For Our Lasting Good
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
5 March 2017
Despite having grown up in church, having completed a degree in Bible, and having been ordained just a few years before, by the turn of the millennium I was growing a little disenchanted and disengaged with church and was wondering whether ministry really was in my future. I was living in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Sadly, there is a Confederate flag rally being held in Shawnee this weekend, so you might see it on the national news.
Part of my disenchantment was a feeling that church was growing less relevant to my life and the issues that concerned me. I delighted in the beautiful worship and close relationships I had in the church I was attending and where I was an active layman—a deacon, college Sunday school teacher, and member of the missions committee. I was longing for something more, but wasn't quite sure what it was.
Then Tim Youmans arrived as our youth minister. Tim was just a few years older than I, and we quickly connected in our shared generational perspective on music, literature, film, television, and religion. We were both Southern Baptist kids growing more progressive as a result of our education and life experiences. Tim is now an Episcopal priest, and I'm a UCC pastor.
Those trajectories are pretty common among my group of clergy friends. You'll meet Dan Morrow next week, as he's here to preach for the twentieth anniversary of my ordination. Dan was an Oklahoma Baptist University student around this same time and now he's also an Episcopal priest. In fact he's the Canon for the Ordinary in Pennsylvania. Episcopalians have such fun titles. You can ask him next week exactly what a "Canon for the Ordinary" is.
Anyway, back to my story.
As the friendship between Tim and me was growing, and our conversations were wrestling with theological and spiritual issues, he invited me to be a sponsor for the youth retreat over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.
Now, I had never had any interest in youth ministry. What I said to people who asked was "I didn't understand teenagers when I was one, and I definitely don't understand them now."
But Tim persuaded me into grudgingly agreeing to go along.
On a cold Friday evening, I parked my car at the First Baptist Church and carried my luggage, sleeping bag, and pillow onto the church bus where I met a bunch of middle and high school kids who changed my life.
I'm standing here as your pastor today because of Will Sims and Matt Little and Adam Shepherd and Tyler Holland and a score of other Shawnee teenagers—well they were teenagers in 2000 but are now mostly thirtysomethings with their own kids. Because it was those kids who drew me back into the vitality of church and clarified my own vocation. It was because of them that I felt called into youth ministry for the first time. It was because of them that I chose to abandon the search for academic employment and life as a tenured professor and instead took a job as an associate pastor in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
How did those kids do it?
They pestered me with their questions.
They were unrelenting. Especially Will. I know what Jesus meant when he talked about fishing for men, because when I walked onto that bus, I was caught in a net I didn't know had been thrown to ensnare me.
Through the sheer force of their personalities, their curiosity about me and what I believed, and their insisting that I become their teacher and friend, the Holy Spirit worked to renew my sense of call.
We live in age of individualism, materialism, and consumerism which has ripped apart the social fabric and our sense of the common good. Our corrosive politics is merely a symptom of an underlying disease. I've been trying to grasp what that underlying issue is.
Earlier this year I was reading some essays by R. R. Reno who is the editor of the journal First Things. He is a former Creighton theology professor and a very conservative thinker, with whom I have much disagreement. But in his December 30 post he wrote that "what we need in 2017 is a renewal of covenant."
Back in 2009 my colleague and friend Robin Meyers, the pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City and a very outspoken liberal, published a book entitled Saving Jesus from the Church (which we studied once during Lent by the way) in which he argued that if our nation wanted to survive we needed "a renewed understanding of the meaning of covenant."
So, here's some common ground. And it is, in fact, the common ground. Covenant is the idea that we are bound together. Robin writes that covenant is "a collective expression of gratitude and mutuality."
When the staff got together months ago to plan Lent we decided to focus on this idea of covenant and chose as our theme "The Ties that Bind." We will be focused on the ways that God saves us from our sins by bonding us together in mission for the world.
