Sunday, February 22, 2009

Solar Living (2/22/09 Evolution Sunday)

Today's sermon was a compilation of things I had been thinking about and blogging about this past week. We celebrated Evolution Sunday a week late. The hymns were traditional Jesus hymns: Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to MeJust a Closer Walk With Thee, and How Can I Keep from Singing, which was a nice contrast to the seriousness of the message.

I borrowed a call to worship from Christ Community Church:
We are moved to awe and wonder at the grandeur, the poetry, the richness of natural beauty; it fills us with joy and thanksgiving.
And then all that has divided us will merge and compassion will be wedded to power
Softness and wonder will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
Both women and men will be strong

And then no person will be subject to another’s will
All will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
All will share equally in Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
All will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
All will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again

And I had to include as one of the readings this great poem by Pat Boran, "Song of the Fish People" from New and Selected Poems (Cambridge: Salt Publishing), 2005.

Give us legs and arms
to run and fight and kill,
then give us other skills
to plant and farm.

Give us warm blood
to feel the variations
of temperature, the patience
to untangle bad from good

while the known world spins,
and give us the desire
to create, and the fire
to destroy. And take the fins.

But leave us always tears
that we may not forget
the salty depths
of our formative years.

The Gospel reading was a teaching from Jesus:

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing?

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. Matthew 6:25-34

And now the sermon:

Solar Living
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
Evolution Sunday
February 22, 2009

Today we celebrate Evolution Sunday. We might wonder why? We don’t have Gravity Sunday or Boyle’s Law Sunday. Why should the Theory of Evolution receive a special Holy Day?

One reason for highlighting Evolution in church is because Evolution, more than any other scientific theory, is seen in some quarters of the church as a threat to the church’s authority.

Two developments have challenged the authority of the church more than any other. They are the Theory of Evolution and Higher Criticism of the Bible. The modern fundamentalist movement that began at the end of the 19th century and that has been reinvigorated in our time was a response to these two intellectual developments.

Higher criticism of the Bible analyzes the Bible as a human product. Using the methods of historical and literary criticism, higher criticism shows us that the Bible was written over time by human beings in their particular setting. Rather than the Bible being a word from God, perfect in every way, to us, we see it as a work of human beings reflecting about God and themselves.

The authority of the Bible and the authority of the church’s beliefs that are based on a pre-critical reading of the Bible are therefore challenged.

The Theory of Evolution challenged the pre-critical understanding of the Bible’s story. The biblical narrative of creation, human fall into sin, the story of redemption in Christ, and future hope in the holy city is no longer seen by many of us as a literal account of what happened or what will happen. It is a narrative of an ancient people trying to understand their place in the whole thing.

The Evolutionary Story, that some call our Great Story, has no Garden of Eden or original sin. Human beings emerged over time as have all other organisms in a process of adaptation. This does not mean the biblical story does not have value. Far from it. But it is seen in a different way than the way our pre-scientific ancestors saw it.

The implications of higher criticism and evolution are immense for the Christian faith. Pandora’s box has been opened and the forbidden fruit eaten as the microscope and the telescope have opened to us new vistas of insight never before imagined.

The fundamentalist reaction has been an effort to close Pandora’s box and put Eve’s fruit back on the tree. But it is too late. The game is up.

So what now? What is the path for those of us with our minds immersed firmly in science and yet with our hearts longing for the comfort of faith? We desire that Feeling of Absolute Dependence, of which the19th century, theologian, Friedrich Schliermacher wrote.

The hymns I chose are hymns of my childhood that are warm, comforting, and easy to sing. It is not easy to find a hymn that celebrates the glory of natural selection. The challenge for hymn writers, liturgists, and preachers is to find the language and the music to reclaim the warmth in a universe that we might think is cold.

How might we celebrate our evolutionary story in a way that captures the heart as well as the mind? There are many ways. We can tap into the deep wells of the various mystical traditions, creation spirituality, process philosophy, non-realist philosophy, and many others. I say go for the smorgasbord.

Before we do that, we need to acknowledge what I think is the elephant in the living room. Otherwise we will be engaged in nothing but head games. We are coming to the end of an age. Our reliance on fossil fuels or non-renewable resources has reached its peak. We have processed our fossil fuels through an economic philosophy of unlimited growth. It is unsustainable. It was always unsustainable but now we are beginning to feel its effects. These current economic tremors are just the beginning. Trying to sustain human life on non-renewable sources of energy is like living on our savings or on credit. At some point, the bill is due and we will have to pay our way.

