Sunday, October 25, 2009

Trusting and Shouting (10/25/09)

Trusting and Shouting
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 25th, 2009
Reformation Sunday

Jeremiah 31:7-9
Mark 10:46-52

Be quiet!

Shut up!

No one wants to hear you!

You are disturbing our peace!

Go back in the closet!

You are the reason the church is losing members!

You are embarrassing us!

Just be patient, and be quiet while you’re patient!

But Bartimaeus cried out even more loudly, 

‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’

We don’t use the word mercy that much anymore. It is one of those words that sounds like a Bible word. It sounds like a church word or a religious word. A more modern sounding word that means the same thing is compassion.

You can imagine Bartimaeus shouting:

“Son of David, how about little compassion here!”


“Son of David! What do you say? Have a heart!”

Or even,

“Son of David! A little help, huh?”

Or simply,

“Son of David! I need justice!”

Whether we say mercy, compassion, heart, help, justice or something else, it is what we are about as human beings. We even project all of these characteristics on the symbol “God,” because these virtues are that important.

The measure of the human life is to have a heart.

We are always in danger of losing our heart, as individuals or as a society.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us:

A society, any society, will be judged not by
the net worth of its wealthiest citizens,
the height of its skyscrapers,
the choices in its supermarkets,
or the size of its military,
but by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens.

It will be judged--we will be judged--by those who follow us as to whether or not we had a heart.

When we are danger of losing our heart, we lose our humanity. When we look through human history in those times that were the darkest and in those regimes that were the most oppressive, we find that they shared a common characteristic. They lacked heart. They lacked compassion, justice, and mercy.

We lose our heart when we replace it with some kind of ideology or economy or political theory or just plain greed and indifference. We are in danger of losing our heart today.

This story about Jesus in the gospel of Mark is about heart. It is the last healing miracle by Jesus. Following this story, Mark moves into Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. This story can be seen as a judgment on a society that has lost its heart.

On the side of the road is a vulnerable person. Blind and without resources. So he begs. He hears Jesus coming and he calls out to him. The people order him to be quiet.

“Sternly” is the word in English. It was used just a few verses earlier when people brought children to him and his disciples spoke “sternly” to them. Jesus rebuked the disciples and said bring the children to me.

We shouldn’t get romantic about children here. This isn’t a gathering for the children’s sermon. The word for child is the same for slave. The sense of Jesus blessing the children is Jesus blessing the vulnerable. To be “like a child” is to be vulnerable, without resources.

We meet a society that wants to keep the vulnerable hidden. Quiet and out of the way. Then we can say, “Nothing wrong here. We are the greatest nation in the world.” Not only do we keep the vulnerable unseen and quiet, we keep our own vulnerability hidden. “Nothing wrong with me. I am just fine.”

That is what we find throughout the Gospel of Mark. Jesus gathers and blesses the vulnerable. Again and again. Those with nothing, those on the margins, and those who are willing to be with those on the margins, are those who follow Jesus.

But unlike those who sternly tell Bartimaeus to be quiet, Jesus calls him. He asks Bartimaeus what he wants. He says he wants to see again. Jesus says to him: “Your trust has made you well.” He immediately regains his sight and “he followed him on the way.”

This is a happy story, isn’t it? Bartimaeus is a happy guy. He doesn’t have anything. No possessions. He is happy. He is “well” which is another word for saved or whole.

A couple of weeks ago we talked about the story of the guy who had lots of possessions. By the way, that guy doesn’t have a name. The Gospels do that. The rich guy whose name everyone would know doesn’t get a name in the Gospel account. The guy who normally would be nameless, the blind beggar on the side of the road, has a name, in this case, Bartimaeus.

It is a subtle way the gospels communicate importance and value. Who is first in Jesus’ upside down kingdom? Each of the gospels, each in its own way, is about criticizing the values of Empire and turning upside down and inside out that what we think is important.

The rich guy comes to Jesus and wants to know how to be happy, fulfilled, whatever. Jesus tells him to unload the stuff and follow him. He cannot do that. He leaves sad because he has too much stuff.

