Sunday, July 26, 2009

Created From Water (7/26/09 Qur'an Sunday)

Here is today's sermon on the theme of water. I shared some things learned on my study leave. It is also Qur'an Sunday (we have been reading the Qur'an cover to cover in 2009). I chose a reading from Surah 25 that states that God created humankind from water. 

Created from Water
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
July 26th, 2009
John 4:7-14

Water may not be something we think about on a day to day basis. We turn on the faucet. We flush the toilet. We wash our clothes in a machine as well as our dishes. We turn on the shower. Water appears. That wasn’t the case, of course, for those who lived when the Gospel of John was written. Nor is it the case for many in the world today.

Our story from John’s gospel features a woman among many women who went daily to draw water from a common well. Fresh water was not taken for granted. Gathering water took time and labor. Water was not plentiful or easy to access. We know the value of water amidst its scarcity.

This is a poem from Wendell Berry entitled, “Water.”

I was born in a drought year. That summer
my mother waited in the house, enclosed
in the sun and the dry ceaseless wind,
for the men to come back in the evenings,
bringing water from a distant spring.
Veins of leaves ran dry, roots shrank.
And all my life I have dreaded the return
of that year, sure that it still is
somewhere, like a dead enemy’s soul.
Fear of dust in my mouth is always with me,
and I am the faithful husband of the rain,
I love the water of wells and springs
and the taste of roofs in the water of cisterns.
I am a dry man whose thirst is praise
of clouds, and whose mind is something of a cup.
My sweetness is to wake in the night
after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.
--Wendell Berry, “Water”
It is not surprising that in the Bible and in the Qur’an water is both a metaphor for the spiritual life and a material reality. The Bible begins with water. Water is so important that God controls it:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.
In this ancient cosmology, the sky or the dome kept the waters above it and the waters on the flat earth. When it rained, they thought that the portals were being opened in the dome to allow the water to fall.

In the Qur’an, God also separates the waters. In this case it is the salt water from the fresh water. In our reading from Surah 25:

…It is He Who merged the two seas,
This one fresh and sweet water,
That one salty and bitter.
Between them He erected a barrier, an impassable boundary.
It is She Who, from water, created humankind,
Conferring on them kinship, of blood and marriage.
Your Lord is Ever-Powerful.
In the Qur’an human beings are created from water. Human beings are created from dust and clay in the Bible and from water in the Qur’an.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus offers “living water.”

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus cries out to the crowds:
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”
Lest there be any doubt, from our ancient texts, water is sacred. Water is the symbol for life. Wetness is spiritual. The opposite is dryness, lifelessness, deadness. This dryness is the abode of the unclean spirits. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus said that when an unclean spirit leaves a human being:

“it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but it finds none.”
That is a memorable image for spiritual death: an unclean spirit wandering through the waterless regions.

All four gospels bring Jesus on the scene with the water of baptism. His ministry begins with a ritual cleansing and the promise from the sky, “This is my son my beloved.”

There is a reason why water has spiritual significance, why it is used as a metaphor for joyful, conscious, celebratory, refreshing, life. The reason is that water has material significance. We can get along without shopping malls. We will survive without cars, computers, and churches. Human beings can live without oil, gas and coal. But we cannot live without water.

• Available fresh water is less than ½ of 1 percent of all the water on Earth.

• Seventy percent of our water use is for agriculture. The vast majority of that water is used to raise livestock (meat) and to produce biofuels.

• Eighty percent of the global population relies on ground-water supplies that are dangerously depleted, if not exhausted, as they are mined beyond natural replenishment. (Kostigen, p. 170)

• On top of that, our streams and rivers are increasingly polluted with toxins. We have created “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico from all the agricultural chemicals that have flowed down streams to the Mississippi and then into the gulf. P. 68 (50 Ways to Help Save the Earth, Rebecca Barnes'-Davies)

• The largest landfill in the world (90 percent of which is plastic) is in the Pacific Ocean. This garbage patch is between California and Hawaii and is twice the size of Texas. P. 68 (50 Ways)

Lack of access to fresh, clean, water could be the biggest threat to humanity in the coming years. It already is a threat for much of the world. One of every six people on Earth, that is one billion people, lack access to safe drinking water.

