Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Hebrew Prophets: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (4/27/08)

The Hebrew Prophets: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
April 27th, 2008

Selected Readings from the Minor Prophets

The Good:
 The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. --Amos 9:13-14

The Bad:
 I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord. I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. I will make the wicked stumble. I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth, says the Lord.
--Zephaniah 1:2-3

The Ugly:
 I am against you, says the Lord of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame. I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt, and make you a spectacle.
--Nahum 3:5-6

Today marks the end of our tour through the Hebrew prophets.
 In our journey through the Bible we have finished the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy), the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), and the Latter Prophets, which is divided into the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and the Minor Prophets (Hosea through Malachi). 

Next month we begin the Writings.
 We will read the poetic literature first, Job, Psalms, and Proverbs. Then for June, we will read The Five Scrolls: (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther). We will also read the Post-Exilic Writings: (Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 & 2 Chronicles). And by the end of June we will have completed the Hebrew Scriptures which Christians call the Old Testament. We are reading them, however, in the order of the Hebrew tradition rather than the Christian tradition.

The poet Robert Frost, in one of his poems wrote that he had a lover’s quarrel with the world. In his 1942 poem “The Lesson for Today,” a long philosophical poem, we find this stanza:

And were an epitaph to be my story
I'd have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover's quarrel with the world

You will find on Robert Frost’s tombstone in his resting place in Vermont, that sentence: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” I took a photograph of it when I visited there a few years ago.

On my tombstone should be written, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the Bible.” It truly is a lover’s quarrel. I have been marinated in it since I was a child. I learned critical methods, even a dabbling in its original languages. I have argued with it, dismissed it, embraced it again, cursed those who misuse it, embarrassed myself in my misuse of it, and here I am again encouraging you to read it. Perhaps I want you to share my pain. The Bible won’t go away. I cannot seem to write it off. Its narrative continues to mess with my head and heart.

I still want to trust that what it says is true—we matter, something bigger than us cares, and in the end we experience Resurrection and a shining city.

Religious scholar Bart Ehrman, who teaches at the University of North CarolinaChapel Hill, just published a book in 2008: God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer.

I think Professor Ehrman has a lover’s quarrel with the Bible, too. I resonate with what he wrote on page 17:

It is important, then, to see what the Bible actually says, and not to pretend it doesn’t say something that happens to contradict one’s own particular point of view. But whatever the Bible says needs to be evaluated. This is not a matter of setting oneself up as God, dictating what is and what is not divine truth. It is a matter of using our intelligence to assess the merit of what the biblical authors say…(p. 17)

That is true enough. Yet the Bible has power over us at that exact point. If we do “assess the merit of what the biblical authors say” we are breaking a taboo. It is that very assessment that is considered to be the slandering of the sacred. This taboo is not just for fundamentalists. Biblical scholars across the spectrum all have the desire to bring the Bible to their side. We really have a hard time finally saying, for example, “Yes, the Apostle Paul was probably homophobic, but we don’t have to be.”

Folks who have no lover’s quarrel with the Bible have no difficulty saying that. The Bible is as foreign to them as tales of the Norse god, Odin. But for those of us who do trust the Bible as a sacred text, we have a problem. Can it be true if we have the freedom to assess its truth claims? Is it true if we conclude that some of it is not true? 

I am not speaking about whether or not an event in the Bible happened or not, I am talking about the big ticket questions, such as, “If God loves us, why do we suffer?”
 This is the question Bart Ehrman addresses in his recent book.

Ehrman believes that that question is the foundational question of the Bible.Ehrman writes that it is not only a foundational question for the Bible but for most if not all religions. It is an existential question with which we live.

Why do we suffer? The reason we ask it is in order to then ask: How can we end suffering, or at least reduce it, or at even be at peace with it? I bring up Ehrman’s book because he begins with the prophets and how they answered that question.

There are a number of different ways the biblical writers answered that question.The dominant answer, the classic answer, is that suffering is God’s punishment for disobedience. The prophets also assert that some suffering is caused by human beings who inflict pain on others. The prophet Amos accused the rich of selling the poor for a pair of shoes. Their suffering was the result of the greed of the rich.