He is sad and has stuff. Bartimaeus has nothing and he is happy. The rich guy cannot follow.  Bartimaeus does follow. Sad rich guy. Happy poor guy. I don’t know what the lesson is. That is just what the story says.

I think the story says more. It isn’t simply a critique of class. It isn’t about wealth and poverty as much as what wealth and poverty mean. It is about honor and shame.

This is how the story can touch us.

Bartimaeus lives in darkness. If anything symbolizes the via negativa it is a blind man sitting alone outside the gates of the city, begging, in the dark. To make matters worse, he wasn’t blind from birth. He once had sight. He lost it. Now he is vulnerable. He is broken. He knows shame.

In Matthew Fox’s latest book, The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors for the Sacred Masculine, he writes a lot about shame. At one point he does an interview with psychiatrist John Conger. This is what John Conger writes about shame:
When I teach my introductory class and tell my students they might risk themselves, I tell them that there is no growth without shame. Shame is about self-awareness, so you grow and look back at yourself and say, “O my God, I did that!” and you feel ashamed. Shame has this double edge—it can attack and destroy the self. You feel so horrible about yourself that you feel you are going crazy; it can destroy your sense of self if your sense of self is weak….it is part of growth to find out how to manage your shame….and not hide it or disclaim it….Jesus represents the embodiment of shame into the human spirit. It’s like God is made present in shame….Jesus gives shame a good name, and it makes it part of one’s brokenness rather than one’s honor, and this leads to one’s development.” Pp. 100-1
Shame is a key to reading this story.

First we have the rich man who cannot give up his possessions, his ego. He cannot risk the vulnerability. He will not let loose of the protection that he has built around himself to keep down the shame. He has done everything right. He is a good citizen. Why does he bother coming to Jesus in the first place? Obviously something is missing. He knows he wants to grow.

How do I grow is what he is asking Jesus. Jesus tells him to become vulnerable. Be vulnerable. Go through it. Enter it. Grieve. Weep. Face the loss. Face what it means to be human. Embrace your pain. Don’t bury it under the trappings of success. The human being underneath all the stuff is loved. You need to love that person.

But he cannot.

The promise of Jesus is that there is life after brokenness. You can find your soul. There is crucifixion then resurrection. Through the brokenness, you can find yourself. You can grow through the shame. In fact, you cannot grow without shame. You cannot grow without the via negativa.

Second we have Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus has faced the darkness. He is in it. But he is not through it. How does he get through it? He does the very thing that makes us cringe. He brings further shame on himself by calling attention to himself.

“Jesus, Son of David! Have mercy on me!”

Everyone tells him,

“Be quiet! You are embarrassing yourself! You’re shaming yourself. You are shaming us! Hide your shame! Don’t display it! Suffer in silence, like you are supposed to. Have you no pride?”

That is a funny phrase isn’t it? Have you no pride? Pride in an honor/shame society means to suffer in silence as if that is a virtue. That is what society has been telling him. That is what it means to live in an honor/shame society. You are ashamed and you are ashamed of being ashamed. You are quiet about it. You stay hidden so you don’t shame the rest of the world who is supposedly better than you.

What does beautiful Bartimaeus do?

“But he cried out even more loudly.”

He calls further attention to himself. He lets go of the last thing he has left, any sense of pride, as pride has been defined in a honor/shame system. He has learned in his darkness that he is not interested in suffering in silence any longer. He is vulnerable and he calls attention to his own vulnerability.

As such Bartimaeus is our hero, because he calls attention to the vulnerability of society itself. He calls to question all of our values, our honor our shame.

He comes out of his closet, so to speak, and risks all the ridicule and all the uncertainty, and says, no he shouts:

“How about a little compassion, here? How about a little justice, here?”

Jesus praises it. Jesus praises breaking the silence. He asks him what he wants and Bartimaeus says he wants to see again. And Jesus says,

“Your faith/your trust has made you well.”

