Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Dear Mr. Spencer,

Having read your weblog’s "About" page, I am now acquainted with your clear and admirable opposition to jihad theology, though not to the religion of Islam, itself. Previously, I was unacquainted with your voice or cause. But in the last 48 hours, my church’s office administrator and I have received a series of protest messages from readers of your blog, based on your July 21 post which features a photo of our church signboard with a seasonal greeting in it. We are now, of course, more than well-acquainted with you… and some of your apparent devotees.

Please be assured, Mr. Spencer, that not only I but my friends across the religious landscape agree with you in your opposition to jihad theology. In particular, I venture to say that my Muslim friends agree with you strongly in this regard. They and I have had numerous conversations about the blasphemy practiced by militants who pervert the meaning of jihad, that great spiritual struggle which is so common to our religions. I tell you nothing new when I identify jihad as the wrestling of the faithful person with doubt, despair, and the discipline required to maintain a life of faith. It is never holy war with others but only with oneself.

Christianity, as you know, has many examples of the misapplication of our principles and beliefs which resulted in violence toward innocents and some death as well. My own religious tradition within Christianity offers numerous illustrations of this sinful application of religion as a defense for intolerance and cruelty. So, it is reassuring for me to discover your stated, common purpose with our own, of encouraging dialogue and cooperation.

In keeping with our common purpose, let me assure you, the greeting is not one way, as you presume. Our church’s most recent signboard message was composed, preliminary to the announcement of an iftar we would host with a nearby Muslim faith community. Unfortunately, this traditional breaking of the daily fast could not be scheduled during Ramadan as needed and will be replaced by another time together in the near future. Your “fine” support of our attempt to increase interfaith conversation is much appreciated, even if you do seem a bit doubtful about our potential for success.

For example, although you begin with saying, “This is just fine,” you mitigate your congratulations, with your conclusion:
Since Muslims consider the Christian confession of the divinity of Christ to be an unacceptable association of a partner with God, this verse is saying that the “common word” that Muslims and the People of the Book should agree on is that Christians should discard one of the central tenets of their faith and essentially become Muslims. Not a promising basis for an honest and mutually respectful dialogue of equals.
These are very cautious words on your part. I appreciate your concern. 

Since you do not know us yet, and we are only just becoming acquainted with you, please allow me to say that I do hope that you do not by your conclusion indicate any genuine disrespect for the “common word” between Christians and Muslims which we are attempting to engage.

Surely you know, the purpose of interfaith discussion cannot be to reach an agreement on every point discussed, nor to convert the infidel, but to conduct that “honest and mutually respectful dialogue” you clearly crave.

For if we are to live together, and we must learn to live together, it will be necessary as well for us to find new ground on which to live, the renewing ground of respect and cooperation. Religious absolutism cannot be an option.

Thank you again for your endorsement of our work, albeit an endorsement with qualifiers. Please be assured that we do not approach our interfaith partnerships naively or without appropriate discernment. We are intelligent people and realistic ones, and we respect the intelligence and realism of our partners.

Please receive my encouragement for your efforts with my church’s own toward changing perspectives and affecting lives and hearts of enemy, stranger, neighbor, and friend.

Very sincerely,
Rev. David Denoon, Pastor
First Congregational Church of Webster Groves

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Mystery of Singbe Pieh

Singbe Pieh
A sermon by the Rev. David Denoon, delivered March 3, 2013
For audio, listen here (delivered extemporaneously).

References - Luke 13:1-9; “Black Agency, in the Amistad Uprising: Or, You’ve Taken Our Cinqué and Gone – Schindler, Morphed into John Quincy Adams, Rescues Africans — a Retrograde Film Denies Black Agency and Intelligence, Misses What Really Happened, and Returns to the Conservative Themes of the Fifties; with an Account of What Really Happened, and a Few Words about Abolitionists as Fanatics.” By Jesse Lemisch (Souls, Winter 1999); "Cinqué of the Amistad a Slave Trader? Perpetuating a Myth," by Howard Jones, Journal of American History, December 2000

The problem of suffering, Jesus seems to have said, is not really a problem. It is a condition. It is a learning opportunity... or, as a colleague of mine calls such things, "A.F.L.O." The "A" stands for, "Another," and the "L.O." refer to "Learning Opportunity." The F stands for what you think it stands for, when you are confronted with yet one more learning opportunity you don't want.