One explanation for human suffering is true enough: we bring it on others and ourselves by making selfish and cruel choices. Why do people suffer from grinding poverty, war, and sickness. Some of it can be explained by neglect, cruelty and ignorance. Those who see human suffering in that way, seek to eliminate it or alleviate it. There is suffering that we can do something about.

This is why Amos, of all the prophets, resonates so much with those who work for social justice. The hope is we can do something about it, if we care enough to act.  Amos, in that sense, is quite modern.

That explanation doesn’t account for all suffering, though. It doesn’t account for natural disasters, birth defects, disease, pain in childbirth, and death itself. As much as we might enjoy blaming politicians and leaders for our suffering, we cannot concede to them that much power.

The classic explanation for suffering from the Hebrew prophets was that suffering was inflicted upon them as punishment for disobedience to YHWH. The crisis was this: YHWH chose us and made a covenant with us. Why then are we in such misery? Why are we being overthrown by our adversaries? Why do we die from famine and drought? Why do mothers weep for their children and refuse to be comforted? Why doesn’t YHWH answer our cries for help?

The answer from the prophets is that this suffering is not the result of indifferent weather patterns, nor is it the result of the Babylonian or Assyrian Empires’ quests for power. This suffering is YHWH’s way of communicating. You are suffering because you have disobeyed and you need to repent. When you do repent, YHWH will restore you.

Job didn’t buy it. Job rejects the classic answer. Here is a righteous person who suffers. There are two answers in Job. The first is that suffering is none of his business. YHWH speaks to him finally from the whirlwind and gives no answer.The second answer from the prologue and epilogue that the reader knows, but the character Job does not, is that YHWH was playing games with him. YHWH made a bet with the Adversary regarding how much suffering could be inflicted upon poor old Job, before he would break his covenant with YHWH. Suffering in this case is a test. Although, one might legitimately ask, for what purpose?

The answer from Ecclesiastes is “All is vanity and chasing after the wind.” The good suffer and wicked prosper, just the make the best of it. Ecclesiastes also resonates with our modern view on things.

In the saga of Joseph, which Ehrman points out, is the same theme of the story of Jesus, God uses suffering for redemption. In this case suffering is not caused by God but used by God to achieve a greater good. The New Testament does not really provide any new answers. Although some have suggested that the incarnation shows that God suffers with us.

So far we have suffering is unexplainable, suffering is caused by the cruelty of others, suffering is a test, suffering is a means to a greater good. The classic, dominant answer is that suffering is punishment. That is what we find, for the most part in the Torah and the Prophets.

Here is the question: Is that true? Were the prophets correct? I am going to argue that they were not correct. As one biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan put it: if the Hebrew people had been on their knees in prayer, day and night, and been perfect followers of YHWH, the Assyrians and then the Babylonians would have slaughtered them anyway.

This is why I find the prophets very difficult to read. I resonate with Amos and the call for social justice. I do like the visions of hope and justice we find there. I call that prophetic message good. The message of punishment, that everything from drought to the defeat by enemies is God’s way of punishing, I cannot accept. I don’t think that theology is good or good for us. That prophetic message to me is bad.

I have to have some special category for the almost pornographic language of the prophets as they graphically depict the violence of God on those whom God punishes. Not good, worse than bad, it is ugly.

That is my quarrel with much of the Bible and the god who is portrayed there. I simply cannot accept a notion of God who punishes people either then or now because of their sin. Am I setting myself as smarter than God for saying that?Perhaps. Some would say that is exactly what I am doing. I do not think so. I think I am evaluating or assessing the merits of what the biblical authors wrote.

Actually, in an odd way, I think it makes me a lover of the Bible and the people who wrote it. I want to understand it and them. Why did they say things the way they did? What was at stake for them? Understanding includes assessing. Because they saw god in a certain way then, does that mean we must see god in that way now?

I may be wrong in my assessment. But I think that our personal growth is allowing ourselves the freedom to risk being wrong. We have the freedom, perhaps the responsibility to forge a way of thinking about God and our human plight in ways that move beyond ancient formulations.

