Previous month:
March 2011
Next month:
May 2011

April 2011

Raised With Christ

Raised With Christ

Matthew 28:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

24 April 2011



    Today I stand here proclaiming to you that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the grave.


    Let's back up and set the stage.

Since 63 B. C. E., the Jews had been governed by the Romans. The reign of Caesar Augustus and his immediate successors had instituted an era known as the Pax Romana, because unlike the centuries which preceded it, which had been torn apart by major wars between empires and dynasties, the period of the Pax Romana saw no major wars engulf the Mediterranean. This was, therefore, a time of relative peace and great prosperity, but the prosperity was primarily for the few. The Pax Romana also had its dark side. It was a false peace imposed upon the Mediterranean and Europe by an autocratic, imperial government. Even the Roman historian Tacitus described it negatively: "they make a desolation and call it peace."

    One group of people who clearly suffered was Jewish peasants. In this period, life suddenly became worse for the common people. The Jewish peasants were heavily taxed and were falling deeply into debt. The peasants would borrow money but in most cases would be unable to pay it back because of the high cost of living and the high tax burden. The peasant's property or land, which had been given as collateral, was then seized. The peasant then became a servant or sharecropper on the land he had once owned.

Now, Jews viewed land with a religious significance. Land had been promised to them by God during the Exodus. Land had been promised to them as part of Israel's return from exile in Babylon. The loss of land, therefore, was a theological as well as an economic issue.

    Government, religious authorities, the courts, and the economic forces all conspired in a system that led to the further degradation of the lowest classes of Jewish society. What was the result of all this economic and militaristic oppression? Growing unrest. In this period there were five revolts whose leaders claimed to be Messiah. These rebellions, insurgencies, and messianic movements eventually led to the Jewish War of the sixties and the destruction of Jerusalem.


    It was in this climate of unrest that Jesus of Nazareth appears proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand. God's reign is coming and will be ushered in by a radical new community committed to the way of God. Jesus then proceeds to give glimpses of the reign of God.

    One glimpse is when he heals those who are suffering physically.

    Another glimpse is when he includes those who are mentally ill.

    There's the glimpse of the kingdom that comes when we touches lepers – those outcasts of his society.

    Or when he says about the woman taken in adultery – "the one who is without sin, cast the first stone."

    Or when he welcomes all to the table.

    The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who come as children.

    To those willing to give to the poor.

    To those who have ministered unto the least of these.

    Blessed are the peacemakers, he says.

    From Nazareth comes this young man, an outcast of his own people. God's reign, which he proclaims, is a complete reversal of the status quo. It is an assault upon the religious, political, and economic authorities. The peasantry are drawing together to listen to and follow this one who is announcing that God's reign has begun. This one who claims to be God's anointed one and is challenging the power of the Caesars and the legitimacy of the religious authorities.

Finally, Jesus comes to Jerusalem, and is welcomed by the people like the political radical that he is. He cleanses the temple, announcing that this is to be a house of prayer for all nations and not a den of thieves. And as a result of these challenging actions, the powers-that-be seek to kill him.


This is the simple truth of the crucifixion -- it was the result of a life lived according to the way of God. And as the way of God confronts a violent world -- that violent world will often crucify the messenger of God.

In this moment the sin of the world was revealed. Sin is a condition of the creation, it is structural and systemic. We all participate in sin even when we do not intend to, simply as participants in the social system. This is part of what the Bible means when it refers to powers and principalities. Sin isn't so much about individual choices and actions but is about the corrupted institutions and structures of human society; structural aspects of human society that break relationships, thereby defying God's will for creation.

Sin breaks relationships. It alienates us from ourselves, from God, from other people. It ruptures the creation, because God's desire is for creation to be a communion of self-giving love.

The crucifixion of Jesus exposes all this corruption and failure of humanity to live according to God's desires. That alone could have been the end of the story. Another noble young radical cut down in his prime. But that is not where it ended.


Matthew tells us:


Suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. . . . the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised."


