Lead Me in Thy Truth
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
24 April 2016
"The human mind is a perpetual factory for idols," wrote John Calvin. Drawing up this quote the retired Methodist Bishop Will Willimon wrote, "The God whom Paul proclaims is not just another option for human devotion."
Reading that paragraph reminded me of an episode of the great television show King of the Hill. So, if we had the capacity to do so, this is one of those moments I'd play the clip. Unable to do that let me read the scene for you, after some set up. Hank, the no-nonsense Texas father is bothered by his son Bobby's infatuation with the new youth minister who is trying to be super cool with skateboarding and Christian rock and roll. Throughout the episode Hank appears as an old fart who keeps trying to block Bobby's religious adventures. The episode ends with Hank taking Bobby into the garage and pulling down a box off of a high shelf, a box that includes lots of Bobby's old things.
BOBBY: When I turn 18, I'm going to do whatever I want for the Lord. Tattoos, piercings, you name it.
HANK: Well, I'll take that chance. Come here, there's something I want you to see. (Hank takes down a box from the shelf and opens it up) Remember this?
BOBBY: My beanbag buddy? Oh, man, I can't believe I collected those things. They're so lame.
HANK: You didn't think so five years ago. And how about your virtual pet? You used to carry this thing everywhere. Then you got tired of it, forgot to feed it, and it died.
BOBBY (looking at a photo of himself in a Ninja Turtles costume): I look like such a dork.
HANK: I know how you feel. I never thought that "Members Only" jacket would go out of style, but it did. I know you think stuff you're doing now is cool, but in a few years you're going to think it's lame. And I don't want the Lord to end up in this box.
Willimon again: "The God whom Paul proclaims is not just another option for human devotion."
Last week Randy Solberg e-mailed me a question that arose from his personal bible study. He was reading Mark and had a question about the crucifixion story which led after a couple of e-mails to the question "Does nationalism make it difficult to follow God?"
Nationalism definitely is an idol.
If there is one abiding connection (and there's more than one I think) between testaments Hebrew and Christian is the issue of not putting an idol before God. Statues of Baal are not the concern. The concern is the desire for a God of thunder and war. Roman imperialism is the idol of Jesus and the apostles' time. Consumerism, narcissism, imperialism (again) these are clearly the idols of our time.
In his sermon to the philosophers of Athens, Paul proclaims to them the "God who made the world and everything in it," the one in whom "we live and move and have our being." The God who is not simply one choice among many options, but the sovereign creator and redeemer who merits our worship and discipleship. Paul argues that this God is revealed in nature and can be grasped by the human intellect. And that the fullest revelation of God is in the story of Jesus and his resurrection. Something at which some of the philosophers scoff.
This story is, of course, a favorite for those of us who enjoy philosophy. As an intellectual kid growing up, I relished this story. Paul engages intellectuals on their own terms quoting Greek philosophers and poets and proclaiming the Gospel through the concepts and ideas that these thinkers would have understood.
This story creates an ongoing expectation that the Gospel be proclaimed in a way that inspires our best thinking.
I believe that the God who created the universe and everything in it, the God who commands our worship and discipleship, the God who isn't a fad or an idol, is also the One who wants to open our minds and inspire us to think, to imagine, and to question.
The choir's anthem today was taken from Psalm 25, which begins:
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth,
and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord,
and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
What is truth?
In the passage read earlier the American philosopher William James declares that truth is what is "helpful in life's practical struggles," what would help us to lead a better life.
Horace Bushnell, the great 19th century Congregationalist pastor and theologian wrote that truth is "that which finds us . . . and thus enters into us."
John Robinson, the pastor of the Pilgrims, promised them as they departed for the New World that there was yet "more truth and light to break forth from God's holy word."
And Prince wrote, "If you were given all the answers and you stopped to wonder why
But how will you know the truth?"
So often we think of truth as certainty. Something we can grasp and once grasped it becomes our possession. I believe truth thus understood is an idol. According to the psalmist, truth is a way, a path we must follow. Many different voices remind us that truth is something which lives and grows. God is still speaking, we in the United Church of Christ have proclaimed.