There is a great deal of suffering in the world. Much of it we can do little about except to be compassionate to others and to ourselves. Yet there is much suffering that we may be able to alleviate and in some cases prevent. I do think that how we think about God does matter in how we respond to the challenges of life. I will give up God’s power and righteousness for God’s compassion any day. 

Daring to assess the merits of the Bible may seem a road less traveled by in our culture.
 So, I will close with another poem by Robert Frost that reminds me of this congregation and why I am glad I am here:

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood, 
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear; 
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay 
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Nahum Vs. Jonah (4/20/2008)

Nahum vs. Jonah
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
April 20, 2008

An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh. 
A jealous and avenging God is the Lord,
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and rages against his enemies. 
The Lord is slow to anger but great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
--Nahum 1:1-3
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.
Jonah 3:10-4:2

I have been thinking about God this past week. I am happy to report that I have it all figured out. Here is the answer.

It is kind of silly, isn’t it? What I mean is, the idea that we can figure out what God is all about.   Even more foolish it seems to me, is to make any claim that we can speak for God.

Yet people do it all of the time. You may hear people say, “This is God’s will. This is what God wants; this is what God says.” Usually, folks are not quite that obvious. Some Christians who claim to speak for God usually settle for what they think the Bible says. We hear phrases such as, “The Bible says” or my personal favorite, “These are biblical values.” In this sense, the Bible serves a cipher for God.

Preachers who talk with certainty about what God says and what the Bible says are a dime a dozen. What I find odd, frightening really, is how many people go along with that. People who are intelligent and capable of making their own decisions will give that power away.They voluntary hand over their own authority and autonomy to some preacher who tells them how God wants them to act, think, and feel.

What is that about? Is there a psychological need or a social need that is met by doing that?

  • Perhaps making their own decisions is frightening and they need an authority to tell them what to do.
  • Perhaps they are afraid of being alienated from family and friends and they need to belong.
  • Perhaps fear of eternal punishment has been so ingrained that free-thinking has not been a viable option.
  • Perhaps preconceived notions about what is right and wrong, good and bad, need to be reinforced by an external authority.
Whatever it is that external authorities do for us in the short term, they are ultimately fallible.The sign of their fallibility is their claim to infallibility.

The Pope didn’t become infallible (that is without error) until the 19th century. Protestant fundamentalism which gifted us with the infallibility of the Bible, did not develop until the 19th    century. What happened in the 19th century? Science came of age. Biblical criticism came of age. Ludwig Feurbach showed us that the gods we create and worship are projections of our internal needs, fears, and desires.

These doctrines of the infallibility of religious authorities developed as a defense against modern thought. That was the 19th century. Here we are in 2008 and the gods of authoritarianism are still working their voodoo in attempt to keep human beings from thinking for themselves.

I raised the ire of some of my more conservative colleagues when I wrote something on my blog a few months ago. It is still quoted by them, however only partially and out of context.Just this past Friday, our executive presbyter, Rich Fifield, forwarded me an e-mail from an irate person.

“Do you know what John Shuck writes on his blog? He is a disgrace!” He then quoted part of this blog entry that I am going to read to you.

Rich and I have a little ritual. He responded to this person as he responds to all of them: 

“Yes, I am aware of John Shuck’s blog. Why don’t you contact John Shuck with your concern?” 

Of course, they never do. They want someone else to punish me. Rich then sends me a copy of the e-mail. I save it to my computer and write back thanking him for keeping me posted. I am getting quite a collection. If I am not careful I am going to start thinking that I am a big deal.

That whole authoritarian mindset is what I am talking about. Someone must punish.Someone must silence any threat to this authority. When someone dares to speak out of his or her own authority, the entire house of cards is threatened.

