

Because they experienced Jesus as resurrected from the dead.  And we may not fully understand this experience, but it was clearly very real to them. 

And if God raised Jesus from the dead, then the life Jesus lived was vindicated.  Which is the more important point.  Jesus’ way of life received God's seal of approval.  In other words, God was saying, "this is the sort of life I desire all humanity to live."  This is the sort of life defeats the power of death.

Our Christian hope and our Christian faith is that if we stand firmly in the good news and live lives of justice, love, and peace, that we will not have lived in vain.  That our lives are part of God's on-going victory over the powers of sin and death.

Which means that the more we live the kind of life God wants us to live--lives of justice, love, and peace—the more we participate in defeating death.  Deaths of despair.  Deaths from violence and war.  The more we live with Christian faith and hope and love, the more those needless forms of death come to an end.  

Death, the malevolent power, the last enemy, is defeated because we have learned to live life the way Jesus did.

I do not know what awaits us when we die.  But I do know that my life has meaning.  That it will continue on even after this body ceases to function.  Why?

Because I have tried to live as Jesus lived.  And I know from the story of the resurrection that such a life is not lived in vain.

Works of Mercy

Works of Mercy

Matthew 25:34-40; Micah 6:6-8

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

4 April 2022

            In sixth grade I played soccer.  We practiced on a field about a mile from my house that was part of the campus of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, close to the football stadium.  When soccer practice was finished, our legs would be covered with a sticky, orange dust.  When you showered at home, the orange would run off of your body in waves.  Also your soccer shoes and socks took on an orange stain regardless of how many times you washed and bleached them.

            We knew that the orange dust was the result of the field often being flooded by nearby Tar Creek.  Because the water in Tar Creek was a bright orange ribbon running through the landscape.  We knew it was stained orange because it flowed through an area of closed mines.  For in the time of our grandparents and great-grandparents, our county had provided much of the heavy metals that the US used in manufacturing and fighting two World Wars. 

            To me it was ironic that this polluted creek flowed through the richest neighborhood in town, for a long stretch bordering the estate of the Coleman family who had owned the mines. 

            We knew it was polluted.  But somehow, we never really thought about how toxic it was.  It wasn’t until I was an adult and read an article in Time Magazine that I had the epiphany that I had routinely been poisoned as a child by heavy metals such as lead, zinc, and magnesium.  I’ve long pondered how we didn’t know that, didn’t realize it, weren’t up-in-arms as a community about that?  Willful ignorance?  Corrupt and venal political leaders?  The effects of that lead on our brains?

            It wasn’t just the orange residue in the soccer fields.  The mine tailings, called chat, which is something like gravel, were/are piled in giant mounds that rise in northern Ottawa County near the Kansas border like small mountains, creating a weird and fascinating moonscape.  People went there to play, to climb the chatpiles, to ride dune buggies.  People also used the freely available chat for all sorts of things, in particular as gravel for roads and driveways.

            My grandparents driveway was gravel.  As a young kid I’d play in it much like a sand box, using tools to shape roads and hills and cityscapes to drive my cars and toys.  I don’t know that my grandparents gravel came from a chat pile, but it very likely did.  As did that along the county’s gravel roads.  Which means I played in the residue of heavy metals.  And every time a car drove down the county road and kicked up dust that blew in across the farm, dust so bad that my grandmother would clean her living room twice a day, we all were likely breathing toxins.

            The person who did finally take the lead on addressing this problem and both informing and mobilizing the community was Rebecca Jim, who was one of my high school counselors.  It was in her role as sponsor of the Indian Club at high school that she and a group of students began to raise awareness.  Eventually Rebecca retired as a school counselor in order to full-time lead the agency working on cleaning up this environmental disaster and restoring the waters.  Some people believe the problem is too big and that the creek will never be clean again, but Rebecca refuses to believe that.  She says, “We want swimmable, fishable, drinkable water. I’m still working for the day when we can say, ‘yes, meet me at the creek.’”

            This very familiar biblical passage in Matthew 25 includes a list of ministries that have collectively come to be called the “Works of Mercy.”  Feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison.  And most churches, regardless of their theology or politics, usually have ministries that try to address some or all of these needs.