At our worship brainstorming party, it was suggested that we begin with the messiness of our lives in order to show how God takes the messiness and weaves it into something beautiful. So, on Ash Wednesday I asked you to consider what the mess is in your life right now. What do you need help with?
Sometime this season, today or another Sunday, I invite you to take one of the ribbons or strings or scraps of material which is in this basket here at the foot of the cross and tie it to the wire or weave it through. Let that scrap represent the thing in your life you need help with. And over the course of this season we'll watch as the messes are woven into something new.
In our moments of uncertainty and distress, God is with us—working to deliver us, and bring us to safety and abundance.
Central to the biblical story is this idea that we are offered a choice. We can follow our own path and accept the consequences. Or we can choose to be part of the covenant community by doing what is right and good. And God promises that that path leads to new life and blessing.
That path is "for our lasting good."
Those Shawnee kids drew me into relationship with them. And through their friendship I better understood myself and what God was calling me to do.
This Lent, let's allow God to take the messiness of our lives and weave it into a beautiful pattern that binds us together.
I have felt the last few months that the most important task isn't opposition--as important as that is--but reweaving the moral and social fabric which has deteriorated. Which means I, in some ways, viewed Trump as a symptom and not the disease, the cause. This is the motivation behind much of my recent reading, writing, preaching, even the podcast. How to restore morality, decency, faith, society, and democracy.
Today I watched this sermon which David Brooks delivered at the National Cathedral and it expresses so much of what I've been thinking and feeling. This sermon gives more shape to my thoughts and encourages me at a point when I was doubting the direction I had chosen. I encourage you to watch it.
Let Your Light Shine
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
23 January 2011
One can make a pretty good argument that the phrase "the city on a hill" has been one of the most influential in American life. It has sure been used frequently in our political discourse the last generation. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Governor Sarah Palin used the phrase often, every time quoting Ronald Reagan rather than Jesus, which always amused me.
Reagan, of course, eloquently used the phrase in his calls for America to look forward with optimism rather than sinking into the malaise which characterizes much of our culture in the 1970's. When Ronald Reagan used the phrase, he was quite clear that he was quoting John Winthrop, the Puritan preacher and twelve-term governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Many historians have argued that Winthrop's sermon is one of the most important and influential speeches in our history, having a profound impact upon the American self-image. The sermon was entitled "A Model of Christian Charity" and was about the love which all Christians should share with each other. It was this love which would bind the community and enable it to be what God had called it to be. Winthrop delivered his sermon in 1630. The story handed down about it is that he preached it to his Puritan congregation while they were crossing the Atlantic. The image is of him standing astride the deck of the ship Arbella, the ocean wind blowing the salt spray into his face as he defined God's mission for that adventurous congregation.
In Winthrop's sermon, the Puritans are the New Israel, called of God to change the world by living out the kingdom of God in this new promised land, an unspoiled Eden. At its best, this image has inspired us Americans to do great things. At its worst this image has led to American exceptionalism and the idea that no matter what we do, we are on a mission from God to do it. This results in triumphalism and imperialism, which is clearly not the original intention of Winthrop, who wanted a community bound together by love.
Nor is American exceptionalism the original intention of Jesus of Nazareth in the Sermon on the Mount. For him the church would be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city on a hill, when it lived according to this ethic which would be subversive of the powers-that-be.
More influential on my thinking, was a sermon I heard preached on this passage by one of my childhood pastors, the Rev. Dr. Jerry Field. I, who have heard thousands of sermons in my lifetime, can only recall the details of a very few. But Jerry's sermon on this passage is one of them. He was my pastor at the First Baptist Church of Miami when I was growing up. He was one of my mentors, the first person to invite me to preach, at the age of fourteen. There are a handful of Jerry's images, phrases, and themes that have stuck in my memory. Growing up a Baptist, we carried our bibles with us to most religious events, so in my bible from that period in my life, in the margins next to this passage of scripture are my notes from Jerry's sermon.