This past Thursday over 50 people gathered in room #503 of Warf-Pickel on the ETSU campus for our first PFLAG meeting. PFLAG stands for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. It also includes Bisexual and Transgender persons. It was a far larger group than I had anticipated. It was a moving experience for me. Person after person said how glad they were that they could meet in a safe place and know that they weren’t going to be judged and instead would be affirmed and that their loved ones would also be affirmed.
PFLAG is a national organization that exists for support, education and advocacy on behalf of sexual and gender minorities and their families. We have begun a local chapter, PFLAG Tri-Cities for our area. The context for all of this is that we live in a religious culture that says, “It is not OK to be gay and we have the Bible to back it up.”

In other words, the religious culture in which we live says that denying sexual and gender minorities equal rights makes the baby Jesus happy. Many folks, including religious folks do not agree. Science, the medical and mental health professions, and academia tell us that we are wonderfully diverse and that there is nothing wrong with being gay anymore than there is anything wrong with being left-handed.

We don’t even need the authority of science. We really just need to talk to people.

The religious community has yet to catch up. The Bible seems to be the sticking point. We hear about what the Bible says and about biblical values and the authority of the Word of God and so forth.

One of the solutions to what we think the Bible says is to actually read the Bible. It is no easy task. The Bible has a lot words on many topics. It contains varying views on the same topic.
Today I read passages from Nahum and Jonah. After reading them, what is your conclusion?  Is God vengeful or forgiving? Nahum votes for vengeance. Jonah, against his wishes, concedes forgiving.

It depends what we are looking for, I suppose. If we want God to clobber our enemies, read Nahum. If we want our enemies to forgive us, read Jonah.

In the end, the Bible doesn’t say anything. We only think it says something because we interact with it and desire it to speak to us. But it is, in the end, a book.

I was looking for a quote that I heard years ago about the dangers of reading one book. I couldn’t find the quote in my internet search, but I did find this other quote in a book entitled The Purity of Blood by Arturo Perez Reverte. It is the story of a thirteen year-old who is held in the dungeons of Toledo during the Spanish Inquisition. The main character, speaking for the author, says:

Later, with time, I learned that although all men are capable of good and evil, the worst among them are those who, when they commit evil, do so by shielding themselves in the authority of others, in their subordination, or in the excuse of following orders. And even worse are those who believe they are justified by their God. Because in the secret dungeons of Toledo, nearly at the cost of my life, I learned that there is nothing more despicable or more dangerous than the malevolent individual who goes to sleep every night with a clear conscience. That is true evil. Especially when paired with ignorance, superstition, stupidity, or power, all of which often travel together.

And worst of all is the person who acts as exegete of The Word—whether it be from the Talmud, the Bible, the Koran, or any other book already written or yet to come. I am not fond of giving advice—no one can pound opinions into another’s head—but here is a piece that costs you nothing: Never trust a man who reads only one book.

So the Bible supposedly contains a few verses against homosexuals that in turn supposedly sums up the truth of the universe and of the great Creator, YHWH himself and his only son, Jesus, regarding how we are treat other people in the present. If they are gay, condemn them. Thus sayeth the Lord.

If we look to the Bible as authority on whether or not we are OK or not OK or someone else is OK or not OK, we will find that for which we are looking. The Bible is a mirror. It, like any unexamined external authority, mirrors our preconceived ideas.

I do appreciate my moderate and liberal colleagues who examine the passages and painstakingly parse Greek verbs and show that these passages are not as bad as they seem. They work hard. They want to defend the Bible and to defend gays. That is good to do as far as it goes. It is an intermediate step in my view. People who still need the Bible to tell them that they are OK are served by that for awhile.

(Until some conservative publishes a thick book that shows that the Bible really is homophobic and misogynistic and all the other things that some of us deplore and others apparently celebrate).

I have come to the point in which I no longer need to bother. It still plays into the “I am not OK unless an external authority says I am OK.” It keeps me from focusing on the real thing, our shared humanity. If I want to know about you, I don’t need to go to the Bible and look for a passage that tells me about you. I really need to talk to you.