            Ragan Sutterfield, whose article has guided our Lenten worship series, writes that “A world in the midst of ecological crisis is a world in need of mercy and compassion.”  And so as we contemplate what spiritual practices are required of us in order to living faithfully, sustainably, and resiliently at this time in the world’s history, Sutterfield believes that the Works of Mercy in Matthew 25 are a great place to begin. 

            And so he invites us to renew our imaginations and look again at this familiar list of ministries and see how we might embody them in the midst of an ecological crisis.  So, for example, if one of the teachings of Jesus is that we must give water to the thirsty, surely that means we must have fresh, clean, healthy water.  Which means that if Christians are to faithfully live into this work of mercy, we must also be concerned with the state of our waters.  Our work of mercy then means being concerned about a place like Tar Creek and the heavy metal pollution from discarded mines and its many impacts upon the landscape, the waters, and the health and well-being of humans, plants, and animals.  Our faithfulness to God expands our vision, our concern, and ultimately our work far beyond what we might have initially thought.

            As Ragan Sutterfield writes, any work we might do on a particular environmental issue actually must be seen within its wider connections to a host of other moral concerns, so we should seek to do our works of mercy “within a frame of healing the whole.”

            He was one of seven contributors to a booklet entitled Embodying Care: The Works of Mercy and Care of Creation that engages in this act of reimagining the teachings of Matthew 25 through this wider lens of creation care.

            If Love is the “center of creation,” which follows from our Christian teaching about the nature of God, God’s work in the world, and God’s expectations for human beings, then love will be at the center of our focus in spirituality and service.  The booklet reads:

Our work is to cultivate our affections for the gifts of creation, which includes our own lives.  When we begin to love the creation, giving our care and attention to it, we will begin to move into the life of the Creator, the community of God called Love.  Love binds together all.

            This being a communion Sunday, I was particularly drawn to the discussion of feeding the hungry by Episcopal priest Nadia Stefko.  She ties this work of mercy to communion.  She describes the communion table as “our fullest expression of covenant eating,” and points out that this “sacramental encounter must infuse and inform all of our eating throughout the weeks of our lives.”  So the lessons we embody at communion should be shared throughout our normal interactions.  How so?

            She asks us to consider what it means when Jesus talks about feeding the hungry. Who exactly is hungry?  Honestly, we all are.  She writes, “So when we talk about how best to feed the hungry, we are talking about how best to feed all of us—about how we humans take our life from the life of the world around us.”  And so our concern and our work of mercy should broaden to include how food is raised and prepared, the many issues related to the agricultural economy.  All of this enters into our covenant with God and with the world.

            Nadia Stefko provides six suggestions for how to reimagine this work of mercy, feeding the hungry.  First, we need to learn what we can about food and its production.  Second, we can’t just be passive consumers, but should be engaged in our food preparation through gardening, cooking, hunger relief efforts, and more.

            Third, we should do our best to eat locally.  Her fourth suggestion builds on this idea—we should also build local community around our food by getting to know people through food—eating together, cooking together, raising it together.

            Her fifth suggestion is very important—“acknowledge your limits.”  Our individual actions will not fix everything that’s wrong with our current food economy.  We cannot achieve a “morally pure diet.”

            And her final suggestion is to “remember always to say grace.”  She expands on this idea:

Giving thanks for food is a countercultural act in two ways: It speaks against the commodification of food by naming it as gift . . . and it articulates gratitude for what is present before us, over against the fear about what is absent—the fear that fuels the myth of scarcity that is embedded in our dominant food systems.

            So, these are just a few ideas connected to one of the works of mercy.  We could perform the same reimagining with each of the others.  I encourage you as part of our Lenten reflection and preparation to engage in this reimagining.  How might your spiritual practices, your acts of service and ministry, be conceived of through the lens of creation care and healing the whole?  What then are some specific new things you might do to continue to live, in this season of sustainability and resilience, as a faithful and effective disciple of Jesus?

            I want to close with another statement from Ragan Sutterfield.  He writes “Our call is to love and care for our neighbors within our limits.  This is work enough for those who engage it fully—and for some corners of creation, it can make all the difference.”

            I loved that statement.  Sometimes we get overwhelmed by all the issues of justice, peace, and morality that call for our attention and time.  But we each individually have limits.  We need to remind ourselves that the church universal and all people of goodwill are working together and collectively on these issues.  All we must do is our part.  Rebecca Jim was just a school counselor who got concerned and motivated about the polluted creek that flowed where she and her students live.

