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Give Thanks for Those We Remember

Give Thanks for Those We Remember

Psalm 107

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

4 November 2018

            Walter Brueggemann writes that “Psalm 107 is the fullest, clearest example of a song of thanksgiving.”  The psalm opens with a “summons to thanks that imagines” God’s people gathering home.  Next are four case studies: people find themselves in trouble, they cry out to God, who delivers them, and they respond with thanksgiving.  And finally the psalm ends with a statement of God’s sovereignty.  The overarching theme of this psalm is that the people are grateful for God’s steadfast love.

            Hear now this ancient song of thanksgiving.

Psalm 107

O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; for God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those God redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.

Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town;

hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress;

God led them by a straight way, until they reached an inhabited town.

Let them thank the Lord for steadfast love, for God’s wonderful works to humankind.

For God satisfies the thirsty, and fills the hungry with good things.

Some sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons,

for they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High.

Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor; they fell down, with no one to help.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and God saved them from their distress;

God brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder.

Let them thank the Lord for steadfast love, for God’s wonderful works to humankind.

For God shatters the doors of bronze, and cuts in two the bars of iron.

Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction;

they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and God saved them from their distress;

God sent out God’s word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.

Let them thank the Lord for steadfast love, for God’s wonderful works to humankind.

And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of God’s deeds with songs of joy.

Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters;

they saw the deeds of the Lord, God’s wondrous works in the deep.

For God commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.

They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity;

they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and God brought them out from their distress;

God made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.

Then they were glad because they had quiet, and God brought them to their desired haven.

Let them thank the Lord for steadfast love, for God’s wonderful works to humankind.

Let them extol God in the congregation of the people, and praise God in the assembly of the elders.

The Lord turns rivers into a desert, springs of water into thirsty ground,

a fruitful land into a salty waste, because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.

The Lord turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water.

And there God lets the hungry live, and they establish a town to live in;

they sow fields, and plant vineyards, and get a fruitful yield.

By God’s blessing they multiply greatly, and God does not let their cattle decrease.

When they are diminished and brought low through oppression, trouble, and sorrow,

the Lord pours contempt on princes and makes them wander in trackless wastes;

but raises up the needy out of distress, and makes their families like flocks.

The upright see it and are glad; and all wickedness stops its mouth.

Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.

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.

            Positive psychologist Derrick Carpenter writes, “The benefits of practicing gratitude are nearly endless. People who regularly practice gratitude by taking time to notice and reflect upon the things they're thankful for experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems.”

            For the month of November we are Giving Thanks in our worship.  This year, let’s not save thanksgiving for one holiday, let’s spend the month practicing gratitude.  I invite you to take on some special practice this month.  Maybe every day you will write a thank you note or start a gratitude journal or post on social media something you are grateful for or simply say daily prayers of thanksgiving to God.  I invite you to explore our worship theme in your daily spiritual practice.

            The science of positive psychology has demonstrated conclusively the importance of practicing gratitude for a healthy human life.  But we people of faith already knew that.  Walter Brueggemann proclaims that gratitude is “the ultimate practice of faith.”  He describes thanksgiving as the very “impetus for life with” God in the Hebrew tradition.  He writes, “Israel endlessly recited the inventory of acts of divine fidelity and probed for the right responses in gratitude.”

            He explains that our gratitude to God “calls us away from the modern illusion of self-sufficiency” and reminds us that our lives depend upon God.  This “is an odd way to live” he admits.  Yet we see it in the stories of all those people who’ve found themselves in times of trouble and called to God in their distress and been delivered, like the people in this here Psalm.  “No wonder the folks in the psalm have tales to tell and offerings to bring!” he writes.  “By them we are drawn into the generosity of God, which evokes gratitude.”

            In the summer of 2004, not long after their wedding, I came out to my Mom and my new step-dad Revis Stanford.  I didn't know how the moment would go,  Iespecially didn't know what my new step-dad might say.  But Revis reached out and held my hand and said, “Scotty, why should that matter? I love you like my own son. This doesn’t change anything.”

And so Revis Stanford became a hero in my story.

Revis died at the end of August.  This All Saints Sunday, I remember him and celebrate his life.  I give thanks to God for Revis Stanford and how I was blessed by him. 

Who are the people you are remembering and celebrating this year?  For whom are you giving thanks?

What I remember most about Edna Kruse was that she was always smiling.  Her smile and her laughter were infectious.  She was a lifelong Congregationalist, proud of that.  Here at First Central she was a devoted Sunday school teacher, having blessed the children of this congregation.  Jim Harmon shared with me that every time he visited Edna over the last decade when she was mostly homebound, she always wanted to be sure she was caught up on her pledge, as giving financially to the church was important to her.