In this Easter moment, God vindicates the way of life of Jesus of Nazareth and, in doing so, God proclaims that God's way is

    inclusion of the outcast

    freedom for the oppressed

    justice for the poor

    healing for the suffering

    humility and self-giving

    compassion for all in a

    community based upon forgiveness and reconciliation

    and peace in a world of violence.

By this very act, the way of life of the powers and principalities has been defeated. We know that there is another way. That their way of doing things is not the way we have to live, should live, or will live.

In this very moment the authorities were put on notice that their attempts to divide, exclude, and violently oppress are judged by the creator of the universe. Yet, the powers-that-be continue to challenge the way of God in this world. They continue to sow darkness, doubt, and injury. They continue to preach that the way of God is division, exclusion, and violent oppression of those different from themselves. The Risen One stands to rebuke them. This is not the way of God. It is the way of Caesar. It is the way of sin. It is the path to hell.

We will not be thwarted by their failed philosophies and false doctrines, because we share in the power of the Risen One. We are ransomed from the power they had over us. We too have been raised with Christ.

The goodness and the beauty of this creation has been spoiled by violence and evil, but the Easter story is God's promise to recreate this fallen world. All creation will be transformed by divine power and glory.

This is the opportunity for spiritual awakening. Once we have encountered the Risen One, like Mary Magdalene, we are never the same again. We have a new vision, looking at the world with the eyes of hope. With this new vision we can go into the world, proclaiming the way of God.

    Let us make a habit then of ourselves

including the outcast

    liberating the oppressed

    seeking justice for the poor

    healing the suffering

    giving of ourselves with humility

    being compassionate toward all in a

    community based upon forgiveness and reconciliation

    and being the instruments of God's peace in a world of violence.


    For when we do these things, we are assured that we are living according to the will of God.

    It is with passionate faith that today I stand here and proclaim to you that when God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the grave that God raised you up to a new life.

    With courage and hope let us go forth and bear witness that we are alive!

The Main Event

The Main Event

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Easter Sunrise Meditation

First Central Congregational United Church of Christ

24 April 2011




In early November we began the journey of the church year – a journey that would take us through significant moments in the life of Jesus the Christ. During Advent our anticipation was high as we prepared to "Greet the New Morn." Christmas was a rousing celebration of the birth of the Christ. During Epiphany we "Let It Shine" as renewed our baptismal vows, explored the Sermon on the Mount, and gloried in the mysteries of the Transfiguration.

The Gospels tell us that at a point in his ministry that Jesus "set his face toward Jerusalem." In other words, Jesus prepared for that final journey that would take him to his death. On Ash Wednesday we set our own faces towards the cross and have journeyed to it over the previous six weeks. As we prayed for "Hearts That Open," we explored spiritual and communal practices of care and engaged in a robust series of church work days to prepare for spring and provide hospitality and welcome.

Last Sunday we laughed and sang and waved palm branches as the Christ entered Jerusalem. We covered our cross with palms and left it in the center of our labyrinth to remind us all week of where are journey was heading.

On Maundy Thursday we commemorated the Last Supper and the central role that the meal and communion plays in our on-going scriptural tradition. It is this sign and symbol of the fullness of the reign of God which reveals so much about the purpose of the days that follow.

On Good Friday we encountered crucifixion. Through scripture, music, and silent moments of prayer and meditation, the multiple meanings of this event intersected with our everyday lives and our current concerns.

The last few days as the cross was darkened and the altar was stripped, we have meditated upon Jesus lying in the tomb. Our Easter Vigil was a silent nature walk.

Today we take the next step in that spiritual journey that began with the anticipation and preparations of Advent. Today is Easter Sunday morn and we proclaim "Christ is risen!"


John Irving is one of North America's leading novelists, and one of Irving's most wonderful books is A Prayer for Owen Meany. In this novel the character John Wheelwright explores the nature of his own faith and the role played in it by his best friend Owen Meany. I've always been drawn to the following excerpt:


I find that Holy Week is draining; no matter how many times I have lived through

    his crucifixion, my anxiety about his resurrection is undiminished – I am terrified that, this year, it won't happen; that, that year, it didn't. Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event; if you don't believe in the resurrection, you're not a believer.

