Sunday, April 26, 2009

Abode of Peace (4/26/09 Qur'an Sunday)

Abode of Peace
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 26, 2009

Surah 10:24-25

The likeness of this present life is like water We made descend from the sky. The plants of the earth, such as men and beasts are wont to eat, grow diverse because of it—until, when earth has assumed its ornament and is decked out in all its finery, and its people think they hold it in their power, Our command descends upon it by night or day, and We turn it into stubble, as though yesterday it had never bloomed. Even so do We make clear the signs for a people who reflect.

God calls to the Abode of Peace and guides whomsoever He wills to a path that is straight.

On Friday the confirmation class visited the Muslim Community Center of the Northeast. We attended Friday prayer. On Friday afternoon at 1:30 the call to prayer is sounded and people gather at the musalah (place of prayer). In addition to prayer a sermon is given.

I don’t think all of them are the same, but at this particular musalah, there is a separate place for women and men. The guys and I were in the front part and the women were behind a window. It is a one way mirror. The women could see and hear, but the men couldn’t see them.

We were given a brief tour beforehand by Taneem Aziz. Friday is not like Sunday for Christians. After the prayer, they return to work. They have education classes on Sundays. On the wall of one of the children’s classes I could see where they were learning about the principles of Islam and the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him). To say “peace be upon him” is a sign of respect.

Next to Muhammad’s name were his qualities, “trustworthy, kind, loyal.” Muhammad is a model for how to live in the world.

Taneem invited us to either watch or participate. He said that before prayer, we should wash feet, hands and face. In the restroom is a place to wash your feet. The guys thought that was pretty cool, so they and I washed our feet and hands and face.

The speaker was from Texas. The Muslim Community Center doesn’t have an imam, so the person who is most familiar with the Qur’an is the one who gives the sermon. On occasion they will have a guest speaker like they did Friday.

We were introduced to him beforehand and he was impressed and pleased that we wanted to learn about Islam.

We went into the Musalah, the call to prayer was recited by Taneem, and people began to gather. We sat on the carpet. The sermon was interesting. He was encouraging Muslims to make relationships with non-Muslims. It is important to do that so that non-Muslims can overcome stereotypes about Islam. These stereotypes include equating Muslims with terrorism.

“Terrorism does not have a religion,” he said.

He mentioned us with gratitude. It is important for Muslims and non-Muslims to find common ground and to work together for peace he told us.

After the sermon, we gathered in two parallel lines, shoulder to shoulder. The guys asked me what to do, and I said, “I don’t know, just follow along.” Following the lead of the others, facing Mecca, we bowed, kneeled and prostrated when they did.

I found it to be moving. There is something that binds people when they pray together, especially close together. We were connected beyond the differences of culture, class, and religion to surrender to the Source of all that is.

When the prayer had finished Taneem and his college-age daughter, spoke to us in one of the classrooms. They answered questions and invited us to a potluck. On the second Saturday of every month, they have a common meal. I said I would bring this invitation back to us, and on a Saturday that works, we can schedule that time.

His daughter wears the hijab, the head covering. Most of the time when she goes out with her mother to shop, they are treated with respect. But now and then they will receive comments such as “Go back to Iraq” or “Go back to where you came from.” She is born in the United States, so she already is where she came from.

They never confront. They never return hostilities. That is part of their reality. Most of the time they are treated well, but hostilities against them can surface. He said to the youth that they can be helpful in speaking out against misinformation against Muslims. Now, we have prayed together. Now, we know each other, face to face.

I asked what it meant to be a Muslim. And his daughter put it quite eloquently and simply:

“It’s a way of life. I begin each day saying, ‘Bismallah (in the name of God).’”

The youth will have their own interpretations of the day. For me, I felt another point of connection with our Muslim neighbors.

What is Islam? What is this way of life? Islam means among many things to surrender or to submit. It is not to surrender or to submit to another human being or to a doctrine or to culture or to creation or any to created thing. Islam is to surrender to God. God (Allah in Arabic) is that which is beyond all names. God is the reality beyond all realities. A Muslim is one who surrenders to God alone.

A Muslim is more than a practitioner of a religion. It is a way of life. Taneem said something very interesting. “All children are born Muslim.” Traditional Christianity says that children are born in sin. Islam says the opposite. As we grow we forget who we are. Islam is the way of remembering who we are and whose we are.

