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Possibilities Unfolding

Possibilities Unfolding

Isaiah 42:1-9

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:

 

Isaiah 42:1-9

 

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

Prosperity Bound!

 

    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."


What Time Is It?

What Time Is It?

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

1 January 2017

 

    Breathe deeply. Sit up straight and take a big, deep breath. Hold it for a moment. Now release.

    It's a new year. Thank goodness.

    If you follow social media then you know that 2016 is the most all-around despised year in recent memory. For weeks now everyone has been saying how done they were with 2016 and ready for a fresh start.

    Some of this had to do with the numerous icons who died this last year—Bowie, Prince, Mrs. Brady—to name a few. And then, in the final week, Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds one day later. In response a Go Fund Me page was started to protect Betty White from 2016. Other people were recommending that Ruth Bader Ginsburg be put in a safe room until New Year's Day.

    Of course, 2017 may be just as bad or worse than last year, but at least we get a new start. This particular day as a new beginning is completely arbitrary, but that doesn't in any way lessen the importance of new beginnings. You may have now memorized one of my favorite quotes "Christians are the eternal beginners." What's most important is not that a new year has begun, but what you are going to make of that year.

 

    This wise passage in Ecclesiastes reminds us that time is ever changing and prompts us to ask, "What time is it?" If there is a season for each of these things listed, which season are you in?

    Part of the wisdom of this passage is that we reminded that seasons change. All of these periods of our lives will come and go. The 18th century Matthew Henry Commentary on this passage presents a sobering thought: "To expect unchanging happiness in a changing world, must end in disappointment." The happiest period of your life might be cut short by a sudden catastrophe, or the other way around. A dark and frightening era might end by wonderful good news.

    

    The theologian Bruce Epperly writes that the New Year is about:

 

the quest for new behaviors, new attitudes, and new visions to mirror the coming of a new year. The New Year's resolutions, even when they last only a few days, remind us that we can be transformed; that we can become new creations; that we don't have to live by business as usual but can see our lives in a new way. . . . Behold God is doing a new thing and so can we!

 

    Which made me think of Carrie Fisher. She may have been most famous as Princess Leia (who become General Leia in The Force Awakens as many fans reminded people this week). But her greatest influence was as a writer and speaker who shared openly about her mental illness and addictions. And she did so with amazing humour.

    A column in Time magazine concluded:

 

The significance of her choosing to open up about her struggles can't be stressed enough. We live in a world where we're supposed to only be projecting lives that showcase our prettiest parts and shroud the darkness; the female lead of the most iconic movie of its time was pretty much obligated to only show the bright and shiny. Fisher took the opposite route.

 

    The author continues:

 

The fact that the book was written by Princess Leia, of all people, meant that the way society looked at addiction would never be the same. When she later shared about being bipolar with similar hilarity, she gave mental-health awareness the same gift.

 

    So, if you were a fan of Carrie Fisher, an important part of her legacy would be taking time in this new year to remember that you can be transformed. Even your worst instincts don't have to control you.

    I saw a clip from an interview she gave Charlie Rose in which she said something like, "Talk about your weaknesses with your strongest voice."

 

    A new year, especially coming as it does during the season of Christmas, is a reminder that God is at work within you, giving birth to something new and wonderful.

    Today might not be your day. Nor tomorrow. But someday. For everything is constantly changing and there is a time for every season. Isn't it wonderful that we can change? What time is it for you today?


My Dancing Day

My Dancing Day

Luke 2:1-20

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

24 December 2016

 

 

    Last week we watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with Sebastian for the first time. He most enjoyed the parts where the kids are dancing awkwardly during the pageant rehearsal.

    I resonated with the opening scene. Charlie and Linus are decked out in their winter garb, standing amidst the snow and holiday decorations when Charlie says,

 

I think there must be something wrong with me. I just don't understand Christmas, I guess. I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees

and all that, but I'm still not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel.

 

    Then Linus, truly one of the most genuinely good people ever to appear on television, responds:

 

Charlie Brown, you are the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Maybe Lucy is right. Of all of the Charlie Browns in the world, you are the Charlie Brownest.

 

    The script then reads, "Charlie walks through the snow, thoughtfully. Goes to his

mailbox, pokes head inside. Looks disappointed because it is empty." Charlie then says, sadly:

 

Rats! Nobody sent me a Christmas card today. I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?

