Morning Worship: Reinvent the multiple meaning of words, Jones argues

“The task of our time is to explore the reinvention of the human,” said the Very Rev. Alan Jones at the 9:15 a.m. Monday daily worship service. “We need radical individuality and radical mutuality and communion.”

His sermon title was was “Faith-based Invention! A Billboard on the Side of the Road: Welcome to Las Vegas: A Faith-based Community,” and the Scripture lesson was Matthew 25:31-46.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus told his listeners that when they gave food to the poor, visited those in prison, clothed the naked, when they ministered to “the least of these,” they were also ministering to Him.

“This gospel is so powerful — ‘you did it to me,’ ” Jones said. “The illusion of our culture is the belief in the private self as the arbiter of meaning and value. It is the freedom to not give a damn about others.”

If we believe we are not self-created, he told the congregation, we can enjoy a radical new openness.

“We can invent selves in solidarity with others,” Jones said. “As Garrison Keillor said, ‘You get old, and you realize there are no answers, just stories.’ ”

The trouble, Jones said, is that there are conflicting stories and the criteria by which one can choose a story.

“The words ‘you did it to the least of these’ is Jesus’ vision of what is real, and that is why I used that billboard in my title,” Jones said. “What is the story you are telling yourself and where did it come from? And what about the inconvenient reality of other people?”

How do we tell the difference between the idea of God and the reality of God? he asked. He quoted Joseph Campbell, who said about half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious tradition are facts. The other half contends the metaphors are not facts. The former think they are believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and the latter classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.

“The challenge of self-invention is endless,” Jones said. “We can get lost in our identities and take them for granted. I was raised in England and thought God was an Englishman. Now we know that she is Chinese!”

But our identities are shifting, he said, as we enter the “anthropocene” era.

“We are becoming cyborgs, and as new machines are eating up our jobs and our purpose, we have come to the end of our great dithering,” he said.

Science and technology are not the enemies but they need to be put in their place.

“We have reduced the meaning of words to a single meaning rather than mysterious metaphors,” Jones said. “We need to reinvent the multiple meaning of words.”

He used the doctrine of transubstantiation as an example. Christians in the Roman Catholic tradition are taught that the bread and wine of the Eucharist meal become the real body and real blood of Jesus Christ. In this way, “words have the power to change the way something is present.”

For Protestants, there was no magical power that changed the bread and wine because the words had one meaning. But for those who believe in transubstantiation, something else is manifested, a real presence made with language that has several levels of meaning.

“Our questions should point us toward communion and community,” Jones said. “What we invent depends on the words we put to it. … The world we need to invent is one where everyone is invited and everyone is cared for.”

One way to describe the least of these today is the “precariat.” Jones said this is a word that combines the word precarious with proletariat. These are people who have temporary and seasonal labor, who live on the edge with no institutional support. About one-fourth of all adults in the world fall into this category, he said.

“We tinker with reality instead of diving in and reinventing it,” Jones said. “As St. Francis said, ‘Preach the Gospel … use words if necessary.’ ”

Enter the mystery by caring for one another because humans are called to be subversive, to link with the action of God in the mess of things.

In choosing to be human, we choose a potentially heroic act, an adventure of the spirit, yet most people want to escape into a private reality with all they have and they are not happy.

“A vulnerable child who became a non-violent teacher and a crucified troublemaker in an occupied land said there is only one test — how have you treated the poor, lonely and imprisoned as one with Jesus and yourself,” Jones said. “It is time to walk each other home.”

The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr. presided. The Rev. George Wirth, a long-time Chautauquan, senior pastor emeritus of First Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, and a consultant for the Cousins Family Foundation, read the Scripture. The Motet Choir sang “With a Voice of Singing” by Martin Shaw under the direction of Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music. The Samuel M. and Mary E. Hazlett Memorial Fund and the J. Everett Hall Memorial Chaplaincy support this week’s services.

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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.