When non-Muslims see Islam from the outside we tend to see practices, rituals, and rules.

Muslims believe this. Muslims believe that.

We compare what we see with what we believe or do. That is all we can see. That is OK as far as it goes. But that only gets us to the outside, to the external religious practices. I think it is possible if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to see more than that.

These external practices are a path or a way to the heart.

This is one of the reasons I am engaging us in reading a translation of the Qur’an this year as well as finding ways to connect with our Muslim neighbors. The goal is to search for and respect the heart, which is a metaphor for the sacred experience of surrendering to God.

The other reason is to become aware of stereotypes and to dismantle them. On Friday morning there was a message on the church answering machine. It was from a church in Johnson City inviting us to a conference on “Radical Islam.” I knew where that was going--a bunch of Radical Christians engaging in some fear-mongering.

Would you like to learn about Islam? Here is a novel idea. Talk to Muslims. This is why we took the confirmation class to the Muslim Community Center. When they hear negative things about Islam or Muslims, they can know and perhaps even say that isn’t true.

Surahs 9-13 is the reading for May. I chose today 10:24-25. One of the principles of Islamic spirituality is that the created order is a sign or a parable for the mystery of God.

Because we live inside the created order we take it for granted. When things go well we tend to think we are responsible. We think we hold it in our power. We are entitled. We think it is our right. This is human arrogance. The wise person, the one who reflects, recognizes that life is transitory. At times there is nourishing rain. At other times drought. This is not simply about weather patterns. This is about our own lives.

Sometimes life goes well. Sometimes it doesn’t. Life is change. The wise person does not put his or her life or value in that which changes, but in the Source beyond change. In the Bible story about Jonah, the prophet is on the hill, bummed that God does not destroy Nineveh but allows the people to live.

In the story, God commands a plant to grow and provide Jonah shade. Jonah likes that. Then God tells a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah is angry, “angry enough to die,” says the text. Then God tells Jonah:

‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
Islamic spirituality is the invitation to consider the Source of life not just the circumstances. In so doing we will discover blessing, the “Abode of Peace.”

A church member gave me this book. It is called The Heart of the Qur’an: An Introduction to Islamic Spirituality by Lex Hixon. Neil Douglas-Klotz provides a forward and commentary.

Hixon take a number of passages from the Qur’an, meditates on them, and provides his own commentary from his own personal meditation. After I chose this passage, I discovered that Hixon commented on it. Here is his meditation:

Contemplate life as fresh rain showered abundantly on receptive ground from the Ever-Present Source, Who is like the vast sky. This pure rainwater, mingling with the earth, causes the boundless variety of seeds to sprout and flourish, providing ample nourishment for all creatures. Imagine the spiritual blindness of those who deny the existence of the Original Source, the very sky from which life-giving water descends, and who insist that they alone have power over the fertile expanse of this earth, turned fruitful and beautiful by the rain of life. With terrible suddenness, during night or day, a ray of light like fire can radiate from the Source of Power and reduce rich orchards and pastures to fields of straw, without leaving a trace of the abundance experienced only moments before. For those who meditate deeply, this parable from the Source of Wisdom presents a clear teaching to rely upon the Ultimate Source alone. Thus the Voice of Allah invites human beings home into Divine Peace and guides them along the Direct Path of surrender. These souls return to the Single Source, along the noble way that is called Islam. P. 49
The heart of Christianity is similar. “Seek first,” said Jesus, “The realm of God.”

There is, I think, a common word, a way of life that binds humanity beyond all of our differences. Our various religions and practices show us this way. It is a way to the heart of life, to the heart of God, and to the Abode of Peace.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Earthy Christians (4/19/09 Earth Day)

Earthy Christians
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 19, 2009
Earth Day Sunday

The other night I caught the end of the PBS program, NOW. The episode was entitled, “On Thin Ice.” It examined the state of glaciers in our world. The part I caught featured Glacier National Park in Montana. This is a park in my home state that I have visited a number of times.

Glacier National Park received its name from the glaciers that formed its majestic and craggy mountains seven thousand years ago. If you want to see any glaciers in Glacier National Park, you better plan your trip soon.