Ron Butler and Ken Coats were only members here for a short while, as they ultimately moved on to Palm Springs, California to enjoy their retirement.  Ron and Ken were a couple for more than fifty years, an amazing accomplishment for two gay men who met in the 1960’s in Nebraska.  At Ron’s funeral his nieces and nephews mourned his loss, as their entire lives he had so good and generous with them.  More than an uncle, he was another father figure to them.  And I remember Ron's kindness when our son Sebastian was born—he sent a gift with a note celebrating that Michael and I were able to adopt, confessing that having their own children was something he and Ken would have enjoyed but never were able to even consider it.

            One thing about Ellie Caron that stood out was the way she contributed money to multiple causes and organizations.  But what I remember most about her was her devotion to her late husband Joe and to honoring his memory.  One of the trees in our courtyard was given by Ellie in memory of Joe, and she was always so concerned about that tree and whether it was being watered and otherwise properly taken care of.

            Janet Bouma was a devoted wife and loving mother and grandmother.  She was gracious and hospitable, sharing with everyone, including many in this church.  One of our former members described Janet as “God’s hands and feet in the world” and added, “I’ll never forget her laugh.”  Janet made people’s lives more rich and full and enjoyable. 

            Of all Pipi Peterson’s many gifts, this congregation will remember her the longest because she loved our kids.  She demonstrated during almost thirty years of being an on-again, off-again staff member here.  Pipi touched so very many lives.  Her influence continues to bless others, because the kids she helped to teach have their own kids and they’ve become teachers and influencers.  Her life soared beyond its physical limitations, reaching out across space and time. 

            This year we gather for All Saints, to remember and honor our dead, a week after eleven worshippers were killed at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.  We remember and honor them as well today, giving thanks to God for their lives.

            Joyce Fienberg had retired from a career as a research specialist at the University of Pittsburgh where she specialized in researching the best classroom educational techniques.  According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, her students most remembered her for being “a warm host who welcomed them into her family’s home and kept sending holiday cards for years afterward.”

            Dr. Richard Gottfried was a dentist who donated his time to dental free clinics, in particular one that served refugees and immigrants.

            Rose Mallinger was the oldest victim, at 97 years of age.  A devoted member of the Synagogue, her family described her as a woman of “sharp wit, humor and intelligence until the very last day.”

            Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz was a beloved family physician.  One of his colleagues said that Dr. Rabinowitz was “one of the finest people I've ever met in my life. He had a moral compass stronger than anyone I have ever known.”

            Cecil and David Rosenthal were brothers with developmental disabilities who loved attending synagogue and went every week without fail, according to news reports.  Cecil was one of the greeters at the synagogue.  They were described as “larger than life. . . . two of the most kind, generous people. . . . entwined into the fabric of their community.”

            According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Daniel Stein helped out everywhere and made the tough stuff look effortless.”  One of his friends said, “You call on him for a tough task, and he’ll do it without looking for any kind of pat on the back or plaque or anything.”

            Melvin Wax, a retired accountant, was leading services last week.  His rabbi described him as “perpetually happy.”  His cousin said, ““If you look in the dictionary under the word unselfish, you’ll see the name Melvin Wax because he was one of the most unselfish people I’ve known in my entire life.  If anyone on this earth walked humbly with their God, it was Mel Wax. He did not have a conceited bone in his body.”  The 87-year-old Wax had recently organized a voter registration drive.

            According to the Tribune-Review, “Bernice Simon baked delicious cranberry orange bread.”  Bernice and Sylvan Simon, both victims, had been married in that synagogue in 1956.  Their children descried them as “deeply in love with each other.”  He was a retired accountant, she a retired nurse.  That day they were going to host a family birthday party in their home.

            The Post-Gazette wrote of Irving Young, He “did the tasks no one else wanted to — and he did them with a smile.  When people came in to Tree of Life for services, he would greet them. He would guide them to a seat, and he would hand them a book if they needed one.”  He was the congregant who always arrived early and always stayed late.

            We give thanks for these lives, their love, and their influence.  And we remember them.  In the words of a Jewish prayer of remembrance,

At the rising sun and at its going down; We remember them.

At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter; We remember them.

At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring; We remember them.

At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer; We remember them.

At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn; We remember them.

At the beginning of the year and when it ends; We remember them.

As long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us as We remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength; We remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart; We remember them.

When we have decisions that are difficult to make; We remember them.

When we have joy we crave to share; We remember them.

When we have achievements that are based on theirs; We remember them.

For as long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us as, We remember them.


Transformation

Transformation

Romans 12:1-2

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

28 October 2018

Note: Part of our Inspire series in collaboration with the Joslyn Art Museum.
This sermon inspired by Transformation by Roxanne Swentzell.