This is why I wrote that provocative post that gets a lot of attention on the internet. At the risk of vanity by quoting myself, here goes:

‘And the bottom line for me is I really don't care what the Bible or Reformed Theology says about this or that or if its opinion on this or that is presumptuous enough to tell me how to live my life. I can make my own decisions.
This means that...
* if even 500 verses of the Bible and
* if Jesus himself proclaimed it on the Mount of Transfiguration and
* if Jesus appeared to me on my back deck in the glory of his resuscitated corpse and
stated to me as clearly as the four p.m. sun is hot…that if I support gays and lesbians in their relationships I would join them in the fires of hell, I would look him in his piercing eyes and say (if I had the courage of my convictions):

"Fine then. Send me to your hell. You are wrong, Jesus."

Why? Because I know Tony and Mike. (Tony and Mike are a couple for whom I officiated at a commitment ceremony). Why do I dare say Jesus would be wrong? Because I know dozens of other couples and individuals and I know who they are and that what they do is as good and sacred as what anyone else does.

When I read the Bible I don't see an external authority telling me what is true or how to behave. Something is not true because an authority says it is true. Authority is earned by the truth it tells. The Bible is a mixed bag.'

I don’t go to the Bible to tell me about dinosaurs or the age of Earth or how to do geometry. Nor do I go there to learn the truth regarding human sexuality.

Now of course, I don’t think Jesus would have condemned gays either, but even he did, I wouldn’t care. That is the point. Eventually, we come to a point in which we do not need an external authority to justify our existence.

The Buddhists have a saying. If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him. The Buddhists are lot more provocative than me, I tell you. The reason you kill the Buddha is because if you see the Buddha outside of yourself, you are projecting reality externally rather than realizing you are the Buddha.

I have heard from others and to some extent have experienced it myself. That is, to move along life’s path, to grow spiritually, if you like, one needs to kill the gods that are in the way.We outgrow them. They become fake. They become idols. Not idols in the sense of sacred statues that are vehicles for devotion, but fake, phony, and false.

It is a loss to do that. It is frightening. It is hard letting go of our gods, even fake ones. No one can tell you how or when to do it. You know it when you know it. It often happens around an issue that we cannot resolve. Bishop John Shelby Spong began his popular book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism with the line: “Sex drove me to the Bible.” It was the Church’s backward and hurtful attitudes toward sexuality that moved him to question other things, including religious authority itself.

I began this sermon by saying that I have been thinking about God this past week. I sure have. I am still trying to figure out how people come up with their various ideas about God and why these ideas are so hard to let go.

Now, we don’t have to let these ideas go. If our concepts of God are making us more loving, hopeful, and aware human beings, then that is good.

I overheard someone say that this congregation is BYOG—Bring Your Own God. I like that. You can conceive of God however you want. You have the authority.

I should say something more. Listening to God, I think, is a good thing. We do that in meditation, prayer, ritual, walking a labyrinth, reading more than one book, and so forth.
Speaking to God is a good thing as well. Articulating our thoughts, needs, fears, joys, and so forth is an important exercise in self-awareness.

It would be good if the church focused on those activities. That is helping people to listen attentively and to speak honestly. Listening to God and speaking to God, I think are helpful things.

It is the speaking for God that makes us dangerous.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Prophets' Call to Awaken (4/13/08)

The Prophets’ Call to Awaken
John Shuck
April 13th, 2008

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

During the month of April we are reading the Minor Prophets or the Scroll of the Twelve.   This is part of our quest to cover the Bible in a year.  I have been devoting Sunday mornings to highlighting tidbits from the selections assigned for each month.   For those who are keeping score there is a difference between Major prophets and Minor prophets.   The difference has to do with quantity, not quality.  Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are Major prophets.  This is because their works were so lengthy, that each text required its own scroll.

The twelve Minor prophets are each so short, that all twelve fit on one scroll.

Here are a few insights that I have learned about these texts that might be of interest to you. 

The first insight has to do with their historical setting. 

Hosea, Amos, Micah in the 8th century.
Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah in the 7th century.
Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi in the period of the exile or 6th century.

Jonah, Joel, and Obadiah do not fit easily into those time periods.   Jonah is a legendary story about a prophet.  Joel is hard to figure out altogether, and Obadiah is a rewrite of a text from Jeremiah.  They are not easily dated. 