Like the Wicked Witch of the West, they are melting and could be gone within 12 years. Plan your vacation by 2020. According to the official website for Glacier National Park, in 1850 there were 150 glaciers. Today there are 26. The park’s estimate is a little longer for the life of these remaining glaciers. According to its website:
If the current warming trend continues in Glacier National Park, there will be no glaciers left here in the year 2030.
Either way, by 2020 or 2030, there will be no more glaciers in Montana. According to the program, there is little we can do about Montana’s glaciers, but perhaps their demise could direct our attention to the changes in Earth’s climate.

In the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal: (April 18)
The Obama administration declared Friday that carbon dioxide and five other industrial emissions threaten the planet….The Environmental Protection Agency finding that the emissions endanger “the health and welfare of current and future generations” is “the first formal recognition by the U.S. government of the threats posed by climate change,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson wrote in a memo to her staff.
The Johnson City Press included a graphic showing the United States as the leader in per capita carbon emissions of any country on Earth. In an accompanying article, this past Friday marked

the first time that the federal government has said it is ready to use the Clean Air Act to require power plants, cars and trucks to curtail their release of climate-changing pollution, especially carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.
I am preaching to the choir, I know. But this is good news.
A couple of weeks ago, Amy Goodman, the host of the NPR program, DemocracyNow! that airs on our local affiliate, WETS, was in Johnson City. In her speech she talked about the president. One thing she said stuck with me. She told a story in which the president was asked to support some cause, I can’t remember what it was now. But it was something he was likely to favor.

His response was, “Make me.”

What that meant was that it isn’t enough to ask the president to do something, even if he is in favor of it. The political forces are powerful and it requires the sustained persistent will of the people to force the president as well as all of our leaders to make positive change.

That reminded me of a parable of Jesus:
In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” (Luke 18:2-5)
That is one of my favorite parables that I quote often.

The persistent widow is our icon for one of the four paths of Creation Spirituality. She shows the “way of justice making.” For Earthy Christians, activism is spiritual. We need like the widow to continually present our case so that we eventually wear them out.

Of course, if that is the only spiritual path we take, we will likely wear out first. The burned out activist is no fun at any party and not effective.

Another spiritual path is the “way of letting go.” This includes letting go of our attachments. These attachments can be to a style of living to which we are accustomed and sometimes think we are entitled. We need to let go of beliefs and ideologies that may have been successful in an earlier time but are no longer so. Yesterday’s icon can turn into today’s idol.

It also includes recognizing the grief of loss. It is a recognition that the world is impermanent. As much as we desire for things to remain the same, they do not. That includes glaciers. The way of letting go is the spiritual practice of being able to be free enough to engage life as it is. It isn’t enough just to get angry, or even to get angry and fight, it also includes recognizing our own anger, frustration, and sadness so that it doesn’t cling to us. Letting go is the way of cleaning house of our own emotions and thoughts.

The icon is this woman from one of Jesus’ parables:
Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” (Luke 15:8-10)
Lighting a lamp and sweeping the house are metaphors for letting go. The promise in letting go is that one will find.

A third path is the way of creativity. As we let go, we open ourselves to creativity. Creativity is experienced not as something we manufacture but as something that is revealed. The impediment to creativity is ideology, no matter what the ideology. The nature of creativity is that it is unexpected. It comes from unlikely places and flows out of us.

The creation of Earth Day is the fruit of this path. Today’s Johnson City Press reported on the activities of people, young and old, coming together to clean and beautify our area. Here is how the article begins:
Instead of sleeping in Saturday morning, three Science Hill High School freshmen spent their morning outside picking up trash around the school grounds. Katie Edwards, Leah Owens and Lara Byerley were part of a large group who participated in the Great American Cleanup, a nationwide effort from Keep America Beautiful. “It’s kind of nice to be outside on a Saturday morning instead of sleeping,” Edwards said.
She probably wasn’t aware of how profoundly spiritual that observation was. Creativity wakes us up from our sleep. Imagine the creativity that will emerge and is emerging as we wake up and realize that not only must we change our way of living—which is a way of dying—but that we can. The way of the Universe itself is creative adaptation to change.

Our icon for this path, the way of creativity is found in Jesus’ parable of the sower:
‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. 6And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ 9And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ (Mark 4:3-9)
Creativity is throwing out the seed trusting that some will land in good soil.

The fourth path is perhaps the path that sustains them all. None is more important than the other. The paths are not linear, or step by step. Yet at certain times some paths that may have been neglected need to be traveled. This path is the “way of awe.”

