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February 2016

Grace: Free, Costly, & Surprising

Grace: Free, Costly, & Surprising

Luke 13:22-30

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

28 February 2016



    Will only a few be saved?


    Jesus doesn't actually answer the question. Commentators say that in this story he refuses to be drawn into a theoretical question.

    Which was a live question in Jesus' religious world. There was disagreement within Judaism as to which people were included in God's covenant. Some took a very restrictive view that only those who strictly abided by certain ethical codes were the true children of God. Some thought the covenant was based upon ethnicity, in particular that all Jews were included automatically and non-Jews were either excluded or had extra work to do. But some Jewish thinkers tended to a broader view that anyone was welcome into covenant with God.

    That debate continued into the early Christian movement. Read Acts or Galatians and you see evidence of the struggle. Did non-Jews need to be circumcised in order to become Christians? Should Christians keep kosher, was that a requirement? Could Ethiopian eunuchs or Roman soldiers be a part of the Jesus movement?

    St. Paul's letter to the Romans was fixated on this topic, particularly on the relationship between Jews and non-Jews after the revelation of God in Jesus. Paul wrestled with the topic, writing about what it meant to be justified by God. The great Paul scholar Bishop N. T. Wright has written, "Justification is not just about 'how I get my sins forgiven.' It is about how God creates, in the Messiah Jesus and in the power of his Spirit, a single family . . . through whom [God's] purposes can now be extended into the wider world."

    So, asking Jesus his view on a hot theological topic seems okay.

    But, as I said, Jesus didn't answer the question.

    Writes Brendan Byrne, "But Jesus will not respond to speculations in these terms. Instead, he turns the question back once more into a warning not to miss the opportunity while it is still available." And Luke Timothy Johnson says, "Jesus turn[s] a theoretical question into an existential challenge."

    The challenge, the opportunity is a reminder that we have been invited into God's hospitality. Are we going to respond? For you sure don't want to show up late to the party.


    Because our congregation emphasizes a broad welcome and radical inclusion, we might be troubled by a passage which seems to exclude and narrow the hospitality of God. But does this story do that? I'm not so sure. Notice verse 29 "Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God." That's pretty inclusive, and draws upon an image in the prophets of all nations streaming unto Jerusalem when God's reign begins in fullness.

    Let's take this opportunity, then to look more carefully at the grace of God. In this discussion I will be guided by theologian Patrick Cheng in his book From Sin to Amazing Grace. Cheng proclaims that God's grace is three things—it is free, it is costly, and it is surprising.

    First, God's grace is free.

    There is no limit to the love and welcome of God. God offers salvation and healing to all creation in hopes that every one and every thing will be included in the family of God. And that grace is freely given. Grace is God's gift to us. We do nothing to earn grace. We enjoy no privilege or status or special honor due to our nationality, our race, our sexual orientation, even our behavior. Nothing earns us more of God's love. God loves the most wicked of humans as much as God loves the gentlest saints among us. There is no more freeing, more liberating, more healing message than this core truth of the Gospel.

    So, is the Gospel contradicted by saying that grace is also costly? The term "Costly Grace" comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A moment ago we heard an excerpt from the opening chapter of his monumental work The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was lamenting one of the greatest failures in the history of Christianity—the connection between the Nazi government and the established Protestant churches of Germany. Bonhoeffer, and others like Karl Barth, believed that this failure on the part of the established churches resulted from a weak theology. The churches had come to believe that God's grace expected nothing of them and so they had cheapened it. Grace may be free, but grace is not cheap.

    While pastoring in Oklahoma City I heard a phrase that expressed this idea most succinctly—"God loves you just the way you are and so much not to let you stay that way." And we get this. We love our children unconditionally but we also love them so much that we want them to become their best selves. We want them to learn and grow and develop.

    Bonhoeffer's point is that God's grace should evoke in us a response of gratitude and praise that gives rise to a desire to follow Jesus, which is a demanding ethics. Patrick Cheng writes, "Even though grace is a free gift from God, [grace] still demands that we be transformed by it."

    And grace is surprising, precisely because grace can transform us.

