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September 2008

God Restores, We Witness

God Restores, We Witness

Exodus 20:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City

28 September 2008



    As I've watched the financial news the last two weeks, like everyone else I have been surprised by how many titans of the financial industry have collapsed. Like everyone else, I have been caught up in the speculation about the future of our economy. The national debt has doubled. And now the political leadership debates a $700 billion bailout package. We listen to the news and think about 1929 all over again.

    But this week I read something which excited my imagine, filled me with courage, and renewed my hope. Oddly enough it was in Time magazine. In this week's Time Andy Serwer and Allan Sloan wrote an article about the nation's current financial crisis, entitled "The Price of Greed." They went into detail about all the problems and how we had gotten to this point. Then, they concluded the article this way:


Coping in this new world will require adjustments by millions of Americans. We all will have to start living within our means – or preferably below them. If you don't overborrow or overspend, you're far less vulnerable to whatever problems the financial system may have.


Why that conclusion excited me is because it told me something I already knew. Something I had learned from the Christian story. We Christians already knew this simple, economic wisdom. And it was this prior knowledge which renewed me hope.

John Dominic Crossan wrote that Jesus commissions his followers to take his message into the homes of peasants, proclaiming a radical new form of community as symbolized by the shared table -- the shared table which we re-enact every Sunday in our celebration of communion. The theological point of this communion practice is a community "based on an egalitarian sharing of spiritual and material power at the most grass-roots level." Sharing the table creates a community of witness. And that community of witness demonstrates to the larger society that life can be lived differently than the status quo.

We Christians live counter-culturally, spending our money differently than society tempts us to, because scripture invites us to share a portion of our property and income investing in hope and the kingdom of God. The Christian practice of tithing helps us to set priorities and make choices. As such we are less vulnerable to the winds of the economic system. We have commited part of ourselves to opting out of the economic system, because we realize that no matter how good it may be, every economic system exploits and oppresses. We aren't separatists, trying to completely escape the economic system. But with the priorities we set, the choices we make, and the commitments we observe, we witness for hope and the reign of God.

    This week, then, we have a vivid reminder that the laws of God exist for our own salvation. These aren't arbitrary rules. Rather, they are invitations into a relationship which will draw us closer to each other and closer to God.


One of my best friends in high school was Rudy Will. Rudy was an artist with great intellectual curiosity. His family life was not ideal. His parents had divorced. His mother was not around and his father married another woman and moved into her home, leaving Rudy basically alone as a teenager.

    There got to be something of a routine at our house. At least once a week, around 5 p.m., the doorbell would ring and it would be Rudy. We would then hang out in the den playing pool or watching tv and Mom would come in and ask Rudy if he wanted to stay for dinner. He always tried to get out of it, but Mom would always insist, and he would stay and eat with us.

    Mom knew it was an act. She knew that he was coming over for dinner because he didn't have anyone to fix dinner for him. But she never let on like she knew. Each time she went through the same routine of insisting that he stay, like it was her idea. Mom even started planning ahead for an extra person to feed.

A few months after I went off to college, Mom told me one day that she had prepared herself for my leaving home, but what she had not planned for was how empty the house was because none of my friends were dropping by like they always had. And she especially missed Rudy, who had become such a fixture in our house.

Rudy was Lutheran, and despite his family situation, he had continued to be a faithful member of the local church throughout high school. So, I understood the significance of the gift that Rudy gave me. It was his personal copy of Martin Luther's Small Catechism. It has Rudy's name engraved on the front cover. It was the copy which Rudy had used during his confirmation; it even includes his handwritten notes.

I pulled out that catechism this week and thought of Rudy. He had become a part of my family, a relationship built upon the practice of hospitality, of sharing with someone else. And what surprised my mother was how much Rudy's presence had blessed her. She thought she was doing the blessing, and it was only when he was no longer around that she realized how much his presence had meant to her.

In the early days of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther realized that it was not enough to simply re-train the pastors and teachers. It was important to educate the congregations. He was particularly concerned with the education of children. So, the Lutherans were the first to develop an extensive literature of Christian education materials for children. Luther's own contribution was the Small Catechism. He wrote it not only for use in the church, but for use in the home. At least once a week, fathers were supposed to check up on their children's spiritual formation by asking them the questions contained in the catechism.