"If you don't believe in Easter," Owen Meany said, "Don't kid yourself – don't

call yourself a Christian."


We can rejoice loudly and exuberantly on this Easter Sunday because we have been through the valley of the shadow of death. Those of you who have known grief have experienced Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. You may have even shared the sentiment of Jesus, himself, "Oh, God, where are you?" I remember my own grief upon the death of my father, and how I moved about numbly for days afterwards. I imagine the disciples of our Lord did the same.


But this morning is not about sadness. It is about joy! It is about life! Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb and there she does not find the body of her friend. Instead she finds that friend alive. And she grabs hold of him. Imagine the joy you have felt every time you have made it through some dark trial. Or when a loved one has come successfully through surgery. Or when your children were born.

Jesus, so full of understanding, tells Mary she must let go, because she has a task ahead of her. "Go," Jesus tells her. She has a message to spread. "I am alive and ascending to my Father."


In what sense does Owen Meany have it right? Our Christian faith rests upon an absurdity -- something ridiculous, something which our rational, scientific, historical minds consider impossible. Our core narrative is that someone rose again -- that death is neither final nor absolute.

And it is in that sheer absurdity, we are to find hope, faith, and joy. This is the same gospel that absurdly proclaims "love your enemy" or that there can be "peace on earth." The same gospel that says "the first shall be last" and "blessed are those that mourn." This comes from the God who brought us the platypus and the giraffe and the rolly-polly. Listen to the song of a bird. In the struggle to survive and propagate the next generation, birds in their short, limited lives find time to sing with incredible rapture. That's absurd. That's a joke.

The Resurrection tells us "life will find a way." That existence is not merely necessity. It is not merely birth, growth, decay, and death. The Resurrection reminds us that we don't merely struggle to survive, but that we can absurdly hope for peace and mercy and justice and love and beauty and life. Or, as Wendell Berry put it, "Be joyful though you have considered all the facts." It's like God dancing and chanting "I can overcome all things and you can overcome them with me!"

Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life," and because of that, we can proclaim, "O death, where is thy sting?" Good Fridays most surely come, but Easter comes a few days later. And together we shout "Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed."

Recognizing the Anniversaries of the Civil War & Human Spaceflight in Sunday’s Pastoral Prayer


17 April 2011


As we begin this Holy Week journey, let us join together in our Prayer of Confession, printed in your order of worship.


Loving God save us from thin hopes and small dreams. Our cry is from the heart, from our very soul.


Where and when we fail, God is there to make all things new.



As we come to our time of pastoral prayer this week, a variety of things have occupied my mind. First were the significant anniversaries commemorated last Tuesday, April 12. It was the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter and the beginning of America's Civil War. It was also the 50th anniversary of the flight of Yuri Gagarin and humanity's first trip into outer space. Somehow, the two together were vivid reminders of the best and worst of the human condition. In my prayer today I will incorporate and adapt some words from President Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and some words from the quite good, but now dated, hymn "God of Earth and Outer Space" by Thad Roberts, Jr.


Then, as you can see from your blue insert, there were many prayer needs this week. Most significantly, on Wednesday we received the very sad news that our dear friend and brother the Rev. Don Klohr had died. Don had been contending with Parkinson's and prostate cancer for many years, but it was a bout of pneumonia which concluded his life this week. Don served as the Minister of Visitation here at First Central from 1993 until 2004.


When Don first accepted this position, he wrote in The Congregationalist:


I feel honored that First Central has placed its confidence in my capacity to provide this most essential ministry and look forward to serving Christ's cause among you.


Which he proceeded to do with great dignity, integrity, and grace.


Please note the times and locations for visitation and the funeral, which are listed on the blue insert to your bulletin. The funeral will not be here, but will be at the First Congregational Church in Council Bluffs where Donald served as Senior Minister from 1973-1991.


Let us pray.


God of earth and outer space,

God of love and God of grace,

Bless the astronauts who fly

As they soar beyond the sky.


God who flung the stars in space,

God who set the sun ablaze,

Fling the spacecraft thro' the air,

Let [us] know your presence there.


God of depth and God of height

God of darkness, God of light,

As [we walk] in outer space,

Teach [us] how to walk in grace.