    John Newton, the composer of the hymn "Amazing Grace" had been a slave trader before his own transformation into an Anglican priest and ultimately an abolitionist. Patrick Cheng writes, "The implicit message of Newton's hymn is that if a slave trader can become an Anglican priest through the amazing power of God's grace, then all of us can be transformed."

    Will you let grace change you?


    Growing up a Southern Baptist in Oklahoma our worship was routinely focused on such a question. In particular our hymns were invitations to receive God's saving grace and be transformed.


If you'll take one step t'ward the Savior, my friend,

You'll find his arms open wide;

Receive him, and all of your darkness will end,

Within your heart he'll abide.


Time after time he has waited before,

And now he is waiting again

To see if you're willing to open the door,

Oh, how he wants to come in.



Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,

Calling for you and for me;

See, on the portals he's waiting and watching,

Watching for you and for me.


Come home, come home,

Ye who are weary come home;

Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,

Calling, O sinner, come home!



    In our worship the invitation may be less direct, but, hopefully, no less real. Particularly during communion we invite everyone to receive the gifts of God and to respond by becoming part of the people of God.


    While we offer God's free grace, let us not us not become lazy, for God's grace is not cheap. Grace can and will transform us if we commit our lives to follow Jesus, living as he taught us.

    The question, then, isn't whether few or all will be saved. The question, as Jesus rightly points out is, will you take the opportunity to respond? Will you receive the hospitality of God and be transformed?


The Face in the Mirror


One of the unexpected experiences of adulthood has been looking in the mirror and seeing the face of my father looking back. What was initially surprising has grown familiar. I turn 42 tomorrow, an age that Dad did not reach. I will have to become familiar with a new experience--seeing what Dad would have looked like.

Note: this earlier post of how 41 didn't turn out to be the weird year I expected.

The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wrestled with the first part of the book. A lot of the social science research I thought was too detailed, and I didn't care for the biographical portions, so I skimmed a lot. Plus I took issue with the basic idea. Haidt was arguing that reason is not the source of morality, confirming Hume. He was writing against a period when many psychologists promoted a rational approach. But philosophers have always known that emotions and other non-rational things are powerful drivers. They just have argued that we ought to develop our reason in ways that try to control those non-rational parts the best we can. Haidt doesn't think we can do that. I disagree. That's I've been persuaded to change my mind on a topic by a convincing argument is one example. And I've done that many times in my life. (What's more interesting to me is how once I have changed my mind on a topic, I am often more committed to the new position than I was the previous one.)

The middle part of the book develops the variety of sources that combine to create our morality. That was more interesting.

The final section then applies the topic to contemporary political divides (was I the only one who felt like there were 2-3 different books in this one?). He argues that his research explains the sharp divides in current politics. He then offers some suggestions of what various sides can learn from each other. Some of this was interesting, some wasn't so much.

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When God Visits

When God Visits

Luke 8:22-39

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

21 February 2016



    Last week Laura Mierau asked me, "Why pineapples?"

    Pineapples in architecture and design are symbols of welcome, hospitality, and friendship. Stone pineapples might flank the entryway to a home or garden.

    This motif arose in Colonial America when fresh pineapples were rare and a sign of a rich and resourceful hostess. Because of their rarity, they were used to crown tablescapes. One website I read described the scene:


In larger, well-to-do homes, the dining room doors were kept closed to heighten visitors' suspense about the table being readied on the other side. At the appointed moment, and with the maximum amount of pomp and drama, the doors were flung open to reveal the evening's main event. Visitors confronted with pineapple-topped food displays felt particularly honored by a hostess who obviously spared no expense to ensure her guests' dining pleasure


In this manner, the fruit which was the visual keystone of the feast naturally came to symbolize the high spirits of the social events themselves; the image of the pineapple coming to express the sense of welcome, good cheer, human warmth and family affection inherent to such gracious home gatherings.


    Thankfully these days we can just grab a pineapple easily at the grocery store. Though I still feel a little fancy whenever I do.


    Luke's Gospel is dominated by this theme of Jesus being God's visitation to Earth, visiting for our salvation. Which prompts the question we are considering throughout Lent—"How will we receive our guest?"

    But, let's back up and consider another question first today--What happens when God comes to visit? I think the two stories in today's Gospel reading are answers to that question. When God comes to visit God confronts and defeats the destructive forces that threaten our lives.