Journalist Thomas Kostigen has traveled to many places in the world including Mumbai, India, Linfen City China, and Borneo in Southeast Asia and has written about the environmental situation in these places. His latest book is You Are Here: Exposing the Vital Link Between What We Do and What That Does to Our Planet. He writes about water:
Most residents of the developing world get by on a little more than five gallons of water per day; the average global citizen uses about thirteen gallons per day; all the while, water use in Western Europe and the United States ranges between 50 and 170 gallons per person per day. Think we can get by on using a little less and putting a little more into the hands of people who need it? P. 169
When we hear or read this information there is a tendency to become numb to it. We may feel both a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. We feel helpless in that we don’t think we as individuals can do anything to change forces seemingly beyond our control. We feel hopeless in that the problems are so vast we wonder how can we possibly solve them.

We don’t need to be immobilized by either.

I spent the last two weeks at two conferences. The first was Presbyterians for Restoring Creation and the second was Creation Spirituality Communities with Matthew Fox. From both of these conferences I took away this truth. 

Everyone is now an environmentalist.

Being green isn’t just for hippies and tree huggers. The creativity, concern, and compassion for Earth and all of its creatures are becoming part of our consciousness.

People are not only becoming aware of the issues but are thinking creatively about how to address them. We are recognizing that we are interconnected. We are realizing that everything we consume affects people around the globe and vice versa. Our little steps, using a little less water and eating less meat, have huge impacts.

We are far from helpless. We are after all human beings. We are the consciousness of the Universe. It took 14 billion years for us to get here. We aren’t going to throw that away. We have done some pretty incredible things and made amazing discoveries. As we awaken from our slumber, we will discover that the creativity of the universe is within us. We are survivors. It is in our genes. Each of us is here because our ancestors learned to adapt. Helpless? Hardly.

Nor should we be hopeless. Matthew Fox reminded us to remember our ancestors. We appeared on the scene about 100,000 years ago in Africa, our home. We nearly went extinct, but we didn’t. Just as human beings began to emigrate from Africa to Central Asia and to Europe we ran into the ice age. Talk about climate change.

There were no manuals available to deal with it. No books for our ancestors with titles such as Securing Your Financial Portfolio During the Coming Ice Age Crisis. There were no internet sites offering 101 Ways to Hunt and Kill a Woolly Mammoth. They had to figure it out for themselves. Somehow they did. They learned to adapt.

Here we are again. We are certainly facing crises we have never faced before. But with our tools--our awareness, creativity, and inherited wisdom--we will manage. Our descendants could enjoy hundreds of thousands perhaps millions of years of life.

But we need to step up and not zone out.

One way to be conscious is to celebrate the sacredness of water. Water is spiritual. Let us drink of the spring that gushes up to eternal life. When we drink, when we eat our green things, when we bathe, when we wade in the water, we are engaging in a sacred and holy act.

Let us celebrate the wetness of it. Let us each honor with our mind, spirit, and body the pure, clean, dripping, life-giving goodness of H20. The Qur’an reminds us that we are created from water. It is life, our sacred treasure.

As we eat, as we drink, let us honor and be grateful for this gift.

Let us imagine a world in which there is enough fresh, clean water for all.

Because as we imagine we make it so.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Getting What You Wish For (7/5/09)

Getting What You Wish For
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
July 5th, 2009

When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beer-sheba. 3Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’ 6But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’

10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’ 21When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to their voice and set a king over them.’ Samuel then said to the people of Israel, ‘Each of you return home.’

1 Samuel 8:1-22

The narratives in 1 and 2 Samuel are some of the most interesting reading in the Hebrew Scriptures. You will find there stories of wisdom, folly, deceit, and derring-do. They are the stories that tell of the movement of the people of Israel from a tribal confederacy to a monarchy.

This movement, while it seems inevitable, is at best ambiguous. Throughout the narratives in the Old and New Testaments we find an undercurrent of critique of the normalcy of civilization. The lesson to be learned from this passage from I Samuel is this:

Don’t ask from God what you can already get from Pharaoh.

The people want a king. They want to be like other nations. They want in these chilling and prophetic words, a king who “may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

In the narrative, the Lord takes offense at this request. It shows a lack of trust. This request for a king needs to be read in light of the central narrative of the Hebrew people, the deliverance from Pharaoh by the Lord’s hand. The narrative is clear as it can be. The Lord led them out of bondage, not Moses, not a military commander, not a king.

Why would they want a military commander, a king, to govern them? The answer is obvious. You can see a king. You can’t see the Lord. The Lord warns them as to what will happen if they get a king.

‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.

With a king comes a standing army. A standing army doesn’t merely stand. It grows. Like a beast it eats.

It is a story of the price of protection. It is never cheap. It increases over time. After a while protection looks little different than slavery even as it is called freedom. Those who guarantee your protection come to resemble your masters.