For our brother Donald, we give you thanks.

Through his ministry among us, we were blessed.

Give your comfort now to Sue, Ann, Robert, and Jim.

And may all of us sow seeds of joy and love and savour every minute of it.


Our thoughts and prayers reach out to include all our sisters and brothers in need.

For Val and Frances, we pray for a speedy recovery from surgery.

For Rick and his family, our condolences upon the death of his father.

For Patrick, strength in this time of illness.

For Dorothy and her family, courage and hope in the weeks ahead.

And praise and thanksgiving for how well Ryder's surgery went on Thursday.


Let us remember these and others in a time of silent reflection.




Finally, for our nation we pray, O God,

For the lasting wounds of slavery and civil war.

As we remember our darkest hours,

May we find the courage to face the truth:


With malice toward none,

with charity for all,

with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,

let us strive on to finish the work we are in,

to bind up the nation's wounds,

to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.


And, now, as our Savior taught us, we pray:




Our Father who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.


Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,

As we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.


For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.



In this Holy Week, we are reminded that God does not ask a token of support. We are called to give all of ourselves, of which our offering here today is but a symbol. May our gifts proclaim good news to the world.

Ride On! Ride On in Majesty

Ride On! Ride On in Majesty

Matthew 21:1-11

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

17 April 2011



    At the end of the Book of Genesis, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, the one who stole from his brother Esau, argued with his father-in-law Laban, enjoyed the sexual competition of his two wives and their handmaids, wrestled with God in the night, and mourned his son Joseph when he thought he had been killed by wild beasts, this very Jacob lies dying in Egypt with his twelve sons around him. Jacob is not much of a hero; he is a clever, cunning scoundrel, really. Yet, he is still the recipient of God's grace. Here at the end of his life he does something that none of the other patriarchs had yet done. He blesses all of his sons.

    Abraham, you might remember, sent Ishmael off into the wilderness to die, almost killed Isaac, and then sent away without inheritance the six sons he had with his second wife Keturah. Isaac turned around and offered only one real blessing for his two sons Esau and Jacob who became locked in competition for it, and Jacob won it by trickery and deceit.

    Jacob, after his long and not very good life, has maybe learned a lesson. He offers blessing to all twelve sons. And in his blessing for his son Judah, we read:


Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father's sons shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion's whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He crouches down, he stretches out like a lion, like a lioness—who dares rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and the obedience of the peoples is his. Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey's colt to the choice vine, he washes his garments in wine and his robe in the blood of grapes; his eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.


    Isn't that a nice little plug for oral hygiene at the end, which is really something we should all remember when passing along blessing to our children.

    Oh, Jacob. Yes, he remembers to bless all twelve sons, but in Judah's blessing he says all the other brothers and their descendants will bow down before Judah and give tribute and obedience. This dysfunctional, yet God-graced, family still has some things to learn.

    It is from this passage that the phrase "Lion of Judah" comes. And, according to the genealogy Matthew gives at the very beginning of his gospel, Judah is the ancestor of Jesus.

    Relevant to us today is the reference to the donkey's colt. According to the textual notes in my Bible, in the ancient Near East, the traditional transport for kings, rulers, and the gods in stories was donkeys. In our imagination, the donkey is a rather humble animal, especially compared with the brave steed of a warrior. But in its origin as a biblical symbol, riding on a donkey's colt is a sign of blessing and sovereignty.


    Now, this image of riding on a donkey appears again in the Hebrew Scriptures in the book of the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah is one of those biblical books that probably most of us have trouble finding, buried back there in the Minor Prophets. Remember that the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian Empire and their evil king Nebuchadnezzar. The people were taken into exile, living away from their homeland for seventy years. Finally, after the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians, the Jews were eventually allowed to begin returning to their homeland, which they did in successive waves over many years.

    When the people were allowed to return home, they were full of hope. When they got home and saw how much work they'd have to do to rebuild the cities, the walls, the temple, and their way of life, they weren't quite as hopeful. And the great visions of hope and change didn't come as quickly as they had expected. It was in this context that Zechariah preached.