The historical method of interpreting these books is to look at each one, try to determine when and where it was written and to whom it was addressed.  In this sense, each writing has its own context.   This historical-critical method has been revolutionary.  It is especially helpful in keeping us from employing these texts for the purposes of fortune telling.   By fortune telling, I mean the use of these texts to say that they predicted the future such as the arrival of Jesus.    Some even use these texts to suggest the authors were predicting events in our time or in some future.   All of that is fantasy.

The historical-critical method helps us to understand these texts as specific documents that addressed specific social, political, and theological issues in their own time. 

I don’t know why I torture myself in this way, but now and then I flip through the channels and land on a religious station.  I found the 700 Club the other night.  The report was about people on the continent of Africa emigrating to Europe, just getting on boats and heading across the ocean, because the conditions are so horrible.   It is a serious issue.  We have serious problems all over the world. 

One of the television announcers was sympathetic and then said something to the effect:  “It says in the book of Isaiah that these times would come.”   I said to the person on the television as if that person could hear me, “No, it doesn’t say that.”   That book in the Bible says whatever you think it says about our present as much as me thinking you hear me while I talk at the TV.   

The church and our nation could move ahead into a more enlightened age if we ceased viewing the Bible as a vehicle by which some being that we call  God sends out vibes through secret code.   While I am on my soapbox, I will say that goes for all religious texts.  The historical-critical method, a product of the Enlightenment, helps us understand texts in our time period.  

The second insight is that the texts in their final form were edited and revised.  Scholars, such as Walter Brueggemann, use the word traditioned.  These texts were edited and updated until placed in their final form in the canon.  For example, even though Amos speaks to Israel, the northern kingdom in the 8th century, his text was edited and adapted to speak to contemporary situations several centuries later.  

A third insight is a recent one that scholars are just beginning to explore.   As a result of this traditioning process which includes the order of the texts, the twelve disparate documents form a literary whole.  Beginning with Hosea and ending with Malachi, there is a storyline.     It is a theological storyline.  It goes something like this:

Israel has a special relationship with YHWH.
Israel broke this relationship.
The prophets tell the truth about this.  This truth-telling is called judgment.
There are consequences for this broken relationship.  YHWH acts with punishment.
Finally, there is the promise of restoration.  YHWH will act to restore humanity to life-giving proper relationship.

As we read the minor prophets we can read them with this storyline in mind.   Judgment, consequence, hope.

A fourth insight as that these texts as well as the Bible itself, still command our interest.   Here we are in the 21st century, hearing a preacher talk about texts that are 2000 years old as if they are important.  Communities of faith still look to these texts to tell us something about who we are and what we might become.    It is this fourth insight that makes the other insights most important. 

Because this book shapes our common life, worship, and ethics, we should try to read it responsibly.  This includes historical-critical understanding, its literary shape, and its theological convictions.

Finally, the fifth insight is that we are free to use our creativity, imagination, intelligence, and love to draw insights from these texts for today. 

One of the insights I have learned since moving to Elizabethton comes from you.  Rebecca Nunley voiced this.   The planet upon which we live has a proper name, Earth, with a capital “E.”  Earth is not an it.  It is not the earth as if it were an object separate from ourselves.   We are part of Earth and we have a relationship with Earth.  That relationship involves human beings and the rest of Earth’s life, Earth’s children. 

This insight has been helpful to me in a number of ways.  I have had a struggle with the character YHWH and with the term God.  It has been difficult for me to think of YHWH or God as a being out there.   I have found that Earth can be a modern metaphor for YHWH or God.   People may object vociferously that I am equating the creator with the creation and so forth.   I don’t think I am doing that but I am open to critique.   I just want to suggest that Earth is a manifestation of God.   Earth is a personality of God.    Earth is subject not object. 

This insight has helped me to engage these ancient texts in a new way.  I have begun to substitute Earth for YHWH when I read these texts.   Earth as divine personality speaks to me through these texts.  If Earth had a voice what would she say?  The Prophets of the Bible are articulating Earth’s concerns to us in the language of their time and place.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Hope to the Bone (4/6/08)

We are covering the Bible in 2008. We are up to Ezekiel. You can follow our progress and join along by following the readings and taking the quizzes on Bible and Jive.