The story on a symbolic level has to do with Bartimaeus healing himself, getting insight, sight from blindness. The way of letting go, the via negativa is not about nursing our pain or wallowing in our pain, or ignoring our pain. It is about embracing it so we get through it.

Then Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way.

The story of Mark’s Gospel and particularly the story of Bartimaeus, as seen through the way of letting go, is the story of being able to sit in the darkness, to grieve, to know the emptiness, to embrace our own shame, to befriend our vulnerability, and then to name it, to call it out. To shout it out.

Bartimaeus is our hero. He represents the courage and the love of self that is so powerful that it trusts and hopes enough to shout.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Can You Drink the Cup? (10/18/09)

Can You Drink the Cup?
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
October 18th, 2009
Isaiah 54:4-12
Mark 10:35-45

One image for the spiritual life is to drink the cup. In all its complexity and ambiguity, in all of its richness and its depth, to drink the cup is to experience life fully. We toast with a cup. We celebrate with it, “To life!” The cup is a symbol for the via positiva, the celebration of life, joy, beauty, royalty. We drink the cup at weddings, graduations, and celebrations of all kinds.

To drink the cup of joy is a sacred thing. It is a holy thing. It is to acknowledge the awesome, joyful mystery of being alive. To share the cup with a friend is to celebrate divinity within each other. We need to do it and do it often so we can remember how precious life is.

We need to play, sing, dance and enjoy life and one another. Our calendars, whether religious or secular, move from feast to feast. It is how we mark time from celebration to celebration, from one cup to the next.

But when Jesus asks James and John: “Can you drink the cup?” he is talking about a different cup. In a sense it is the same cup. It is the cup of life. It is the cup of the holy and the sacred. It is the cup of reality. It is the cup of what is. But this cup is not the cup of joy, celebration, beauty, and accomplishment. This is a cup of sorrow and pain. This is the cup of loss, emptiness, and letting go.

It is also a shared cup. To be human is also to share our cup of sorrows. As the passage in today’s reading ends, Jesus says to his fellow cup drinkers: “the human being came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for the ransom of many.”

James and John get a hint of the via positiva. They know the end of the story of victory, celebration, and royalty. It is in that spirit that they ask to be seated at the anointed one’s right hand in glory. Before they experience that they will need to drink the cup of letting go.

It is an odd exchange Jesus has with them. They ask if they can be seated at his right and left hand. They want to be in the place of honor--of privilege and entitlement. Jesus responds to this request with a question of his own: “Can you drink the cup?” and “Can you be baptized with the same baptism as the one I was baptized with?”

With the confidence of those who have no idea what they are talking about, in the naivete of those who “do not know what they are asking” they say, “Oh yes we can do that.” Jesus replies, “Yes you will drink the cup and be baptized with my baptism.” In other words:
“You will let go. You will drink the cup. It may not be until your death, but eventually you will let go.” And then Jesus says, “but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
I have often wondered what that meant. He could have said that at the beginning in answer to their question.

“Can we sit at your right and left hand?”
“It is not mine to grant.”

So why does Jesus ask them if they can drink the cup? The lesson here is that the glory cannot be separated from the shame. Neither can the fullness from the emptiness, the light from the dark, the receiving from the giving, and the joy from the sorrow. The via negativa is in a perpetual dance with the via positiva.

In order to live authentically we need to learn how to drink the cup of letting go and letting be.  We need to learn how to embrace our sorrow, pain, limitations, vulnerability, and emptiness. It is part of life. If we run from it, hide from it, deny, or ignore it, we will cheat ourselves from experiencing the sacred and the holy.

The cup occurs twice more in Mark’s gospel. At the supper, Jesus took a cup and gave it to them and all of them drank from it. Then just before his arrest, Jesus prayed that the Holy One would take the cup from him, and then added, “Not my will but yours.”

One of the best books on the via negativa --the way of letting go and letting be-- is the last book written by Henri Nouwen. Father Nouwen, a Dutch priest, died about 12 years ago. He wrote a number of books on spirituality. I was looking for his book, Can You Drink the Cup?based on this passage in Mark to help me with this sermon. I couldn’t find it. I picked this book off the shelf in my Nouwen collection. It is called Adam: God’s Beloved.