Roxanne Swentzell describes her art as being for people, particularly women, who have been hurt.  She said, “People need to be reassured that things are OK.”  And in particular that we “can feel a sense that there’s a mother taking care of us.”

            Roxanne Swentzell, is a ceramicist from the Taos pueblo.  She calls herself a “sculptor of human emotions.”  She says, “I have tried to make sculpture that would help people get basic values, would help them get in touch with themselves.”  She describes her art as “crossing cultural and all kinds of boundaries.” 

            The Joslyn Art Museum says of her, “With her sculptures Swentzell shares her culture and declares a common humanity — she invites us to ‘Come, sit down, we aren’t that different, let me tell you something about us.’”

            And so today we sit beside this photographic image of Roxanne Swentzell’s sculpture entitled Transformation.  What can we learn about us?  How can we get in touch with ourselves through these ceramics?  Will we be reassured that we are being taken care of?  Will we be inspired to goodness?

            I’m delighted to conclude this worship series, inspired by art from our local museum, with this piece Transformation.  We began the series with the idea that the enjoyment of art is a spiritual practice like prayer, drawing us outside of ourselves, teaching us humility, and cultivating virtue.  Along the way we have explored various points at which art connects with theology and spirituality—how we view images, particularly ourselves as images of God; the role of desire, both its dangers and its ability to transform us; and how we must cultivate the ability to see the world the way that God loves it. 

            Last week you had the opportunity to create art as a part of the worship experience, and I’ve heard some good things and seen such fun pictures.  Thank you Katie Miller for designing that worship for us.

            Two weeks ago I preached on American landscape art and its theological mistakes which contributed to the genocide of Native Americans.  Today, then it is fitting, to be inspired by a Native American artist as we draw the series to a close with this focus on how art participates in our transformation.

            Roxanne Swentzell grew up in Taos in a family filled with social, political, and artistic leaders.  She began to make clay figures early in her life, sitting beside her mother, a noted potter.  Roxanne had a speech impediment as a young girl and used her clay figures to communicate.  Over her career she has become one of America’s leading ceramicists.  Using the traditional coil method of the Santa Clara Pueblo, she builds large clay figures expressing deep emotion and whimsy.  One is amazed looking at her art to realize that this is clay pottery, as they are intricate sculptures.

            The piece before us was commissioned by the Joslyn in the year 2000.  They provided us with a copy of the letter Roxanne Swentzell mailed to the museum accepting the commission and describing what she intended to create.

The topic of this piece has its origins in our pueblo [sic] cultural beliefs. The title, “Transformation,” helps to explain the piece. As Pueblo people we believe that we can and do, at times, transform or take on qualities of other entities such as animals, places, or spirit-beings. One such time of transformation is during our dances or ceremonies in which drums and singers sing songs of prayers to the entities of the cosmos, asking for life, but also acting as transmitters to give life. One of these such dances is our most common and well-known dance, our corn or harvest dance. This is done in celebration of the year’s harvest, but at a deeper level, it is about life...the coming together of all the forces around us that create and make life possible.

            This sculpture shows four young women preparing for the Corn Dance.  They are in the process of getting dressed.  The final one is fully dressed and is described as “having become the Corn Maiden.”

            Let me read one detailed description of this work.  This was in materials sent by the Joslyn, though I do not know the author.

According to traditional Pueblo belief, as dance clothing is put on in preparation for a ceremonial dance—in this case the Corn Dance—there is a much deeper, unseen process taking place.  Each article of clothing and each object used in the dance is symbolic of the natural and spiritual elements, such as sun, clouds, rain and earth, that come together to create and sustain life.  As a dancer fastens and ties the clothing, she absorbs and gathers the powerful forces they represent.  Her individual identity falls away and she becomes the Corn Maiden.  She becomes part of the greater whole, transformed into the spiritual being that brings harvest to the people.  With every breath the Corn Maiden entity takes into herself the forces of life, and with every exhalation she gently blesses the earth and its creatures.

            Wow, I think that’s rather beautiful.

            It also reminds me of something.  On occasion I’ve participated in ecumenical and interfaith worship services at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral downtown, which means I’ve been in the sacristy in order to put on my robes.  Hanging on the wall of the sacristy is a detailed set of instructions for the Episcopal priest to follow when she or he is vesting for worship.  There are specific prayers to utter for each piece of clothing and each item they wear.  The act of getting dressed for worship is itself an act of worship, transforming the priest. 