In her book The Evolution of a UCC Style Randi Jones Walker, professor of church history at the Pacific School of Religion, tried to identify what was the core feature of the United Church of Christ and our predecessor denominations and traditions. She wrote:
Our UCC theological identity has never been found in a concise set of shared beliefs, nor in a common way of worship. It is certainly not found in our polity [which may surprise some of you]. It is found precisely in our doubt. Our identity as the United Church of Christ lies in our doubt of the adequacy of any human containers of the Word of God. We doubt that the depths of God's Revelation in Jesus Christ have been fully explored. Our identity does not lie in a set teaching or structure, but in a process. Our task today, as it was in our past traditions, is to think more clearly and openly about God, about Christ, about the Church so that we may recover our church's theological voice, so that the Gospel sings again from our minds, our hearts, and our actions.
Wednesday during our hymn selection conversation, I read this paragraph to Stephen Bouma and he said, "There's a lot in that."
If Professor Walker is right, what we most share as a people is our entertainment of doubt, the title of a 38 page chapter in her book tracing that tradition within our history. But we aren't skeptics who don't believe anything. Rather we believe that revelation has not ended. That there is still more for us to understand. That any theological formulation is provisional instead of dogmatic, as we learn new things and hear new voices. Rather than a doubt that ends the pursuit of truth, ours is a doubt that leads to thinking more clearly and openly, using our minds as disciples of God.
Professor Walker concludes that the willingness to entertain doubt should lead to a "generosity of spirit" and an "ability to sit with and learn the language of people we find strange and perhaps even uncomfortable."
We live in an age of questions, of seeking, of doubt. Fortunately, the God we proclaim, the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being, is no idol. The God we worship and follow is the one who made the universe and all that is within it. Including our minds. God does not reside within a box but leads us in the way of truth and salvation, always encouraging us to move deeper in our understanding, wider in our imagination, and richer in our wisdom. Let us be a people who think more clearly and openly, for this is part of our obedience to God.
Our Adventurous Task
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
17 April 2016
I am so honored to be your pastor. You are such a fine and excellent people.
Last autumn refugees suddenly became political punching bags. I have rarely been as angry as I was those few weeks. Every major religious group in the United States spoke out in support of refugees. Jewish and Christian denominations pointed out that this is one of the issues where we can confidently state what is the biblical view—we are to welcome the stranger and the exile with hospitality, kindness, and support.
Our Outreach Ministry had already been discussing the idea of sponsoring a refugee family. This congregation had done so in the past, but as with most outreach efforts, there is a lifespan of interest. We were trying to decide if it was time again to take on this effort.
When the topic of welcoming or excluding refugees became the top item in the news, this congregation loudly and adamantly answered "Yes." This was the time.
Pat Lamberty stepped forward to provide key leadership and organizational skills. She has worked diligently over many months, first making contacts and planning educational opportunities. The Sunday she announced a meeting for all who were interested, the room she was in was overwhelmed with people ready to assist. She called, excited, the next day to say that twenty-five people had volunteered to be on the organizing team and many more said they'd help in some way.
Serendipitously our staff had picked a Lenten worship theme of Graceful Hospitality. Pat and I decided that organizing for the refugee family during Lent would give us a way to live out that theme. So, this winter and spring a congregation-wide effort developed as dozens of you donated furniture, collected paper products, shopped for groceries, or cleaned and decorated the apartment. The Phase One class of 4th-8th graders helped by shopping in the Thrift Shop for some of the items on the list. And last Tuesday my husband Michael was supposed to do the grocery shopping and I couldn't stay home to watch Sebastian, as I had other commitments, so Melanie Naughtin babysat while Michael shopped.
Wednesday night a group of us gathered at Eppley Airfield at 10 p.m. ready to welcome Shee LWEH and Gar MOO and their three children Manay Kaw Shee MOO, Has Shee MOO, and Ywar Hay BLUT. Anna Dinslage held a sign bearing the words welcome in both English and Burmese. Sherry Smith brought a lovely bouquet of flowers.
As the plane disembarked, Jim Harmon ran ahead of our group to be the first to meet this new American family. Gar Moo looked exhausted from their long travels. Shee Lweh knows a little English and was able to chat with us some. The children seemed excited by all the activity and the new place, though four year old Ywar Hay eventually rested in mom's arms. Seven year old Has Shee ended up taking the flowers from her mom and held them tight the rest of the evening, smiling a big, happy smile.
Our contact from Lutheran Family Services informed us that the family had been in the refugee camp in Thailand just the day before. And, in fact, all three of the children had been born in the camp. The oldest child is nine. Their entire lives were lived as refugees and now suddenly they had flown on planes around the world arriving in a strange new city in the night. The translator said, "It's really overwhelming."