In the last years of his life, Nouwen was the pastor of the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto, Canada. This is a community for mentally handicapped. He had been the community’s pastor for about ten years.

Nouwen was going to write a book about the Apostle’s Creed and what it might mean for contemporary people, when his best friend, Adam Arnett died. Adam was severely handicapped. He couldn’t speak. He was gripped by seizures. He lived his life in obscurity. He was the first person who Henri cared for when he came to L’Arche community.

After Adam died, Father Nouwen decided to write about Adam instead of the Apostle’s Creed. This is Nouwen’s last book. He never quite finished it. A year after Adam died, Father Nouwen also died. Adam: God’s Beloved was published after Father Nouwen’s death.

It is interesting that Father Nouwen, a famous author and teacher of theology and spirituality, would spend ten years of his life as the pastor of a facility for the mentally handicapped. From that experience he wrote one of his most touching books about the life of Adam who for Father Nouwen became the Christ. This book about Adam is told in the framework of Christ’s life.

Adam was the first person Father Nouwen cared for when he came to L’Arche Community. Henri was given the task of getting Adam ready for the day. Henri writes:
Helping Adam meant waking him up at 7:00 A.M., taking off his pajamas and dressing him in a bathrobe, walking him to the bathroom, shaving his beard, giving him a bath, choosing clothes for the day, dressing him, combing his hair, walking with him to the kitchen, making his breakfast, sitting close beside him as he ate his breakfast, supporting his glass as he drank, brushing his teeth, putting on his coat, gloves, and cap, getting him into his wheelchair, and pushing him over the pothole-rich road to his Daybreak day program, where he would spend the day until 4:00 pm. P. 41
He couldn’t figure out why he was asked to care for Adam. Adam was one of the most needy.  Henri had no experience. It took two hours of his day. When he asked he was told, “So you can get to know Adam.” Even as Adam could not speak, Henri had to learn how Adam was communicating with him. If he ever rushed Adam, perhaps pushed his arms through his sleeves too quickly so he could get on with the business of the day, Adam would respond. Henri writes:
He let me know that I wasn’t being really present to him and was more concerned about my schedule than about his. A few times when I was so pushy he responded by having a grand mal seizure, and I realized that it was his way of saying, “Slow down, Henri! Slow down.” Well, it certainly slowed me down! A seizure so completely exhausted him that I had to stop everything I was doing and let him rest. Sometimes if it was a bad one, I brought him back to his bed and covered him with many blankets to keep him from shivering violently. Adam was communicating with me, and he was consistent in reminding me that he wanted and needed me to be with him unhurriedly and gently. He was clearly asking me if I was willing to follow his rhythm and adapt my ways to his needs. I found myself beginning to understand a new language, Adam’s language. P. 47.
In caring for Adam, Father Nouwen discovered that Adam was his teacher. He wondered what Adam thought about things. What sense of self-awareness did he have? Did he think about God? Could he pray? He writes:

And while I, the so-called “normal” person, kept wondering how much Adam was like me, he had no ability or need to make comparisons. He simply lived and by his life invited me to receive his unique gift, wrapped in weakness but given for my transformation. While I tended to worry about what I did and how much I could produce, Adam was announcing to me that “being is more important than doing.” While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that “doing things together is more important than doing things alone.” Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy. But by his very life, he was the most radical witness of the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered. P. 55-6.
Father Nouwen wrote that Adam, like Jesus, had a public ministry. People would come to Daybreak and were affected by Adams’s beautiful, silent presence. Henri writes:
Adam was a true teacher and a true healer. Most of his healing was inner healing that announced peace, courage, joy, and freedom to those who often were hardly able to acknowledge their wounds. Adam, by his eyes and by his presence, said to us, “Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to run away from your pain. Look at me,, be close to me, and you will discover that you are God’s beloved child, just as I am.” P. 65.
Father Nouwen in this beautiful book about Adam, realized that Adam drank the cup. Adam suffered. His life was one of suffering. Father Nouwen calls it Adam’s passion. The greatest aspect of his suffering or his passion may have been that he could never tell anyone what was bothering him. His life was dependence upon others. He was acted upon. He made no decisions about his own life. Others decided for him. He was in many ways, like the Christ, who fulfilled his mission, not by doing great things, but by letting go, by giving himself as a ransom for many.