            For the Pueblo young women the Corn Dance is about blessing the community with what it needs to nourish itself.  Sharon Naranjo-Garcia, a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo, said, “From the corn we learn to live, we learn the life that is ours. By grinding the corn we learn the footsteps of life.”  Corn has spiritual connections with the longstanding traditions of the people. 

            In her letter to the Joslyn describing the piece, Roxanne Swentzell wrote,

We live in a world of patterns and symbols. Everything has a meaning and is a part of the story of life.  At the point that a dancer has gathered the different forces around and within him or her, which are symbolized by the different dance articles he or she wears, that person is no longer an individual but has transformed into a spiritual being connected to the greater whole. At this point much life force is flowing through this being in every breath and as the breath is released...the breath itself is a blessing

of life going out to the places and beings who are there.

            Can we be transformed into a giver of life and blessing?

            In Romans 12, St. Paul instructs us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”  How are we to do this?  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds.”

            In our worship, we take bread and grape juice and pray over it, turning it into a symbolic and spiritual food to nourish us.  According to theologian Natalie Carnes, “The Eucharist reveals to us what our bread and wine, our fruit of the land and work of human hands, truly are and are for.”  Our work and what we produce are intended by God for communion—to connect us to God and one another, crossing barriers of time and space.  The Lord’s Supper, as with all our worship, forms our character and shapes how we see and experience the world.

            In another place Carnes writes that we become like Christ by behaving as Christ did, which means “behaving as if others are Christ.”  We draw closer to Jesus by treating everyone as Jesus did, as persons with dignity.

            This is one reason I’m deeply troubled this week.  As I’m sure you are.  A bigoted assault upon our transgender citizens.  Fearful rhetoric directed at poor people fleeing violence and seeking a better life.  Assassination attempts on public figures.  And yesterday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Earlier this week I awoke from a dream in which I saw images of the Honduran peasants fleeing violence and heard the voice of Jesus saying, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

            To be transformed into who God wants us to be means to see and love and act as Jesus did.  As our religious tradition has long taught us.  We must become agents of life and blessing, crossing borders and boundaries. 

            To be transformed by God enables us to see as God sees and love as God loves.  Carnes writes, “To see the world in this way—as an image of God—requires resisting the will to master the world.  It demands, instead, opening the self up to the transformations love can accomplish.”

            Let’s do that!  Let’s open ourselves and make ourselves vulnerable.  Let God work in us and through us so that we become ever more like God.  More glorious, more wonderful.  Let us be transformed.


Tranformation

Transformation

Romans 12:1-2

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

28 October 2018

Note: Part of our Inspire series in collaboration with the Joslyn Art Museum.
This sermon inspired by Transformation by Roxanne Swentzell.

Roxanne Swentzell describes her art as being for people, particularly women, who have been hurt.  She said, “People need to be reassured that things are OK.”  And in particular that we “can feel a sense that there’s a mother taking care of us.”

            Roxanne Swentzell, is a ceramicist from the Taos pueblo.  She calls herself a “sculptor of human emotions.”  She says, “I have tried to make sculpture that would help people get basic values, would help them get in touch with themselves.”  She describes her art as “crossing cultural and all kinds of boundaries.” 

            The Joslyn Art Museum says of her, “With her sculptures Swentzell shares her culture and declares a common humanity — she invites us to ‘Come, sit down, we aren’t that different, let me tell you something about us.’”

            And so today we sit beside this photographic image of Roxanne Swentzell’s sculpture entitled Transformation.  What can we learn about us?  How can we get in touch with ourselves through these ceramics?  Will we be reassured that we are being taken care of?  Will we be inspired to goodness?

            I’m delighted to conclude this worship series, inspired by art from our local museum, with this piece Transformation.  We began the series with the idea that the enjoyment of art is a spiritual practice like prayer, drawing us outside of ourselves, teaching us humility, and cultivating virtue.  Along the way we have explored various points at which art connects with theology and spirituality—how we view images, particularly ourselves as images of God; the role of desire, both its dangers and its ability to transform us; and how we must cultivate the ability to see the world the way that God loves it. 

            Last week you had the opportunity to create art as a part of the worship experience, and I’ve heard some good things and seen such fun pictures.  Thank you Katie Miller for designing that worship for us.

            Two weeks ago I preached on American landscape art and its theological mistakes which contributed to the genocide of Native Americans.  Today, then it is fitting, to be inspired by a Native American artist as we draw the series to a close with this focus on how art participates in our transformation.

            Roxanne Swentzell grew up in Taos in a family filled with social, political, and artistic leaders.  She began to make clay figures early in her life, sitting beside her mother, a noted potter.  Roxanne had a speech impediment as a young girl and used her clay figures to communicate.  Over her career she has become one of America’s leading ceramicists.  Using the traditional coil method of the Santa Clara Pueblo, she builds large clay figures expressing deep emotion and whimsy.  One is amazed looking at her art to realize that this is clay pottery, as they are intricate sculptures.