Jerry was from West Texas, where his family had farmed in the difficult conditions of that region. His sermons were often filled with down home images of farm life. So, when he came to this passage "You are the salt of the earth," Jerry turned to pickling to explain the text. I remember him going into great detail in discussing the process of canning and how the salt would turn a cucumber into a pickle.
There were three points to Jerry's sermon, of course. He preached that salt in the pickling process does three things. It penetrates, preserves, and heals. He then extended the metaphor to encompass our mission as Christians. Just like salt and the cucumber, we are to penetrate the world, work to preserve what is good, and heal what is wrong. It is an evocative, powerful, yet simple image which has stuck with me.
When I was in college I received one of the greatest gifts of my life. Dr. Weldon Marcum who was our pastor emeritus, was suffering with Alzheimer's. It was quite sad to watch this brilliant, eloquent man turn into a confused, quiet person. One day his wife Elizabeth contacted my mother and told her that the next time I was home from college she wanted me to come over to their house because Dr. Marcum wanted me to have his pastoral library. Here I was, still a teenager, in the early years of my ministry, receiving a lifetime collection. I will never be able to measure the worth of that gift.
Contained within that library were many works on the Sermon on the Mount, commentaries from the early and middle years of the twentieth century. One that really stands out is the book The Christ of the Mount written in 1931 by E. Stanley Jones. Jones was one of the great missionaries in the history of the church. He was an American sent by the Methodist church to India in 1907, and he remained a powerful voice in worldwide Christianity until his death in 1973. I was particularly struck by this story which Jones tells:
Years ago when I asked Mahatma Gandhi what we could do to naturalize Christianity in India so that it would cease to be a foreign thing, among other things he replied: "Practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down" – and he had in mind the Sermon on the Mount. It is Mahatma Gandhi's literal insistence upon this way of acting in gaining political freedom that has startled and challenged the whole Western world. He has proved that it is possible, and that is power. This fresh discovery, by a Hindu, of a truth long buried beneath the armaments of the fighting West has been one of the most important spiritual discoveries of modern times. . . . With this challenge facing us, of a non-Christian nation acting, on a wide-spread scale, on one of the most profound principles of the Sermon on the Mount we have now no alternative but to be Christian according to this pattern, or cease to be Christians in any effective sense at all. We must now cease to embalm it. We must embody it – or abdicate.
In the same decade Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was later martyred by the Nazis, wrote The Cost of Discipleship. Written in 1937, the book contains Bonhoeffer's reflections on the Sermon on the Mount. It is a powerful Christian witness and one of the books that continues to deeply influence and convict the church.
Bonhoeffer who knew a lot about what it meant to live according to the Sermon on the Mount. He experienced first-hand how living the ethics of Jesus could bring one into confrontation with the powers-that-be. At a time when many people kept quiet or hid for their own survival, he wrote with passion about what it meant to be the "light of the world" and a "city on a hill":
The followers [of Jesus] are a visible community; their discipleship visible in action which lifts them out of the world – otherwise it would not be discipleship. . . . Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call. A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him.
Here from the 1930's come two challenges to the Christian church. One comes from the Indian independence movement, which was the first major social movement to take its organizing principles from the Sermon on the Mount. That in itself stands as an indictment upon Christian history, as Stanley Jones himself understood. The other challenge is from a Christian pastor who was martyred by his ostensibly Christian nation because he too lived by the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus calls us to live in such a way that we change the world. What does it really mean to be salt and light? How can we live the good life that radiates out, affecting the world around us?
For one thing, we have to "let is shine." The old spiritual, which we will sing in a moment, encourages us that despite whatever darkness or difficulties we face, and no matter how small or feeble our little light might feel in the moment, we should "let it shine."
