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October 2013

Life & Labors: Moving to Omaha

In a sermon a few years ago, I shared some of Rev. Gaylord's comments about the move to Omaha that winter of 1855, when they traversed ice covered rivers and were chased by wolves and were temperatures in Omaha, when they arrived, ranged from 25-32 degrees below zero!  Mrs. Mary Gaylord records the following:

Early in December, 1855, we set out on our journey of three hundred miles across the state of Iowa.  Mr. Gaylord proposed leaving his family till spring, but they preferred to come with him and help bear the burdens which would fall to his lot in a new and untried field of labor. . . .  We traveled in a two-seated carriage with a span of horses--five of us in all.  The youngest was the little boy, who afterward died in Omaha, then only ten months old.  We had been told the roads were usually good in December and the weather mild.  That winter and the next proved to be exceptions.  After the first day we encountered rain and mud, then snow and intense cold.  It was often difficult to find any place to stay at night--sometimes seven or eight o'clock before we could get entertainment for ourselves and horses.  In the timber, on South river, one of the carriage wheels suddenly droppsed into a deep rut and the axletree broke.  There was no house near, but Mr. Gaylord cut a hickory saplings, bent it around and secured it with a rope, so that we forded the river and came on to Indianola.  

I've duct-taped a church bus window when the seal broke, but never have I repaired an axle.

Days of severe cold, our slow and difficult progress, often through almost "untrodden snow," to human view was very disheartening.  But knowing the watchful care of our Almighty Father was over us continually, we were not discouraged.

In western Iowa were unbridged streams with high, steep, icy banks.  These were frozen at the sides, but water running in the channel.  Twenty miles before reaching the Nodaway river, Mr. Gaylord was warned that it was useless to proceed, as there was no possibility of crossing it, but we kept on.  We found a man and two boys living in a shanty near the river bank.  Their services were secured, and a place was found up the stream where the family could walk over on the ice.  Returning to the ford we sat down upon a log with our faces turned away, unwilling to look upon the dangerous exploit.  Rails and branches of trees were laid down the side of the steep, icy descent to prevent the carriage from sliding around and being wrecked on a stage coach, which had been fast in the middle of the stream for three days.  Mr. Gaylord succeeded in driving across without accident, and we pressed on our way.

They reached Council Bluffs, and there was no room in the inn.  Literally.  So, they stayed with the Congregational minister.  The house which was to have been ready for them in Omaha, was not.  The winter had delayed it.  So, despite how rough the travel had been, the first weeks and months in Omaha were awful as well.  A rather inadequate home was secured, and they moved across the river.

We crossed the Missouri on the ice at a point then quite north of town.  The cold was so intense that we were nearly paralyzed on our arrival, and had to be helped into the house.


When they arrived, Rev. Gaylord found Methodist and Baptist ministers already at work.  No one had yet incorporated a church or built a church building.  All were meeting in territorial capital and organizing classes and societies on the side.  Mrs. Gaylord organized a Ladies' Society.  

Gaylord thought highly of the expectations:

I see unmistakable evidence of energy and enterprise in this place that give promise of progress and a season of activity in buisness and improvements. . . .  For beauty the situation is unsurpassed.  It is on the great thoroughfare westward, and will, beyond all doubt, be the first point on the Missouri river reached by a railroad.

The lack of a church building or schoolhouse alarmed him.  The public morals were bad and needed improving.  But he was already making connections with the leading men of the city and drawing together a strong group.  The church was incorporated with nine individuals, including Origen D. Richardson, who had been lieutenant governor of Michigan.

17 years before he had been on the frontier, now it had moved 300 miles west.  And soon after settling in Omaha, they were reminded that it was frontier:

We have been forcibly reminded within the last month that we are really on the "frontier."  The town has been thronged with the native Indians, the former lords of this soil.  There were, at one time for nearly two weeks, 800 or 900 of the Omaha Indians encamped about two miles from this place.  One day they were all in town at once, and received from the government agent 600 sacks of flour and several hogsheads of sugar.

Making a Way

Making a Way

Luke 16:1-9

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

27 October 2013



    Let us remember Jesus' audience. It was primarily peasants. Peasants living under an oppressive empire. In an economy of limited resources, where everyone had to struggle to get enough to survive. Where the rich grew richer, often through exploitation. And the common person fell deeper into debt, leading to poverty and servitude. With next to no opportunities to right the wrongs one experienced. Next to no chance to be heard. Next to no chance to change all of this, especially in the short time one was likely to live.

    And, so, this peasant audience would love a story about some rich dudes getting fleeced. Particularly doing it to each other. It is a delight not unfamiliar to us after Enron, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers, etc.

    Jesus' story calls attention to the reality that these elites are growing richer by hiking up prices, burdening others with debt, and doctoring the books. They even get rich through bribes and graft. It is a corrupt system. A destructive system.

