Sermons Feed

Breaking the Rules

Breaking the Rules

Mark 2:13-3:6

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

21 January 2018



    In January 1963 a handful of Birmingham, Alabama's white, liberal Christian ministers wrote a public letter arguing against the tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, in particular their open breaking of the law. King, while in jail that April, wrote a response—The Letter from Birmingham Jail—which I believe should be included in an expansion of our canon.

    In that Letter, King, among other things, gave a theological defense of the movement and judged the timidity and unchristian stance of the white ministers. King wrote, "There are just and unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that 'An unjust law is no law at all.'"

    But how to determine the difference? "An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law." King references the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas. He then develops this idea, "Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."

    Segregation laws did not pass the test, so, he could "urge men to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong."

    In fact, the protestor has a greater respect for law than does the white supremacist or the even the white moderate, because the protestors are upholding the moral law not the particular laws of the state and nation. They are advocating for particular laws that correspond to the moral law.

    King wrote, "I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail to do this they become dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress."

    And so, the nonviolent direct action of the Civil Rights Movement broke the law in order to bring injustice to attention and lead to social change. Elsewhere, King explained his goals:


The goal of our demonstrations . . . is to dramatize the existence of injustice and to bring about the presence of justice by methods of nonviolence. Long years of experience indicate to us that [we] can achieve this goal when four things occur:

  1. Nonviolent demonstrators go into the streets to exercise their constitutional rights.
  2. Racists resist by unleashing violence against them.
  3. Americans of conscience in the name of decency demand federal intervention and legislation.
  4. The administration, under mass pressure, initiates measures of immediate intervention and remedial legislation.

The working out of this process has never been simple or tranquil.


    What empowered the protestors to suffer violence inflicted upon their souls and bodies? Their faith. For instance, King spoke about the struggle against Bull Connor in Birmingham. The marchers would go forth singing "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me round," and Connor would unleash dogs and firehoses. King recalled, "Bull Connor didn't know history. . . we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water."

    The waters of baptism, the sign and symbol of our call to follow Jesus and resist the forces of evil, empower us to struggle for justice and righteousness, especially when that means breaking unjust laws and defying the powers-that-be.


    Scholar Ched Myers writes that at this point in the Gospel of Mark, "The portrait now emerging is of a Jesus who is continually surrounded by the poor, who attends to their importune cries for healing and wholeness, and who acts not just to bind up their wounds but to attack the structures that perpetuate their oppression."

    Jesus isn't advocating charity, but a reordering of society. Herman Waetjen writes, "If the glory of God is to become incarnate in human beings created in God's image and likeness, the old order must be subverted." And Jesus is about to bring that about because God has named him "the New Human Being" to act on God's behalf.

    And so this series of stories is about how Jesus' action elicits confrontation from the various authorities and how Jesus works deliberately to subvert key themes of his opponents. For example, Jesus challenges core elements of the theology of the Pharisees around "the rules of table fellowship, public piety, and maintenance of the Sabbath" [Myers] in these episodes. The Pharisees are themselves a reform movement, but Jesus doesn't think they go far enough in overturning the old order, that their practice of holiness works to exclude people rather than create an inclusive, egalitarian order.

    And in this final episode, the one that really angers the authorities, compelling the reformist Pharisees to create an alliance with their opponents the Herodians, Jesus engages in what Myers calls "carefully staged political theater" to make his point that the law exists to help people, and so he openly breaks the law.

    Professor Ben Witherington III writes that "Mark presents Jesus as one who must cast the truth like a stone through a plate glass window."


    Jesus is the truth-teller who breaks the rules because it is the sick who need his help, not those for whom everything is okay. Jesus directly confronts the religious and political authorities through life-giving action on behalf of the people who need it, and invites us to do the same.

Good News

Good News

Mark 1:1-15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

7 January 2018



    Imagine it's the year 69 of the Common Era. The crucifixion of Jesus occurred almost forty years before. Christianity is still in its infancy—a small movement that has been spreading across the Near East and the Roman Empire.

