Previous month:
February 2017

March 2017

Repair the World

Repair the World

Ezekiel 20:39-44

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

26 March 2017

 

 

    What is the purpose of the covenant God makes with us?

 

    In his marvelous book What is Judaism? Emil Fackenheim answers, that a central tenet of the covenant is to bear witness "against all the false gods—against idolatry."

        

    When Michael and I were moving from Oklahoma City to Omaha in 2010 there were multiple moments when friends and colleagues offered us their blessings. One of the most moving was when we received a blessing in a Hindu Temple.

Roshini Nambiar, the Vedic priestess, and I had worked together on the board of the Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma for months before she realized that I was married to her college friend Michael Cich. So, she was sad to see both of us departing Oklahoma City and wanted to offer her prayers and a Hindu blessing.

This was our first visit to the Hindu temple. And I must confess that the Southern Baptist kid in me reacted a little to all the statues of the Hindu gods, which Roshini openly described as idols. Of course Hindus don't think the statues themselves are gods, but only representations of deity.

 

    I don't believe that in the 21st century we should apply the Bible's proclamations about idolatry against Hindu worship, for instance. Because I believe the more corrosive forms of idolatry are something altogether different.

    Idolatry is any commitment we make that prevents us from living fully into the way of goodness and truth that God has given to us. Idolatry includes all the big nasties like patriarchy, colonialism, homophobia, nationalism, militarism, conspicuous consumption, narcissism, etc. Political and economic ideologies can become idols. And more personal things can too. Being a workaholic. Sacrificing everything else to your personal ambition. Disordered love of self, objects, or others. Selfishness that damages the common good.

    In other words, the kind of idolatry the biblical tradition denounces can be practiced at the shopping mall. Or the political rally. Or the sports arena. Or in some conversations with the financial planner.

 

The New Union Prayer Book of the Central Conference of American Rabbis 1975 edition includes this understanding of the mission of Judaism:

 

Long ago, our ancestors came to believe that they were a people appointed to be God's witnesses to the world. When all others were blinded by idolatry, they alone realized that One God rules the whole universe and that He demands righteousness of all His creatures. And they felt themselves called to proclaim this faith to all nations.    

 

The Jewish mystical tradition gave birth to a powerful concept—tikkun olam—the repair of the world. Scholar Lawrence Kushner writes:

 

The task of human beings and the purpose of the commandments—indeed, the meaning of life—is to free the trapped sparks of light and thereby restore things to their originally intended plan. . . . every deed contributes to the ultimate and sacred task of returning all things to their original place in God.

 

    This Jewish mystical and theological idea which animates contemporary social justice work expresses a core truth of the text we are studying today from the prophet Ezekiel. We as the people of God are called upon to repair the world by testifying against the idols and to the good and true life that God has given us.

 

    Sebastian's favorite book at the moment, and it changes every few weeks, is Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena with pictures by Christian Robinson. I think the book is his current favorite because there is a bus in it, and Sebastian's in the middle of a fixation with all types of wheeled vehicles. He calls it the "bus book."

    In this book CJ and his Nana leave church and travel by bus to a soup kitchen, where they serve lunch. CJ appears to be a preschooler, and he's rather whiny. He doesn't want to go to the soup kitchen, he doesn't want to ride the bus, he doesn't want to do a lot of things. I imagine he was modeled on some real life kid.

    Every time CJ whines, Nana offers some wise or humorous observation that assuages CJ momentarily. For instance, when he asks, "Nana, how come we don't got a car?" Nana answers, "Boy, what do we need a car for? We got a bus that breathes fire."

    Throughout the book Nana is always pointing out a different perspective on things, which consistently surprises CJ. For instance, when they depart the bus at Market Street CJ only notices the dirt, trash, and graffiti. When he asks about it Nana responds, "Sometimes when you're surrounded by dirt, CJ, you're a better witness for what's beautiful."

    CJ ponders this wisdom. Here's what the book says:

 

He wondered how his nana always found beautiful where he never even thought to look.

 

 

    May we be a people who always find beautiful where others never think to look. May we free the trapped sparks of light and restore all things to their original place in God. May we be witnesses to the world, directing others away from the corrupting idols of our time to experience the good, the beautiful, and true.