Luckily other Karen were with us to welcome them and deliver them to their apartment that we had decorated and stocked. The home will hopefully be warm and comfortable.
Now, our task over the coming weeks and months and years is to help them adjust to their new home and a radically different life.
Wednesday as I drove away from the airport, filled with joy, I was never more grateful or honored to be your pastor.
Peter's vision called him out of comfortable territory into a strange, unexplored world of fellowship and brotherhood with a Roman soldier.
The theologian N. T. Wright has argued that central to the message of salvation proclaimed in the New Testament is the question "how am I declared to be a member of God's people?" Central to the gospel is the coming together of once separated people into the family of God.
Theologian Patrick Cheng writes that two of the sins plaguing the contemporary world are isolation and singularity. Isolation is the illusion of our own self-sufficiency, neglecting the reality of our interconnectedness with all people and with all of creation. "The sin of singularity is a refusal to acknowledge the complex interplay of identity categories. Singularity is our desire to simplify . . . into either/or thinking."
Jesus offers us the grace to overcome these sins. We are offered grace as interdependence. Cheng writes,
Interdependence is a recognition that we are all different, yet we are all part of one cosmic body, and thus we cannot afford to say to any other part of that body that "I have no need of you."
And Jesus offers us grace as hybridity. Cheng describes this concept:
Grace [as hybridity] is found in the simultaneous holding together of two or more intersecting worlds. . . . Hybrid thinking delights in multiplicities, intersections, and interstitial spaces.
To leave the familiar and embrace the different, the diverse, the new is to take a risk. But as Hadewijch reminds us in the passage read earlier, risking the adventure is part of what we mean by love. And if we take that risk, if we adventure forth, what transformations await us?
Catherine Keller writes "Can we hear the voice of the beloved, the divine lure, promiscuously inviting us all, even now, to come, to 'come away'? To become who we did not know we could be?"
Listening to the voice of God calling us outside our comfort zone might just be what we need in order to become our best selves.
My friend Rosemary McCombs Maxey, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation and a UCC minister and theologian, wrote a powerful essay some decades ago about indigenous people and the United Church of Christ entitled "Who Can Sit at the Lord's Table?" Listen to this moving passage from that essay:
If this church can relinquish its defensive power posture and assume a listening posture, then we can sit at the Lord's Table as I believe God intends us to do. Let the United Church of Christ forthrightly say, We don't see one strand of commonality on which to base our unity, but let's be our unique selves at the Lord's Table. At the Lord's Table there is room to be, to be included, to be fed, to be forgiven, to be acknowledged, and to be at home in God's world. At the Lord's Table, there is a theology of listening toward mutual hearing.
And, so, I thank you for listening. For being a people who open doors and invite others to the table. People who risk the adventure for the love of God.
Now, onward and upward!
Ken Harvey has died. Ken was my high school chemistry and physics teacher and also one of the coaches of the quiz bowl team. The team often traveled out of town for matches and tournaments, so I spent many hours riding in the school Suburban as Mr. Harvey drove and we debated every topic imaginable.
But Mr. Harvey was more than one of my old high school teachers. He was also one of the most influential persons in my life.
In high school I was a rather conservative Republican and Southern Baptist who, like most kids, thought he knew more than he actually did. Harvey was one of those people who revealed a wider world. He espoused no religion but was the most ethical person I knew. When I'd state an opinion, he might offer a different way of looking at the topic. My many hours in conversation with Harvey both inside and outside the classroom opened my mind to new possibilities.
While home from college one break Juan Penalosa and I once took Ken and Kay Boman, the other quiz bowl coach, out to dinner to say thank you for their roles in our lives and educations. Years later when Ken and Kay married, Michael and I were able to be there. Last year they visited us in order to meet Sebastian. I told my son that these people helped make me who I am.
That I'm a more open-minded person, a more inclusive person, a more peaceful and just person is partly Ken Harvey's contribution to my life. A gift so great that though I tried I never could adequately thank him for. And so I grieve the loss of this teacher I deeply admired and respected, such a good and wise man.
When an Enemy Becomes a Brother
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
10 April 2016
Since late November we've been looking at the Gospel of Luke. Today we begin to watch the sequel. We are moving on to the Book of Acts. While Luke tells a story of the life of Jesus, Acts tells stories of the disciples of Jesus as they become empowered by the Holy Spirit and start the church.