            So go and do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  This is work enough for all of us.

Ash Wednesday Reflection

Ash Wednesday

Psalms 2 & 1

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

2 March 2022

            A number of global Christian leaders have called upon the Church to mark this Ash Wednesday by praying for the people of Ukraine, for the end of the Russian invasion, and for peace instead of war.  So, for our service this evening I have selected two psalms to read.  I begin with Psalm number 2:

Psalm 2

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying,

“Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.

Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,

“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.

Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.

You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.

Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling

kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him.

We think of the Book of Psalms as songs in praise and celebration of God to be used in worship.  So, it probably surprises us to realize that the second psalm in the entire collection is this one, that takes a geopolitical vision.  A song for the faithful during a time of war, calamity, and violence.  A song condemning war and violence and the political leaders who inflict it upon the people.  Condemning them for believing they are sovereign, whereas God is the true sovereign.  And the singers of this psalm believe that God will enact justice upon those rulers who behave violently and unjustly.

The Archbishop of Canterbury as called this attack upon Ukraine “an act of great evil.”  Pope Francis has declared himself heartbroken and demanded that the weapons be silenced.  He called upon Christians around the world to fast today in solidarity with the suffering of the Ukrainian people.  The national officers of the United Church of Christ released these words of prayer:

Make us a people who love our children, all of our children, more than we love greed, power, and control. Overturn governments of tyranny wherever they are found. Disrupt the intentions of evil and give us power to stand against demonic forces of greed and control. Grant that peace and justice come to warring nations by the hands of those courageous enough to stand and study war no more. Let Thy kin-dom come on earth as it is in heaven, we pray. 

            Epifaniy, the Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church delivered a very direct condemnation, “There has been an unprovoked, insidious, cynical attack by Russia and Belarus on Ukraine.”  He added, “Those who have started and are waging an aggressive war against Ukraine should know that according to God’s law and human laws, they are murderers and criminals. And for their crime, they will speak before God and before humanity, without escaping condemnation and punishment.”

            Epifaniy then encouraged his people:

Our common mission is to repel the enemy, to protect our homeland, our future, and the future of the new generations from the tyranny that the attacker seeks to bring with his bayonets.

The truth is on our side. Therefore, the enemy, with the help of God and with the support of the whole civilized world, will be defeated.

Our task now is to unite, to withstand the first blow, not to panic. We believe in God’s providence and the victory of truth.

            The purpose of Ash Wednesday is to set aside time for reflection.  And in particular reflection upon our mortality.  A reminder that our lives are finite, fragile, and limited, and not fully in our control.  And from this reflection upon mortality to then take stock of our moral character, to examine ourselves, and in particular what sins we need to repent.  Ash Wednesday begins a forty day journey of Lenten fasting and spiritual practice that ends with Holy Week and the Feast of Resurrection.

            There was a time when 21st century Americans could and did avoid thinking about their mortality, and so Ash Wednesday had this vivid counter-cultural aspect.  A day in which we called attention to something people generally tried to avoid. 

            But the last few years our fragility, vulnerability, and mortality have been quite vivid.  Instead of this day calling our attention to it, this day has taken on a new emphasis—not reminding us of a hard truth but giving us some solace and comfort in the midst of reality.

            And here, just as we might be finally emerging from the most difficult days of this global pandemic, war.  Another reminder of danger, suffering, vulnerability. 

            Yet I’ve read a lot the last few days about the dramatic change in the world in the last week.  There is a measure of global unity and focus that we haven’t seen in decades.  We are seeing evil and its consequences.  But even more importantly, we are seeing courage.  We are watching people fight for liberty, freedom, independence, and democracy.  For their own agency and autonomy and dignity.  We are being reminded of the big values and why they matter and what sacrifices humans are willing to make to ensure them. 

            And so I want to read another Psalm, the first Psalm.  Most scholars believe it was quite intentionally placed at the opening of this hymn collection in order to paint a vivid image of the good life and the bad life and why we are called to follow the way of God and what benefits accrue to us when we do.  And that, in essence, all the other psalms fit within the rubric of this opening song. 

            As I read, use this psalm to reflect upon yourself, to examine yourself.  And in the context of this time in which we live in which so much has been made clear.  And let’s be sure that we are on the side of peace, of life, of love, of courage, so that we might enjoy the blessing and happiness of God.

Psalm 1

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on God’s law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. I n all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.