    The storm upon the sea is a symbol for chaos. More than just a story about being on a boat, we can interpret the story on another level. Jesus can calm the chaos that threatens our lives with meaninglessness. Jesus can bring peace to our anxieties, faith in place of our fears, trust to remove our doubts, and hope instead of despair.

    The demon-possessed man in the second story is clearly a symbol of the most dehumanized of persons—naked, homeless, mentally battered, without friends or family or the protection of human society, exiled to the graveyard—a living death. And by the end of this story the man is calm, exhibiting self-control, clothed, and able to return home again.

    Those who observe these moments are left astonished, maybe even afraid, at the power exhibited. The point isn't that they are astonished at miracles, for that's commonplace in the Gospel stories, they are astonished at Jesus' sovereignty over fundamental forces and over destructive, dehumanizing powers.

    Brendan Byrne writes, "Jesus comes to summon human beings back to the hospitality of the [Heavenly Parent's] home, where alone true humanity can be attained."

    You see, when God comes to visit, God becomes the host, offering us a graceful hospitality, offering us salvation, by inviting us home again, into the family of God.


    In the church I grew up in the time of greeting and shaking hands ended not with "Blessed be the tie" as it does here but with the chorus "I'm so glad, I'm a part of the family of God," which closed with these lines:


Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod,

For I'm part of the family,

The Family of God.


    Pastoring to a predominately gay and lesbian congregation in Oklahoma City I learned that every time I emphasized this aspect of the gospel—that God is bringing us home again to be part of God's family—that many in that congregation would be deeply moved, for so many of them had lost family and friends, so many were unable to go home again.

    To be lost is scary. To be in unfamiliar surroundings, unmoored from the people and the places that connect us and help us know who we are.

    To be found is deliverance. To be found is joy.

    The parallel is not precise, but as I wrote I thought of the look Sebastian gives when I arrive at daycare in the afternoon to pick him up. Even if he's having fun playing and isn't quite ready to leave, there is still that magical look when he hears my voice or sees me across the room and his eyes sparkle and he smiles broadly. Lately he'll wave or start crawling toward me. Dad has arrived. He's going home. But the impact is as profound on me as it is on him. After a day of work, I'm home again, in his shining, happy face.

    When God comes to visit, God becomes the host, delivering us from our dangers, toils, and snares, and inviting us into the warmth, the love, the joy, of God's family.


    So, back to the question, how do we receive God's hospitality?

    Did you notice how the story of the demon-possessed man ends? "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you," Jesus says. This man now becomes a new minister of the hospitality of God. Brendan Byrne writes, "The one who before had no home save the abode of the dead is sent back to his home and told to make it a little beachhead of the hospitality of God. Through his living witness, the people of the city will have a second chance to access God's grace."

    Guess what? The same is true of us. It would be a shame if we kept all of God's pineapple for ourselves. God's grace and hospitality are to be shared with others.

    And so one answer to that question—how will we respond?—is by inviting others into God's hospitality. What ways might you do that this Lent? Helping a friend with a serious illness? Visiting a church member in a nursing home? Calling your Mom an extra time every week between now and Easter? Maybe inviting a co-worker to church because right here you experience God's family and maybe they need that too?


    When God comes to visit, the destructive forces in our lives are confronted and we are invited into the warm and loving embrace of God's family. Let us rejoice in the graceful hospitality of God.

Antonin Scalia

Antonin Scalia is the only Supreme Court Justice I've personally encountered.  In February 1992, six years into his tenure and when he was still among the junior members of the Court, I was representing Oklahoma in the United States Senate Youth Program funded by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation.  We spent a splendid week in D. C. meeting with and hearing from government officials and touring behind-the-scenes in places like the State Department.  Among the highlights of the week was our presentation from and question and answer session with Justice Scalia in the Supreme Court chamber.  Afterwards, a Hearst reporter along for the ride said something like, "Most journalists crave a chance for a q&a with a justice like you high school students just had."

Scalia was sharp, brilliant, funny, and charming.  Passionate about the law and about conveying appreciation for the Constitution and the rule of law to us students.  I enjoyed him.  My, albeit limited, personal experience chimes with the beautiful reflection that liberal scholar Cass Sunstein offered this week about his friendship with Scalia.