            The piece before us was commissioned by the Joslyn in the year 2000.  They provided us with a copy of the letter Roxanne Swentzell mailed to the museum accepting the commission and describing what she intended to create.

The topic of this piece has its origins in our pueblo [sic] cultural beliefs. The title, “Transformation,” helps to explain the piece. As Pueblo people we believe that we can and do, at times, transform or take on qualities of other entities such as animals, places, or spirit-beings. One such time of transformation is during our dances or ceremonies in which drums and singers sing songs of prayers to the entities of the cosmos, asking for life, but also acting as transmitters to give life. One of these such dances is our most common and well-known dance, our corn or harvest dance. This is done in celebration of the year’s harvest, but at a deeper level, it is about life...the coming together of all the forces around us that create and make life possible.

            This sculpture shows four young women preparing for the Corn Dance.  They are in the process of getting dressed.  The final one is fully dressed and is described as “having become the Corn Maiden.”

            Let me read one detailed description of this work.  This was in materials sent by the Joslyn, though I do not know the author.

According to traditional Pueblo belief, as dance clothing is put on in preparation for a ceremonial dance—in this case the Corn Dance—there is a much deeper, unseen process taking place.  Each article of clothing and each object used in the dance is symbolic of the natural and spiritual elements, such as sun, clouds, rain and earth, that come together to create and sustain life.  As a dancer fastens and ties the clothing, she absorbs and gathers the powerful forces they represent.  Her individual identity falls away and she becomes the Corn Maiden.  She becomes part of the greater whole, transformed into the spiritual being that brings harvest to the people.  With every breath the Corn Maiden entity takes into herself the forces of life, and with every exhalation she gently blesses the earth and its creatures.

            Wow, I think that’s rather beautiful.

            It also reminds me of something.  On occasion I’ve participated in ecumenical and interfaith worship services at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral downtown, which means I’ve been in the sacristy in order to put on my robes.  Hanging on the wall of the sacristy is a detailed set of instructions for the Episcopal priest to follow when she or he is vesting for worship.  There are specific prayers to utter for each piece of clothing and each item they wear.  The act of getting dressed for worship is itself an act of worship, transforming the priest. 

            For the Pueblo young women the Corn Dance is about blessing the community with what it needs to nourish itself.  Sharon Naranjo-Garcia, a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo, said, “From the corn we learn to live, we learn the life that is ours. By grinding the corn we learn the footsteps of life.”  Corn has spiritual connections with the longstanding traditions of the people. 

            In her letter to the Joslyn describing the piece, Roxanne Swentzell wrote,

We live in a world of patterns and symbols. Everything has a meaning and is a part of the story of life.  At the point that a dancer has gathered the different forces around and within him or her, which are symbolized by the different dance articles he or she wears, that person is no longer an individual but has transformed into a spiritual being connected to the greater whole. At this point much life force is flowing through this being in every breath and as the breath is released...the breath itself is a blessing

of life going out to the places and beings who are there.

            Can we be transformed into a giver of life and blessing?

            In Romans 12, St. Paul instructs us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”  How are we to do this?  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds.”

            In our worship, we take bread and grape juice and pray over it, turning it into a symbolic and spiritual food to nourish us.  According to theologian Natalie Carnes, “The Eucharist reveals to us what our bread and wine, our fruit of the land and work of human hands, truly are and are for.”  Our work and what we produce are intended by God for communion—to connect us to God and one another, crossing barriers of time and space.  The Lord’s Supper, as with all our worship, forms our character and shapes how we see and experience the world.

            In another place Carnes writes that we become like Christ by behaving as Christ did, which means “behaving as if others are Christ.”  We draw closer to Jesus by treating everyone as Jesus did, as persons with dignity.

            This is one reason I’m deeply troubled this week.  As I’m sure you are.  A bigoted assault upon our transgender citizens.  Fearful rhetoric directed at poor people fleeing violence and seeking a better life.  Assassination attempts on public figures.  And yesterday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Earlier this week I awoke from a dream in which I saw images of the Honduran peasants fleeing violence and heard the voice of Jesus saying, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

            To be transformed into who God wants us to be means to see and love and act as Jesus did.  As our religious tradition has long taught us.  We must become agents of life and blessing, crossing borders and boundaries. 

            To be transformed by God enables us to see as God sees and love as God loves.  Carnes writes, “To see the world in this way—as an image of God—requires resisting the will to master the world.  It demands, instead, opening the self up to the transformations love can accomplish.”