And our little light gains power and influence when it is combined with other little lights, so that together the church might be the shining city on the hill. One of the first great interpreters of the Sermon on the Mount was St. John Chrysostom, who preached on these passages for his urban congregation in Antioch in the fourth century. Chrysostom contended that in the Sermon was a comprehensive vision of human life and society. Here was all that one needed to live the virtuous life, and that that virtuous life would be lived in new Christian republic fashioned upon the teachings of Jesus. For St. John, [note, the rest of this sentence is paraphrased from Margaret M. Mitchell's essay on Chrysostom in The Sermon on the Mount Through the Centuries] Jesus introduced a new politics which called humanity to a new homeland and a "provision for a higher life."
One recent theologian who often used this passage from the Sermon on the Mount and the images of salt and light is the Anglican John R. W. Stott, who was also one of the founders of the modern evangelical right and its profound influence on politics and culture. Though I have profound disagreements with most everything John Stott has taught, I couldn't help but resonate with some of his teaching on this particular passage.
Stott claims that what we get here is "Jesus' picture of God's alternative society." Just like Chrysostom argued, we are to form a counter-cultural society. But Stott was also clear that Jesus was teaching that we couldn't withdraw from the wider world, "Christians are not to remain aloof from society," he wrote, "but are to become immersed in its life." But while engaging actively with the world, we are to live differently because we are made different in Christ. In his 1978 book Christian Counter-Culture, Stott wrote:
[If the church accepted Jesus'] standards and values as here set forth, and lived by them, it would be the alternative society he always intended it to be, and would offer to the world an authentic Christian counter-culture.
So, now maybe you realize that I've assembled a chorus of voices speaking to us from different times, different places, even different theological perspectives. The urban pastor in ancient Antioch to a farm boy from West Texas. From the Indian independence movement led by a Jesus-inspired Hindu to the modern evangelical right. From the ships bringing the Puritans to a new world. And from a martyr witnessing against the Nazis. But they are all telling us roughly the same thing.
Jesus calls us to live in such a way that we change the world. If we live as Jesus taught us to live, then we will fashion a new kind of people. And that new kind of people will be a witness to the world that something different, something wonderful, something marvelous is happening. Let it Shine!
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
15 January 2017
Have you ever been discouraged? Exhausted? Maybe even defeated? Then today's scripture reading is for you! Here the servant of God feels like a failure. "I have labored in vain," the servant complains. How does God respond? Hear now this word from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.
Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother's womb God named me.
God made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of God's hand I was hidden;
God made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver God hid me away.
And God said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
But I said, "I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God."
And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be the Lord's servant,
to bring Jacob back to God,
and that Israel might be gathered to the Lord,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and her Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers,
"Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."
Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favor I have answered you,
on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
to apportion the desolate heritages;
saying to the prisoners, "Come out,"
to those who are in darkness, "Show yourselves."
They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for the One who has pity on them will lead them,
and by springs of water will guide them.
And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
and my highways shall be raised up.
Lo, these shall come from far away,
and lo, these from the north and from the west,
and these from the land of Syene.
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted the people,
and will have compassion on the suffering ones.
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.
Did you hear God's answer to the servant who thinks she is a failure? God says,
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
The servant was supposed to restore Israel and so far had not succeeded. God doesn't, then, take back the call. God expands it. The servant had set her sights too low. She really ought to save the entire world.
What's going on here? Doesn't sound all that pastoral. Imagine a scenario like this. Someone's new to the church and I ask them to organize a pizza party for the youth. The pizzas all end up burned and half the youth get food poisoning from the salad. The person comes to me feeling like a failure and I tell them I'm nominating them for moderator. Why would God give this servant such anxiety?
Because God knows we are each powerful and glorious. God knows that because God made us. God knows we are capable of amazing things. Even saving the world.
Scholar Stephanie Paulsell writes about this passage in Isaiah, "Surely this is the song God sings to each of us: that all of our work, no matter how local, must have the good of the whole world as its aim."
Whether you are raising your kids, fixing broken pipes, building bridges, curing diseases, teaching adolescents, writing books, defending our country—whatever your vocation, if you are a Christian your true purpose and aim is the good of the entire world.