    During those forty years conflict has increased in Judea as the people reacted to their Roman occupiers and the local elite who were allied with the Romans. Banditry has been on the rise. Revolutionary movements have increased. A decade before a prophetic figure appeared in the wilderness, drawing a large following. They prepared to march on Jerusalem where the leader had declared that he would stand on the Mount of Olives and order the city walls to crumble. The Romans intercepted these marchers and slaughtered them.

    And finally three years ago war broke out. A provisional government was created, free of Roman oppression and withstood the first assault by the Roman army. But there has been no united Jewish front. This has been as much a civil war among various elements of the local population as a war on Rome, with multiple individuals and groups battling for control. The Romans returned in might and have slowly been subduing the country.

    Meanwhile Rome itself has experienced chaos. Nero's unpopular reign ended in his suicide. That next year three different men served a short time as emperor before Vespasian, fresh from his victories in the Jewish War, became Caesar.

    All this chaos has been born most heavily by the peasant class, many of whom have lived as refugees and exiles.

    Maybe it was one of those exiles who fled into Syria who sat down to write "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."


    While Mark tells the story of Jesus, it is written a generation later and to an audience in the midst of chaos and war. It is written to bring them good news.

    A vast gulf separates us from the initial audience of this gospel. We live in a radically different age with different cultures and politics and economics. Our technological and scientific understanding far exceeds those who first read these words. We also read this text after two thousand years of accumulated interpretation and theological discussion which can both enrich our understanding but also get in the way of the original meanings of the story.

    But most different is that we read from a different socio-economic location. We are citizens of the globally dominating empire who experience lives of advantage and privilege compared with most people around the world. Most of us are not the peasant working class of a remote province. We are not refugees from war. We aren't subsistence farmers robbed of our livelihood by decisions from far away capitals.

    Though in 2018 we are less ignorant of those concerns than we once were. We live at a time of one of the greatest refugee crises in world history. In the sixties of the first century the refugees fled into Syria, today they flee from it.

We've also witnessed the outraged politics of working people who feel left behind by the centers of power and influence. Our age is also one of violence, chaos, and resentment when populist movements find opportunities for growth.

    We are challenged by lies and equivocations, fake news and alternative facts. What is true? What is real? Are there any facts we can agree upon? NPR host Brooke Gladstone wrote in her recent book The Trouble with Reality that "the nation seems to be waging civil war over reality itself."

    Samuel Wells, the vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London has written that "To navigate these bewildering times, we need a renewed story."

    And so, like those exiles from the ancient war, we will turn back to the story of Jesus as told to us in the Gospel of Mark for here is the good news that we need.


    The leader strong enough for our needs in dangerous times happens to have been a carpenter the Romans executed. He is the promised deliverer, the true king, who heralds the coming of God. This Jesus has shown us the way to build a new order in the ruins of the old. A way that, if we follow, will be our salvation.

    It all began with John who went out into the wilderness to create a new Israel away from the centers of economic, political, and religious power yet drawing upon the great episodes in the people's history. John, who was a new Elijah, the forerunner for God's invasion of the world.

    And to him all the people came, dissatisfied with the failures of the status quo, seeking something new.

    One who came to him was Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee. A nobody from Nowheresville. And yet it is this one for whom the heavens ripped open and the Spirit of God descended. This one is God's child. This one will lead the way. And the scriptures quoted about him make it clear that he will be the one to challenge the rulers and powers of this world.

    Scholar Herman Waetjen wrote, "In effect, [Jesus] drowned." In his baptism "he embraced the reality of his death" and so became "wholly unobliged" to the status quo. His baptism was his break with his past—"the structures and values of his society" would hold no power over him anymore. His power would come from his direct relationship with God.

    And then the Spirit drove him into the wilderness where he was surrounded by the wild beasts, an illusion to the prophecies of the Book of Daniel where the great empires of the ancient world are symbolized as great monsters—the lion with eagle's wings, the great bear devouring human bodies, the leopard with four heads and four wings, and the terrifying beast with ten horns which made war upon the saints. These dreadful beasts are defeated, according to Daniel, by "the Son of Man" the "Truly Human One" and after their defeat the rule of the earth shall be given to the people, to the holy ones, and that reign shall be everlasting.