            Let’s do that!  Let’s open ourselves and make ourselves vulnerable.  Let God work in us and through us so that we become ever more like God.  More glorious, more wonderful.  Let us be transformed.


The Sublime

The Sublime

Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-17

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

14 October 2018

Note: Part of our Inspire series in collaboration with the Joslyn Art Museum.
This sermon inspired by Mountain Scene by Thomas Hill.

 

 

    Today our worship is inspired by the painting Mountain Scene by Thomas Hill. The materials from the Joslyn Art Museum inform us that this painting is of Hill's favorite subject—Yosemite Valley. Thomas Hill is described as "one of the earliest and most accomplished painters of California scenery and became the leading practitioner of its grand-scale panorama." What drew his to Yosemite Valley were the "vistas which because of their towering rock formations, deep chasms, and dramatic scenery, provided a most magnificent display of nature's wonders." In this particular painting, which is quite large if you visit the museum to see the original, the viewers are "dwarfed by a sublime yet benign nature."

    This is a gorgeous painting, and these types of American landscapes are among my favorite art. I think that's true for many Americans. We are drawn to these images of our land, of mountains, and forests, and hills, and valleys, and rivers, and streams. And images of Yosemite Valley in particular from Albert Bierstadt through John Muir to Ansel Adams inspire us with beauty.

    Michael and I visited Yosemite in the summer of 2008. It was a beautiful July day with clear skies. We walked through the valley, clambering over boulders and soaking our feet in the cold waters of the river. We gazed in awe upon the towering rocks of the canyon. We were dazzled by rock climbers and waterfalls. We laid upon the bank of the river watching the ever-shifting shadows. And we took our pictures of Half Dome and El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls. Our own attempts to create art from this marvelous, sublime place.

    A visit to Yosemite is a religious experience. Because our culture has already defined it as such.

    In his magisterial book Landscape and Memory the historian Simon Schama writes that Yosemite is America's "first and most famous . . . Eden." He continues, "It was an act of Congress in 1864 that established Yosemite Valley as a place of sacred significance for the nation, during the war which marked the moment of Fall in the American Garden."

    During our greatest national crisis, the Civil War, when we feared for the ideals of the nation, we created this wilderness park that would be an "antidote for the poisons of industrial society" and a place of healing within the "imagined garden."

    And Yosemite became precisely that, through the writings of naturalists and the most importantly the landscapes of the great painters and photographers. Yosemite became "the holy park of the West," to quote Schama. "The site of a new birth; a redemption for the national agony; an American re-creation."

    He points out that Yosemite of all the grand places of the West leant itself for this spiritual purpose. "The strangely unearthly topography of the place, with brilliant meadows carpeting the valley flush to the sheer cliff walls of Cathedral Rock, the Merced River winding through the tall grass, lent itself perfectly to this vision of a democratic terrestrial paradise. And the fact that visitors had to descend to the valley floor only emphasized the religious sensation of entering a walled sanctuary."

    Schama's point is that nature itself doesn't do this. We have a spiritual experience of the place because human culture has decided that we will. We have learned to see and experience nature in this way because of our cultural conditioning. And these paintings played a huge role in shaping how we see and experience and understand.

 

    Thomas Hill is less famous than some of the other great American landscape painters like Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Alfred Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran. Our museum owns some of their works as well, though none of the giant canvases that draw us to these painters. I plan to visit the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa this week, and they do have a grand collection of these painters. I'm looking forward to it.

    This American landscape tradition that helped to capture the American West actually began in New York along the Hudson River and in the Catskills. Three years ago, Michael, Sebastian, and I were fortunate to visit the town of Hudson, New York for Desi Fortina's weddings. The day before the wedding we drove along part of the Hudson River School Art Trail. We visited Olana, the glorious mansion of Frederic Church which sits high atop a hill overlooking the Hudson River with the Catskills in the background. The view from that hill having appeared in Church's paintings.

    From there we crossed the river to the charming village of Catskill and visited Thomas Cole's home. Then the trail leads up into the Catskill Mountains with stops at various vantage points made famous in American landscape painting. Unfortunately we didn't have time to hike the trail to Kaaterskill Falls made famous in Cole's painting and the poetry of William Cullen Bryant.

    In 1828 Thomas Cole painted The Garden of Eden. Theologian James McClendon writes, "Many critics believe Cole meant to represent America as a new Eden where unspoiled nature could return humankind to a state of innocence."

    These Hudson River School painters eventually traveled in the American West and began to paint these grand, sublime, beautiful images of American wilderness as this pure space. America was a new Eden where we might begin again and create something new.

 

    My favorite theologian is the Baptist James William McClendon. His three volume Systematic Theology has deeply shaped me, as I read it early in my full time ministry career. Volume Three is entitled Witness and is his theology of culture in which he helps us to understand how our Christian worldview intersects with the world, giving us the ability to interpret it.