Reordering the world is not easy. It is, in fact, quite difficult. This week on Facebook I posed the question, "What is something difficult that you have done?" Here are some of the answers you gave:
Calmly discussing a major difference of opinion with a very angry person.
Quit a job before I had a new one.
Try to learn a new language so I can empathize with people moving to a new country
I worked my way through Creighton by working 2 part time jobs and riding the city bus everywhere.
Remained quiet and didn't fight back when an angry student threw me through a door.
Buried our parents & my sister.
Death notifications. At night there was almost always a porch light on for someone who was never coming home. I had to knock on that door and turn someone's world upside down. I didn't have to do it often, but even once is too many times.
Chemo and bone marrow harvest 1986. Doing that again - one year treatment 2012-2013. hardest, happiest thing - climbing Half Dome.
While teaching at UNL, I had to make a choice between standing up for ethics or my department chair. I chose ethics and turned my department chair into affirmative action during a hiring process. Needless to say I didn't stay on much longer at UNL and have never regretted it.
raising a child.....being black while living in America....maintaining my sanity...
Learn to be kind to myself and forgive myself in the process.
Members of this congregation have done amazing things. You've faced dreaded diseases. You've run for public office, which takes great courage I think. You've served in the military. You've sent sons and daughters and husbands and wives off to war and welcomed them home. You've been middle school teachers, which might be a sign of insanity, but also great tenacity and chutzpah. You've battled addiction. You've passed laws. You've raised kids. And you've also done the difficult work of becoming better people, overcoming your own limitations, temptations, and sins, and in the process of changing yourselves, you also help to change the world.
I believe that God calls us to participate in an epic adventure. We can discover the meaning and the purpose of our lives in the mission of God. We can be part of something much bigger than ourselves.
In the summer of 2015 I was wondering what my next big project was going to be. I had spent much of the previous decade as a local leader here and in Oklahoma in the struggle for LGBT equality and by summer 2015 that great project seemed to have reached its climax. Sure, there was still work to be done, but the most difficult part of the struggle, which is changing people's hearts and minds, we had accomplished. The little old matter of passing all the laws is ultimately less difficult, I believe. I'm proud of the tiny part I played in a global movement for civil rights. Inspired by my religious faith I helped to make the once impossible a reality.
So, time to do it again.
That summer the Rev. Becky McNeil took me to lunch to discuss the experiences that Michael and I had while trying to be foster parents. We've never shared publicly all of our experiences, some of which we can't legally, but you who were around know enough to know that we had a really difficult time. And I'm not talking about our foster son. The real struggle wasn't with him, but with the agencies, the bureaucracies, the deeply broken system. Here we were good, caring people with lots to offer and every time we turned a corner we ran into another roadblock. And it wasn't just because we were a same-sex couple, though there was that. I think the bigger flaw in the system is that it is almost impossible for a professional couple with two careers to be foster parents. There are too many meetings, too much paperwork. The system is inefficient and frankly filled with lots of stupid stuff. Inefficiencies and stupidities drive me nuts. And I'm not one to refrain from expressing my opinion.
But it was more than that even. I reported one agency for what I believed were violations of confidentiality laws. We experienced agencies engaging in territorial bickering that failed to support the welfare of the child. Some people were clearly incompetent. Many, though, were very well intentioned and not receiving the support they needed to do their jobs well.
So I have lots of opinions about the child welfare system. Becky wanted to hear all of that. Though I think she got more of an earful than she had expected.
That night, I couldn't sleep. My brain was racing. I began to write down all of my ideas of how the system ought to be better. I began to research best practices of other states on-line. The next morning I was exhausted. That day I had lunch with Tracy Zaiss about another matter, but when we sat down I said, "I think the Holy Spirit is calling me to work on fixing the child welfare system. Can you please convince me otherwise?"
I called Becky McNeil and we had lunch again and we kept having lunch.