The catechism opens with the Ten Commandments. After each commandment is read, Luther asks, "What is this?" and writes the sort of answer that one should give in response. For example:


The Fifth Commandment. Do not murder. What is this? We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.


    There are two elements of Luther's answer which I think are significant to point out. The first is that obedience to the commandment is always rooted in the fear and love of God. This line is found in Luther's explanation of each of the ten commandments.

    The second significant feature is how Luther expands the negative commandment into a positive practice. Not only are we not to murder, we are also supposed to "help and befriend [our neighbor] in every bodily need." Luther doesn't just see a list of things we aren't supposed to do, he goes behind that list to discover the things which we ought to do.

    Not committing adultery becomes loving and honoring your spouse. Not stealing becomes helping your neighbor to improve and protect his property and business. Not bearing false witness is expanded to defending your neighbor, speaking well of him, putting the best construction on everything. Not coveting your neighbor's property becomes helping and being of service to him in keeping it.

    For Martin Luther, then, it is not enough to simply not lie about your neighbor. That might be a literal reading of the commandment, but if a person fears and loves God they will go beyond the negative to the positive and will actively work to speak well of their neighbor. In fact, according to Luther, you should always "put the best construction on everything." That's quite a command!

    Luther understood something of fundamental importance about the ten commandments. They aren't just a list of arbitrary rules; they actually exist for a purpose. What is that purpose?

    Well, let's step back and ask a wider question. Why has God liberated the Israelites? Yahweh heard their cry and knew their pain. Yahweh then came down so that they might be brought up. Yahweh called Moses to be the prophet and leader of the people. Then, with a show of great power, God defeated the Egyptians and led the people out of Egypt, parting the sea so that they might cross over in safety. Why go to all that trouble?

    God's purpose was to restore creation. We've been following this theme throughout Exodus. It connects us back to the book of Genesis where the characters were pursuing blessing and more life. Pharaoh was a threat to God's creation. And so we have a contest between the forces of chaos and the forces of creation. God has won, and now creation can be restored.

    How is God going to restore creation? By the formation of a new people. The Israelites are to be God's agents in bringing the world back to what God intended the world to be. But how are the Israelites going to do that?

    They will do it by living differently than other people, and in their living differently they will bear witness to God's will.

    The 613 laws that God gives them, of which these are only ten, are intended to shape them into a new people who will change the world. The purpose of the law, then, isn't just to create some rules for everyone to follow. The purpose of the law is salvation.

    That salvation will come through relationships -- the relationships that the people have with one another and the relationships that they have with God. God will be part of this community, their partner and companion.

    The Ten Commandments, then, reveal what practices are necessary to create the sort of relationships that will restore the world. Martin Luther gets this. Not murdering is only a starting point. If we love God, then we will go beyond that to befriend our neighbor and help him with all his bodily needs. And, as my mother learned, her hospitality and generosity built a relationship with Rudy that blessed her.

    It is a mistake when we use the ten commandments as a set of rules to beat people up and make them feel guilty. The purpose of these commandments is to challenge us to live as companions with God and one another. The commandments are an invitation to a relationship.

    But a relationship with an adventurous purpose – to change the world.


    Our community here at the Cathedral of Hope --Oklahoma City is different from the rest of the world out there. Our presence here is a witness that the world can be a different than it is currently is. The world truly can be a place of extravagant grace, radical inclusion, and relentless compassion.

    Three years ago, the last time this text appeared in the lectionary readings, I explored the queer elements of the Exodus. I concluded with this personal reflection:


I think we in the larger gay community are on to something. I think we have an advantage in a church like the Cathedral of Hope. When I told my therapist in Dallas that I was moving and taking this job, he was quite excited. He is himself an active churchman and former minister. He said that we as a church get to start where so many other churches are working toward. We start with the assumption that everyone is welcome exactly as they are. He was right. So many churches have to spend their energy just to get to that point. We believe it to be the starting point. That's our advantage, because we get to build from there.