    And so there are chapters on philosophy and science but my favorite is the chapter on art, where he explores American painting, literature, and music. By the way, he thinks Jazz is the greatest American art form and the one that resonates most closely with the Christian gospel.

    This week I reread his theological reflection on the history of American art, and I felt again some of the wonder I experienced the first time I read it. I didn't know that theology could engage in such things. Reading McClendon opened my eyes to the way our religious faith helps to shape our interpretation of the world and how we can view anything as a theological text. During this series I've heard from one of you wondering how I can look at these paintings and get such deep ideas from them, it is because the theology of James McClendon taught me to do that.

    As you can probably tell, the Hudson River School and the landscapes of the American West, is art I relish. I seek out these paintings in American museums. I enjoy them and their beauty.

    But. And there is a but. These paintings are theological texts. And the theology they express sadly has devastating political implications.

    McClendon writes that their basic flaw is that they train us to look backwards "to Eden rather than forward to the kingdom of God." He writes that these artists,

 

sadly perverted the Genesis creation narrative: they revised the story of an earth created by God for purposes best unfolded in the prophets and in Jesus of Nazareth into a story of Eden revisited by a new Adam, the pioneering American, whose industrial mills (and by extension, whose territorial conquests) perfect God's plan.

 

    These paintings were the "artistic rendering of Manifest Destiny." And so they helped to shape a vision of the West as this empty place. But it wasn't empty. There were people living here. They had been here for millennia, with their own cultures, economics, and art. These landscapes helped to empower the military conquest of the West.

    And they distract us from the real work of the Gospel, which is to bring about God's reign upon the earth. Our spiritual fulfillment is not to be found in escapes to wilderness, however much we enjoy that. Our spiritual fulfilment is to be found in the formation of a better world shaped by God's vision of justice and fairness and peace. Our spiritual fulfillment will come about through the long, difficult work of serving one another, creating community, overcoming social divisions, making a better society.

 

    The Christian gospel isn't a set of propositions to be believed. It is a way of life to be lived. And that way of life—its stories, its traditions, its rituals—teach us how to see and experience and understand the world according to the way God loves it. Our faith teaches us how to witness the world and witness to the world. So we can interpret paintings and nature itself according to God's love and God's vision. "Be now my vision, O God of my heart" we will sing at the close of this worship.

    Art, James McClendon writes, teaches us one more thing, something we also learn in the Christian gospel—that a new world can be created. These American landscapes helped to create a new vision of the American West, with devastating consequences. But we can create a new world that is the peaceable kingdom of God.

    Good art can inspire us to "'a whole new world' of unrealized possibility." May we open our eyes to see, experience, and understand, that we might be so inspired.


Desire

Desire

Song of Solomon 7:10-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

7 October 2018

Note: Part of our Inspire series in collaboration with the Joslyn Art Museum.
This sermon inspired by Salome Dancing Before King Herod by Georges Rochegrosse.

 

 

    As I prepared the sermon for this week, I kept listening to the song "Wild" by the South African singer Troye Sivan. The refrain of the pop song is

 

Never knew loving could hurt this good, oh

And it drives me wild

'Cause when you look like that

I've never ever wanted to be so bad, oh

It drives me wild

You're driving me wild, wild, wild

 

    Sivan's songs have been described as "an infectious celebration of sexual desire." A fitting complement to this painting of Salome Dancing before King Herod by Georges Rochegrosse. The Joslyn Art Museum describes Georges Rochegrosse's painting as such: "Frequently, literary or historical sources serve as pretexts for sensational and titillating images." And in this particular painting "inspired by the biblical account of the death of St. John the Baptist, minute details of setting and human physiognomy encourage the viewer to share with the painted audience the lithe dancer's provocative performance." This is a painting meant to both exhibit and evoke our desire. To drive us wild.

    Now, we modern people are trained to take a detached, sophisticated approach to art. Nude bodies in art are okay, because they're art. As if great art couldn't inspire our desire. I'm certain that Michelangelo didn't expect a detached reaction to his statue of David.

    Art, even great fine art, does inspire our desires. But desires are slippery things; they can drive us wild. Therefore, desires make us anxious. Plato, for example, thought pleasure was wrong, that it polluted the soul, and that the enlightened person must rise about desire and pleasure into the realm of abstract reason. Some of those ideas clearly infected Christian thinking.

    But what if desire is vital to our spiritual life? What if God wants to drive us wild? Contemporary theologian Belden Lane, for instance, praises a "God of wild beauty" and Natalie Carnes declares that "God is desire itself."