One thing I knew is that we could start small. I can list a hundred small fixes that would improve the lives of foster parents. Becky had her own list from her years working in the system. We decided to begin with one that is easy for church folk. We'd fix lunch.
A persistent problems with the child welfare system is that the frontline service providers, the social workers, get burned out. They are often young, idealistic people who leave the profession after only a few short years. Turnover rates are high. Last month UNO received a grant of $15 million to study the problem. We laughed that no one needed a $15 million study. Why not spend the $15 million on increasing pay and benefits and hiring more workers and thus help the problem?
Becky knew that many social workers experience heartbreaking situations but have no venue to receive care, support, and encouragement. But as pastors we could provide that. So in October we launched Lift! a monthly lunch for frontline social workers in which we express our support for the difficult work they do, offer a devotion, and pray for and with them.
These lunches have become highlights of my month as we listen to the social workers share about their work. The trauma of going through a nasty divorce while still helping needy families. The frustrations with constantly changing rules and regulations that often hinder their ability to do their job well. The frightening middle of the night call during Christmas that one of the children they were helping has run away and is being sex trafficked. One social worker this week said, "I walk through spiritual warfare every day."
Besides support, encouragement, and prayer, we are also listening to see if there are any things that we as faith leaders can help with. So, in November one social worker complained about a difficulty they have when working with a family and getting their utilities turned back on. We wrote a letter to one of the utilities and had a phone call with their President this week in an effort to solve the problem. We have two meetings on the matter scheduled this week. We are hopeful.
During this week's lunch one of the social workers said that what she thinks they need most is simply praise for the work they are doing. Becky and I had an epiphany. Care packages for the workers. So for St. Valentine's Day our church and First Christian are going to prepare baskets of goodies—chocolates and healthy snacks and homemade cookies and cards of appreciation. And they asked specifically for packages of good pens, because they are always losing their good pens. The social workers who come to Lift! next month will then carry those baskets back to their offices to share with their co-workers.
You know how easy and relatively cheap it will be to create a care basket. But when we said we were going to do that, the social workers were so happy. Not because of the stuff, but because it will be a chance for some members of the public to say "Thank you," "Good work," "We honor and appreciate you."
So, I'm asking if you would be willing to help with that? Do you individually want to make a basket? Or get together with a couple of families? Or maybe some groups within the church? Anybody really. We hope to make this a monthly project, so maybe you'll take March or June instead of next month. Oh, and anyone want to help me coordinate this?
Stephanie Paulsell again, "Surely this is the song God sings to each of us: that all of our work, no matter how local, must have the good of the whole world as its aim."
God calls each of us to change the world. To live our lives on an epic scale. But we make that change happen by doing our part. The world is saved by actions that seem both big and small. But when the actions that seem small are part of something larger, they aren't small at all. They are in fact epic.
How is God calling you this year? How is your life lived in service to the mission of God?
God has given you to be a light to the nations, so that salvation might reach to the ends of the earth.
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
8 January 2017
Imagine a situation where the world no longer made any sense. How you understood yourself, your personal identity. What you believed about God. How you determined the meaning and purpose of your life. All of that threatened.
That's what happened when the people of Judah were taken captive and exiled away from their homeland. An entire culture in crisis, experiencing post-traumatic disorder. And in the wake of trauma, some brilliant, creative geniuses arose, including the author the passage we read today. Here we read a song written to inspire the people to imagine a better future. Hear now these words from the Book of Isaiah:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
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.
In the first of the Servant Songs that shine out of Isaiah, the prophet offers a portrait of the kind of leadership we should expect from one called by God: patient, nonviolent, merciful. God's chosen does not "execute justice" by force. Indeed this is a portrait of tender care—for those who are vulnerable, for ideas still coming to fullness, for small efforts struggling to plant their roots. . . . True leadership protects what is weak until it is strong enough to stand, and keeps gentle hands cupped around a weak flame until it can burn on its own.