One such example of suffering might turn out to be the Sequester, now in effect, a singularly foolish and manipulative ploy suggested by the government to convince Congress to cooperate on reducing the federal deficit.  The new recession predicted by many economists as a result could prove crippling to working people across the country.

The people of Galilee killed by Pilate didn't deserve what they got any more than the eighteen underneath the falling Tower of Siloam deserved what they got. Nor does any of us deserve what we get when life proves miserable, at least not when the disaster we experience comes as a result of anything but our own stupidity. The important part of a random disaster is not the incident itself, Jesus argues. It's the positive purpose that may come forth from it.

"They were no worse sinners than you are," he assured his listeners, "but you do deserve what they got, if you don't make things better, if you refuse the blessings of the realm of God for yourself." Such things are going to happen; that is the condition of existence. What are you going to do about it.

Consider then, a man of Sierra Leone. The title of this sermon is, The Mystery of Singbe Pieh.

The mystery for many of you may be, purely and simply, Who or what IS Singbe Pieh?

Singbe Pieh was the leader of the revolt that took place on the schooner, La Amistad, which was a slave ship which likely had started as a transport of human cargo between islands in the Caribbean, but which in July 1839 was captured by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter off Long Island and was subsequently brought to port in New Haven, Connecticut.

Frontispiece image from A History of the Amistad Captives, compiled by J. W. Barber
(New Haven, CT: E. L. & J. W. Barber Publishers, 1840)
Singbe Pieh is the Mendi name of an Sierra Leonean citizen who, from the years 1839 to 1842, was known as Cinqué or Joseph Cinqué, as his case along with that of 52 other captives was considered by U.S. Federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Singbe Pieh motivated the initiation of the evangelistic effort of the Congregational Churches in America through the American Missionary Association, an association which funded not only his and his fellow captives’ legal defense but also the liberated captives’ return to Sierra Leone.  (In all fairness, not only the abolitionist Congregationalists funded the legal defense and restoration of the captives, but also northern Baptist and Presbyterian abolitionists.)

For the American public who read the newspaper accounts of his capture, trial, and restoration, Singbe Pieh was either a heroic figure or a fearsome one, depending on one’s opinion of African people.

Freedom Schooner Amistad
In the early 2000s, as part of the 160th anniversary of the span of years during which he and the other Amistad captives were in the United States challenging our identity as a nation based on freedom, equality, and justice, a full-scale replica of the Amistad funded in part by the United Church of Christ toured the seaports of the United States.  In the UCC we are proud of this moment in our history.

But it is important to remember that it was only a moment, just a little over three years.  Singbe Pieh’s life spanned about 25 years before the day in January 1839 when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and as many as 60 years afterward, depending on which account you believe.

You see, that is the problem about how we view Singbe Pieh.  We treat him often as if his life began, one triumphant night in June 1839 when, after being terrorized repeatedly by the taunts of the ship’s cook about his Spanish captors’ intention eventually to butcher him and the others and sell them as food, he managed to break free of his chains and then to free others, break into a box of sugar cane swords, and attack the ship’s crew.  They killed the captain... and the cook... and took the remaining crew prisoner.

That’s pretty amazing stuff.  But his life included so much more that we know only shadows of.  He was a husband and father of three, a rice farmer who lived in the Mendi village of Mani; so it is not difficult at all to imagine why he wanted to get back.  But when he did manage to return, his wife and children were gone and the village laid waste – victims of a civil war that started while he was away.  Singbe Pieh survived the Middle Passage and the American justice system.  You would think he deserved a happier reward.