    The passage relevant to us comes from the second section of the Book of Zechariah, which scholars date as even later and written by some anonymous person who appended their visions to those of the earlier prophet Zechariah. This second set of visions is even more bleak, reflecting a period when there was a crisis of leadership. This pseudo-Zechariah, then, looks back upon Jacob's blessing of Judah for his own vision of what the new ruler should be like. We read:


Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!

Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!

Lo, your king comes to you;

triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem;

and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations;

his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.


As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,

I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.

Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;

today I declare that I will restore to you double. . .


On that day the Lord their God will save them

for they are the flock of his people;

for like the jewels of a crown they shall shine on his land.

For what goodness and beauty are his!

Grain shall make the young men flourish, and new wine the young women.


    Overlook for a moment that final line wherein the young men get drunk on grain alcohol and the young women enjoy the new wine. What we have is a vision of the abundant blessing that God, in God's grace, will bestow upon these troubled people.

The king who will lead the armies of God, the armies that will bring destruction upon the nations – if you read the rest of the passage there are some pretty graphic descriptions of the vengeance that will be enacted – this king of hosts comes riding in triumphant, victorious, and humble. And according to the oracle, "on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

Notice that now it is humble for a king to ride a donkey and not a horse, but pseudo-Zechariah wants to make the connection explicit with the blessing back in Genesis, so he makes sure to use the words donkey, foal, and colt, all three of which appeared in the passage in Genesis. So, he engages in some repetition in order to emphasize his point and draw our attention to the scriptural connection with the ancient blessing. The purpose of this scriptural connection, then, is for those who heard pseudo-Zechariah's message to hope that God would quickly send a new ruler from the line of Judah to take charge during the troubled times in which they lived. And this ruler would bring about the vision of grace and blessing.


Finally, then, we jump ahead to our gospel story today the next time that the donkey and the colt appear in the biblical tradition.

One feature of the Gospel of Matthew is that the author is constantly looking for any Old Testament references he can borrow. At times he strains the original texts to their breaking points to get them to fit into the life of Jesus he is telling. At times it is rather comical. And today is one of those instances.

Matthew wants us to understand Jesus' entry into Jerusalem as fulfillment of the oracle from Zechariah and the original blessing of the descendants of Judah to be the rulers of the people. And so to get us to understand that connection, he quotes from Zechariah and also draws on this image of the donkey and the colt.

But notice something in today's Gospel story. In verses 6-7 we read:


The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.


    Matthew is so intent on making sure the story fits the vision in Zechariah, that unlike Mark, Luke, and John who only have Jesus riding in on one animal – a colt in Mark and Luke and a young donkey in John – Matthew has Jesus riding in on two animals – a donkey and its young colt. Now, this is a rather funny image.

    In his commentary on the passage, O. Wesley Allen, Jr. writes:


Do you think Jesus had one leg over the tall donkey and another over the small colt? Do you think he stood on both like an acrobat in the circus, one leg straight and the other bent? Or did he, like some artists have tried to render it, sit sidesaddle on the donkey with his feet on the colt?


    Now, I don't think Matthew is a dumby. I think his comically literalist rendering is meant to make us pause and look for what is really going on here. And what is going on is that this lion of Judah riding in on the donkey and the colt isn't going to demand that all his sisters and brothers bow down before him and pay him tribute, nor does he come riding at the head of an army that will slaughter the enemies of Israel. Instead, this Jesus comes as the agent of the God who blessed the scoundrel Jacob and chose the exiled and hopeless Jews to be agents of world salvation.

    Frederick Buechner writes, "Is it possible, I wonder, to say that it is only when you hear the Gospel as a wild and marvelous joke that you really hear it at all?"

And what might that joke be? He writes,


It all happened not of necessity, not inevitably, but gratuitously, freely, hilariously. And what was astonishing, gratuitous, hilarious was, of course, the grace of God.


    Thank Goodness!


A lot of on-line news this week about Sen. Jim Inhofe's support of ousted dictator Laurent Gbagbo.  But this was news to me, a Lost Ogle post about how he darn near killed some construction workers when he landed his plane on a closed runway and then acted like a complete jerk about it.