The text was Ezekiel 37:1-10--The Valley of the Dry Bones.

We played this song for our meditation, Ezekiel Saw a Wheel recorded by Roger McGuinn.

Hope to the Bone
John Shuck
April 6th, 2008

First Presbyterian Church
Ezekiel begins to prophesy just before and during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century.His message is one of judgment first and then hope. Ezekiel is one of the most colorful prophets in Israel’s history in terms of the metaphors he uses and as well his public demonstrations. 

Ezekiel has inspired the imagination of many apocalyptic prophets who find in Ezekiel’s words hidden codes for the end of the world.
 He has also been inspiration for movements of liberation, particularly in the African-American tradition. Other writers and thinkers, such as Walter Wink, have found in Ezekiel’s visions a critique of what Wink calls the Domination System.

The first half of Ezekiel is filled with judgment upon Israel for its social injustice and its worship of other gods besides YHWH. Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, uses misogynistic metaphors to describe unfaithful Judah. Ezekiel’s graphic metaphors of the whoring wife lusting after other men and the subsequent punishments to fall upon her is difficult reading, almost pornographic. Ezekiel is a dangerous text for women.

Ezekiel saves some of his judgment for the surrounding nations who laughed at Judah and then received their desserts. The final chapters are those of hope. The metaphor of the valley of dry bones coming back to life is the hope of a restored people.

Ezekiel is a theological innovator. The book begins with Ezekiel having a vision of YHWH.We have to remember ancient near eastern cosmology to appreciate this. During this period the ancients saw the world as flat underneath an inverted bowl. The bowl is the dome or sky or heaven. All of the stars, sun, and moon are within the dome. When it rains the dome opens holes for the water to pour down. The sun travels across the dome each day, then travels underneath the earth and then comes up again in the morning.

Where is the presence of God or the gods in all of this? Sometimes the gods reside within the dome and they come and visit humans at sacred places. Mountains that touch the sky are places of epiphany. Every civilization and every tribe had its own sacred places. These would be places where the gods would come down and visit. Jerusalem was one such place and in particular, the temple. They considered it to be YHWH’s house. They were careful to say that YHWH was not contained in the house, but his presence was there and most especially at particular times and there were appropriate rituals to access YHWH’s power.

YHWH himself was located above the dome on a throne. This is his heavenly court. He is the only one. As the Hebrew people became more and more monotheistic there was less room for other gods. This is why the prophets were so upset that the people would participate in rituals for other gods at other sacred places. YHWH was jealous and possessive.

Ezekiel as well as the other prophets interpreted the sufferings of the people as signs of YHWH’s anger at their unfaithfulness. Here is my paraphrase of the prophetic message.“Thus says YHWH: ‘You want to worship other gods besides me, well then, boom, lightening bolt for you.’”

What happens when YHWH’s house is destroyed? That is an interpretive problem. Either YHWH is defeated by the other gods or YHWH is using the other nations to punish Judah.The prophets chose option two. Better to have a deity who punishes you than to have none at all. I don’t know if we have to make that choice today. But that is how they did it.

Then there is a further problem. Where do we find YHWH’s presence when his temple is gone?

This is where Ezekiel’s vision comes to play. Ezekiel has a vision of a movable vehicle with wheels that can fly around. Ezekiel is carried in his vision by this wheeled vehicle to Babylon. With this creative vision, YHWH’s presence is with the people wherever they may be scattered.

On this wheeled YHWH mobile, Ezekiel is carried over to Babylon where he prophesies in the name of YHWH to the people who are scattered. There, Ezekiel doesn’t need to judge them anymore but give them a word of comfort and hope.

One of the most memorable has Ezekiel carried by the spirit of YHWH to a valley of dry bones. Dry bones scattered all over the valley. YHWH says to Ezekiel, Son of the Man, can these bones live?

Ezekiel is called the son of the man. Theologian Walter Wink has made much of this phrase.For him, the son of the man means more than simply a human being or a mortal as the NRSV translates it. Wink sees this phrase as the essence of humanity. The real human. The human archetype. Jesus refers to himself in the gospels as the son of the man more than any other phrase.