My new favorite author, the professor of history emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, in 1999 published an article in the Columbia University journal, Souls, which identifies itself as “A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society.”  The article was entitled, “Black Agency, in the Amistad Uprising: Or, You’ve Taken Our Cinqué and Gone – Schindler, Morphed into John Quincy Adams, Rescues Africans — a Retrograde Film Denies Black Agency and Intelligence, Misses What Really Happened, and Returns to the Conservative Themes of the Fifties; with an Account of What Really Happened, and a Few Words about Abolitionists as Fanatics.” By Jesse Lemisch (Souls, Winter 1999)

The Amistad in question here is the 1997 film by Steven Spielberg starring Morgan Freeman, Djimon Hounsou, and Matthew McConnaughey (oh! And Anthony Hopkins as former president John Quincy Adams – what is it, lately, with foreign actors recruited to play American presidents!).  In his article, Prof. Lemisch points out that, for all Steven Spielberg’s good intentions in creating the film which at the time the director referred to as his most important work to date, for Lemisch the film was “a present-minded Nineties screed for white paternalism.”  Prof. Lemisch points out that there was a distinct lack of back story included here.  Singbe Pieh appears to have come up with the idea of revolt entirely on his own.  Others join him, seemingly, because he has managed to free himself and looses their chains too.  There is no indication of conspiracy or planning.

But the fact that, historically, the captives used a file to cut through their shackles – not a loosened nail to unlock them, as the movie shows – they must have devised a system together to hide the file.  Furthermore, their knowledge of a sealed crate filled with swords and the speed with which they must have acted to open it and distribute them – since the crew on deck appears to have been taken completely by surprise – points to quite a bit of premeditation.  Lemisch argues that the real story of La Amistad is not about a group of black people set free by the magnificent justice of a white people’s system of government or about black and white cooperation.  The Amistad incident is about resistance and rebellion; it is about, as Lemisch puts it, “black agency.”

"The Revolt," one in the Amistad Mutiny series of murals (1938) by Hale Woodruff
Not only was much of Singbe Pieh’s life stolen from him, but the moment of his triumph toward liberation is made to seem more like an accident than a well-planned victory. And yet it must have been.

Then, the most abiding story about him after his return to Sierra Leone is that he became a slave trader there.  And, no matter how much evidence there may be to the contrary the allegation keeps getting repeated.  The most damning evidence to the contrary is that this part of his biography is actually taken from a novel, the author of which admitted that where there were gaps in the story, he made things up.  ("Cinqué of the Amistad a Slave Trader? Perpetuating a Myth," by Howard Jones, Journal of American History, December 2000)


Not, why would people believe this?  We know that!

No, Why, after his life was so piled high with misery, would Singbe Pieh not at some point have seen some enduring happiness?  At some point, hasn’t he suffered enough?  At some point, haven’t we all suffered enough?

I don’t know if it’s a satisfying response for you.  I know it isn’t entirely satisfying for me, but Jesus offered this response to his followers when they pressed him to know why people who seemed innocent should have been the subject of suffering... the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices, the eighteen who died when a tower fell on them.  He said, “Were any of these less righteous than any other ordinary people trying to live life as best they could?  No.”

And then he told them a parable about a garden and a fruitless tree.  The owner of the tree wanted to cut it down and replace it.  The one who tended the garden, however, pleaded with the owner to allow him to fertilize it.  “Let me dig around it and put manure around it,” the gardener said.

That, Jesus seems to say, pretty well sums up our condition: we are given lives abounding in manure because that is what enriches them.  Granted, in the moment of suffering, these words do not come as much comfort, saying as they do that suffering is inevitable and perhaps even necessary, even if in it we can find new meaning and purpose for ourselves.

People caught in disaster don’t deserve it.  There's no real mystery to it.  They simply were as they were when misery began.  It isn’t God’s will that people suffer, and they don’t go through it or succumb to it because they are worse sinners than anyone else.  The world is as it is, says Jesus: Manure happens.  But because it happens, we can be better; life can be better than it was.

Singbe Pieh and his fellow captives deserve to be recognized as something more than victims of their times or as justifiers of the American system.  They deserve to be seen as more than people saved from perdition by a single man (John Quincy Adams) or group of people (abolitionists).  They deserve to be recognized as human beings who when they saw the opportunity to reverse their fortunes, together tried.  However difficult it may be this century and three-quarters later to see them clearly, we owe them at least that much recognition.  And this is the day we in the UCC celebrate Singbe Pieh and all of them and the mystery of the tragedy they shared and the life we all share.  From sadness and hardship, they were able to wrest redemption into the light of day.