    Jesus' audience knows this already. What they don't expect, what we don't expect is the ending. And two millennia's worth of scholars still can't quite figure out what to do with this ending.

    But what we do know is that the confusion and puzzlement it generates open up an opportunity. Maybe we will see something we haven't seen before. Imagine something we haven't imagined before. The kingdom of God is in surprising places.

    Brandon Scott says that this ending deconstructs the "metaphorical structure" of the story, because the evil rich dude isn't playing to stereotype. The power of his story is not exposing the system they are already familiar with. The power of his story is that it makes a tiny crack in the system. What if the landowner acted in an unexpected way?

    And just that tiny little crack creates an opportunity. An opportunity to imagine something else. And for these peasants, maybe getting a chance to imagine something new is the greatest gift Jesus was able to give them that day.


    So, hearing this story, what might one imagine?

    Based on everything else Jesus did and everything else Jesus taught, we can put together an image.

    Instead of a world where everyone is struggling over limited resources, what if there was sharing and cooperation? What if that even included reaching out to our enemies?

    Jesus' audience could have walked home that evening thinking these very thoughts. Then, when they got home, what if they were a little kinder to someone who had wronged them the day before? What if next week they offered to help someone they had struggled with in the past? What if slowly, a small group of them began to cooperate more and share more? What effect might this have?

    It might just challenge the kingdoms of this world because these people would begin, even if in a limited way, to live according to a different kind of kingdom. One not based on struggle and greed, but one based on kindness and sharing.

    And what started out simply as imagination had the potential to become an experience of healing. Jesus' audience wasn't going to overthrow the Roman Empire or radically alter the global economy, but they could choose to create a space in which together they did live according to different values.


    All of Jesus' parables are about the kingdom of God, about an alternative way of living in relationship with one another. Jesus uses the word "kingdom" in order to make fun of it and subvert it, because what he envisions is nothing like a kingdom.

    As we've gone through these parables in Luke, a couple of other themes have emerged. Jesus didn't believe in the fantasy of a perfect life. Jesus also didn't believe in the fantasy of a perfect future. As Brandon Scott writes, "The parables over and over again reject both of these options. They depict a world of everyday veniality, at times tragic and unclean, with miracle muted or hidden."

    The parables are filled with a bunch of disturbing characters and disturbing images, because this is reality. The parables are set in the real world. Not in a fantasy world. And our everyday world is venial, tragic, and unclean. It is greedy and we must make compromises and we often fail. But despite all of that, there are still these moments in the midst of the ordinary when we encounter the presence of God. It is often where we least expect it. Sometimes in the downright awkward. But God's grace manifests itself, and we are overcome. The miracle, God's grace, might be "muted or hidden," but it is still there. Present even in greedy managers and evil rich dudes.

    Jesus' audience had a whole lot more to complain about than we do, but even they recognized these surprising gifts of God.     


    So, Jesus invites us to use our imaginations, but not to get lost in fantasy. This is the real world. Given all that troubles us about it, what can we do?

    The prophets proclaimed a vision of a new world where love, justice, and peace reigned and everyone shared in abundance. While that vision animates us, it can sometimes depress us, because our reality is still so far away from what we dream. Watching the news every evening or reading the paper with our breakfast, we can grow pessimistic and cynical; we can lose hope.

    But, I remind us, that our circumstances are far better, as least materially and politically, than those who first heard Jesus' stories and used them to change world. Vaclav Havel, the great leader of the Czech people, wrote that "[Hope] is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." The parables are meant to give us that sort of hope.

    The writer and activist Alice Walker once used a phrase to describe her mother, a phrase that can help us to understand what we are to do. Alice Walker wrote that her mother "made a way out of no way." As a twentieth-century African-American woman who had few opportunities open to her, she made a way for herself and those she cared about.

    The contemporary theologian Monica Coleman borrowed that idea and wrote an entire book of theology with that as the governing theme and title "Making a Way Out of No Way." Despite all the circumstances and limitations of reality, we can band together with other people and work for our salvation. She writes, "Salvation is found in the process of building a community of diverse, disenfranchised people with a common yearning for a better life."


    Over the last few months I've been slowly making my way through the book The Life and Labors of Reuben Gaylord. Reuben Gaylord was the founder of the First Congregational Church of Omaha. He and his family came here as pioneers in 1855. The book was put together by his wife Mary after his death. It is filled with his letters, reports, and sermon excerpts.

    This week, I came across an interesting episode, from Rev. Gaylord's final years in Iowa where he had served as a missionary, church planter, and pastor of the church in Danville. For sixteen years, his work, his salary, had been supported financially by the Home Missionary Society. In May, 1854, he wrote to the society, on behalf of his church, refusing to take any more mission funds. The reason? They were taking a stand for justice and what was right.