So, tonight, may this Exodus story, which tells God's story, also become our story. May it give us an identity. May it give us the courage to face the Pharaohs in our lives. May it set us free both from the forces of chaos which would enslave us. And may we continue to live in a radically different way both for our own liberation and for the liberation of the rest of the world.








A Christian Response to the Financial Crisis

I tackled the financial crisis in my latest column, here.  An excerpt:

The other way that we can live counter-culturally and according to the scriptural story is by spending our money differently than society tempts us to. Scripture invites believers to share a portion of their property and income for two reasons. The first is that it helps individuals set priorities and make the choice to at least commit part of themselves to opting out of the economic system, because no matter how good, every economic system exploits and oppresses. We cannot completely escape the economic system, but we can commit a percentage of our income to witness against it.

Cabin Fever

In between naps, I've been getting work done.  I'm trying to rest as much as I can, since shingles is brought on by stress and one way to recover is by relaxing.  I'm still trying to get work done, because if I don't do it now, it will just build up next week and be more stressful.

Last week it was primarily pain, and I just pushed through that.  This week I feel sick (probably partly the medicine) and the rash is very annoying.  It is right along my waist band, so any pants or shorts rub it.  I've basically been lying around in a bathrobe for three days.

I've not even gotten much reading done, which is weird.  Usually when home sick I do.  Today I mostly read for my sermon prep.

I need to do something!  I need some stimulation.

Pride and Pain

Not a new Jane Austen novel, but my last week.

Last Tuesday I headed to Dallas for meetings on Wednesday.  When I got to Jason's house Tuesday evening, my back was really sore from sitting through the afternoon and my left hip was tender.  Overnight my hip was so painful I had great difficulty sleeping. 

My meetings at the cathedral on Wednesday went very well.  On Thursday I worked on the church newsletter, our stewardship campaign, and spent the afternoon with Jo Ferguson.

By Thursday evening the pain was increasing.

Friday I spent the day at Royal Lane, having breakfast with Lonnie and lunch with Harry and Kevin Sinclair.  By the time Michael and a big group of our friends arrived on Friday evening, I was in incredible pain and my left side was slightly swollen.  Michael got angry at me and insisted that we go to the ER either Friday night or Saturday morning.  I wanted to go out on Friday night, so we went to the ER on Saturday morning.

They ran a bunch of tests, but couldn't find anything.  They concluded that it was probably a pinched nerve and sent me home with prescriptions for a muscle relaxer and a painkiller.

The rest of Saturday we shopped, then went swimming at Saul and Todd's hotel.  That was followed by dinner, Bud Jones' birthday party, and then a night of dancing at S4.  The whole weekend we ran into numerous other OKC friends who were all in town for Dallas Pride.

Sunday morning, Michael, Danny Hites, and I left early so I could get back home in time for our church council meeting at 3:15.  I slept most of the way, doped up on my medicine.

We had a great evening at church.  Leslie Penrose was preaching, which was providential, since I was in no state to.  Leslie coordinates the UCC's partnership with ministries in Nicaragua.  She preached a great sermon.

Last night Michael and I finished season 3 of Six Feet Under.  I was start to feel a little sickly.  My body felt the way it does when it is combatting poison ivy.  I had first noticed some red bumps on Saturday night, but had more last night and many more this morning. 

Since the pain had started, I wondered if it was shingles.  I had been around two friends with shingles last week.  Today I'm pretty confident that that is what I have.  I can't get in to see my physician until Wednesday (he's still in Dallas today). 

I slept a lot this morning and have been lying here on the couch most of the day. 

Brooks on Palin's Experience

David Brooks has been my favourite conservative commentator for a while now (replacing Andrew Sullivan).  Today Brooks talks about Palin's experience.  He discusses the difference between the standards of traditional conservatism and the populist version. 

The idea that “the people” will take on and destroy “the establishment” is a utopian fantasy that corrupted the left before it corrupted the right. Surely the response to the current crisis of authority is not to throw away standards of experience and prudence, but to select leaders who have those qualities but not the smug condescension that has so marked the reaction to the Palin nomination in the first place.