But.  And the but is big.  Scalia's jurisprudence was harmful to people and maybe damaging to the Republic.  As Jedediah Purdy explains in this piece from The New Yorker.

My disenchantment with Scalia began with Bush v. Gore.  At the time I was completing my Ph. D. in philosophy at the University of Oklahoma and the debacle of the Florida election was a constant topic of conversation in the department lounge.  The liberals (of whom I was not a part, being one of the few people in the department who had voted for Bush) were worried that the Supreme Court could decide the election, cutting short the messy, democratic process.  I said, "That won't happen.  Justice Scalia, for instance, knows that the House of Representatives must settle presidential election disputes and will refuse to insert the Court."

Upon reflection, the final 5-4 ruling in Bush v. Gore (remember there was first a 9-0 ruling and then a 7-2 ruling as well) may have been the beginning of the end for my time as a conservative and a Republican.

As Purdy explains in his piece, Scalia's originalism did not resolve partisanship but masked it, which did become apparent when Scalia was no longer writing dissents.

So, another example is D. C. v. Heller, in which Scalia, without precedent, interpreted the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right to bear arms instead of a right of the state militias.  Justice Stevens' dissent (one of his best and most eloquent) was, to me, a far more convincing originalist argument.  He demonstrated persuasively that the 18th century meaning of the amendment was connected with the militias not an individual right.  The best persuasive evidence being the existence at the time of laws limiting and regulating individual gun ownership.  To me that case revealed the hypocrisy in Scalia's jurisprudence and, as Purdy pointed, out, originalism simply became a different form of partisanship instead of the way out of it.

Then, in Citizens United the Court, again, without precedent, granted rights to corporations.  As Purdy writes, "Much of his jurisprudence protected the powerful, such as corporations with money to spend on elections, and white plaintiffs against affirmative action."  Scalia could find no Constitutional principle for granting legal protections to harmed minorities--gays and lesbians for instance--but could invent legal protections for corporations.

And, then the deal was sealed in the Hobby Lobby case.  For years as the religious exemption discussion swirled around contraception and gay rights I kept quoting Justice Scalia in the Peyote case from the early 1990's: "The right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability."  He thought that carving out religious exemptions to neutral laws would be a horror-- "any society adopting such a system would be courting anarchy."

And, yet, when it was a conservative corporation making a case that also would impact exemptions from neutral laws for Roman Catholics (of which Scalia is one), Scalia overturned his own precedent.  To me, that was the final straw.  His jurisprudence was inauthentic and harmful to people and the Republic.

The Revenant


Maybe the greatest cinematography since Lawrence of Arabia.  

That's the only good thing I can say about this movie, though even it has a problem I will get to.  ***Beware of spoilers--though a reasonably aware person should know what to expect from this film plotwise just watching the trailers.***

Artists tell stories.  And great stories are told and retold many times and can and should be adapted in the telling.  Yet, any change should serve some purpose to the story or to a larger theme the story is drawing our attention to. 

Hugh Glass and his story are an authentic part of the American West, though quickly turned into folk tale and legend.  Jim Bridger became one of the great mountain men, explorers, and entrepreneurs in his own right.  I encountered Hugh Glass' story in the masterful A Cycle of the West by Nebraska poet laureate John G. Neihardt, a volume that should be in the canon of American literature read by every well-educated person.

The real Hugh Glass story is one of forgiveness overcoming violence and revenge.  The genuine story is both an unconventional Western and true, which is one reason the story is so subversive of our romanticized notions of the West.  

Inarritu has chosen to tell a different story--a very conventional revenge narrative.  In fact, so conventional, that I quickly became bored by the film and wondered why I needed to wait hours more for a bloody death scene (I actually was checking the time to see how much longer I had to endure).  This film ratchets up our romanticized notions of the West and employs every stereotype and trope.  Whereas the real story reminds us that our romanticized notions are inauthentic.  This strange choice of a conventional plot also led to thematic decision I greatly disliked.

I was, in fact, disgusted by the film.  Not its violence, but the filmmakers' decision to create a hypermasculine story.  