And their story bore brilliant fruit: Something not often remembered is that their was the first of three great slave rebellions in a period of five years.  In November 1841, nineteen slaves aboard the Creole, which was loaded with 153 slaves bound from Hamption Roads, Virginia, to New Orleans, Louisiana, overwhelmed that ship's crew and ordered them to sail for Liberia.  Insufficiently provisioned for a trans-Atlantic voyage, the crew convinced the mutineers to allow them to sail for Nassau, the Bahamas, instead.  Once arrived in the port of that British protectorate, despite repeated protestations from the American consulate, because British law forbade the ownership of slaves, Bahamian police set all but seven of the captives free.  Those seven - three women and four children - elected instead to sail on to New Orleans.

Furthermore, in November 1842, hundreds of slaves of Cherokees in the Indian Territory, walked away from their masters and headed for Mexico, which also had outlawed slavery.  [Here, the audio version of this sermon misrepresents the actual history. I apologize for the inaccuracy. -DD]  The Cherokee Nation raised a militia which captured the slaves, just north of the Red River (Texas border).  It is interesting also to note that, after this rebellion in 1842, there was not another slave rebellion until Harper's Ferry in 1859.

It can surely be no accident that, with the sensationalism of the Amistad story in the news in both the North and the South almost constant from 1839 until 1842, that the affirmative decisions in 1841 of the Federal District Court in New Haven and the U.S. Supreme Court influenced the resolve of those slaves to assume freedom when the opportunity presented itself.  Slave revolts and rebellions such as those on the Creole and in the Indian Territory could not have occurred without conspiracy and planning of individuals convinced that freedom was within their grasp if they would only take it.

The inspiring agency of the Amistad captives continues to bear fruit today, in articles I have cited here, and in Civil Rights and Human Rights movements, here and across the globe.

And much as the Sequester threatens to recede our economy, because we know the story of the liberated Amistad captives, we know that there is hope.  But we knew that already didn't we.

The one who told the parable of the fertilized fig tree is one who lived this reality himself.  Our Jesus was arrested unjustly, and tortured, and executed for no good reason.  But he would not be kept down; on the third day he was restored to life, gloriously and for ever, as a living example for us all.

We have that hope for ourselves, so let us be examples of the freedom that makes us free and the love that gives us life.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Prayer with the UMWA

This morning I joined with other clergy, Eden Seminary students and faculty, and about 800 coal miners to protest Peabody Coal's relinquishment of responsibility for tens of thousands of retired former employees. In 2008, Peabody created Patriot Coal, a subsidiary designed to run numerous mines and to control the health accounts of an enormous number of Peabody retirees.

In July 2012, Patriot declared bankruptcy. A firestorm has issued out of the United Mine Workers of America, protesting the scuttling of all Patriot's assets including those pensions and health accounts. Many will be left destitute as a result.

Today, a hearing was scheduled at the Thomas Eagleton Federal Courthouse in Saint Louis, and so a rally was scheduled also. I prayed the closing prayer:

God of all people great and small, we pray this day for the lowly and the powerful, that justice for all may be accomplished.

Many of us have come to know you in Jesus of Nazareth - the carpenter and carpenter's son who learned of labor through his trade. He, by his word and godly example has indicated to us what is holy and true and righteous.

We thank you for these people united in a common effort, appealing  to the conscience of the leadership of a mighty company.

Sovereign God, I am the pastor of an historically white collar congregation, but today, I wear under my power suit a blue collar to signify unity with labor everywhere, but especially these coal miners here. They worked for Peabody for years, assuming that the work they had done would be appreciated in perpetuity by their former employer. But now they fear for their futures - that they may be left destitute by a corporation that made a mistake (and what a mistake!), five years ago. Now, the great claim scarcity and threaten the small.

We pray for these miners' former management, almighty God, for Peabody surely understands that, as Jesus said, "a worker deserves their wages," and as you have spoken through the prophet, we "shall see the fruit of our labors."