 

 

    I know I'm not the only person who has felt a little like Charlie Brown this year. Many friends and family and church members have expressed that this year they aren't quite in the holiday spirit. Every year there are some people for whom this is true, which is one reason the Charlie Brown special is such a classic.

    You know how the rest of the story goes. Lucy gets Charlie involved as the director of the Christmas pageant where all the kids prefer dancing to rehearsing. Charlie then goes to pick out a Christmas tree and comes back with a puny, frail thing. All the kids laugh at and mock him. Then good Linus says he knows what Christmas is all about and he tells the Christmas story, reciting most of Luke 2. I cry every time. Then the kids go and find Charlie and decorate the puny Christmas tree, and everything ends with joy and friendship.

    

    Here's the thing. Advent is over. The time of waiting and preparation when we look for signs of light in the darkness. It's Christmas. It's time to celebrate. You can go back to worrying and grieving next week, there's plenty of time for that. But right now, tonight, and tomorrow, is a festival, a party, a time for dancing.

    Maybe you're cynical about the happy ending? Maybe you don't dance? Maybe you're a scrooge? Bah humbug. Maybe you think this story is only a fairy tale?

    What's wrong with fairy tales, I ask?

    You need to celebrate. All of us need to celebrate. We need some fantasy and festivity. So, please, do that. Get in your pjs, put your favorite Christmas carols on, and dance awkwardly in the living room. Laugh at yourself for looking foolish. Laugh at each other. Trust me, it will do you good.

    Have a Merry Christmas.


Call from Tomorrow

Call from Tomorrow

Matthew 1:18-25

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

18 December 2016

 

 

    No matter how familiar we are with that story, it should still grab us and make us think, wonder, and (maybe) smile at the ironic beauty.

A pregnant virgin is a sign that God is doing something radically new and different. And God didn't chose to act through what was perfect or even conventional. God's radically new thing will be done through a small village scandal—an unwed, pregnant teenager.

 

This summer, on my sabbatical, I was reading in some corners of Christian theology that were new to me. One was a book by the Taiwanese theologian Choan-Seng Song entitled Third-Eye Theology. The book interprets Christian thought through the lens of East Asian cultural idioms, finding touch points with Eastern religions, such as Buddhism.

    Published in 1972, the book is also deeply affected by the war in Vietnam. I realized that I don't think I'd ever read a rich theological response to that war, and I definitely had never read an Asian perspective.

    The middle section of the book is entitled "Suffering Unto Hope." In this section he explores the impact of the war upon families and women in particular. Yet, his discussion is framed within the concept of hope. Remembering, of the deceased in particular, is an essential part of hoping in the midst of suffering.

He also writes that "Memory does not only have to do with what has taken place. It enables us to anticipate the future and envision what is still to come. In a sense we can also say that memory is the power of the future."

 

In Matthew's story, the Holy Spirit moves within Mary's womb and Joseph's dreams. Matthew focuses on Joseph, who is challenged in his dreams to do something radical because God is at work. And we admire Joseph because he listens and obeys.

When the Spirit moves among us, we are called into a new and abundant future. Theologian J. Kameron Carter writes that the gift of the Spirit "liberates all things into the possibility of not just being or existing, but into the possibility of flourishing."

 

This Advent we have tied together remembering and dreaming as essential tasks in our preparation for the coming of Christ again into our lives. Essential to my own understanding of this season is the idea of the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart that the birth of the Christ is not simply some historical event to be remembered. It has meaning for us if we understand that Christ can be born anew in us. For me, every Advent is a reminder of and a preparation for this renewal. God can do a new thing for me and in me and through me. If I am willing. Choan-Seng Song writes that "When God acts, something new happens."

 

In our hopes and dreams, the Spirit is calling us from tomorrow, offering us a realm of endless possibilities where we might flourish. This is what we anticipate this Advent and every Advent as we wait and prepare for the Birth of Christ.

So, remember. Tell your stories. Know who you are.

Dream. Hope for the future. Imagine possibilities.

And respond to the call of God, who keeps surprising us by making all things, including ourselves, new.