Today's story is about Saul who later in Acts changes his name to Paul. Paul is the name he is most known by, so in my sermon I'm going to use the name Paul. Please don't be confused, as Paul and Saul are the same person.
We read in the first verse that Saul is "still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord." A little background. Saul was present at the stoning to death of Stephen, one of the first deacons of the church. Saul then becomes zealous for exterminating the followers of Jesus, whom he views as Jewish heretics.
A further note: We must remind ourselves that at this point the Jesus movement was still a version of Judaism, and not a separate religion.
Let us now hear the story from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles:
[Read Acts 9:1-22]
The Conversion of St. Paul is the traditional name of this story. The Damascus Road Experience is another. The story is supposed to be the paradigm example of conversion—of a sinner being overwhelmed by the grace of God and repenting. That's how this story was preached in the Baptist world I grew up in.
However, recent scholarship on Paul is cautious in calling this story a conversion. For example, Krister Stendahl, who was the Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm, Sweden, wrote in his book Paul Among Jews and Gentiles:
Here is not that change of 'religion' that we commonly associate with the word conversion. Serving one and the same God, Paul receives a new and special calling in God's service. God's Messiah asks him as a Jew to bring God's message to the Gentiles. . . . Rather than being "converted," Paul was called to a specific task. . . . It is a call to mission rather than a conversion.
Getting our terms right has important implications for our interfaith relationships with our Jewish sisters and brothers. Christian history has been stained by anti-Semitism, despite the clear historical facts that Jesus and all of his earliest followers were Jews who did not consider themselves to be founding a separate religion.
So, Paul is not converted in the sense of changing religions. Nor in the evangelical sense of a sinner repenting and finding religion. Yet something radical changes in how Paul understands and practices his faith. What was it? What changed?
Before his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road, Paul combined religious zealotry with a belief that violence could be used to further the faith. Scholar Michael Gorman writes, "Paul had precedent . . . Israel had a history of holy heroes whose zeal for God motivated their taking violent action against Israel's enemies."
Think of all those great stories you may have learned in Sunday school. David defeating the giant Goliath using a slingshot. Joshua at the Battle of Jericho where the walls of the city came tumbling down. Samson collapsing the building in which he was chained killing himself and the Philistines partying around him. Growing up I didn't need to watch violent movies—the Bible stories were violent enough.
The story that Michael Gorman highlights in his book Reading Paul is a story about the priest Phinehas. Now, Phinehas is not one of those Old Testament characters we usually learn about in Sunday school. Phinehas was the grandson of Aaron, the original High Priest. In the Book of Numbers, chapter 25, Phinehas, with a zealous desire to stamp out impurity and immorality, kills an Israelite man and his non-Israelite consort. According to the story, his action receives divine approval and is counted as righteous. Psalm 106 was later written to celebrate Phinehas and his deeds.
Last Sunday Bernie Monbuquette began chatting with me as I was walking back to my office to disrobe, and we began to talk about some of the dangerous implications of statements and stories in the Bible, particularly those that condone slavery and patriarchy. Here in the Phinehas story is another example of a terrifying biblical text. The Phinehas story provides biblical support for a violent religious fundamentalism.
Maybe a young Paul was drawn to stories like this. Maybe the story of Phinehas fired his imagination and zeal.
Paul is struck to the ground by a bright light and a voice "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" And it seems that Paul had never before considered the possibility that those whom he persecuted might also be the beloved children of God.
I was pleased with much of the news this week of Pope Francis' new teaching document for the Roman Catholic Church on sexual and family issues. One nugget I was drawn to was his insistence that those who violate Roman Catholic teaching may still be in a state of grace and should be treated as such.
Struck blind on the Damascus Road, Paul is then cared for by Ananias, finding healing from the very people whom he would have murdered. The entire experience forever alters how Paul practices his faith.
Violence is rejected for peace-making. Inflicting suffering on others is replaced by accepting suffering on behalf of others. Purity is overwhelmed by grace. And exclusion is set aside for a broad and inclusive vision of the family of God. Paul will spend the rest of his life on a zealous mission to build the church of Jesus Christ as a broad and inclusive family that treats Jews and non-Jews the same.
Needless to say, this rejection of religious fundamentalism is not how the story was preached to me when I was growing up.