We Doubt, God Assures

We Doubt, God Assures

Exodus 17:1-7

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City

14 September 2008



    All of the great journey stories include some sort of travel in the underworld.  For any driving trip to California this means the time spent in the desert.  Today, the journey across the desert may be safer, but one is fully aware that it is a thin line separating one's self from the safety of the twenty-first century and the danger if anything goes wrong. For Michael and me this summer that meant stopping to gas up and fill the ice chest before heading across the Mojave.

The desolate landscape is fascinating.  Michael and I were fortunate to drive through on a cloudy, overcast day.  The temperature never rose above the mid-nineties (Mark Christian: "You know what they normally call that?  Winter.").  It was raining to the south; one car had pulled over, the occupants were sitting in lawn chairs watching the storm in the distance.

There are few exits and no services for hours on end. No matter how fascinating the landscape might be, it wears you out.  When you finally see Ludlow, the little bump in the road, you have to stop and get out.

But, then, so does everyone else.  The parking lot is crazy.  The Dairy Queen is too small.  A few hundred people jam into the same space and all of them are tired and many grumpy.  There is a heavy spirit in this place.

Barstow, further on, did not improve things.  The highways confused me.  The town is not well laid out.  The heavy spirit was still present with us.  We were hungry.  We had to turn around and backtrack at one point.  I got grumpy.  He got grumpy.  We argued. One of only two arguments on our vacation. Hearing from Californians, it seems that Barstow has that affect on people. There is something about those hours in the desert which affects your mood.


I've never been to the Sinai; seeing it in the film Lawrence of Arabia may be sufficient for me. Have you ever noticed how thirsty you get simply watching the desert scenes in that film?

In Bruce Feiler's travel book Walking the Bible, which is accompanying me on my study of Exodus, he follows the trail of the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Sinai which he describes this way:


Light. The first thing you notice about the desert is the light. It's a white light, bleached across the horizon, that bounces off the blue helmet of sky, picks up the glint of quartz in the sand, and washes out everything in its sight. . . .

The second thing you notice about the desert is the space. The panorama is almost overwhelming . . . . Montana may be Big Sky country, but the Sinai is Big Land country. One almost needs wide-angle vision to take it all in, and even that's not enough. . . .

The last thing you notice about the desert is the noise. In preparing for this part of our journey, I steeled myself for the silence. The desert would surely feel isolated, an island of seclusion. But once I stepped into the open terrain I was amazed by the din – the wind whining through the mountains, the sand tinkling against your face, the rocks crunching beneath your feet. . . . The desert may be empty, but it's the least quite place I've ever been.


    If you are reading along in the Book of Exodus, then you noticed how suddenly and dramatically everything changes. When the people are rescued from the Egyptian armies during the crossing of the sea, they erupt in song and celebration. Yet, after only a few days in the desert, they are grumpy and complaining. The place is already weighing on them. It drags them down from their spiritual high to a spiritual low. We have the advantage of knowing the rest of the story and realize that they have forty years of this. How are they ever going to make it if only three days has robbed them of their joy and faith?

    There are a series of stories here that run in quick succession, of which we've only read one tonight. The people are thirsty, regret ever having left Egypt, they complain, and then God provides. Next they are hungry, regret ever having left Egypt, they complain, and God provides the manna and quail. Now they are thirsty again. If you've read through Exodus and Numbers, then you know that this cycle will repeat itself over and over again.

    Growing up I remember preachers using the Israelites as bad examples and excoriating them for their constant doubt and murmuring. These are also handy stories for a minister to use when he or she wants to score some points on their congregation!

    But, you know what? There's something refreshing about these stories. If someone can cross through the sea while the waters are miraculously parted and still end up doubting God, fighting with their neighbor, and complaining about Moses' leadership skills, then we, who have never walked through miraculous walls of water, should take comfort that when we are in one those moods, we are simply being human.

    There is some inevitability here. Our lives are not constantly lived in moments of spiritual ecstasy. We are not always celebrating with songs of joy. God's power is not always manifest to us. Sometimes we are just in a bad mood. The desert, in particular, seems to have that affect on people.


    You realize that this desert isn't simply a literal desert. It's a symbol too. There are metaphorical deserts in our lives. We may never have to cross an actual desert on foot, but we cross through deserts of the spirit, the emotions, of finances.