    And, so, this Jesus, fresh from his wilderness triumph over the evils of the earth, returns to the Galilee, to the outer provinces, away from the centers of power and influence, and there he proclaims the good news that the time long promised has been fulfilled. This reign of the people has come near, so it is time to repent and cast off your old way of life and believe in the good news.

    Jesus is calling on the people to join him in remaking humanity and reordering society. And it is to this idea that Mark turns a generation later as his world is overtaken by chaos and violence. The only lasting solution is to embrace the work that God began with Jesus and reorder the powers of this world for the benefit of all.

    And here in 2018 in our own disorienting time, we are called once again to be the people who follow in the way of Jesus, the people with good news to share. God has invaded earth, defeated the powers of death and evil, and is remaking the world so that all might share in abundance of the earth. For this good news to be true, we need only repent and believe.

Call of the Wild

Call of the Wild

Mark 1:1-15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

24 December 2017



    Our language stigmatizes the wild. The California poet Gary Snyder points this out in his book The Practice of the Wild when he summarizes the Oxford English Dictionary's use of "wild":


Of animals—not tame, undomesticated, unruly.

Of land—uninhabited, uncultivated.

Of individuals—unrestrained, insubordinate, licentious, dissolute, loose.

Of behavior—violent, destructive, cruel, unruly.


The dictionary has defined the word wild by what it is not. But if we start from what wild is, according to Snyder, we get a different list.


Of animals—free agents, each with its own endowments, living within natural systems.

Of land—a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact. Pristine.

Of individuals—Unintimidated, self-reliant, independent.

Of behavior—fiercely resisting any oppression, confinement, or exploitation.


    Snyder explains how the way of the wild "elud[es] analysis;" it is "beyond categories, playful, surprising, impermanent, independent."

    Doesn't this sound like Jesus and the Gospel story?

    John the Baptist, that strange wild man, calling the people to leave the comfort and the order of their homes and enter the wilderness in order to repent and start over again. Jesus' own reordering of power through the introduction of a new humanity.

    Over in the Gospel of Luke a teenage girl has revolutionary visions: The powerful cast down. The lowly uplifted. The rich sent away empty. The poor filled with good things. Just imagine some contemporary American politician campaigning on that platform. Then we'd really have a "War on Christmas."

    The Christian message has been so tamed by political and social power and consumer capitalism and the sentimentalities of the holiday season that we fail to remember its radical, revolutionary, wildness.


As I prepared for this sermon series, I read all these wonderful descriptions of the wilderness and how the call of the wild is the call to freedom. In Gary Snyder's book he writes, "To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are—painful, impermanent, open, imperfect—and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us."

But reading that just made me uncomfortable. Waiting in recent weeks for a diagnosis of Mom's health, I am deeply annoyed by the idea that we should "be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us."

As I was writing this sermon this week, my own words were annoying me. I'm not quite as radical as I once was. I don't like change as much as I once did. New technologies annoy me because I really liked the ones that were new when I was in my twenties and surely they can't be old already.

    Plus we've lived through political and social chaos in the last year, and it doesn't feel good. Stability and order and tradition and the standards and mores make even more sense when you see them upended.    

    Two weeks ago I ended my sermon by quoting the biblical scholar Mitzi Minor, "Wilderness experiences are necessary stages on the journey for those who seek to be authentically human." Then I said,


It is in these moments of potential danger that we are purged of excess and luxury. We are forced to grapple with the deep questions and build the qualities of strong character. In the wilderness we find our way forward and learn to trust in God.


    "Easier said than done, pastor," is what I wanted to say to myself this week.


    Yes, our world is a wild place,

And we also serve a wild God,

Who does wild things.

Who calls us into the wilderness to repent

And prepare for God's coming.


And while sometimes all that good news excites me, it can also make me uncomfortable. But maybe Advent should make us a little uncomfortable?


    Then I noticed something else in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus doesn't stay out there in the wilderness, he goes home, and tells them what he's learned. And again and again in Mark he teaches his followers in a house.

    In the Mary Oliver poem, the wild geese are returning home and we learn our place in the family of all things.