But most of us already practice a non-violent, inclusive faith. We can pride ourselves on our liberality and our enlightenment.
Last week I parked my car behind a vehicle bearing a bumper sticker for a candidate I dislike. I began to fantasize how I might express my dislike if I ran into the driver of the car. I imagined surprising them by saying "You must be a loathsome person."
Being right is fun.
Yet as I fantasized being a jerk, my conscience read back to me the words of my own recent column in the church newsletter, where I wrote about the life of reason and our democratic responsibility to listen to and understand one another. A good person, of course, wouldn't confront the owner of the car with the bumptersticker. A good person, of course, would make the effort to understand them.
Being good is far more difficult work than being right.
I'm glad God won't let me be a jerk, even if I might take some momentary pleasure in it.
Our worship theme for the Easter season is "The Great Reversal." The Greatest Reversal is, of course, the resurrection. We proclaim that life defeats death.
On a personal level, God wants to change us. And my guess is that even those of us who are kind and fair, those who consider ourselves liberal and enlightened still have some group of people we find it difficult to see as beloved children of God. Good Ananias was frightened by God's call to go and visit the murderous Paul, yet Ananias was courageous and caring and opened the door for an enemy to become a brother.
Jesus teaches us to love our enemies. These words remain among the most challenging that he offers. It is difficult enough to keep loving our siblings and our parents and our spouses. But enemies!
This story from Acts is about how a murderous enemy becomes a brother. About how broad and inclusive the grace of God is. So, let's be sure that we aren't so determined to be right that we forget what it means to be good.
Lord, make us instruments of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.
Blind Boone’s Apparitions | Academy of American Poets
Blind Boone’s Apparitions
John William Boone (1864-1927) world-renowned Ragtime pianist.
my motto for life
- merit, not sympathy, wins-
my song against death.
i stroke piano’s
eighty eight mouths. each one sings
hot colors of joy
keys raise up high into bliss,
born to sing my name
whippoorwill, hawk, crow
sing madrigals for blind men.
forests blooms through each note.
my eyes: buried deep
beneath earth’s skin. my vision
begins in her womb.
darkness sounds like God
flowering from earth’s molten tomb...
writhed wind. chorded cries.
rain, flower, sea, wind
map my dark horizon. i
inhale earth’s songbook
Last night's session on the Visual Arts at the Worship Design Studio generated ideas among the six First Central members who attended (myself, Joyce Wilson, Bud Cassiday, Carolyn Baldwin, Judy Bouma, and Kendra Delacadena). After some general comments I'll list my takeaways.
Dr. Marcia McFee said that the visuals in worship should immerse us in the story. Symbols are the first language of worship and allow us to grasp ineffable realities.
The seven visual elements to consider when designing the space for each series are: light and dark, transparency and opacity, pattern, texture, scale, movement, and color.
In her color discussion I noted two comments that were new and interesting to me: Orange is perfect for calls to action, and Purple stimulates problem-solving.
Now for the practical takeaways. Some were Dr. McFee's ideas and others arose from our group conversations.
- Share as much of story and backstory as you can with your visual artists in order to stimulate their creativity.
- The visuals should be multi-level.
- In a long space like ours the visuals need to speak to the entire room, so more use of visual in the narthex, at the back of the sanctuary, along the length of the room.
- Visuals need to move. Process them in to set up the altar table. That also connects the visuals better with the back of the room.
- Judy commented how the visuals are often lost on the choir and sometimes even block their view, inhibiting their worship. Make sure that some of the visuals are visible the choir. Maybe hang more things from the balcony, for example.
- Dr. McFee recommended looking at the Worship Design Studio Pinterest page for different series and seasons. Our group discussed how we could use Pinterest in the brainstorming phases of worship planning and anyone in the congregation could pin an idea to our design board. So, use a virtual design board instead of creating a physical one.
- Dr. McFee recommended purchasing your stock of items you know you'll use a lot--lanterns, vases, material, etc. Think of them as your "little black dresses."
- But when you want something unique for one series and don't plan to keep it, you can announce that the items will go on sale after the worship series. She said that this has been successful in churches who have tried it and has allowed them to be more creative without breaking their budget.
- Don't use the word "decorating," so Carolyn wants to change the name of the Chancel Decorating Team.
Maybe the idea I was most excited about was using Pinterest to engage a wider swathe of the congregation in brainstorming design ideas.