I will state clearly a point in regard to which the members of this church are troubled. It is not that the Society has not spoken against slavery, or failed to condemn it as a heinous sin, but they feel that in granting aid to churches, the condition ought to be, that slaveholding should be a disciplinable offense, or in other words, a bar to membership in those churches. . . . In view of this state of feeling, it was decided to be our duty to ask no further aid of your Society. Such was the decision at our annual business meeting. The question excited a great degree of interest, and I had serious fears lest it might cause division and thus paralyze our efforts, but such was not the case. And now having cut loose from the great fountain of Christian charity, from which we have obtained help so long, we decided to raise the $400 among ourselves, if possible. By the blessing of God upon their united effort, they have succeeded and the subscription is made up.


What risk! This small band of people on the frontier were struggling to make ends meet in support of their own families. They faced fears that drought, storm, flood, prairie fire, illness, or injury could wipe out everything for which they worked. Surely any money given in support of the local congregation was a great sacrifice for most of the people.

Yet, they chose, as a congregation to reject this outside support because of their view of what was just and what was right compelled them to. They knew the challenge presented by this decision. The church took an existential risk when they made this decision. As a community, they would have to work harder together.

Could one tiny frontier congregation bring down the evil of slavery? Could they change the entire national economy or the political situation in Washington? Of course not, but they could come together as this small group and imagine something different. They could share more with each other, creating an alternative way of life that would witness for a new way of living. They would be like the mustard seed or the leaven. They would make a way out of no way.

In the autumn of 1856, the entire General Association of Iowa sent a request to the Home Missionary Society calling for this policy of the Danville church to be adopted by the national church. And the Society responded. The Executive Committee of the Home Missionary Society adopted the following resolution in response:


Resolved, That in the disbursement of funds committed to their trust, the Committee will not grant aid to churches containing slave-holding members.



We are heirs to a surprising legacy. One in which Jesus invites us to imagine something different, and then act on it. Be a little kinder. Share more. Help each other, even those who annoy you. Create small communities who live differently, and, thereby, begin to change the world.

As heirs to this legacy, let us make a way, out of no way, together. That God's kingdom might come on earth, as it is in heaven.


Emma (Everyman's Library Classics, #36)Emma by Jane Austen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre contends that Jane Austen is a virtue ethicist. Maybe no where moreso than in Emma.

Emma lacks some of the dark undertones that appear in Austen's other novels, though there is still that sense of women trapped in a system they cannot change, competing for the attention of men if they are to survive and thrive. Emma Woodhouse, unlike some of the other heroines, is less in need of a man, materially, so there is less urgency and dread.

Instead, there is moral development in Emma. But, even here, I think Austen is sly. She is never the romantic that so many readers think she is. Her characters are more often comic send-ups of her contemporaries. Are we to admire how much Emma Woodhouse has grown as a person or are we to laugh at how little she has?

There is also an interesting discussion of honesty in the novel, with epistemological implications, as evidenced by this paragraph near the end:

Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material. -- Mr. Knightley could not impute to Emma a more relenting heart than she possessed, or a heart more disposed to accept of his.

I did not enjoy Emma as much as Sense and Sensibility (I've still only read three Austen novels), though I have enjoyed the film and television adaptations of it, particularly Clueless.

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Hear Then the Parable

Hear Then the ParableHear Then the Parable by Bernard Brandon Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Actually, I haven't read all of this book, but I did read all the introductory and closing material and the commentaries on the parables I've preached in my recent series on the parables in Luke. Enough to evaluate the book and know that I'll be using it in the future when I preach on parables.

Scott gives fresh, interesting, and provocative readings of Jesus' stories. Readings that are great for proclamation.

The parables are set in the everyday world, which is venial, "tragic and unclean,with miracle muted or hidden." Sounds like my world, how about yours?

Yet, Jesus teaches that "The God of the parables is one who engages in a radical solidarity with folks."

Sign me up.

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Augustine on Death, Sin, & Sex

I skimmed over 250 pages of The City of God yesterday, in my attempt to be done with it.  Much was Augustine's commentary on the biblical story and pagan history, an in argument of his claim that there are two cities co-existing on the earth, one focused on God and one focused on self.  His commentary includes both allegorical and literal interpretations of scripture.

The only bits I found remotely interesting were his discussion of death and sex, though neither was enjoyable or encouraging.

On death he claims, God had made humans so "that if they discharged the obligations of obedience, an angelic immortality and a blessed eternity might ensue, without the intervention of death," but this opportunity was lost when Adam and Eve sinned and death was inherited by all humans.

What is worse, however, is the death of the soul, when the soul is forsaken by God, and this occurs as the "second death."  He goes on for a long time explaining these views and clarifying sticky points (or what were sticky points in his context).