And we acknowledge that Jesus not only kept company with the lowly and vulnerable, the poor and the needy, but also with the powerful, the questionably ethical, and the outright corrupt. He befriended everyone for the sake of reminding us that we all are our brothers' and sisters' keepers. So, we pray that your Spirit - as it did in the unnamed centurion and Nicodemus, in Zacchaeus and Matthew - may work insidiously among those who make the financial decisions of this company,who could not decide as they do but for the profits these laborers made possible. Help them to remember their obligations to their sisters and brothers, duties they once claimed as their own and which - I venture to remind them in this prayer to you - they must again assume by the demands of justice and righteousness, by the fact that they would not be able to take up these duties were it not for the coal miners and their families who turned the wheels of their industry by the sweat of their brows and the strength of their hands.

"Let your justice roll down like waters and your righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!"

Decisions once made in strength may have been borne out in weakness, but abundance persists in this corporate giant. We see its evidence throughout our city in philanthropic work and impressive architecture. But Peabody can do more... and better!

Peabody's obligation to their workers remains, no matter how much they deny it. And their ability will not be overwhelmingly diminished by living up to the promises they once made to these people. This giant is strong and able.

O God of great and small, our Creator and our Guide, as once you did in an obscure place in the words and acts of a simple laborer, bring redemption here: In this day protect the lowly and the vulnerable through the righteous action of the great and the strong.

Your mercy is boundless, your compassion endless, your abundance eternal, your love infinite. Grant us all, your vision and a heart to do your will. And thus empower all your people to say, "Amen."

Sunday, February 24, 2013

On My Way

A sermon by Student Minister Reina Ueno, translated by the preacher. This English version was delivered in worship, February 24, 2013. To hear the audio of this sermon, please click here
Do you remember your hardest experience in your life? Or perhaps some life path that was difficult for you? I do not want to dwell on it very much, but I think each of us have had a tough time we can remember.

For the Lenten season, we remember the suffering of Jesus at the same time all of us have to pass through hard places in our life jorney, at some point. Today’s Scripture describes that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and actually seems to suggest that Jesus will be faced physical crisis by going up to Jerusalem.

Because today is Seminary Sunday, I have been asked to talk about my life at Eden Theological Seminary. Before that, I would like to talk about some stories about Japanese Christians who have supported in my studies in the United States.

There are many active elder members who are more than 75 years old in my home church in Japan. They have experienced life in wartime in World War II. Some of them were Christians at that time; some had not become Christian yet. I heard lots of witness from them how they worshiped in the wartime and how the Japanese church or Christian leadership have struggled, that they eventually supported a Japanese military government even though they actually did not want to do it. One lady said, pointing to the back end of sanctuary, “Here, there was military policeman every Sunday when we had a Sunday morning worship. They check up whether we worship not only Christian God but also Japanese Emperor.” They always were suspected of spying for America because they were Christian. 

And I know that lots of people experienced Copernican paradigm shift from the end of war in 1945 to the time of after wartime. They totally lost their identity as Japanese. Even as Christians, they realized and were disappointed that Japanese Emperor was not God but he was a human being, and they as a result were not belonging to God’s kingdom. And some of them found that they truly oppressed other Asian countries. 

Also, many of them have held onto very difficult feelings about Hiroshima and Nagasaki since the end of World War II. When I visited my home church last summer, some of elder members asked me seriously “How do American church think about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, now?” This question might be connected with their faith journey. I could not answer the question. But anyway, then so many Christians have experienced such a hard times and are also unique.

Their journey is part of my journey as a Japanese Christian. I think I have a responsibility to understand historical facts and people’s emotions, to rebuild relevant relationships, especially with Asian countries.

There is another story concerning the sexual minority issue. I know one boy who struggled with his confusion between his body and soul. When the boy noticed that he had biologically female body then he also realized that he is not female but male. He was raised up by Christian mother and non-religious father. He was baptized as a child. When he attended a high school, which was only for girls, as a female student, he came out to his mother and sisters. 

His mother was so confused and blamed to herself because she thought she failed to raise up her daughter as a female. She believed that God created human being only biologically male and female according to a literal reading of the Scripture. It was huge crisis for both her faith journey and her daughter’s life but unfortunately there was no help from church. She and her daughter wanted to talk to a pastor but they could not. They were not totally sure the church could accept their situation. They could not get any information about sexual minority people or any positive perspective about the matters of sexuality both in the life of church and in pastor’s preaching. Since this mother was divorced, she somehow noticed the way of pastoral care that she was provided by her pastor. There was surely gentle prayer, but there was no appropriate instruction about concrete issue of relationship. So they hesitated to talk with a pastor and a relevant pastoral care has never happened at that time.