    Why do the Israelites go this way? What's the purpose of these wanderings? Because they could have gone a more direct route. They didn't have to take this long. What's up? What is the story telling us here about ourselves?

    Well, one of the ways to read this Exodus story is as a story of political liberation. You have an oppressed people who cry out to God, who listens and responds by challenging the imperial powers-that-be and delivering the people. This is a narrative which is especially empowering for all other oppressed peoples, including ourselves.

    The stories of the complaints in the wilderness invite us to entertain another way of reading the story as well. It is a psychological interpretation. Notice that once the slaves have been freed, that their minds are still enslaved. Repeatedly they say that it is better to go back to Egypt rather then be out here in the desert where things are difficult.

    God's work of liberation was not completed when God rescued the Israelites from the Egyptian armies. Now God begins working to liberate the Israelites from themselves.

    The time in the desert is essential to freeing the people from their own unhealthy mindsets. Bruce Feiler also experienced this on his own journey through the Sinai desert. He writes:


The desert destroys affectation; it demands authenticity. . . . Come with a vague sense of identity; leave with a deeper sense of self. . . .

    I found these extreme landscapes stirring in me more extreme emotions. It's as if the act of mapping the land was forcing me to remap my own internal geography, suddenly taking into account a broader range of feelings than I had ever previously explored . . . .

    When your god is self-reliance, and you let yourself down, there is nowhere else to turn.

    This reaction, I was coming to see, is the first lesson of the desert: By feeling uneasy and unsure, by fearing that you're out of your depth and therefore might falter, by feeling small, and alone, you begin – slowly, reluctantly, maybe even for the first time in your life – to consider turning somewhere else. . . . For the secret lesson of remapping yourself . . . is that you eventually grow wary of the flat and easy, the commonplace and self-reliant. You begin to crave the depth, the height, the extremes.


    Liberating ourselves from what is unhealthy and growing spiritually is difficult work. No wonder we'd rather go back to the comfort of what is familiar, even if we suffered in that place. Deserts call for us to risk, and in risking we gain faith.

    This week I recalled a story about my Mom. In the period after my father died, our family faced financial insecurity. Mom was anxious and fearful, as would be expected. I remember her sitting down to talk over the family's finances with me. This was something that stressed me out. I had never been involved in these conversations before. I didn't know anything about the stuff she was talking about. I didn't know how to advise her. She needed someone to talk to, and the person she would normally do that with wasn't there.

    Finally my mother realized what she needed to do. The way to overcome the anxiety and fear of the situation was to do something risky that flew in the face of the situation. Something which was a testimony of faith and hope that everything was going to turn out alright. So, what did she do? What is the antidote to the poison of financial anxiety?

    Mom decided to give some money away. And not just a few dollars. A sizeable enough amount that it would actually make things more difficult for us. But she knew that through sacrificial generosity that she would release the power that the anxiety and the fear had over her.

    Mom went and got the cash out of the bank and went to see our pastor. She told him what she was doing and explained the spiritual importance of it. She had decided to give the money anonymously to a family in our congregation that was struggling with some medical bills for their son. She asked the pastor to deliver the money for her and to never say who it came from. She knew that if the family knew it came from us, they would refuse it, knowing the situation that we were also in.

    And, you know what, after that moment, things were easier for Mom, emotionally and spiritually. Our finances were tight for some time and never returned to what they had been before Dad died, of course. But they did eventually get easier.


    The truth is that spiritual growth usually comes precisely at the moments which are most difficult. It is these moments which make us face ourselves, challenge ourselves, grow beyond ourselves.

    If you are overworked and stressed out, never with enough time to do everything you need to do, maybe the antidote for you is to take a week off and go on a mission trip.

    If you are lonely and try to find things to occupy your time, maybe you need to go on a weekend silent retreat where you have all the time in the world to face your loneliness.

    If you struggle with gluttony, fast and give the food you save to the hungry.

    If finances stress you out, generously invest in hope.

    If you are proud, volunteer to do the job that no one else wants to do.

    If you are afraid, face your fear.