    The wilderness may be an essential place in the journey, but it isn't the final stop. God calls us into the wild, but also brings us home again.

Home will look different. Jesus is about creating a new humanity and reordering society. Mary's revolutionary vision is God's dream for the world.

    So we return to a home that is more fair and loving and equitable and peaceful and all those good, nice things we really want to sing about this season.

    And guess what, it's time now. Our Advent wanderings in the wilderness are over. [Sigh & Pause] Christmas is about to begin. So, enjoy.

Into the Wild

Into the Wild

Mark 1:4-6

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

10 December 2017



    What's John doing out there in the wilderness? He's wearing crazy clothes, eating odd stuff, doing strange things, and all in a rather inhospitable environment. What's he doing?

    Everything about John is rich with symbolism. He's dressed like the prophet Elijah whose return was predicted as a forerunner for the coming of God. But he's not exactly like Elijah, because the ancient prophet wasn't a wilderness ascetic.

    In other ways, he is like Moses, leading the people into the wilderness for them to repent. Their baptism in the Jordan echoes back to the ancient Israelites crossing the river as they entered the Promised Land. John's baptism is a new liberation from slavery and a new formation of Israel.

    And Isaiah had spoken of the voice crying out in the wilderness comforting the people with the news that God was coming.

    John combines in his person and his message multiple images and meanings from the tradition of the people.

    There's something that fascinates us about John the Baptist. While centuries of art, including the Strauss opera Salome, have invested him with erotic possibilities, he also sounds like a dirty hippy we might not want to get too close to because of the odor and the kinda crazy behavior. And yet it is this strange and wild figure who plays the central role at the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. Right here at the beginning of the gospel we realize that there is something wild going on.


    Some years when the staff gathers to discuss the Advent theme we spend hours brainstorming and then selecting just the right words and images. This year we had our ideas moments after sitting down to work on it. We were drawn to this idea of wilderness, because we get the sense that many people feel as though we live in wild times. Assumptions about society and morality and order have been upended. Institutions are rocked by scandals. People don't agree about truth or facts or reality.

    And so we turn to this ancient prophet, the wild guy in the wilderness, calling us to come into the wild to repent our sins and prepare for an encounter with God.


    This fall I read the book The Practice of the Wild by the California poet Gary Snyder. The book is a series of essays on our relationship with wild nature. Early in the book Snyder discusses the multiple meanings of wilderness:


A large area of wild land, with original vegetation and wildlife, ranging from dense jungle or rainforest to arctic or alpine 'white wilderness.'

A wasteland, as an area unused or useless for agriculture or pasture.


The oceans.


A place of danger and difficulty: where you take your own chances, depend on your own skills, and do not count on rescue.


He adds that it can also mean a place of abundance—"all the incredible fecundity of small animals and plants."

    Snyder points out there are these two contrasting meanings—the place of fertile abundance or the place of "chaos . . . the unknown." He writes, "In both senses it is a place of archetypal power, teaching, and challenge."

    The church staff discussed this contrast in our original brainstorming. For us North Americans wilderness so often implies the great forests and mountain ranges. But the biblical wilderness is a barren and arid landscape. We clearly chose to go with the North American idea in our decorative scheme.


    I've been in both wildernesses. Last year on my sabbatical I spent a week in a cabin at the foot of Mount Hood, across from a cherry orchard. My friend Dan Morrow and I hiked each day in the foothills of the mountain and the along trails of the Columbia River Gorge. Unfortunately some of those gorgeous areas have burned this year.

    Our final big hike was up the Eagle Creek Trail to see the great waterfalls. A couple of times the trail was a narrow rocky space along a cliffside where you had to hold onto the wire anchored into the wall. That does make it sound more difficult and dangerous than it really was, but you definitely didn't want to make a mistake and slip.

    We paused for lunch at one of the high bridges over the small canyon formed by the creek. A few rocks provided a nice place to sit in the shade in a wide spot on the trail. We watched the sun play upon the water and listened to it flowing over the rocks below.

    Soon after we began eating, three chipmunks scurried across the bridge and joined us. We began to toss them bread from our sandwiches. We lingered long, enjoying this moment of communion with the tiny creatures.