George Orwell in his allegory, Animal Farm, tells the story of the Soviet Revolution in which the farm animals take over the farm. The pigs are the leaders of the revolution. It doesn’t take long before the pigs resemble the human masters and actually become worse.

Don’t ask from God what you can already get from Pharaoh.

In 1953 at the beginning of his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower gave this speech, A Chance of Peace. This is a speech with some interesting parallels to the Lord’s warning to Samuel. He said:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that come with this spring of 1953.

This is one of those times in the affairs of nations when the gravest choices must be made, if there is to be a turning toward a just and lasting peace.

It is a moment that calls upon the governments of the world to speak their intentions with simplicity and with honesty.

It calls upon them to answer the questions that stirs the hearts of all sane men: is there no other way the world may live?

Eight years later, in 1961, the year of my birth, Dwight Eisenhower gave his last speech to the American people. In that speech he spoke of the change that had taken place in America from World War 2 to his present. The beast had grown in his eight years as president. He said:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

He went on to say:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Eisenhower saw, even as he was part of it, the price of protection. The price in misplaced power. The price of misused resources. The price of lives lost. The price always goes up, never down. The price has increased since 1961.

We don’t have a king in the United States. We do have a complex. The military industrial complex, which was Eisenhower’s phrase, is mammoth.

I suppose folks might think I am meddling. But Presbyterians have always been meddlers. With a half-smile I say I am just reading the Bible. Since it is the 4th of July weekend what better time?

Of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence, only one was a clergyperson. His name was John Witherspoon. He was a Presbyterian minister. The king of England disparaged the revolution in the colonies by calling it “that Presbyterian rebellion. The colonies,” he said, “Have run off with a Presbyterian parson.”

This congregation, the founding of which we date by best guess to 1782 had its roots with another Presbyterian clergyman, Samuel Doak, who mustered a militia at Fort Watauga for the march to King’s Mountain.

How times have changed between then and now. A muster of farmers and mountain people gathering with their muskets to fight for independence has become a military empire with bases in virtually every nation on Earth.

How we became that way is not unlike how the tribal confederacy in Samuel’s time became an empire under Solomon. It happened in about the same length of time that it took the United States to move from a collection of militias to a world superpower. They like us wanted a king. They wanted someone to “go out before us and fight our battles.”

I say these things on this day not to sound shrill or pious, but to ask, at what price? At what cost? Eisenhower said that the only way to keep this military industrial complex in check will be for the people to be aware. He said:

Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Most Americans don’t even know what is going on let alone evaluate options. While the American military is fighting two wars, the American people are at the mall. Most are afraid of uttering any criticism for fear of being labeled as unpatriotic. We think our prosperity depends upon not asking the hard questions. The protection for which we pay also provides the luxuries we enjoy.

I included this poem from Robinson Jeffers as a reading today because of this stanza:

And you, America, that passion made you. You were not born to prosperity, you were born to love freedom.

You did not say “en masse” you said “independence.” But we cannot have all the luxuries and freedom also.

Bruce Springsteen put it more bluntly:

The TV, the cars, the houses, that’s not the American Dream. Those are the booby prizes, the consolation prizes for the not careful, for selling yourself, for believing this is the end in and for itself, for being suckered in.

Did we get what we wanted? Has the dream of the king reached the prophetic conclusion that we find in 1 Samuel?

And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

Are we past the point of no return? Or is there still time for a new dream? Some have said that it is time not to celebrate Independence Day but Inter-dependence Day.

Maybe we don’t have as many enemies and threats to security as we think. Maybe we have neighbors with different languages, religions, cultures, and philosophies who are just as scared as we are. Perhaps it is time to move beyond protecting our interests to protecting a future for our descendants, all of our descendants, all over Earth.

I see signs of this new dream. It starts small. But there is a voice for lasting peace. There is a voice for sustainability. There is a voice for simplicity. It is small. You can barely hear it. But it is there. It is the sound of consciousness being raised. It is the sound of hard questions being asked. It is the sound of so-called inevitabilities being challenged.

It is the voice of those, some of whom are even Presbyterian, who are saying we can do better. We can end this nonsense, this madness. In all the profound religious stories and mythologies, the unexpected happens. The small boy defeats the giant. The word of the wise woman confounds the king. The starved prophet changes minds and hearts.

In the story in Samuel, the people of Israel made a mistake. They opted for security over freedom. They asked from God what they already could get from Pharaoh. Perhaps Americans made that same decision. But bad decisions do not last forever.

There is time to awaken and to start again.