Earthy Christians fall in love with Earth. It is the way of falling in love with the Universe, with life, with ourselves, with one another.

Marcus Borg in his book, The Heart of Christianity, gave an illustration about this. You know you need this path when you go to the grocery store and you look around while you are waiting in line and everyone looks ugly. When that happens to us it is a sign that we are in a funk and we need new eyes. We need to fall in love again.

Awe is jaw dropping wonder at the crazy, extravagant beauty of life. We take it for granted. We sleep. Awe awakens us and puts goosebumps on our skin. In awe we see the sacredness of all things.

Now is a good season to fall in love with Earth and with life. Whether you take a hike with us today after church up to Laurel Falls, go to Montana and hike a glacier, sit on your deck and watch the rabbits, or delight in the quirkiness of our own species, the way of awe is to notice that G-d is in it all.

Perhaps an icon for this path is Jesus himself.
Jesus said, "I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there." (Thomas 77)
Today I am celebrating an Earthy Christianity.

It is blooming all around us.

Earthy Christians make justice, let go, allow for creativity, and fall in love.

Blessed Be.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter for the Non-Religious (4/12/09 Easter)

Easter for the Non-Religious
(And for the Religious Too)
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
April 12th, 2009
Easter Sunday
Mark 16:1-8

Lost and alone on some forgotten highway 
Traveled by many remembered by few 

Lookin' for something that I can believe in 

Lookin' for something that I'd like to do with my life 

There's nothin' behind me and nothin' that ties me to 

Something that might have been true yesterday 

Tomorrow is open and right now it seems to be more than enough 

To just be here today and I don't know 

What the future is holdin' in store 
I don't know where
I'm goin' I'm not sure where I've been 

There's a spirit that guides me, a light that shines for me 

My life is worth the livin', I don't need to see the end 

Sweet, sweet surrender,
live, live without care 

Like a fish in the water,
like a bird in the air

--John Denver, Sweet Surrender 

I am sure you have heard the statement, perhaps you have said it:

I am not religious; I am spiritual.
I think I know what is meant by that. And, I want to affirm it. It is a statement that comes from the heart. It comes from an appreciation of the great mystery of life. It comes also perhaps from a frustration with organized religion. 

Religion, especially the Christian religion, is often presented as a thousand and one impossible things you are supposed to believe before breakfast.
 And there is no reason today to provide a litany of all the painful and ignorant things done in the name of organized religion, including the Christian religion. We know them all too well. 

If you are non-religious but spiritual, I love you. You are on my team.

I wish I was spiritual, or at least more spiritual. I try to be.

But, I am religious. I am also irreligious, some might say sacrilegious, but when the chips are down, I am religious. I participate in organized religion. I try to make sense of its stories and rituals. I work with a community. At times we are even organized, although I sometimes think of us 
fondly as practicing disorganized religion.

Nevertheless, we try through our religion to touch the heart of spirituality.
 This distinction between spirituality and religion is sharpest on Sundays like today, when we celebrate the Christian religious doctrine of resurrection. There is a lot of religion on this day: Bible stories, empty tombs, crosses, communion, hymns, -- boo ya. Talk about a thousand and one impossible things to believe before breakfast. 

But if we don’t get stuck in the religion, we may discover the spirituality to which religion points. If we can see religious practice as a vehicle, not an end in itself, we can find guidance, inspiration, and a community for our journey.

Sometimes we need people to shake us up.
 This is from Peter Rollins, author of a number of books on religion including The Orthodox Heretic. He had this to say about the resurrection:
Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.
Rollins touches on the distinction between religion and spirituality. You can believe all the things you want. You can be as religious as the Pope, but unless you can “cry for those who have no more tears left to shed” you are simply religious. 

I have to confess, like Peter Rollins, that I am more religious than spiritual.
 But I am trying.

I am no apologist for the Christian religion. I am a “let a thousand flowers bloom” kind of guy. Yet on a big day like this, I think it is an opportunity to talk about a way of viewing the Christian religion.
Christianity has much in common with other spiritual traditions. It contains many stories, legends, symbols and mythologies common to its closest cousins, Judaism and Islam, as well as to Hinduism, Buddhism, Paganism, and all of the great enduring religious traditions.Like a light refracted through a prism, each tradition presents the Divine Mystery with a unique hue.