    I told Dan that my end-of-life plan is for my ashes to be shared among any friends and family who want them with the intention that each of those people scatter the ashes someplace meaningful for our relationship together. I told Dan that he was to scatter his share of my ashes in that beautiful spot, where we had lunched with the chipmunks.


    The Judean wilderness I visited over my college winter break of 1993-94. And it is a strange and barren place. One realizes why this is a place of visions.

    My wildest story of the Judean wilderness occurred our first day in it. We had already visited the more fertile northern parts of the country and that day had driven south along the Jordan River to Jericho, that 10,000 year old city, where we enjoyed, in a Palestinian restaurant, one of the best meals I've ever eaten—it was a lamb dish.

    After lunch we traveled up the Jericho Road to Jerusalem where we had communion on the Mount of Olives at the place where we first could see the Old City of Jerusalem.

    Part of that trip from Jericho to Jerusalem was supposed to be a hike up the ancient Jericho Road instead of the modern highway which makes it a very quick trip, as only 25 kilometers separate the cities. By the way, I tried to use Google Maps to figure the modern directions between the two cities but Google informed me that they could not calculate those directions. I assume that is because of all the political divisions that currently make that short drive quite difficult. Anyway, back to my story.

    So, our tour bus unloaded some of us at the bottom of the Wadi Qelt. Wadis are canyons formed by flowing water, though the water only runs seasonally and after rains, meaning that Wadis are often barren channels of rock. The ancient Jericho Road uses this cut through the hills as its way to rise from the lowlands of the Jordan River Valley to the highlands of the Judean hill country where Jerusalem is situated.

    But our guide missed the start of the actual trail and led us instead up the dry river bed. Only well into our hike, did we realize our mistake. We also realized what those Palestinian shepherd boys had been trying to communicate to us from the top of the cliff—they weren't waving hello but warning us to turn around.

    So, our group decided to continue forward and what should have been a mildly difficult hike up an ancient trail that lasted only two hours ended up a more than four hour ordeal of trudging over the rocky river bed. The adventure was heightened by the presence of some senior adults on the hike with us college students, who quickly became the partners helping them along. One man, who had a history of heart attacks, was quite frightened by the possibilities.

    At one point we rounded a bend in the Wadi and encountered a boulder fall, blocking our way forward. Should we retrace our steps—going hours back in the other direction from whence we came, knowing that the motor bus was actually waiting ahead of us? Or could we find away over the boulder fall?

    We college students scrambled up the boulders and positioned ourselves at various points and then, like a conveyor belt, we lifted and carried those who couldn't make the climb themselves.

    We did eventually arrive at the end of the hike, below the St. George's Monastery. Fortunately, they had steps leading from the bottom of the canyon to the top, where our bus was waiting. We discussed getting shirts that said, "I survived the Wadi Qelt," though we never did follow through on that.


    In her excellent book The Power of Mark's Story, scholar Mitzi Minor writes that in the biblical tradition wilderness is "wide-open space, unsurveyed, unmapped, undomesticated by human beings. It is still free of human control. It may even appear to us as wasted and empty." She then writes that wilderness became "the primary symbol of the absence of human aid and comfort and, consequently, a deepened awareness of human reliance on God."

    Like any good journey story, Mark begins with a threshold moment, here in the wilderness in this place of abandonment and discomfort. But, Mark tells us that we are not abandoned here. Mitzi Minor writes, "times when our spirits and souls seem dry, arid, and empty while 'wild beasts' roam near, do not mean that God has abandoned us."

Instead, in the wild places we meet God. So, one way we can read this ancient Gospel is as an invitation for us to be like the Judeans who went to John for their baptism. We too should go into the wild.

She writes, "Wilderness experiences are necessary stages on the journey for those who seek to be authentically human."

It is in these moments of potential danger that we are purged of excess and luxury. We are forced to grapple with the deep questions and build the qualities of strong character. In the wilderness we find our way forward and learn to trust in God.


And so I draw on the wisdom of Wendell Berry, my favourite poet. When we despair, we should go into the wild to encounter the beauty and the grace of a world outside of our control. In the wild we find our rest, and we are set free.