    


Church's loss of influence

One of my responses  after the election of Trump was that his election signified the loss of influence of the Christian church, particularly if someone so immoral and whose views were antithetical to the faith could get elected, then we had lost our influence even more than we realized.

In the most recent Atlantic, an article by Peter Beinart gives support to that thesis, while also showing wider cultural trends.

Whereas it has long been claimed that a more secular society will be more tolerant and liberal and will avoid the culture wars, that does not seem to be true.  People who aren't active in church are more likely to hold extreme, polarizing political views.  Beinart writes, "As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways."

He discusses how non-church going religious conservatives were the core of Trump's supporters, that non-church going liberals split with church-going liberals over Hillary and Bernie, and that Black Lives Matter doesn't work within the traditional church as previous civil rights movements have.  Beinart concludes:

Maybe it’s the values of hierarchy, authority, and tradition that churches instill. Maybe religion builds habits and networks that help people better weather national traumas, and thus retain their faith that the system works. For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict. It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.


Incarnate Spirit of Justice

Niagara_movement_meeting_in_fort_erie_canada_1905

Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois did not immediately part ways after the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, in which DuBois was critical of Bookerism.  In fact, DuBois taught at Tuskegee that summer.  But part ways they did in the year after the book came out.  The particular details are complicated, but Gary Dorrien interprets the division broadly as one between DuBois' embrace of "the prophetic ethical religion of Jesus" and Washington's participation in the commercialism of the age.  Dorrien writes,

The age proclaimed that the greatness of the nation was its money; thus, religion, politics, and education became devoted to moneymaking.

Yet DuBois "believed in 'Liberty for all men' to live, vote, and associate 'as they will in a kingdom of beauty and love.'"  While Washington "became preeminent by promising a cheap and docile labor force to New South capitalists."

And so DuBois organized the Niagara movement.

The Niagara Movement demanded full manhood suffrage, "and we want it now, henceforth and forever."  It demanded the abolition of discrimination in public accomodation, the right to social freedom, and the rule of law applied equally to rich and poor, capitalists and laborers, and whites and blacks. 

They declared that black people "have the right to know, to think, to aspire."

Their meeting at Harper's Ferry drew on the legacy of John Brown. They declared, "We do not believe in violence, neither in the despised violence of the raid nor the lauded violence of the soldier, nor the barbarous violence of the mob, but we do believe in John Brown, in that incarnate spirit of justice, that hatred of a lie, that willingness to sacrifice money, reputation, and life itself on the altar of right."

That year saw rioting and lynching in Texas and Georgia.  DuBois composed "A Litany of Atlanta" in response in which he questioned of God, "Is this Thy justice, O Father?"  Here are the searingly powerful lines:

Surely Thou too are not white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing? . . . Forgive the thought! Forgive these wild, blasphemous words.  Thou art still the God of our black fathers, and in Thy soul's soul sit some soft darkenings of the evening, some shadowings of the velvet night.

Beautiful!

This has been my favorite chapter yet in the book The New Abolition: W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel. Any student of church history knows that the theology of the early ecumenical councils or of the Protestant Reformation was worked out in a complex mix of discourse and action weighted by politics.  This chapter, which details the difficult and complicated organizational work that led to the NAACP, reads similarly, as the process by which a theology is developed in the midst of real world activity.

"Liberty and Equality" was the previous post in this series.


Adonis

I'm in the midst of reading the selected poems of the Syrian poet Adonis, and they are marvelous. Now I'm very puzzled why he has never won the Nobel, though he seems every year to be on the shortlist of those writers which the bookmakers imagine might win. Even without having read him, I wondered why he hadn't won during the Syrian civil war, given the Nobel's aim to often respond to something in the moment.

So many good poems, here's one I particularly liked, especially the opening lines.

The Fall

I live between fire and plague
with my language, with these mute worlds.
I live in an apple orchard and a sky,
in the first happiness and the drollness
of life with Eve,
master of those cursed trees,
master of fruit.

I live between clouds and sparks,
in a stone that grows, in a book
that knows secrets, and knows the fall.


Afrika's eloquence

I posted my brief review of Bitter Eden by Tatamkhulu Afrika the other day.  Today I'd like to share a two paragraph excerpt as an example of his eloquent writing.