Jesus of Nazareth is the unique hue for Christianity.
 Jesus was an historical figure. Despite all the legends, creeds, and theologies surrounding him, most historians agree that he existed and that he was executed by established authority. 

That is pretty wild. The central figure of the Christian religion was executed by the ruling Empire--by legitimate, established authority. I went into that last week so I won’t reiterate it today. However, that should give us pause as to what it means to be a follower of Jesus in light of modern day empires and authorities.

Why was Jesus executed? I don’t know exactly. This is my best guess.

He was in the way. He was collateral damage like thousands of others. These unfortunates were used as tools for the propaganda of Empire. 

"We are here for the duration," said pompous Rome. "Stay in your place and we will let you live. Misbehave and you will end up like these guys."

The story didn’t end with execution. I don’t know how it happened, but somebody started telling stories, tales of Resurrection.
 The tales of Resurrection were told by people who were sick and tired of being sick and tired.

The unfortunates organized. These stories were their way of saying, "We aren't going away either. There is a new kingdom coming and it is already breaking through."

This new kingdom is an anti-empire run by an un-king. Its way is peace through justice, and justice through non-violence. Its royal court consists of poets and crazy minstrels who think the poor should be filled with good things. The un-king's army is a band of off-key resisters who keep getting in the way as they sing for peace.

Don't look for this new upsidedown world in heaven. It is right here, right now, within and without us. Anyone who is ever left out, despised, rejected, forgotten, spit on, looked over, stood up, washed up, or left behind is in the un-king's cabinet.

Easter is connected with the Spring Equinox. Symbols of rebirth, growth, and a blossoming creation are all linked with Easter. Easter is more than the celebration of Spring. But Easter is also more than the mythology of Jesus rising from the dead and flying off to heaven. It is more than 
me getting to heaven when I die.

Easter is G-d's ongoing reversal of the violence and injustice of this world.
 The resurrected body of Christ bears the wounds of Empire. Jesus didn't die of old age or get trampled by a runaway horse. He was executed by legitimate authority. He was crucified because the powers felt the world would get along better without him or his kind. 

The Holy Mystery reversed that decision.

Easter is about a new consciousness and a new awareness. It is courageously awakening to G-d's kingdom on Earth. It is the power of love confronting the powers of violence and oppression. We are the resurrected body of Christ who bear Empire's wounds. We all bear the wounds that are the consequence of the ideology of peace through violence.

The G-d revealed in Jesus is the G-d of peace through justice. Easter is the joyful celebration that the G-d of Jesus is alive in all of us. Easter is an invitation to awaken to G-d's kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven.

At least that is what I think. Easter may be more than that. But it isn’t less than that.

Easter is all around us.
 We need Easter. In the midst of a world and of humanity hanging on by a thread, we need some Easter hope.

It isn’t hard to see, if we will see.

I see Easter happening in this congregation and in the larger community.
 Amidst all of the forces that seem ominous and unstoppable, I see Easter. Do you?

I see Easter in those who daily battle the bureaucracies on behalf of our streams and forests.   They sometimes succeed. 

I see Easter in those who provide a safe place for those who are abused,

…who spend their Saturdays preparing meals for the hungry, 
…who repair homes for our poorest sisters and brothers,

…who care for broken, hurting, and diseased bodies, 
…who calm troubled minds,
…who risk their lives to protect the vulnerable, and
…who boldly speak truth to power on behalf of healthcare and equal rights.

I see Easter in those who make music, art and dance and who draw out the creativity in others.

I see Easter in those who take time to notice the beauty of nature and who invite others to notice as well.

I see Easter in those who use their minds to unlock the secrets of our amazing planet and vast universe.

I see Easter in those who struggle with illness yet engage life in the moment, as it is.

I see Easter in those who grieve deeply the loss of a loved one, and through grief witness to the gift of love that is more powerful than the grave. 

I see Easter in those who take the time to listen to another’s pain.

I see Easter in those who refuse to give in and who refuse to lose hope about the state of our world.

I see Easter in those who make others feel that they belong and are loved without condition.

I see Easter when grudges are let loose, and hurts forgiven. 

I see Easter in those who laugh easily and melt sadness.

I see Easter in those who despite the daily grind of it all, educate our children and open their minds and hearts.

I see Easter when spirits are re-energized, commitments renewed, and when we can see just enough light to take another step. 

I see Easter in each and every one of your faces.