Their journey is also part of my journey as a family member. The transsexual boy is my youngest sister. She is officially male now. I attended ONA conference yesterday and one of the important things I have heard in the workshop is to name specific people who are marginalized. Because they are not sure whether church welcomes them like my mother and my brother has experienced. How do they know they are welcomed? There is no church proclaiming Open and Affirming Congregation in Japan. Therefore I think I have responsibility to work for LGBTQI people who are still strongly forced to be hidden without any support.

So, let’s return to the Scripture.
Then some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Jesus said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.
Why does Jesus call Herod a fox? Why does Jesus use this kind of bad word, even if Herod is actually bad person? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be gentle!

I think Jesus may be articulating how very much Herod differs from himself. Jesus explains his own work specifically in this way: "I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work."

The implication of this explanation might be: This is what happens when God is working among people. And this is what a true king of people has to do. But Herod never does that. Jesus is doing it today and tomorrow, and until he dies. Herod never even gets started in this way.
Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.
“I must be on my way.” This phrase of Jesus catches my eye. “I must be on my way.” – What does it mean?

I actually struggled with feeling some nuance in English for this phrase. Pastor David taught me “way” has two different meanings in English - a road and a practice. But still, I do not think I get the nuance of this word in English.

So I will talk through the perspective of the nuance in Japanese language.

To me, this phrase seems to be like Jesus is emphasizing “his way” differ from Herod. And the way he must go down the road to the city of Jerusalem is required from God. On the other hand, Jesus’ way of doing things truly is applicable in both contexts. His way need not necessarily be the way of a king. Jesus talks about what he was doing in his life and how he was associated with people. He cast out demons, healed the sick, and finally, one day, he would finish this work.

So, “the way” means not only the road but also the practice that Jesus did in his life: casting out demons and performing cures. Moreover, this should be the statement of the obedience to God’s will. Not only for Jesus but also we must be on our way because it is impossible to change God’s will.

We are strongly required to be on our way differently. Likewise the elder Japanese church member experienced, my mother and my brother struggled, and all of us have certain life journey, which is impossible to refuse. In other words, through the prophet Isaiah: My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. (Isaiah 55:8)

My study at Eden is connected with the Japanese church members, families, friends and American church, too. One of my hope in studying at Eden is to discern how to compose these elements with my own context as a single female Japanese pastor. It often causes isolation to me compared with other students or other female pastors in Japan because simply American Christian is majority and Japanese female pastor mostly get married with male senior pastor. But I really appreciate that I am only one Japanese student at Eden and one of a few single female pastor in Japan. It is unique and this is the way I must be on that God required to me.

But, what is the purpose of this way? Why has God given us this way?

I think the answer is in another Scripture for today. Here, God speaks of a promise to Abraham. When Abraham looks back his journey in the past he could not find any hope to have his child anymore. Abraham seems to have a tendency to consider that God is not keeping the promise, because of what has not yet happened in his life. But even though, back then, for Abraham the facts were not yet in God’s favor, and Abraham could not find hope just in that moment, God nevertheless asked him to see the hope in the sky. There were stars like lights of hope.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews 6:13-20, the author explains hope from God,
When God made a promise to Abraham, because he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, ‘I will surely bless you and multiply you.’ And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise. Human beings, of course, swear by someone greater than themselves, and an oath given as confirmation puts an end to all dispute. In the same way, when God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it by an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God would prove false, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us. We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek.
The purpose (goal) of our way required by God is hope. God is providing hope even if we are on the hardest way. And this hope is a sure and steadfast anchor of our soul. The hope enters the inner shrine, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered.

We must be on our way today, tomorrow and the next day, following Jesus in word and deed.

We are on our way differently, but we have the same hope holding you as an anchor.

Can you see the hope on your way? Yes, you can see it.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Bearing the Glow

A sermon by the Rev. David Denoon for Boy Scout Sunday, February 10, 2013
An audio version of this sermon is available.
A video about our Boy Scout Sunday by Wade Smith of Channel 2 News is available.