    If you doubt, surround yourself with people of faith.

    If someone makes you angry or offends you, spend time every day praying prayers of solidarity with that person, praying for good and wonderful things to happen to them.

    If you have enemies, love them.


    The most difficult work is becoming liberated from our selves. But on the other side is a promised land, flowing with milk and honey.


Palin Interview

I just watched the two clips of Charlie Gibson's interview during World News Tonight with Sarah Palin.  You can catch them here and here

The first segment focused on foreign policy and national security questions.  I guffawed out loud a few times at the ignorance I felt was revealed.  Gibson's questions were tough, but mostly fair.  He was clearly trying to trap her.  This sort of questioning usually annoys me.  But in a situation like this (the same with Bush in 2000) there is something to be learned by watching someone off the top of their head maneuver a situation like this.  Because Charlie Gibson is never going to be as tough or crafty as Vladimir Putin, Hu Jintao, Nicholas Sarkozy, or any other major world leader.

She clearly had her talking points and kept sticking to them.   Even repeating some answers three times as Charlie tried for a simple yes or no.  Charlie was asking very important questions.  I have a right to know whether she thinks we should cross the Pakistani border after Bin Laden or our views on Israel's self defense in relation to Iran.  The hypothetical trap is itself a stupid sort of question and one that is difficult to answer.  But the broader issues of policy involved are important, and those policy positions were not clear. 

I wish Charlie had asked her how she could condemn the Russian invasion of Georgia as Russia acting without being provoked, while at the same time she supports the Bush Doctrine that we have the right to engage in a pre-emptive strike (meaning "even if not provoked").  Oh, and her not knowing what the Bush Doctrine was was very funny.

The second segment discusses Iraq, but it is really about her religious views.  It sounded to me like she was equivocating. 

It would be refreshing if she discussed her actual views (when she has them).  One thing that I liked about Reagan (and the old McCain) was he stated his views, even when they were viewed as radical.

The Female Vote?

According to the Today Show this morning, the latest Gallup Poll shows a significant swing.  Two weeks ago Obama had an 8 point lead with white women.  This week McCain has a twleve point lead.  A 20 point swing.

If Obama ends up losing this election, his not picking Hillary Clinton as his running mate may go down as one of the biggest mistakes in American political history.

Of course the poll is a post-convention bounce and may still settle out. 

Plus, polls this year have been very unreliable.  Polls are based on likely voters, but this year there are so many new voters.  Also, pollsters use land lines and not cell phones.  So, polls currently under-represent cell phone only users, who, stereotypically skew Democrat.

If this poll trend holds true, it will be something stunning. 

Twenty-four years ago few women were serving in Congress or working as CEO's or university presidents.  It was closer to the high energy period of the women's movement.  If there was a time for identity politics, that would seem to be a good time.

Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro.  Since women are a majority of the population, if identity politics were the major factor, then Mondale should have won, easily.  But he didn't.  In fact, he lost worst than anyone ever -- Reagan's re-election was the biggest landslide in American history.  So, clearly, identity politics was not dominant in 1984.

So, why should it be so in 2008?  Now there are so many more women in prominent positions of leadership throughout our society.  Doesn't it seem like identity politics alone should be less of an issue in 2008 than it was in 1984?

Then, I wonder if that is not the issue. 

I suspect that it is not that Palin is a woman, but that many women identify with her everyday, All-American mom image (this was not part of Ferraro's image, or that of many of the women who made it in politics in the last few generations). 


Here, David Brooks offers a good analysis that weirdness and surprise are the successful themes in this year's election and that Obama has recently ceded that ground to McCain.

Last winter, Barack Obama succeeded by running a weird campaign. He wasn’t just a normal politician aiming for office, he was going to cleanse the country of the baby-boom culture war mentality. In his soaring speeches, he denounced the mores of both the Clinton and Bush eras and made an argument for unity and hope over endless partisan warfare.

But over the course of the spring, Obama’s campaign got less weird. The crucial pivot came when he failed to seize on McCain’s offer to do a series of joint town-hall meetings across the country. Those meetings would have elevated the race and shown that Obama is willing to take risks in order to truly change the way things are done.