 


Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time

Romans 15:4-6, 13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

4 December 2016

 

 

    Once upon a time there was a four year old kid with long, wavy, auburn-colored hair who liked to roam and ramble upon his grandparents' farm. He wasn't allowed to climb over or crawl under the fence and enter the barnyard or pastures at four years old, but the yard itself was filled with magical delights. Plus he could use the barnyard fence to climb up into the tree that overlooked the barnyard. Many hour of imaginative play were spent hanging out in that tree.

 

    The kid was me. Since Sebastian has been born I've experienced a lot of nostalgia. As I've contemplated what he will remember from his childhood, my own memories have been vivid. Much of my nostalgia has been focused on my childhood play on the farm of my Jones grandparents. Swinging on the tire dangling from the catalpa tree. Creating new worlds in the gravel of the driveway. Watching calves being born. And, when I was older, roaming over the pastures and exploring the dark recesses of the barns.

    These early childhood experiences of play helped to shape my imagination in lasting ways. And it is those memories which bring me comfort and joy and fill me with wonder.

 

    What are your memories?

    You each have a piece of paper with a glittery hanger. We want you to write down some memory that is important and special to you. Maybe just a word or name or you can take the time to write a story. At the close of the service you can bring your memory and hang it on one of the three trees behind me. These will be our Memory Trees. You can guess that next week that tree will be our Dreaming Tree.

 

    Memories. All week as I prepared worship and a sermon on this theme I kept singing "Memories light the corners of my mind. Misty water-colored memories of the way we were." (I'm definitely no Babs.)

    In the late summer I read an essay by the scholar Harvey Cox entitled "The Need to Recover Celebration." In the essay he argues that "Our celebrative and imaginative faculties have atrophied," and that we need to recover our ability to fantasize, to dream, to dance for joy. He wrote, "Celebration requires a set of common memories and collective hopes."

    Discussion of this essay by the church staff led to our Advent theme this year, "Remember and Dream." Today we focus on remembering, for our memories are the source of our dreams, our hopes.

 

    But remembering has two sides, right?

    We are filled with beautiful memories, especially during the holidays. Many of us experience sentimental longings for what Christmas was like in our childhood. The homemade candies, Grandma's cooking, playing with siblings and cousins, those special gifts, building snowpeople, all the magical experiences of childhood.

    But the other side of memory are the things that we sometimes try to forget. Forgetting and remembering go hand-in-hand.

    In October Jim Harmon and I were driving to visit LaRue Gilman's family in order to plan her funeral service and along the way we heard an interview with the novelist Rabih Alameddine on All Things Considered. He was discussing his new novel The Angel of History which is about remembering and forgetting. Alameddine said, "I actually feel that people don't remember anything anymore. I mean it's both lovely and horrifying that we live in a culture that encourages us to forget, to keep forgetting and moving, keep forgetting and moving on." Alameddine believes that we need to remember, even those things we'd like to forget.

    I picked the poem "Native Memory," read earlier, as a reminder that even in the midst of catastrophe, memory is vital for our story to continue on. After the death of Michael's mother recently, the task becomes even more important for Michael and me to tell Sebastian the stories of his Lola so that he might inherit her gifts and virtues.

    Memories are turned into stories and thus they help to create our sense of identity. They bring coherence to our wild experiences and shape who we understand ourselves to be.

 

    At the close of his letter to the Christians in Rome, St. Paul reminds them that the old stories exist for their instruction and encouragement, so that they might have hope. Paul is telling us that we need to remember if we are going to be able to dream.

    Here's Harvey Cox again, "The religious person is one who grasps his or her own life within a larger historical and cosmic setting. One sees the self as part of a greater whole, a longer story in which one plays a part." Cox believes that the rituals of worship and celebration invite us into the story. He writes, "they give us a past and a future." Which is why we bother with all this holiday stuff.

 

    As Christians we are part of an epic story, rooted in the ancient past, in the journeys of Abraham and Sarah and the Exodus of the slaves from Egypt. Our story includes prophets and priests, poets and dancers, singers and painters, activists and statesmen, pilgrims and pioneers. We are part of God's on-going, cosmic story. Remembering ourselves as part of God's story becomes a source of empowerment. Through our memories, we are empowered to dream, to hope, to celebrate.

    And so today I invite you to remember your story. It begins:

    "Once upon a time . . ."