I can’t tell you the number of ministers I knew in 2009 and 2010 who used Susan Boyle as a comparison for transfiguration, when she sang her way to the top of the competition in the television contest, Britain’s Got Talent.  Homely in appearance when she took the stage, Ms. Boyle had a clarity of vocal tone and timbre that absolutely stunned her judges and a worldwide audience.  She shone with a glory few would have imagined, based on appearance.

The story was heartwarming, but versions of it happen quite a lot.  The question is, sometimes, whether the Glowing One will be able to bear shining for long.  We all have our encumbrances.  But there is such potential!

One imagines that Jesus’ disciples had their high moments and their low ones.  In the story earlier in Luke, when Jesus makes apostles of seventy of them and sends them abroad into Galilee, they return with exciting tales of their successes, cures, and blessings (Luke 10).  But when Jesus descends Mount Hermon, he finds them impotent before the challenge of a poor, raving boy.

"The Transfiguration"
from the Jesus Mafa series
All Christians stand in the glorious light of Christ’s transfiguration, the brilliance of Jesus’ glowing from the mountaintop. We emulate as well humility similar to that of the apostles, as they try to figure out what to do about it... because we like them have found ourselves glowing too, have known our shining moments, just like them.  And we therefore also have found ourselves commissioned with a powerful and power-filled message.  And (surprise! surprise!) we can be intimidated by the message that we have to carry forward, however – a message of peace and justice and wholeness and life.

What? Little ol’ me?

If we are puzzled by what we ought to do next, or just what we ought to do, then my advice would be simply for us to consider what Jesus’ first action was after the Transfiguration: he healed a boy.  He found his disciples intimidated or overwhelmed by the task of providing care so he jumped in and did it.  And this, like all of Christ’s works, may seem as though they were accomplished fairly quickly and completely, all at once.

The temptation in our modern world always seems to be to rush things, to expect immediate results.  We have gotten too used to pushing a button and having an outcome immediately.  We have grown too accustomed to waiting thirty minutes, at the most three hours if it’s a sporting event, and to be able at the end of that relatively brief span of time to know who emerges victorious or at least to witness how everything plays out.

It’s important to remember in our day and age that, there on the top of Mt. Hermon, or wherever this hill is near Caesarea Philippi in the Galilee, God through Christ had been putting things in place for at least a year and perhaps for almost three years. (That estimate of time comes if you read Mark’s version of the Transfiguration; if you read Matthew’s or Luke’s it’s been more like a thirty-year wait, since Jesus’ birth. And if you read John, which has no Transfiguration story but definitely bears an opinion about God had been stirring the pot and preparing the world for the Messiah since the beginning of time.  For John, as for most Christians since John was written, the dark day on another hill near Jerusalem would have as part of it not only the cross of Calvary but the crux of history.)

Moses was on Mt. Sinai for eighty days and nights before his face began glowing... and didn’t stop.  For God, a Psalmist once said, “a thousand years are like ... yesterday.”  So, some things will take time.  And for earthly forms to show forth the glory of God, time will be taken.

Last Monday, there was word all over about some changes that the Boy Scouts might be making to their rules regarding membership and leadership.  The announcement came welcome to the ears of our congregation.  We place few restrictions on membership and leadership in our church, and we want Scouting to be on the same page with us, because it’s part of our programming and therefore part of us.

The First Congregational Church of Webster Groves has had Scouting as part of our regular programming, ever since converting our first-west-of-the-Mississippi Boys Brigade into a Boy Scout Troop.  Boys Brigade was an innovation to many Sunday Schools across the United States in the last decade or so of the 1800s, espousing the idea of ushering boys toward "Christian manliness."  It originated in Britain, however, and remained something of a British vehicle; our own charter was granted by the Boys Brigade Canadian office.

Even though Lord Baden-Powell who founded the Boy Scouts was British, there was something about the slightly-less-sectarian and much-more-outdoorsy orientation of the Scouts, undoubtedly, that appealed to us as a church.  And the fact that our Scouts could be chartered by an U.S.-based organization didn’t hurt.

Boys Brigades to this day are always attached to Christian faith communities, and those Scout troops such as ours with a legacy stretching to the days of the Boys Brigades retain that association in most cases.  Scouting is a program of this church.  We don’t acknowledge it much, and haven’t since, somewhere a long time ago, we just started taking it for granted.