For human beings to survive, we will need to live on renewable sources of energy for our food, shelter, and other necessities. We have to give back what we take. At this point, we are not even close. However, we have a dream. We have a dream of a sustainable future in which the energy of the sun, the wind, the ocean tides, and other renewable energy sources will be harnessed for a good life. These are gifts that Earth, Sun, and Moon provide for free.

None of us here will realize this future. Our descendants might. Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams in their book, View from the Center of the Universe tell us and I quote:
"...our descendants could have many billions of years to live together--if we can just get through the next few decades without disaster. This is the challenge of the human species today: it is as though we are on a great migration across a huge and treacherous mountain range. To get through these mountains we must gain control of human impacts on the earth and develop a sustainable relationship with our planet." (p. 240)
The image of migration is also a biblical image. In the book of Exodus the Hebrew children escaped from bondage in Egypt, crossed the sea, and entered the wilderness. They wandered there for forty years. They were told they would not get to the Promised Land, but their descendants would. Moses got a glimpse from the mountain. He didn’t enter either.

This is a powerful narrative. It is embedded in our psyches. It is a narrative that we might need to reclaim at this time in history. We too are breaking free from an enslaving unjust system of fossil fuel dependence. Yet, we have not found a way to replace it. We will be wandering without the comforts of Egypt. This wandering will be a preparation. We are preparing not for our future, but our children’s future.

What they had to learn in the Wilderness was how to live on a daily sustenance. They had to learn to adapt to change. No one likes change. That is why coming to terms with change is spoken of in mythic proportions in our religious traditions. We are blinded and deluded into thinking that what is impermanent is permanent.

We will always be able to drive cars and build bigger and bigger houses and fly around in jet airplanes. We are entitled to it. No, we are not. It is ending. Change is coming. These next 20 years will be nothing like the last 20. The next time you are on the computer you might find a website by a man named Chris Martenson. It is called Crash Course. Google “crash course” and watch the video series regarding his research on our economy and our future. Remember, I never insist, I only invite. I invite you to check it out and think about it. He is the one who said that the next 20 years will be nothing like the last 20. Change is coming.

This is where we can learn from evolution. Organisms that survive and reproduce are not necessarily the smartest nor are they the strongest. Those who survive are those most able to adapt to changes in their environment.

Evolution and our great spiritual traditions tell us the same thing: change is inevitable; go with the flow. Do not be attached to any former version of yourself. Embrace life in all of its complexity and ambiguity each new day.

I have been reading philosopher Don Cupitt. He is called a radical theologian. His latest book, Above Us Only Sky: The Religion of Ordinary Life, is in our library. Cupitt uses a term I like, solar living.

This is what he writes about it:
…the task of religion is to give us the courage and strength to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to life. Only we create the world, and only we can redeem it. By solar love of life we can inject meaning and value into life for everyone.... living is, or tries, to be, purely affirmative. It is also purely expressive. That is, we are not labouring to purify our souls so as to be ready for the Day of Judgment, and we do not spend our lives in forging a unified self to be a kind of monumental achievement. No, there is no Soul or Real Self, because everything that we are is flickering, shifting and ambiguous. The only way in which we can get ourselves together and become ourselves is in and by our self-expression, through which we put out, or present, images of ourselves. But as soon as I have expressed myself time moves on, and my expressed self must be abandoned without regret, because of course solar living requires us always to move on and never to become 'attached' to any version of ourselves. Solar living lives by dying all the time, as it continually leaves selfhood behind. That is how it conquers the fear of death, by making a full acceptance of death into part of the way we live. pp. 61-63
We are participating in the great stream of life that began 14 billion years ago, at least as far as we know. This stream of life will continue billions of years into the future. We are part of it, now.

This is life. The chaotic transition is life. The dream, the kingdom, the promised land of sustainability may not come in our lifetimes. We here today won't see that promised land where our descendants sustain themselves on renewable sources of energy. We might glimpse it now. We must prepare for it now, but we won't get there.

Our trek will be a chaotic wilderness trek. Our economies will fall; our standards of living (which for Americans were unjust and unsustainable to begin with) will fall. The age of petroleum will be seen by future historians as a strange blip that brought with it amazing knowledge and the ability to see into the deepest corners of space. It also brought the near destruction of the planet.

We must begin this trek, bravely, with a commitment to life, with a willingness to let go of our attachments, with an attitude of solar living, to create and re-create ourselves anew each day.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to see this loss (and grieve it we must) as a necessary precondition for a sustainable future for our descendants on this beautiful and fragile home.

As Don Cupitt writes,
Life is us, life is all this, now. p. 116
But we are far from alone. Our ancestors are with us, in our DNA, in our stories. Our descendants are with us urging us on, calling us out, to life…to life.


Our prayer of dedication and gratitude was written by Joanna Macy from her book, World As Love, World As Self (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2007), p. 201-2

You live inside us, beings of the future.
In the spiral ribbons of our cells, you are here.
In our rage for the burning forests, the poisoned fields,
the oil-drowned seals,
you are here.
You beat in our hearts through late-night meetings.
You accompany us to clear-cuts and toxic dumps
and the halls of the lawmakers.
It is you who drive our dogged labors to save what is left.

O you, who will walk this Earth when we are gone,
stir us awake.
Behold through our eyes the beauty of this world.
Let us feel your breath in our lungs, your cry in our throat.
Let us see you in the poor, the homeless, the sick.
Haunt us with your hunger, hound us with your claims,
that we may honor the life that links us.

You have as yet no faces we can see, no names we can say.
But we need only hold you in our mind, and you teach us
You attune us to measures of time where healing can happen,
where soil and souls can mend.
You reveal courage within us we had not suspected,
love we had not owned.
O you who come after, help us remember: we are your
Fill us with gladness for the work that must be done.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Elusive Jesus (2/8/09)

No text for Sunday's sermon. It was "off the cuff." I will tell what I did as it was kind of fun. 

I put the congregation to work. 

The ushers handed out pencils. During the sermon I asked them to write a paragraph about the personality of Jesus. What kind of person was he? I played some music while they wrote about Jesus. 

Then I asked them (and it only really works if they don't know this is coming) to circle three things they wrote about Jesus that described themselves (or who they would like to be). Then I asked them to tell the person next to them about the Jesus they found and the characteristics that describe them.

It was well-received and far more eye-opening than if I had merely told them how our ideas about Jesus reflect our attitudes. Tell me your Jesus and you will find yourself.

I offered some closing thoughts about how Jesus is a spiritual icon and can be a "lure" inviting us to discover our deepest or best selves.

This is the real value of Jesus and why his story continues to be retold.

I hope folks will tell me about the Jesus they found. 

I learned this exercise from Walter Wink when he and his partner, June Keener-Wink led a workshop at Kirkridge. He was working on his book The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man. A good read by the way.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Small Kindness (2/1/09 Qur'an Sunday)

This is my sermon from today. My church is reading an English translation of the Qur'an cover to cover in 2009. Once per month I will preach on selected Surahs from the reading for that month. For a schedule of readings, visit the blog, Qur'an and Jive. For February we are reading Surahs 81-114 or the early Meccan Surahs. Recommended reading include

  1. The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an by Abdullah Yusuf Ali
  2. Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells
  3. The Story of the Qur'an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life by Ingrid Mattson

The Small Kindness
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 1st, 2009

In the Name of God the Compassionate the Caring

Do you see him who calls the reckoning a lie?
He is the one who casts the orphan away
Who fails to urge the feeding of one in need.
Cursed are those who perform the prayer
Unmindful of how they pray
Who make of themselves a display
But hold back the small kindness.
Surah 107

At the end of it all, what is the value of a human life? What is the value of my life? Those are questions of introspection. They are risky questions. These questions that when asked with mind and heart can change us.

At certain times in our lives we are open to these questions. These are times when we are confronted with the Holy. This is when that membrane--that heavy insulation--that serves to keep us from ultimate questions of value becomes thin. Scholar Marcus Borg calls these experiences “thin places.”

These thin places can be an actual place, or an event, or a word spoken or read. At these thin places we become more aware of the Holy or the Sacred. Moses, at the age of 40, an age susceptible to a thin place is confronted with the Holy at Mount Horeb. From the book of Exodus:

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’
Thus it all begins for Moses. He said, “I must turn aside and look.” Perhaps not everyone would turn. Not all would be curious enough to stop and look. There are sheep to be kept. There is money to be made. There are worldly things that need attention.

But Moses (who knows why) turns aside, and looks. His life changes. He, by the way, was 40. Mid-life, while not the only time, is a good time for a thin place.

Mohammad, at the cave of Mount Hira, at the age of 40, is confronted by the Holy. He hears a voice: “Iqra! Proclaim! Recite!” From Surah 96:

Recite in the name of your lord who created—
From an embryo created the human

Recite your lord is all-giving
Who taught by the pen
Taught the human what he did not know before

The human being is a tyrant
He thinks his possessions make him secure
To your lord is the return of every thing.

Thus it all begins for Muhammad.

We will not read the Qur’an correctly if we only read with suspicion. If we read it wrapped with our insulation of prejudice, stereotype, or that common illusion among the educated—academic disinterest—we will miss its invitation.

If, on the other hand, like Moses, we “turn aside” and take a look, we may be confronted by the awe and the intimacy of the Holy.

I have finally found a version of the Qur’an that I can recommend. It has text and commentary. The translation is respected by Muslims. It is called The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an by Abudullah Yusuf Ali. It has text and commentary with other aids and helps. I found it at Barnes and Noble. It was originally published in 1934.

In the preface, Yusuf Ali writes:

One final word to my readers, Read, study, and digest the Holy Book. Read slowly, and let it sink into your heart and soul. Such study will, like virtue, be its own reward. xvi
Muhammad received revelations for twenty-three years. The Qur’an is divided into three periods: The first period contains the early Meccan suras that occur mostly at the end of the Qur’an, the ones we are reading for this month, the later Meccan suras, and the Medinan suras.

According to Michael Sells, author of another book I highly recommend, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, these early Meccan suras “focus on existential and personal issues.” P. 14

Sells offers translation and commentary of Suras 81-114. Each Sura has a name and the name is found within the text of that Sura.

I want to spend some reflection on Sura 107, Al Ma-un or The Neighborly Assistance. Sells translates it as The Small Kindness.

When non-Muslims read the Qur’an, because we are unfamiliar with the Arabic, we tend to see God as harsh or angry. As Sells points out, the tone is not anger or harshness, but sadness. The Gospel of Matthew captures this tone when Jesus weeps over Jerusalem:

‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
This is the tone of the Qur’an. God, compassionate and caring, like a mother hen, wants to gather the people, but the people are not willing. Yet, there is always the hope that some will, like Moses, turn aside and seek the Holy.

The reason people are not willing to turn aside and seek the good, is because they deny that life matters. The word in Arabic is din. In English, it is translated as judgment, reckoning, responsibility, right and wrong, virtue, morality, or faith.

Sura 107 begins:

In the Name of God the Compassionate the Caring
Do you see him who calls the reckoning a lie?
He is the one who casts the orphan away
Who fails to urge the feeding of one in need.

Those who deny that there is right and wrong or deny that there is value in life, show that through callousness or indifference to others. The Qur’an never allows a belief in God to be separate from acts of compassion and social justice.

The purpose of the Qur’an is to draw people back and to remind them that there is right and wrong and that we are responsible for the least of these. Even those who know forget. The Qur’an is a reminder to return. It is the invitation to ask of ourselves today what will be of value at the end of life.

What is of value will not be our possessions, our accomplishments, or our status, but the small kindness. The reckoning or the din, is not so much a future event but a recognition of the value of life at this moment.

The Qur’an specifies practices or pillars of din. The five pillars or practices of din are performed to keep us humble so that we do not forget who we are and to whom we are responsible.

One of the pillars or practices of din is to share our wealth with those in need. Zakat or almsgiving is the practice of compassion. The practice itself reminds us that we are responsible to others, that our lives have value, and that value is expressed in the charity, compassion and care we have for others.

Cursed are those who perform the prayer
Unmindful of how they pray
Who make of themselves a display
But hold back the small kindness.

The next pillar of din or practice of reckoning is the salat or the prayer. The point of the five times a day prayer is to remind us who we are. It is a calling out of the daily business of life and toward the highest virtue, the din. The motion of the forehead touching the ground is the motion of humility.

The point of these actions whether charity or prayer is to keep us mindful. As the sura shows, we can pray in a way that is unmindful. Any practice can be abused. We can pray for show or recognition. The true test is the small kindness.

What is the small kindness? This is the act of pure virtue. When Jesus said, “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” he was also speaking of din.

This is difficult. We tend to do things for what we get from them. That is the essential forgetfulness of living. We calculate. We want to be seen in a certain way. We see this calculation in others but often not in ourselves.

To follow the Qur’an is not to worry about what others do. It is to seek the highest virtue, to look for the highest value, and to recognize that the small kindness is the way to the Divine presence.