I see Easter in children who love bunnies and eggs. Yes, Easter is also about bunnies and eggs and Easter candy--in moderation. 

G-d has written the promise of resurrection in the lives of children.
 Easter joy is heard in their giggles and joyful squeals. We adults had better take some notice of these children. They are the ones for whom we should be living. They are the ones who will inherit the world we leave them.

So we had better darn well believe in Easter. We had better live and give our lives for a new consciousness that cares for Earth,
…that cares for the poor,
…that cares for peace,
…that cares for children.

All children.
 It is all Easter. 

Whether you are religious or non-religious, Easter is for you.

He is Risen. Alleluia.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Executed God (4/5/09 Palm/Passion)

The Executed God
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 5th, 2009
Palm/Passion Sunday
Mark 11:1-11
Mark 15:1-39

Is it a contradiction that Christians pray to and adore their imprisoned and executed God while supporting or tolerating the execution and imprisonment of so many today? The United States is now on a lockdown craze, and many confessing Christians have played a key part in building it up….this nation now incarcerates more than two million citizens. The massive number now confined—70 percent of whom are people of color—is nearly quadruple the figure of 1980, being "the largest and most frenetic correctional buildup of any country in the history of the world."
That is how my former seminary professor, Mark Lewis Taylor, opens his book, The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America. Mark Taylor is Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.

I took a number of courses from him because he was one of the few professors of theology who made sense to me. He helped me to understand the political and social realities behind the symbols of religion. More importantly, he helped me understand that unless we use the symbols of religion to do good we are wasting time, or worse, doing harm.

To quote James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time, quoted in The Executed God, pg. 1):
If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.
In The Executed God, Taylor helps us reflect upon a symbol, the cross. What might the cross have meant in the first century and what might it mean today? How has its power as symbol been distorted to serve Empire rather than serve those who were victims then and who are victims today?

In our sanctuary we have a large cross. Quite beautiful. Christians wear jewelry in the shape of crosses. I am not criticizing that. But there is an irony there. It would be good for us to reflect upon what this symbol represents.

What is a cross? In the time of Jesus, in the time of Paul, and in the time of the Gospel writers, the cross was an instrument of state-sponsored, legitimated torture. It was a means of execution. This execution was public and dramatic. It was an instrument of the theater of terror through which the Roman Empire controlled the populations of its occupied territories.

As one entered the city, especially on Holy Days such as Passover, travelers would be greeted with the symbols of Rome’s power: soldiers, horses, and crosses. The soon to be executed would partake in a forced march through the city carrying the cross beam. Humiliation and beatings were all part of the show. It was a show. The crosses would be erected on a hill for all to see. The message was clear:

"We are here for the duration," said pompous Rome. "Stay in your place and we will let you live. Misbehave and you will end up like these guys."

Rome did these things not because it was especially cruel. It didn’t think of itself as such. As Empires go, it was better than most up to and including the present day. A great movie for Holy Week is Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. It is the best film about Jesus that I know. Although, it is about Brian, who is mistaken for the Messiah. It is of course an irreverent spoof. But very insightful.

In one of the scenes the Jewish Liberation Front is making demands of Rome. In its Monty Python way, the leader asks what has Rome ever done for us? A voice speaks up.

“The aqueduct? Sanitation?”
"Besides the aqueduct and sanitation, what has Rome ever done for us?"
"Education?... Roads?... Trade?... Peace?

As the Monty Python folks point out, Rome was the "normalcy of civilization" to use a phrase from John Dominic Crossan. Rome saw itself as a benefactor. It was good for the world. Through its executions and its public displays of order and power, it was preserving the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome.

Rome’s emperor was a bearer of good news, the savior, and the one to bring peace. Those were the kinds of words used for him. Its enemy was the terrorist. Its enemy was the one who did not respect civilization.

Its enemy was…Jesus.

Jesus was executed by legitimate, established authority. It wasn’t a mistake. Jesus, in the eyes of Rome, was considered a threat to its peace. His pithy little sayings and poems preserved in the gospels such as "blessed are you poor," "forgive us our debts," "give us our daily bread," were subversive statements. They reflected political, economic, and social realities of those who did not benefit by Empire’s peace. They were about real poverty, real debts, real hunger and a system of economics that elevated some on the backs of the majority.

What then is the cross?