First, we took for granted that it was part of us; then we sort of lost track of that fact.  For many years, we have said that we sponsored a Boy Scout troop, and in the past decade or so that is what it has seemed like, since few to none of our boys or adults have been involved with the program which has carried on, sometimes maybe despite us.  The charter you will see represented, later, is the annual permission given to us by the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America to call our boys program, Boy Scouts.  We have met their exacting standards.

It was last September or so, after discussions began among frustrated church members who had been involved with Scouting that I discovered that I had the relationship backwards, and it was therefore only then I began to understand just why my church members were so upset as to want to send a letter or stage a protest or cut ties altogether...

The Scouts’ stated restrictions about members and leaders – even for all the assurances of an at-least-implicit don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy – is problematic for a church which started a Boys Brigade in 1908 because we thought it would help our own boys negotiate the challenging waters of boyhood and adolescence, helping them focus on Christian values of faithfulness, reverence, discipline, and self-respect.  What isn’t right about that, even today, one hundred five years later?

But our concepts of faithfulness, reverence, discipline, and self-respect have changed, as from generation to generation in generations before us perspectives changed and therefore the interpretation of God’s word and will.  I am assured by some that our fairly progressive stance on who ought to be able to join or lead our own Scout troop, or any program of our church, differs from that of the National Council of the Boy Scouts only by the sum of time it will take for Scouting to catch up.  (Remember how long it took Jesus to get to that hilltop and be transfigured - a year, three years, a lifetime, or an eternity!)

This past week, we thought that it might not be decades in the sum but perhaps only years before our tension is resolved.  After all, we only took our Open and Affirming stance, five short years ago, and its process took quite a while of self-examination and education.

Our Boys Brigade was retooled in 1910 from the stance it began with in 1908.  The Scouts are focused on the outdoors and education while the Boys Brigade made no bones about training Christian spiritual soldiers.  Well, the change in perspective we would like to see come about is not much different.  And remember how long it took Jesus to get to that hilltop and be transfigured – one year, three years, thirty years, since the beginning of time!

Bearing the glow is one thing, we know, but getting to the glow is not a speedy process, ever, it seems.

There's something else that requires much time for a change in perspective or practice (glowing or abiding the shine):

Today, our local church is planning with the denomination for an Eastertide focus on environmentalism and stewardship.  In fact, if today had not been Boy Scout Sunday and the recent events in our congregation and rumoring round Scouting’s National Council had not been so timely, I probably would have been part of the national Preach-In led by Interfaith Power and Light.  This is, however, as close as I am coming to that observance – encouraging you in the tradition of our own scouts to plan to be part of the Green Team Lynda Morrison is trying to build up next Sunday with some new and motivated members.

But I was talking about glowing and what to do about it.  I have been saying, and Tracey with the kids has been saying, for the past many weeks through our innovative Sunday School curriculum, We are the body of Christ.  And that is the case, whether you assume the metaphor that we are each individually a different body part, or else the extension of the story we have heard today – that by faith you are being transfigured as Christ was, two thousand years ago on a hilltop in Galilee.

When Jesus came down off the mountaintop, unlike Moses he was no longer glowing; he looked himself again... and yet Peter, John, and James said that they had witnessed his transfigured reality. However momentarily it may have been, it was permanent in their eyes. They knew now what he was capable of.

The first act he performed after coming down off that hilltop was to heal a boy that no one else could heal.  And he insisted that all they required was a measure greater of faith, for them to do the same.  But that faith, as always in Jesus’ statements, was theirs to cultivate, theirs to believe in.

We know, don’t we, that the emanation of Christ is here and among us.  We know that we are the body of Christ, transfigured and refigured so that we may operate in the world without having to disguise who we really are.  We can provide the safe sanctuary for people who may not be harbored anywhere else safely and unconditionally.  We can provide the extravagant welcome and the beloved community that is lacking in so many other places in our world, even Christian places.  We can come down from our Galilean hilltop, our Palestinian peak, our high place in Webster Groves, and all our lofty locations and, whether inside our outside, ensure a healing environment for boys to become... what is it..?
"physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight"