Sunday, December 14, 2008

Light of Heart (12/14/08)

Light of Heart
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
Third Sunday of Advent
December 14th, 2008
Texts: Luke 1:26-38; 46-55
Acts 2:41-47
Acts 16:11-40

I have determined that it would be good for your soul if you heard some poems about feathers. Yes, feathers. Here are three poems from Emily Dickinson having to do with feathers.

I’ll Send the Feather from my Hat

I'll send the feather from my Hat!
Who knows -- but at the sight of that
My Sovereign will relent?
As trinket -- worn by faded Child --
Confronting eyes long -- comforted --
Blisters the Adamant!
A feather, says Emily Dickinson, blisters the adamant. The second poem is

A Feather from the Whipoorwill
A feather from the Whippoorwill
That everlasting -- sings!
Whose galleries -- are Sunrise --
Whose Opera -- the Springs --
Whose Emerald Nest the Ages spin
Of mellow -- murmuring thread --
Whose Beryl Egg, what Schoolboys hunt
In "Recess" -- Overhead!
I wonder if Emily Dickinson might be telling us that in a whippoorwill’s feather, we discover, if we have a heart for these things, the universe. Her third poem is often repeated, especially the first stanza,

Hope is the Thing with Feathers
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Dickinson shows us that a feather is hope that doesn’t demand but sings even in the chillest land.

There is a joyfulness about feathers. A feather comes from our magnificent winged friends who fly and who sing. They are lighter than air.

In Egyptian mythology, Anubis, was the god who was depicted as a jackal. Usually you see him with a human body and the head of a jackal. Anubis was the guardian of the dead. He guided the souls of the dead through the labyrinth of the underworld. His big moment was to weigh the hearts of the dead at the time of judgment. He would weigh the heart against the feather of Ma’at. Ma’at was the goddess of truth and harmony.

If the heart was heavy with the sins, deceptions, desires, bad deeds, and darkness of the world, it would be heavier than the feather. The heart would be devoured and the individual who possessed the heavy heart would either go back and do it again or cease to exist or kind of float about restlessly. I am not really sure what happened to the heavyhearted, but it wasn’t good.

But if the heart were as light as the feather or lighter than the feather, the individual would enter the “field of reeds” and spend eternity blissfully tending the heavenly crops.

It isn’t as important to worry about equating the weighing of the heart with a list of dos and don’ts. What is powerful is the metaphor itself. They could have used a number of images and of course many religions and mythologies have metaphors and images for judgment.

But the Egyptians win the prize as far as I am concerned with the metaphor of the feather.

You want your heart to be light as a feather. You want to be lighthearted.

Lightheartedness is misunderstood. Those we often consider to be lighthearted are sometimes dismissed as frivolous. They aren’t serious enough. Here are a couple of dictionary definitions of lighthearted.

From the American Heritage Dictionary: Lighthearted is “Not being burdened by trouble, worry, or care; happy and carefree.”

And from the Miriam-Webster Dictionary: It is “Free from care, anxiety, or seriousness: happy-go-lucky.”

That is about as good as we are going to get from a dictionary. Those definitions seem almost dismissive.

Being lighthearted or possessing lightheartedness is more than that, I think. A description I found that I liked is from a psychotherapist. Her name is Maria Grace. She is the author of a couple of self-help books. I never heard of her, but I found this brief article from her on the internet. She writes:

Lightheartedness is the ability to keep your sense of humor as you face life’s most difficult challenges. It is a spiritual quality associated with inner strength, faith, and the ability to face life’s adversities with a positive mental attitude. Finally, it’s a sign of courage and the ability to inspire others when, together, you are facing a difficulty that is overwhelming.

In order to be lighthearted, you must allow yourself to be spontaneous and willing to laugh at yourself. But laughter is like love: it can’t happen by force or prescription. But it can always flourish in a lighthearted environment.
I liked that description. This is what caught my attention. She said lightheartedness is a “spiritual quality associated with inner strength.” That isn’t quite the same thing as happy-go-lucky. Lightness of heart knows the dark night. It is not about ignoring, escaping, or denying suffering and adversity. Quite the opposite. The lighthearted are lighthearted because of adversity. If we didn’t laugh, we would cry.

Lightheartedness is Emily Dickinson’s hope, “the thing with feathers” whose song is “heard on the chillest land and in the strangest sea.”

This Sunday marks the completion of our quest to read the Bible cover to cover. The writings featured are the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. They are written by the same author. It might be helpful to read them as one work. The author of Luke-Acts shaped Christianity perhaps as much if not more than Paul’s letters. The church year is modeled on Luke’s chronology and the narrative of the church’s story comes from Acts.

It is the story as the author wanted people to know it at least. It is not history as we think of history, but perhaps more akin to historical fiction. The story has a function: it wants to tell good news. Joyful news. Perhaps even lighthearted news.

The texts I chose to highlight were the annunciation to Mary and her joyful song in response. She was given a duty. She was to give birth to the Divine promise. Her response to this duty, that would not be easy, was:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
In the book of Acts, we find this early community so lighthearted that they shared their possessions. Here is the text, notice the joy:
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
The lighthearted travel lightly. They don’t need to carry too much, like possessions.

One more story from Acts illustrates this lightheartedness. The story goes that Paul and his partner Silas were thrown in prison for disturbing the peace. They were upsetting the profit-making of the Empire. They were given a severe flogging, placed in the innermost cell, and their feet were fastened with stocks.

What do you do in that situation? Of course, there is only one thing to do. You break out into song. At midnight says the text they sang hymns. While they were doing that, there was a great earthquake and all the prison doors flew open and the fetters were released from every prisoner.

The point is not to take that story literally. The power of the story is the power of lightheartedness—“the song that is heard on the chillest land and in the strangest sea.” It is the lighthearted, the singers of hymns from the darkest of prison cells, who break our chains.

These stories in Luke and Acts were told and recorded and told again because they inspired lightheartedness that leads to joyful duty, generosity, and the breaking of our chains. Lightheartedness frees us from whatever imprisons us.

One of the gifts that spiritual communities can give to the world is lightheartedness. We are not so much called to enforce our morality or our theology on people. We are rather to lighten the hearts, to ease the burdens, to make glad the soul.

That of course does not mean we ignore the problems of the world. Humankind faces large, real challenges. We offer no good news when we ignore, deny, or misrepresent them. In the midst of them, we sing. Lightheartedness is
the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all…,
I have one more story. It is a Zen story. It has to do with the stuff that we carry that makes our hearts heavy. Baggage, grudges, grievances, worries, old sins that cling to our souls like mold. I am probably saying too much. I should just get on with the story.

The story is that two monks were going to a neighboring monastery. They traveled together through the woods and they came to a river. It was spring and the river was high and fast. At the bank of the river was a woman, quite beautiful. The monks had rules. They had taken vows of chastity they took very seriously. So seriously, that they weren’t even supposed to touch a woman, not even with a fingertip.

But she needed to get across the river, and she was afraid. The older monk told her to climb on his back. They crossed the river. He set her down and on her way and the two monks walked along in silence.

Finally, after hours of walking the younger monk was obviously agitated. He blurted out: “You shouldn’t have carried that woman on your back. It is against our rules.”

The older monk laughed said: “I let her go after we crossed the river. Why are you still carrying her?”

Ah, the wise old monk was lighthearted. Light as feather all right.

My guess is that the young monk learned a helpful truth and learned to lighten his heart as well.

So may we all.


Sunday, December 7, 2008

Peace Matters (12/7/08)

Peace Matters
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
December 7th, 2008
Second Sunday of Advent

"… Will matter then be utterly destroyed or not?"

The Savior replied, "Every nature, every modeled form, every creature, exists in and with each other. They will dissolve again into their own proper root. For the nature of matter is dissolved into what belongs to its nature. Anyone with two ears able to hear should listen!"

Then Peter said to him, "You have been explaining every topic to us; tell us one other thing. What is the sin of the world?"

The Savior replied, "There is no such thing as sin; rather you yourselves are what produces sin when you act in accordance with the nature of adultery, which is called 'sin.' For this reason, the Good came among you, pursuing the good which belongs to every nature. It will set it within its root."

Then he continued. He said, "This is why you get sick and die: because you love what deceives you. Anyone who thinks should consider these matters!

"Matter gave birth to a passion which has no Image because it derives from what is contrary to nature. A disturbing confusion then occurred in the whole body. That is why I told you, 'Become content at heart, while also remaining discontent and disobedient; indeed become contented and agreeable only in the presence of that other Image of nature.' Anyone with two ears capable of hearing should listen!"

When the Blessed One had said these things, he greeted them all. "Peace be with you!" he said. "Acquire my peace within yourselves!

"Be on your guard so that no one deceives you by saying, 'Look over here!' or 'Look over there!' For the child of true Humanity exists within you. Follow it! Those who search for it will find it.

"Go then, preach the good news about the Realm. Do not lay down any rule beyond what I determined for you, nor promulgate law like the lawgiver, or else you might be dominated by it."

After he had said these things, he departed from them.
--from the Gospel According to Mary Magdalene

I found God in myself
And I loved her
I loved her fiercely
--Ntozake Shange En-toe-ZAHK-kay SHONG-gay

I remember reading that in seminary. It changed my thinking about God. I find myself referring to it as I do ministry. It was written by an African-American playwright, Ntozake Shange.

I found God in myself
And I loved her
I loved her fiercely
Keep that in mind. I am going to come back to that.
Before I do that I want to talk about a spiritual text that is not in the Bible, but deserves a look as we make our way through the Bible. It is the only gospel attributed to a woman. The woman is featured in the gospels as the one who witnessed the Risen Christ. She is Mary Magdalene. The text is the Gospel of Mary. It is text that speaks to the God one finds in oneself. 
The Gospel of Mary was discovered in an antiquities market in Egypt in 1896 by German scholar, Dr Carl Reinhardt. The text is from the fifth century. It was written in Coptic, an Egyptian language. It is not complete. About half of it is missing. Since that find in 1896, three 3rd century Greek fragments of the text have surfaced. None of these fragments contain any of the missing text. 
It is not likely that we will ever find a complete text. It was an amazing fortune that this was found. In antiquity, unless texts were copied, the texts were lost by neglect. There is no living tradition that reveres this text as scripture, so no one bothered to copy it. By the fourth century the canon of the New Testament was established. Orthodox Christianity, which was now the official religion of the Roman Empire was not interested in copying texts that it considered to be heresy. Whatever movement did revere this text died out in the 5th century, when so-called orthodox Christianity came into power. 
The Gospel of Mary wasn’t published until 1955 after the Nag Hammadi codices were discovered. Previous to the discovery of these texts we only had them referred to and referred to in a negative manner as heresy by the church Fathers. Thanks to the Nag Hammadi discoveries in the 1940s, we now have a better picture of the diversity of early Christianity and this movement called Christian Gnosticism. 
Thanks also to the work of the Jesus Seminar and other scholars, and oddly, to Dan Brown author of the Da Vinci Code, for raising popular interest in this and other texts and in the figure of Mary Magdalene. 
The codex discovered by Reinhardt is called the Berlin Codex and contains four works: The Gospel of Mary, The Apocryphon of John, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, and The Act of Peter. By examining the codex you can tell that the Gospel of Mary would have been 19 pages, of which only nine survived. 
There is some debate on who Mary is in this text. Is she Mary, the mother of Jesus, another Mary, or Mary Magdalene? Most scholars suggest that Mary is Mary Magdalene, who speaks to the Risen Jesus in John’s Gospel. You find her in the other Gnostic texts. In this literature, Mary Magdalene is often in conflict with Peter, who represents the proto-orthodox stream. 
In the canonical gospels, Mary is not one of the twelve. But in the Gospel of Mary, she appears to be a full apostle and has insights into the person of Jesus that the other apostles do not. 
The Gospel of Mary is a post-resurrection gospel. The text begins in the middle of a dialogue in which Jesus is answering questions. Then Jesus leaves. Apparently, he ascends to heaven. The disciples are distraught and Mary comforts them. They ask her, because she knows the Savior better than any of them, if he has given her any information.
Mary tells of a vision or an experience she has. Unfortunately, most of that is missing. After she finishes telling the disciples what Jesus has shown her, the disciples, beginning with Peter, are not impressed. 
These are strange teachings, says Peter. And why would the Savior give them to you, a woman, in secret? Another disciple, Levi, defends Mary, calling Peter a hothead. Levi actually gets the last word:
"Peter, you have always been a wrathful person. Now I see you contending against the woman like the Adversaries. For if the Savior made her worthy, who are you then for your part to reject her? Assuredly the Savior's knowledge of her is completely reliable. That is why he loved her more than us.

"Rather we should be ashamed. We should clothe ourselves with the perfect Human, acquire it for ourselves as he commanded us, and announce the good news, not laying down any other rule or law that differs from what the Savior said."

After [he had said these] things, they started going out [to] teach and to preach.
This text raises interesting questions regarding the diversity of early Christianity and the place of women in the tradition. The Gospel of Mary has similarities with the gospels in the Bible and some differences. This gospel and other texts discovered at Nag Hammadi raise questions of what Christianity is about. Who is Jesus? What is salvation? Who are we? What are we to do?

Christian tradition has placed salvation as outside oneself. We are saved for the kingdom of God or heaven which is outside of us. It has also referred to the Son of Man as the unique person of Jesus who will come to bring the kingdom, or to usher believers into the kingdom. Think of the Apostle’s Creed in which Jesus is the one who will come to judge the quick and the dead and usher the righteous into eternal life—another expression of the kingdom of God.

Yet the gospels in the Bible are more diverse than the creed. For instance, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God is coming. Here is the text:

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’ Luke 17:20-1.
You can also translate that last sentence as “the kingdom of God is within you.”

It seems that the Gospel of Mary picks up on this. It also picks up on the notion of the phrase “the son of man.” This is the title Jesus uses for himself more than any other in the gospels. It sometimes means the human being. At other times it is a figure that will come at the end of time to execute the final judgment. At other times, Jesus uses it to refer to himself as the true human being. 

The text I read for today from the Gospel of Mary has Jesus is answering questions. I want to put the spotlight on one paragraph. These are the last words of Jesus to the disciples.

When the Blessed One had said these things, he greeted them all. "Peace be with you!" he said. "Acquire my peace within yourselves!

"Be on your guard so that no one deceives you by saying, 'Look over here!' or 'Look over there!' For the child of true Humanity exists within you. Follow it! Those who search for it will find it.

"Go then, preach the good news about the Realm. Do not lay down any rule beyond what I determined for you, nor promulgate law like the lawgiver, or else you might be dominated by it."

After he had said these things, he departed from them.
This translation is from Karen King, who has written an excellent book on the Gospel of Mary. She translates kingdom of God as Realm and son of man as child of true humanity. 

Here is the Gospel of Mary in a nutshell: the kingdom of God is not coming, nor it is out there, it is within you now. The son of man is not coming to save the planet, nor is it some figure out there to save you, but within you, now. Follow it. 

You have everything you need for salvation, for peace, for life, within you. Do the work. Discover your true self. When you go on that quest to discover your true self, you may conclude as Ntoshake Shange did:

I found God in myself
And I loved her
I loved her fiercely
Ntoshake Shange wrote a book of poetry. In 1975 it was turned into a Broadway play that won a Tony Award. The poetry and the play are called, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, When the Rainbow is Enuf. In the play these poems were dramatized by female dancers. They tell the stories of women who have endured the abuses by men in their lives. They recognize in each other a promise of a better future. At the end of the play they are dressed in the colors of the rainbow and say in unison:
I found God in myself
And I loved her
I loved her fiercely
This poem and this play featured African-American women. Yet I found its message healing as well in my personal life and in my professional life as a minister. You don’t have to peel back too many layers of protection to find fear and self-loathing in our psyches. 

I don’t know why all of that is there nor do I know how it all got there, but it is there nonetheless. While religion is supposed to help us overcome our fear and self-loathing, that isn’t always the case. In fact, sometimes it adds to it. While the message is that God loves us, it all too often doesn’t come across that way. 

I saw a church sign the other day that said: “God loves everyone, even you.” I know that the message is supposed to be a helpful message, but it didn’t feel right to me. It felt like: “You’re a piece of scum, a worthless sinner, but God loves you.” 

Gee, thanks. 

Then of course there are a lot of conditions put on this love. There are a lot of rules, usually having to do with sexuality. Then we hear that we are tainted with original sin and deserve God’s condemnation. Who invented that? Somebody did. Who decided that that is the basic way human beings relate to the universe? We are born and deserve God’s condemnation. Someone is making a lot of money off of that theory.

The God that has been preached to us, while called a God of love, is really a God of fear. A scowling old man, who as that Puritan theologian, Jonathan Edwards said, is an angry God who dangles us like a spider on a thread over the fires of hell. 

I have found that for many, peace is getting that old man out of our heads. 

And peace matters.

This old man is nothing more than fire and bluster like the Wizard of Oz. Yet he loses his power to send us to hell when we see that he is merely an invention of the frightened little man behind the curtain. 

Catherine Keller, author of On the Mystery: Discerning God in Process put it in a humorous way:

"Of course, some can catch subtler meanings behind the popular cliches of a God-man who "comes down," presumably from Heaven Up There, dons a birthday suit, and after gamely sacrificing himself "for our sins" soon gets beamed up again....But far too many thoughtful people, through too much early exposure to the Big Guy in the Sky, develop life-long God allergies.

Allergic reactions, I hear, can only be treated with a bit of the original allergen. In other words, the literalisms of God-talk can be cured not by atheism but by an alternative theology." P. 16.
There is much guilt and much shame piled on because of religious rules and theories. Many of you may have developed God allergies. One of the values I have discovered in this congregation is that it seeks to be a safe place for those who are on that journey. The community that produced the Gospel of Mary knew this. In his final words to his disciples Jesus tells them,
"Go then, preach the good news about the Realm. Do not lay down any rule beyond what I determined for you, nor promulgate law like the lawgiver, or else you might be dominated by it."
Those who invented and are still dominated by the scowling old man are not going to give you permission to abandon their god. They are not going to approve of you finding G-d within yourself. Don’t even worry about them. The preacher from your childhood, your parents, your neighbors and co-workers will not grant permission. The good news is that you don’t need it. 

What you might need is a friend. That friend may be a newly discovered ancient text, like the Gospel of Mary. Maybe it is a play or a poem by someone like Ntoshake Shange, who has been in the struggle. Maybe it is someone who will walk with you along the way to self-discovery and encourage you, listen to you, and delight in your journey. 

The way of peace is the lifelong process of befriending oneself. It is being comfortable in our own skin. It is finding the God within and loving God fiercely. How do we find this God? I doubt that there is one answer. But I do remember a sermon that was helpful for me.

Theologian Paul Tillich, who taught at Union Theological Seminary preached a sermon entitled You Are Accepted. I remember the feeling of acceptance when I read it many, many years after he preached it. He speaks about those moments of grace, of insight, that we experience unexpectedly.

Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!" If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.
From Paul Tillich, to Jesus in the Gospel of Mary who said:
For the child of true Humanity exists within you. Follow it! Those who search for it will find it.
To Ntoshake Shange:
I found God in myself
And I loved her
I loved her fiercely
You are not alone. All of these guides and more wish you courage and peace.