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."