    Could our desires inspire us to transformation? By driving us wild, can they also make us good?

 

    Salome Dancing before King Herod hangs in the European galleries on the north side of the Joslyn's main building. In that room are a handful of paintings from the Orientialist style.

    These Orientalist paintings are fascinating. They come from the middle and late 19th century when traditional forms of painting were at their most developed. These painting represent classical painting just before modernism burst upon the scene. They exhibit great detail and skilled execution.

    Orientalism emerged as part of a Western European fascination with the exotic. When Napoleon invaded Egypt, his soldiers returned with such new and exotic things, they they inspired imaginations. And so artists began to paint images of "the Orient." But for them "the Orient" meant pretty much everything east of Western Europe, including Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and the Middle East, regions that are actually part of Western civilization.

    Despite the artistic skill of these paintings, they are problematic, for they perpetuated racist stereotypes. Though they were painted in a realistic style, the images were fantasies, exoticizing their subjects. Here, for instance, a biblical subject matter excuses the prurient details of the painting.

    Edward Said, the great cultural critic, published his masterpiece Orientalism in 1978 criticizing how 19th century Europeans had fetishized the East in ways that presented lasting implications for global politics. And one point he made was how these artists had created sexual fantasies--"What they looked for often," he wrote, "was a different type of sexuality, perhaps more libertine and less guilt-ridden."

    The cultural and political issues surrounding this paint inform us that one of the dangers with desire is that the object of our desire can become objectified and commodified. Isn't that what the story of Herod is about? His own prurient lusting after Salome and the dangers it leads to? For objectification can lead to exploitation and attempts to possess and control the objects of our desire. And the attempt to possess and control that can become violent.

    Our society is currently engaged in a deeply profound conversation about just these matters of sexual ethics. And in particular how toxic masculinity breeds a sense of entitlement and privilege that results in violence, abuse, and trauma for women.

 

 

    Can desire, then, drive us wild and make us good?

What glory that our religious tradition contains the love poem I read at the start of this sermon! In contrast to commodified, fetishized desire, the Song of Solomon is a rich resource for celebrating love that is good. Dianne Bergant points out in her commentary that what this poem celebrates is "mutual love, not an unequal relationship." The Bible gives us an image of mutual love and mutual desire that drive us wild.

    That we humans are tempted by objectified and commodified desire, is it possible that we desire too weakly?

Natalie Carnes, a professor at Baylor, wrote precisely that in her new book Image and Presence—"the problem with our own desire is that it is too weak, too easily satiated, too quick to terminate. We are satisfied with golden calves."

    Instead we need a desire that grows and enriches us. A desire that is never-ending and never satisfied. And what kind of love does that describe? God's love for all of us. So, the desire that truly drives us wild and makes us good is the desire for God and God's desire for us.

To love and desire as God does, change us, by teaching us to see the world in new ways. Natalie Carnes declares, "To see the world [as God does]. . . requires resisting the will to master the world. It demands, instead, opening the self up to the transformations love can accomplish."

    I've now been married for over nine years, and marriage has worked its changes upon me. Marriage has revealed to me my rough edges. I've learned things about myself I might not have learned otherwise. Or even really wanted to learn. So to be a better husband, I've had to work on myself.

    And being a father these last three and half years has revealed depths of love I wasn't even aware of. Joys and delights I didn't know.

    Loving my husband and my child have changed me. This is what good desire, true enjoyment can accomplish.

    And so with God's love for us. God's love and desire for us can open us up and change us. It can drive us wild and make us good.

 

    Today is World Communion Sunday. Together we will eat the bread and drink the grape juice. These elements nourish us. But the little bread and the little juice aren't enough to fill us up if we are actually hungry and thirsty. Despite how tasty the gluten free matzo is. In fact, that little taste might serve as a reminder that you are hungry.

Instead, the communion nourishes our spirits. In the meal we remember Christ, which means we also remember "a life beyond us, which precedes us, [and] prepares us to enter into a . . . fullness that shatters boundaries." As Natalie Carnes writes.

    Through Jesus we share in God's glory, and "the divine presence come to us . . . transforming us into an image with still greater likeness to God."

    God never desires us as objects or commodities. Listen to this beautiful description from Natalie Carnes:

 

For God looks upon us as clothed in Christ—as if we are God, inexhaustible and infinitely unfolding. God loves us as if we are Christ, and such love makes us little christs. Thirsty for us, Christ looks upon us as if we are Christ's very body, and so the Father looks upon us as if we are Christ, and desires us as if we are Christ. So looked upon and desired, we can become christs.

 

    God loves us with an infinite, unconditional love, and invites to enjoy the same kind of love.

Dearly beloved, let us be made wild with a desire that makes us good.