As in the just-past night, only terror tinged with a dull anger stirs in us as the normally ludicrous takes on a shape of nightmare under even so high and revealing a sun, and no laughter moves in us with its saving grace as we watch the beatings as of beasts of those still struggling to free themselves from the  hobbles of their pants, and the face of our Jerry driver floats out before me like the fragment of a dream already ages old, and I reach out as to a lost and redeeming friend, but the emptiness in me is the emptier for its finding only the Now.

The ground is firm enough under our boots, but there is a hollow ring to it as of water warningly close, and I am reckoning it will be bitter and salt as the crystals strewn like some malignant frost over the curiously ochre earth.  Also, there are shallow depressions of cracking mud that tell of water in some other time, a surging, perhaps, of a capricious tide.  The occasional scrub is twisted and black as though a fire had swept it or an enervating poison gripped its roots, and the even scarcer grass is cancerous and brittle as a dying man's hair, and I am hearing the usual silence that even our frenetic trampling cannot shatter or obscure.


My People, Our God

My People, Our God

Ezekiel 11:14-25

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

19 March 2017

 

 

    The next four weeks I'll be preaching from the book of the prophet Ezekiel. We don't get to Ezekiel very often. One reason is that Ezekiel's prophecies can be very harsh. But contained within this book are valuable insights into covenant, our focus this Lenten season, identified with the theme Ties that Bind.

    By way of introduction to the prophet Ezekiel, listen to what was written about him by Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner,

 

No prophet was endowed with such vision—no other vision was as extreme. No man has shed such light on the future, for no other light was as forceful in tearing darkness apart. But, then, no one had ever seen such darkness, the total darkness that precedes the breaking of the dawn. . . .

When he is harsh, he seem pitiless; when he is kind, his graciousness spills over. . . .

It is enough to follow his gaze to be uplifted by the hope it conjures. Look when he orders you to do so, and you will be rewarded by the conviction that hope is forever founded and forever justified. Listen to his words, to his voice, and you will feel strong—stronger than death, more powerful than evil.

 

So, with that incredible introduction, hear now these words from the prophet Ezekiel:

 

Ezekiel 11:14-25

 

Then the word of the Lord came to me:

Mortal, your kinsfolk, your own kin,
your fellow exiles, the whole house of Israel, all of them,
are those of whom the inhabitants of Jerusalem have said,
"They have gone far from the Lord; to us this land is given for a possession."

 

Therefore say:

Thus says the Lord God:

Though I removed them far away among the nations,
and though I scattered them among the countries,
yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while
in the countries where they have gone.

 

Therefore say:
Thus says the Lord God:
I will gather you from the peoples,
and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered,
and I will give you the land of Israel.
When they come there,
they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations.
I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them;
I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh,
so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.
Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations,
I will bring their deeds upon their own heads, says the Lord God.

 

Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them;
and the glory of the God of Israel was above them.
And the glory of the Lord ascended from the middle of the city,
and stopped on the mountain east of the city.
The spirit lifted me up and brought me in a vision by the spirit of God into Chaldea,
to the exiles.
Then the vision that I had seen left me.
And I told the exiles all the things that the Lord had shown me.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

    When the nation of Judah was defeated by the Babylonian armies of King Nebuchadnezzar and many of the people were taken into exile, their faith was shaken. How could they trust in the promises of God if God had failed them so?

    Have you ever asked that question? I suppose many of you have at some dark point in your life.

    You see, God had made so many promises. To Abraham and Sarah there was the promise that they would become a great nation and that their descendants would live upon the land. When this Promised Land was settled, it was to be an insurance against slavery and occupation, a way for the people to provide for themselves, and to be free, living good lives. The promise had come to David and his descendants that they would occupy the throne in Jerusalem forever, ensuring peace and security to the people.

    And, yet, here they found themselves—defeated, occupied, their land ruined, their people exiled. As the psalm says, they sat by the waters of Babylon and cried. How could they trust in the promises of God if God had failed them so?

    In the midst of this crisis, the prophet Ezekiel spoke a vision he had received from God. He saw strange beasts, driving wheels within wheels, forming a flaming chariot. And on the chariot sat a throne and on the throne a form like a human form but made of fire and light. And everything was bathed in the splendid colors of the rainbow.