So writes Harvard Divinity Professor Stephanie Paulsell.
Here is the type of song an exiled people sing about the type of leader they desire who will bring forth justice. It reminds me of a Woody Guthrie song.
As an Oklahoma boy, I'm particularly fond of Woody Guthrie, one of our favorite sons. His portrait, guitar strung over his shoulder, hangs in the rotunda of the State Capitol. His presence there serves as an ironic witness against much of the recent politics of Oklahoma, but I don't want to get into that.
Guthrie wrote songs about the Great Depression and the people most disadvantaged by the economic collapse of our country. He traveled with migrant farm workers, Okies, and told their stories. In other words, the songs of exiles. And like the songs of the ancient exiles, his 20th century songs also imagine a better, more just society. I know I'm not the only person who wishes that "This Land Is Your Land" was our national anthem.
But that's not the Woody Guthrie song which Isaiah 42 made me think of. The song that came to mind was "Christ for President."
Let's have Christ our President
Let us have him for our king
Cast your vote for the Carpenter
That you call the Nazarene
The only way we can ever beat
These crooked politician men
Is to run the money changers out of the temple
Put the Carpenter in
O It's Jesus Christ our President
God above our king
With a job and a pension for young and old
We will make hallelujah ring
Every year we waste enough
To feed the ones who starve
We build our civilization up
And we shoot it down with wars
But with the Carpenter on the seat
Way up in the Capital town
The USA would be on the way
I thought of this song while studying Isaiah's song because Guthrie and Isaiah both express similar frustrations and dreams of an exiled, traumatized people. These songs are efforts to make sense of the world when the world doesn't make sense anymore. They are efforts to create something new in the midst of catastrophe.
This is Baptism of the Christ Sunday, one of my favorites every year, because we profess our faith and renew our vows. I value that this Sunday comes at the beginning of the year, almost as a way of reminding us of our spiritual new year's resolutions. In our Statement of Faith we commit to:
accept the cost and joy of discipleship
to be servants in the service of others,
to proclaim the gospel to all the world,
and resist the powers of evil . . .
to struggle for justice and peace.
What are we committing to when we renew these vows and proclaim our faith? In a certain way, we are agreeing to be God's servant as presented in Isaiah 42. Let me explain.
The Suffering Servant Songs of Isaiah have long been understood to speak not about a particular historical person, but about the community. In the original context, the community of exiled Judeans. When the apostles were writing the New Testament they used the language of these songs in Isaiah to describe Jesus and, thereby, the church. As part of the interfaith community of God's people, we, individually and collectively, are called upon to be the servant Isaiah dreams of. Scholar Paul Hanson writes that this passage is "a catalyst for reflection on the nature of the response demanded of those who have received a call from God."
We have all been called. During our Advent series "Remember and Dream," one Sunday we explored the "Call from Tomorrow." God is calling us into a new beginning, a better future, and calling us to be agents of that tomorrow.
Part of what we celebrate with festivity and fantasy at Christmas time is that the Christ is born anew in each of us. In other words, we have been empowered. We have to discover that power and use it.
The Biblical story reminds us that when we need that most is in the time of trauma, when we aren't feeling our best, our strongest, our most hopeful. That's precisely when our commitment to a better future is most needed.
A few years ago I read a book entitled Reality is Broken by the video game designer Jane McGonigal after hearing an excerpt of her TED Talk on NPR. I ended up preaching a sermon series on the lessons I drew from that book. One lesson was that she believed the world needs more people who can practice "possibility scanning," which she defined as "always remaining open and alert to unplanned opportunities and surprising insights." And she felt that skill is most necessary in moments of chaos.
I think we, the baptized followers of Jesus, should be precisely those kind of people. Our lives are not small or insignificant or lacking in purpose and meaning. We are part of God's epic adventure to make the world a better place. We need to claim our power and take the risk. Possibilities are unfolding. Be a part of that. Do something new.
For the song says, "See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare."