by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
16 April 2017
In sixth grade I discovered The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, and suddenly a new and wider world of the imagination was opened to me. These weren't just great stories, they were also richly theological stories, helping to shape my ethics and my concepts of God and salvation.
I vividly remember the first time I read the final novel, The Last Battle. I read the chapter "Further Up and Further In" just before recess one day. In that chapter the characters, filled with joy and overwhelmed by beauty and wonder, run through the newly created world that has replaced the now destroyed Narnia. That was the best recess of my life, as I too spent the hour running with the same zest as the story I'd just read.
One passage from The Last Battle, which has remained with me over the last thirty years, is the closing paragraph.
[The] things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them down. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
Turn and Live
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
9 April 2017
"We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life," writes David Brooks in The Road to Character.
To develop moral character we must acknowledge our own failures and weaknesses and struggle to overcome them. A culture built on ambition and success is unlikely to train people to acknowledge their failures.
We also live in a competitive culture, and the development of moral character is not competitive. First, because we are struggling against our own weaknesses and not against other people. And second because developing character takes cooperation with others.
On the first point, David Brooks writes that we develop character by "being better than [we] used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. It emerges in one who is morally dependable. Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones."
On the second point—that cooperation with others is necessary—he writes, "The struggle against the weaknesses in yourself is never a solitary struggle. No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside."
I've told you this story before, but I'm going to tell it again, because it's one of my good stories. Just ask Michael. I like to tell the same stories repeatedly.
When I was five years old and in the kindergarten Sunday school class at the First Baptist Church of Grove, Oklahoma I stole some booklets from the Sunday school room.
Of course, I'm sure they would have let me borrow the books if I had asked. But that's not the point. The point is I knew I was doing something wrong and did it anyway. I didn't ask, but hid them under my shirt.
By the afternoon, the guilt and shame had overcome me, so I confessed to my parents, who then horrified me by saying that we were going to take them right then to my Sunday school teacher Ruth Robinson. They wouldn't let me wait until the next time we were in church.
Now, I've mentioned Ruth many times, because I believe her to be the single biggest influence on my development, outside my own parents. Ruth was the stereotypical kindergarten Sunday school teacher—she was short, elderly, with thick glasses, and bright, white hair. She was also very kind and gentle.
So, I was overcome by dread at the idea of confessing my sin to Ruth and disappointing her.
When Ruth came to her door, she was surprised to see us. My parents said that I had something to tell her. So, I told Ruth what I had done and handed her the books. Her confused look gave way to a tender smile. Ruth sat down on her couch and took me in her arms. She sat me on her lap and hugged me while she told me that she forgave me and that everything was going to be alright. She praised my curiosity and told me I could borrow things anytime, all I had to do was ask.
I've always been grateful to my parents for what may seem a strong response to a childish action, because in that moment I learned important moral lessons about my own weaknesses, about the consequences of actions, about confession and forgiveness, and most importantly about grace and unconditional love.
The prophet Ezekiel reminds the people that if they are going to enjoy abundant life, then they must first repent of their sins. This, of course, is one of the key themes of any Lenten season. As part of our preparation for Holy Week and Easter we are supposed to examine ourselves and work at improving ourselves.
David Brooks writes that "Sin is a necessary piece of our mental furniture because it reminds us that life is a moral affair . . . . If you take away the concept of sin, then you take away the thing the good person struggles against."
I appreciated his book for exploring the wide variety of sins and the moral language that describes them. He argues in the book that "people in earlier times inherited a vast moral vocabulary and set of moral tools, developed over centuries and handed down from generation to generation . . . which people could use to engage their own moral struggles." In the book he calls for a recovery of such an understanding.
Here is one paragraph where he beautifully summarizes the wide variety of sins and how to combat them:
Some sins, such as anger and lust, are like wild beasts. They have to be fought through habits of restraint. Other sins, such as mockery and disrespect, are like stains. They can be expunged only by absolution, by apology, remorse, restitution, and cleansing. Still others, such as stealing, are like a debt. They can be rectified only by repaying what you owe to society. Sins such as adultery, bribery, and betrayal are more like treason than like crime; they damage the social order. Social harmony can be rewoven only by slowly recommitting to relationships and rebuilding trust. The sins of arrogance and pride arise from a perverse desire for status and superiority. The only remedy for them is to humble oneself before others.
We are all flawed, and those flaws work to alienate us. The person of good character works to become better by struggling against those flaws. The person of good character also knows that we cannot do it alone—we need each other and we need the grace of God.
This Lent we have focused on covenant under the theme Ties that Bind. This cross has represented the way God works to turn our messes into something beautiful, by weaving them together.
Our connections with each other aren't just a nice metaphor, but are a biological necessity. This week I read an essay by the biologist David George Haskell in which he studies a maple leaf. The maple leaf actually contains hundreds of different species, and he wasn't talking about species that might be living on the outside of the leaf. No, he meant on the inside, within the cellular structure of the leaf itself. Within the cells of the maple leaf are hundreds of species. He proclaims, "A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship."
What a beautiful sentence.
We are made from relationships. Therefore if we are to live and live well, we must strengthen the ties that bind us together. Strengthen our families and workplaces, our schools and neighborhoods, our cities and states, even our nation and the world. A chemical weapons attack in Syria does affect us.
Weaving the social fabric is a moral and existential necessity. And healing our relationships begins with acknowledging and struggling against our own sins.
Hear one more passage from David Brooks' excellent book:
The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle.
The prophet Ezekiel offered the people a choice—they could choose the path of righteousness, which leads to life, or the path of wickedness, which leads to death. God implores the people to repent, to turn and live. That choice is also ours.
You Shall Live
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
2 April 2017
"Ezekiel speaks to us as a person acquainted with grief. . . It is the depth of Ezekiel's suffering and grief that gives him the credibility to talk about resurrection," wrote the Rev. Jim Mitulski in his essay "Ezekiel Understands AIDS."
Jim was the pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco during the height of the AIDS crisis, when he performed over 500 funerals some years, a statistic so staggering I wonder how Jim survived as a sane person.
Jim now ministers as an interim for UCC churches. He's currently serving as the interim Senior Minister at the Congregational Church of Needham, Massachusetts. We are Facebook friends.
Someone once said I was a pioneer as an openly gay minister, and I disagreed with them. I've had it easy compared to people like Jim Mitulski who did good work while challenged by even greater stigma and did so in the midst of a nearly genocidal epidemic.
His essay is a profound interpretation and application of the ancient prophetic vision to a contemporary context. Jim wrote:
People with HIV understand what it means to be viewed as expendable. We understand the impermanence of the body and its fragility. We understand what it means to be so paralyzed by grief that we cease to care whether we live or die, whether we protect our health or the health of others, whether we take our medications on time or even at all. People with HIV understand what it means to feel ashamed, shut down, nihilistic, and reckless. We understand what it means to be fearful of giving or receiving love. We understand what it means to lose faith in God, in the community, and in our selves.
The HIV/AIDS experience is unique but it shares universal traits with other stigmatized experiences. Fear and ignorance lead to stigma and exclusion of people with various physical, mental, and developmental disabilities and illnesses.
On Friday we hosted the WISE for Mental Health Conference. WISE is an acronym for Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive, and Engaged. In 2015 we covenanted to be a WISE congregation. Shortly afterwards we were asked to host this first WISE conference, and it was an honor to once again be a pioneer in our denomination.
Over sixty people gathered from around the country here on Friday. We learned practical steps for how a congregation can be more welcoming and inclusive. We heard the latest in suicide prevention and response. We also listened to deeply moving stories of how silence, shame, and stigma lead sometimes to death.
Do you ever feel defeated and lost? Are you ever nihilistic, overcome by fear, ashamed, stigmatized, and exiled? Ever feel cut off from other people, from God, from your true self?
In today's Bible story, God carries Ezekiel to the battlefield where the Babylonians defeated the Judean armies, and there Ezekiel sees the bodies of the slain, their bones having dried in the sun and the wind. God takes Ezekiel to the site of his greatest pain and there asks him to imagine restoration, new life, beginning again.
In the place of your greatest pain, can you dream? Can you imagine? Can you hope?
At the WISE Conference on Friday, one word I heard over and over again was hope. Hope because recovery does work for most people. Hope because families can find the support they need. Hope because more and more faith communities realize the need to be leaders in this area. Hope because the covenant God is with us.
God has made a promise to us, to you. In the place of your deepest pain, God is going to breathe. (Breathe with me, right now. A deep, refreshing breath.) God is going to breathe on you. "I will put my spirit within you," God says, "and you shall live."
Jim Mitulski wrote, "The book of Ezekiel is about an exiled community moving from devastation to resurrection." This story may begin with our darkest pain, but it ends with life.
The rabbis tell a humorous story about Ezekiel's vision. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was drinking from a cup made out of the skull of a defeated Hebrew at the very moment when Ezekiel had his vision. As Nebuchadnezzar went to take a drink, a fist emerged from the cup and knocked him in the jaw.
Through our pain, our grief, our anger, God is working to bring about our victory.
I received a great birthday present this year. On my birthday ABC debuted a miniseries that told part of the story of the modern gay rights movement. The series was entitled "When We Rise," a fantastic Easter title.
The show even included a UCC congregation—City of Refuge. My colleague, the Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder, was portrayed by Phylicia Rashad. Gurl!
As was expected, so much of the series dealt with pain and conflict. HIV and AIDS. Exclusion by family and friends. Religious and political discrimination. Assassination, murder, and beating.
And yet. The story wasn't about those things. The story was about how a stigmatized, attacked, and infected people rose. They weren't defeated. They fought back, they organized, they advocated, they loved. They created something new and ultimately changed the world through their struggle.
I cried a lot watching the series. Plus, I was in shock. This story was now being told, not in some documentary on Logo that only a few people saw, but in an ABC miniseries. I never even dreamed that was a possibility, which goes to show my own lack of imagination.
One person portrayed in that series was Gilbert Baker, who died this weekend. In 1978 Gilbert Baker designed the rainbow flag as a symbol for gay rights, which has become a global symbol for welcome and inclusion. You can even get it on a liturgical stole.
I've always enjoyed that this symbol was taken from the Bible and from God's promise to keep us safe.
You see, I believe what Ezekiel is teaching us. When we feel cut off, defeated, a failure—God is with us, working through us, to help us rise again.
I believe this, because it is my own personal story. At the times of my own deep pain and struggle—whether the death of my father when I was sixteen or my experiences coming out of the closet as a gay man or our long effort to adopt a child—God has been with me. And when I've felt like a valley of dry bones with no more energy or hope, God's breath has always restored me to new life, to a new beginning.
So, take one more deep breath.
When you feel defeated and lost. When you are overcome by fear, ashamed, stigmatized, and exiled. When you feel cut off from other people, from God, and your true self. Feel the breath of God and be renewed. "I will put my spirit within you," God says, "and you shall live."
Repair the World
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.
My People, Our God
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:
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."
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.
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.