Because the corruption of death is passed on biologically through reproduction, one begins to see how the negative view of sex developed in Western Christianity.  He writes, "For by them so great a sin was committed, that by it human nature was altered for the worse, and was transmitted also to their posterity, liable to sin and subject to death."

He knows that some object to this great punishment for the first sin, which seems so slight -- eating the fruit.  But because it was so simple is why it is so bad, Augustine thinks.  It was an easy command to follow, which shows the corrupt pride of the human will.  In Chapter XII of Book XIV "On the Nature of Man's First Sin," he teaches that  God "commended obedience" and that "submission is advantageous to it."  God's command was simple, "abstinence" from the fruit of one tree.  This was a light burden because "lust" did not yet exist, that came only as "the penal consequence of sin."

Remember, Jews never viewed Genesis 3 in this light, as a story of "original sin."  

And note the word choices (clearly, this is an English translation) and how the muddle of sin, death, sex, desire, and pleasure would develop in Western thought.  

Adam and Eve were already wicked because they were proud, "craving for undue exaltation."  What they should have exhibited was "pious humility [which] enables us to submit to what is above us."  It doesn't take a genius to figure out how damning those ideas (so contrary to Jesus) will be for the next 1500 years.  We still aren't fully liberated from them.

Sin, then, is "despising the authority of God."  This, of course, will easily translate to obeying earthly authorities.

So, one consequence of sin (death already having been discussed and linked to it) is lust, taking pleasure in sex.  Augustine is well acquainted with lust, pleasure, and sex.  If you have read his Confessions, you know his pre-Christian life as a libertine.

He writes that sexual pleasure is "the greatest of all bodily pleasures" and that "at the moment of time in which it is consummated, all mental activity is suspended."  This seems to be part of the problem, as losing our reason makes us less than human.

Augustine is not alone in this idea among the ancients.  Pagan, as well as Christian, thinkers believed that reproduction should be handled rationally, without emotion, desire, or pleasure.  Read Foucault's The History of Sexuality.  I believe this was also the view of St. Paul (Read Sex and the Single Savior by Dale Martin).

This school of ancient thought declared that any man who took pleasure was effeminate, even if having heterosexual sex.  For men were rational, women were emotional.  To enjoy sex was unmanly, unnatural, and immoral.  Modern fundamentalists have completely ignored this aspect of New Testament heterosexual ethics in their screeching about gay sex.

Augustine believes that, if it weren't for the sin of Adam, men would be able to control their erections at will, rather than through stimulation.  And that they could impregnate a woman through an act devoid of physical stimulation or pleasure for either person.  Sounds great, doesn't it!?!

Here is Augustine's description of the ideal reproductive act:

In such happy circumstances and general human well-being we should be far from suspecting that offspring could not have been begotten without the disease of lust, but those parts, like all the rest, would be set in motion at the command of the will; and without the seductive stimulus of passion, with calmness of mind and with no corrupting of the integrity of the body, the husband would lie upon the bosom of his wife.  Nor ought we not to believe this because it cannot be proved by experiment.  But rather, since no wild heat of passion would arouse those parts of the body, but a spontaneous power, according to the need, would be present, thus must we believe that the male semen could have been introduced into the womb of the wife with the integrity of the female genital organ being preserved. . . To be sure, the seed could be introduced in the same way through which the menses can be emitted.  In order that not the groans of labor-pain should relax the female organs for parturition, but rather the impulse of the fully developed foetus, thus not the eager desire of lust, but the normal exercise of the will, should join the male and female for breeding and conception.

Do you need a cigarette?  Augustine writes that while he must discuss these issues, the topics are "shameful."  Sex, even that for reproduction between spouses should happen in "darkness and secrecy."  How many thousands or maybe even millions of people attempted to have passion-less sex in the last 1500 years?  Also, it seems to me that he believes this introduction of the semen into the womb could occur without penetration?  Or at least full penetration?

If you think these anti-pleasure ideas are passe, I suggest reading Michael Bronski's The Pleasure Principle, in which he argues that the primary objection of straight society against the gay community has been the promotion of pleasure within the latter, including, but not limited to, sex for enjoyment.

Later, in Book VX, Chapter XXII, while discussing something completely different (the sons of God sleeping with the daughters of men in Genesis) he writes, "And this calamity, as well as the first, was occasioned by woman."  I give a sigh of exasperation and disgust.

In the same chapter he writes God "cannot be evilly loved."  Wow.  What an false statement is that.  And you need look no further for a good example of the evil love of God than these very statement of Augustine's which oppressed millions of people and still do.

More on the banality of evil

Ta-Nahesi Coates writing about German reaction to the Holocaust after the war.  He writes in conclusion:

Accepting that the structures of evil are not mystical, but are the work of actual humans who parent children is terrifying. It is terrifying to understand that you could be under the chain or you could be holding it, that evil is common and can't be passed off to some amorphous evil in the hazy past, or condemned to the fringes of the present.