This wild and fantastical image conveyed a powerful message—God was on the move. God could not contained by the land of Israel or the Temple in Jerusalem. No, God remained with the people, in the exile, in Babylon where they wept. But, not only was God present with them, God was working on their restoration.

    This was a radically new vision of who God is, which spoke to the current needs of the traumatized people. But the message went further.

    Ezekiel also claimed that God was responsible for all the suffering the people had endured. God had brought the evil upon them as a way of punishing them for their unrighteousness.

    Of course this idea sounds quite harsh to us, for it is. This is not the theory of evil and suffering that Jesus teaches us in the New Testament.

    Ezekiel, you see, was traumatized and part of a traumatized generation.

Last autumn I read Holy Resilience: The Bible's Traumatic Origins by David M. Carr. It's a good book, which explores the Bible through the lens of trauma theory, in particular looking for the ways that post-traumatic stress disorder may have impacted the authors of the text. This is a fascinating idea, and most clearly apparent in the prophet Ezekiel

David Carr explains that by claiming that God was responsible for the suffering of the people, "Ezekiel offered his contemporaries a way to make sense of what had happened to them. It allowed them to interpret Jerusalem's destruction and the exile in a way that left [God] in control, a way that did not assume [God] was powerless or did not care."

    Yet, in the process of making this claim, which we might perceive as harsh, Ezekiel also helped lay the groundwork for a new understanding of God and the covenant to develop. From Ezekiel we hear God speak the powerful words, "You shall be my people, and I will be your God."

    From that insistence upon covenant loyalty and faithful presence, developed the idea of God's compassion, which we encounter in the latter parts of Isaiah in texts like the familiar Advent hymn "Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people."

So, we should understand Ezekiel as part of a long trajectory in which covenant theology ultimately leads to the loving message of Jesus.

 

    When I was a sophomore in college the wife of the pastor emeritus of my home church called me to say that her husband wanted to give me his library. Dr. Weldon Marcum had been my mother's pastor when she was growing up and he only retired when I was a kid. By the time I was in college in the early 1990's, he was suffering from Alzheimer's. According to his wife Elizabeth, before he lost the ability to recollect, he had asked her to give me his library when he could no longer use it. The time had arrived.

    So I went to their house and into his office filled with books and boxed them up. As I did so, Dr. Marcum would linger, watching me. How sad to see this once brilliant man suffering from this dreaded disease. Elizabeth kept assuaging my guilt, as I packed up a lifetime of reading and study and carried it away.

    That incredible gift launched my own pastoral library and enriches my study with old volumes that otherwise might be absent in a current pastor's collection. One such book is The Prophet of Reconstruction written in 1920 by W. F. Lofthouse, a tutor in Hebrew Language and Literature from Handsworth College in Birmingham, England.

    Lofthouse wrote in the wake of the Great War, what we now call the First World War. He wrote of "our bruised and scarred civilisation" and the great new era opening up for humankind. He believed it to be the most decisive moment in human history:

 

The stake was never so great, or so widely realised. To shake ourselves free for ever from the tyranny of war, or to be condemned to the prospect of conflicts growing steadily more savage and destructive till civilisation becomes its own murderer.

 

He concluded that at that moment "Nothing seems too good to be hoped for; nothing too evil to be feared." A frightening sense of possibility, don't you think?

    What could help in this decisive moment? Lofthouse believed the words of the prophet Ezekiel, which offered hope and renewal in the midst of catastrophe, could speak to the devastation and the need to create something new.

 

    But he isn't alone in his use of these ancient words.    

    For Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, Ezekiel was also the crucial text for interpreting his experience and finding hope. He wrote, "No generation could understand Ezekiel as well—as profoundly—as ours."

    And in the era when AIDS was devastating gay communities, Jim Mitulski, then the pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco who conducted 500 funerals a year, turned repeatedly to Ezekiel in order to learn about "an exiled community moving from devastation to resurrection."

 

    Why does this sometimes harsh text hold such lasting power? Why is it effective in our times of catastrophe?

Because of the words spoken by God through the prophet "You shall be my people, and I will be your God."

These are words to remind us that God is always present with us, no matter where we find ourselves. They remind us that God is working for our deliverance and our salvation. God will be faithful to us and to her promises.

    So, let us trust that God is going to bind us together as a people. No more will we be alienated from God, from other people, from our best selves. God will restore our home. Ours is a lasting hope.