We could contemporize the cross by wearing around our necks hangman’s nooses, or replicas of electric chairs. Perhaps we could wear a little gas chamber, a syringe, or maybe a little gold-plated bucket of water to symbolize the interrogation method of choice in America’s war on terror.

A clergy friend of mine when I was in New York state opened my eyes to the power of symbols. He was retired and he would preach at various congregations. I asked him to fill in for me a couple of times when I was on vacation. At first he was a little bit of a shocker to the congregation. When he preached he wore his robe like I do. But instead of a stole which is a symbol for my ordination, he wore a heavy chain.

He would explain right up front what it meant. He would say something like: “This chain represents the oppression and spiritual violence against my lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender sisters and brothers who because of discrimination are denied ordination to the ministry in the PC(USA).”

Then he would go on with the service, preaching about something else. The congregation was a little taken aback at first. I wish I could have been there. It is always good to have someone fill in for you to do that kind of thing. But after the initial shock, they got it. And they liked him. After a couple of times of filling in for me, folks in the congregation asked me, “When you go on vacation get that guy with the chain, will you?”

I do wear a cross around my neck. I wear it not because I think it means that Jesus died for my sins. I don’t wear it because it means what I saw on a church signboard this past week: “The Cross: God’s love written in red.”

I don’t believe it represents God punishing Jesus for humanity’s sins, or making something sacred out of suffering, violence, or torture. I wear it because it reminds me of what side I need to be on. It means for me that to follow Jesus, to follow the way of the cross, and to follow the executed God, is to follow the way of resistance to all forms of domination and oppression.

On Palm Sunday there were two parades. As John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg show us in their book on Mark, The Last Week, the other parade was a military parade. Mark doesn’t need to tell his readers about that one. It was all too well known. As Passover week begins, Rome enters with swords, helmets, shields, and horses to keep the peace at a volatile time. They come from the west.

From the east comes Jesus on a donkey. It is a spoof of Rome’s parade and Rome’s peace. This parade might be thought of as an act of civil disobedience. It is a parade of the forgotten, the indebted, and the oppressed. Symbolized by the children waving branches, it is the parade of life and hope for the little ones, their struggle, and their hope.

In which parade will we march?

When I say to be on a side, that does not mean I am proposing a duality between good guys and bad guys, us and them. Ultimately, it is a unity of all humanity, in fact all creation itself. The executioner and the executed, the prisoner and the prison guard are caught in that same matrix of disunity and oppression.

The way of the cross is a starting point. It is standing with, walking with, and yes, perhaps dying with, those who are most vulnerable, the victims of abuse in all of its forms personal and institutional. The way of the cross is standing on behalf of Earth itself. An image I saw recently had a picture of Earth imposed on a cross. That is a symbol for on one hand Earth at risk to human abuse of it, and it is a liberating symbol that the presence of God is found in our resistance to Earth’s destruction.

Some may ask, and rightly so, if I am equating Christian faith strictly with political activism of some sort. Isn’t it more than that? Isn’t it about personal transformation and so forth? My answer is yes of course. The way of the cross can be seen as a symbol of personal rebirth and transformation. It is dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being.  

The way of cross is more than the way of resisting social, economic, and political injustices. But as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan remind us in their latest book on Paul, the way of the cross is not less than that.

If what I am saying today sounds new to some of you or at least different than what you or I grew up with (it is certainly different than what I grew up with), then it shows that Christianity has forgotten its starting point.

Today’s passion story is the account of the phony trial, humiliation, forced march and execution of Jesus. Mainstream biblical scholars do not view this story as an historical account of what happened to Jesus. It is Mark’s story writing about Jesus as a figure who represents what happened to those who resisted Empire in Mark's own time.

Jesus was not the only person executed, of course. Hundreds, perhaps thousands were executed. His story provided the framework for resistance, for the way of the cross, for the way of following the executed God. This story resonates with the stories of people still today who find themselves on the wrong side of Empires and who experience political, economic, and social oppression.

Lest we think this story is simply about the futility of resisting Empire, Mark’s story is written in the context of a greater hope, of a Lord larger, deeper, and wider than Caesar. It is the story of a Resurrection hope.

In light of Resurrection, the cross becomes a symbol of hope, the story of the reality of execution to be sure, but more importantly, a reminder that executions do not have the last word. That story is one of joyful, creative, resistance and victory.

That is Easter’s story. I’ll save that for next week.