It could be the true human, the human as we are meant to be. Ezekiel sees in his vision, the YHWH mobile being driven by a figure that appears to be a human being. We often use the phrase, “Well, I am only human” as a way of dismissing our human nature, as sinful and whatever. We can often fall into a trap of disparaging humanity. But I am not sure if doing so helps us much.

If Wink is correct, the use of the human being in Ezekiel is different. This is a celebration of humanity. This is what humanity is and could still become. In the Call to Worship, I borrowed a phrase from Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, “the seed of humanity” as a translation for the son of the man. That doesn’t apply only to the person of Ezekiel, but to the authentic human within each of us. Who are human beings? We can love. We can create. We have incredible capabilities. We have consciousness.

Yes, we are fragmented. We are scattered. We may feel there is no life in us. We may feel as dry as bones in a valley. But that is not the end of the story.

YHWH tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. Speak to the bones. Ezekiel speaks to the bones twice. After the first prophecy, they gather and rattle and connect and sinews grow on them and flesh covers them. Then YHWH commands Ezekiel to speak again. “Prophesy to the breath,” YHWH tells Ezekiel. Ezekiel prophesies and the bones become alive with the breath of God.

Why all of this speaking? Why does YHWH need Ezekiel? Why couldn’t YHWH speak to the bones himself? Why bother with words at all? Why not just bring them back to life?

I don’t know for sure. But I think it has to do with the power of the word. Genesis tells us in the beginning that God spoke, and there was Light. The word of God creates. In the Gospel of John, the Word of God becomes flesh and pitches his tent among us. The ministry of Jesus is largely one of words.

There is great power in the spoken word. Power to create. Power to destroy and power to heal. Words are used to deceive. Words are used to speak truth. With words we can tear down and with words we can build up.

With words we can make others feel small and with words we can enlarge one another.
This weekend about 20 of us are participating in a workshop called Creating a Culture of Peace. It is our second workshop of three. It is a workshop that is an introduction to active non-violence for personal and social change. When we think of active non-violence we might think of Ghandi and Martin Luther King. We might think of activists, bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins or protests of some sort or another.

It is that. Active non-violence is a tactic. But it is much more than that, I think. It is about the words we use and how we use them. It is about the transformation of the self as well as society. It is about speaking words that heal rather than hurt. It is not only about the words we speak out loud, but about the words that go unspoken. The words that are under our breath.

It has to do with the words and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

It has to do with the words we use to describe the truth of our situation.

It has to do with the words to use to point to what we might become.

We watched a film. One of the sections was about the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville.Lunch counters were segregated. Students at Fisk University set out to change that. They were able to make the change, in large part, because they did not demonize their opponents.   

The goal was not to tear down the city but to build it up into what it could become. The goal was not to call the power structure racist and be satisfied with a certain sense of superiority.The goal was for all to recognize the hurt that segregation caused, and to build a new community in which all participate regardless of skin color.

The goal of active non-violence is the redemption of everyone. The scene that I found most touching and healing in the film, was when finally, the students had the attention of the mayor. After several months of sit-ins, publicity, arrests, finally, on the steps, I believe it was of the courthouse, one of the students politely and assertively asked the mayor, in front of the television cameras. “Do you think segregated lunch counters are just?”

The mayor said, “No.” And both of them smiled. It wasn’t a question of either/or—either us or you, but both you and us. Active non-violence is about change over the long haul. It is not about winning or losing, but about restoration.

Can these bones live?
These bones of ours that have been scattered by injustice, fear, and violence.
Can they become whole again?
Can they have life breathed into them again?
Can we become a society and a world in which we can continue to speak words of truth to one another?
Can we speak honest words from our own vulnerability and woundedness?
Can we speak and hear from each other about what is true?
Can we speak about hope and restoration?
As we speak, will we speak with love?
Will we recognize the sacred in each other and in ourselves?

Prophecy to the bones, you seed of humanity. 
Don’t be afraid to speak.
Speak the truth.
But speak these words out of love.
Speak words of healing and hope that all may have life.