First, they manufactured a half-Pawnee son.  Why?  They seem to have chosen to do so in order to make the revenge all that more potent and guarantee a violent conclusion.  

They've also chosen to set the film in mountainous winter landscapes instead of on the Great Plains where the events occurred (Glass encountered Fitzgerald north of Omaha at Fort Atkinson).  This choice, which leads to the stunningly beautiful cinematography, also seems to be about ratcheting up the hyper-masculinity.  Crawling across the rolling hills and grassy meadows of the Plains would seem to be not effort enough for these filmmakers.  They need to manufacture sturm und drang.

Then they add repeated and unnecessary sequences of sadistic tortures of Hugh Glass.  Was the story of bear mauling, betrayal, and survival by crawling not powerful enough?

As told by John Neihardt, the story is rooted in the friendship between Glass and Bridger, a friendship completely lacking in the film (because of the manufactured son?).  Glass feels betrayed by a friend and the anger and bitterness motivates his crawl, but evaporates when he finally meets up with Bridger again.

Also, the Neihardt version reveals a homoerotic possibility to the relationship between Glass and Bridger.  We know from the historical record that the men who blazed trails in the West often engaged in same-sex relations, though the films and television shows often unqueer these stories.  

Which they've done again.  This time in service to a hypermasculinity that can't tell a story of friendship, same-sex love, or forgiveness.  That would be a good story.  An unconventional Western film with unexpected plot developments.  And, very likely, also a true story.

So, if this film wins the Academy Award for Best Picture, then I will be even more angry for Brokeback Mountain lost.  Clearly the lesson for filmmakers is that they should purge the queer elements of the great stories.

Read more about the Neihardt story here.

And an article that also disliked the film for its refusal to tell the genuine story.

Oklahomo: Lessons in Unqueering America

Oklahomo: Lessons in Unqueering AmericaOklahomo: Lessons in Unqueering America by Carol A. Mason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I met Carol when she was teaching at OSU and I was living in Oklahoma City. She was presenting on the connections between anti-Semitic discourse and the anti-abortion movement, which figured into her previous book. Later she invited me to participate as a presenter at a conference at OSU on reproductive justice along with a number of significant figures in the movement. It was an honor to participate, especially the after hours discussions over cocktails in her home.

This book is about the attempt by religious and economic conservatives to "unqueer" America, focusing specifically upon Oklahoma. She begins in the present and works backwards, with state representative Sally Kern up first. Of course, I dealt with Kern in my years in Oklahoma City, including our appearance together on Flashpoint, a televised debate show. Plus, I have a published academic article on her famous "gays are a bigger threat to America than Islamic terrorists" speech. So, the chapter on Kern was very personal for me.

The entire book resonated with my own personal story, and I think contributes some of the historical background and academic analysis for understanding my still unpublished memoir.

After Kern comes Anita Bryant, a chapter which also includes the ways Green Grows the Lilacs was unqueered in the making of the musical Oklahoma! This is also a chapter about the rise of the New Right.

Next is a discussion of Billy James Hargis and his evangelical empire built first on anti-communism and later on opposition to the sexual revolution and how Hargis himself was exposed as a sexual hypocrite. The white supremacist connections of the anti-gay movement are revealed in this chapter.

That's followed by a discussion of Bruce Goff, the great architect who was ousted from his position at OU as part of the anti-gay red-baiting of the McCarthy era. But Goff himself stands for a level of acceptance of the queer in the rural heartland before McCarthyism. Though Mason doesn't draw on it, I once heard a historian speak to how Oklahoma had been far more gay tolerant from the 1890's to the 1940's largely because of its frontier status, oil boomtowns, and military encampments.

The final chapter is about how Wal-Mart (founded by Oklahoma native Sam Walton) created a global retail version of homogenized rural family values which unqueers the real stories of the heartland. Particularly in Oklahoma where Native American narratives were also erased.

A cursory reading of Oklahoma history introduces you to a wild and eccentric group of characters. And much of the early twentieth century is filled with progressives. My own essay, "Capitol Ironies", develops that theme.

Sadly the current image of my home state is a very homogeneous, white, Republican, evangelical fundamentalism that betrays our heritage.

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