Adam lived in total dependency. Henri writes:
He seemed deeply resigned to it, totally given into the hands of others, radiating light and peace in his utter weakness….Adam’s passion for me was a profound prophetic witness. His life and especially his passion radically criticized those of us who give ourselves to the norms of a society driven by individualism, materialism, and sensationalism. Adam’s total dependence made it possible for him to live fully only if we lived in a loving community around him. His great teaching to us was, “I can only live if you surround me with love and if you love one another. Otherwise, my life is useless and I am a burden.” Adam clearly challenged us to trust that compassion, not competition, is the way to fulfill our human vocation.” P. 90.
When Jesus asks James and John, “Can you drink the cup?” he is not scolding them. He is teaching and inviting. He is asking them, “Can you be vulnerable? Can you let go of your success, your ambition, your illusion of independence? Can you accept who you are outside of your accomplishments? Can you love yourself and others as you are loved, as God’s beloved?

Can you drink the cup? Can you let yourself be dependent upon the love and compassion of others? Life isn’t so much what we have done. It is mostly how we respond to what is done to us. We like to think that we are in control. But most of our lives are spent dependent upon others. Not just childhood or old age. The pews we are sitting on were constructed by others.  Everything we eat, where we sleep, all we do is connected with everything else.

We are not individually made or sustained. The Adams of our lives teach us that. If we are wise we learn from them. It is in times of loss that we realize how quaint are our concerns. When circumstances force us to let go, to drink the cup is to be conscious about where we are in our lives and who we are.

“Can you drink the cup?” is a question of invitation. It is invitation to be here now, in the present, with one another, with ourselves, with Earth, with life, without pretense or presupposition.

To drink the cup is in the words of Father Henri Nouwen:
“To choose to give our love when we are strong and to receive the love of others when we are weak, always with tranquility and generosity.” P. 94.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Stuff (10/11/09)

John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
October 11th, 2009

So the rich guy comes up to Jesus and asks him what it takes to make it to heaven. That is kind of an otherworldly way of saying, “What is the meaning of life?” Or “What is the key to happiness?”

Jesus looks at him and says,
“This stuff is written in books. What does your book say? Doesn’t your book say don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t defraud, don’t lie, be nice to your parents. You know, the usual.”

The rich guy says,
“Yeah, I have done all that. I am a good guy. I am an ethical person. I work hard hard. I am nice to everyone. In fact, life has been good. I have realized the dream of a good life. But something is missing. I still haven’t found what I am looking for.”

Jesus believes him. And he says,
“Well there is one more thing. Sell what you have, give it to the poor, and follow me. Join me and my merry band and we’ll travel the countryside with nothing but a song in our hearts. We will sleep in the open, greet the morning sun, howl at the moon, take no care for what we will eat or wear or where we will sleep. Nature herself will be our Mama. It will be the great adventure of life. C’mon! What do you say?”

The rich guy shakes his head and said, “Hmmm. I don’t think so.” He goes on his way, bummed out, because he

Remember George Carlin and his wonderful bit on “Stuff?
“That's all I want, that's all you need in life, is a little place for your stuff, ya know? I can see it on your table, everybody's got a little place for their stuff. This is my stuff, that's your stuff, that'll be his stuff over there. That's all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That's all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house. You could just walk around all the time.

A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you're taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody's got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn't want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you're saving. They don’t want your fourth grade math homework. All they want is the shiny stuff. That's what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff!
After the rich guy leaves, Jesus notices that he has before him a “teaching moment.” And he says to his disciples,
“It is tough for people with stuff to be happy.”

And they are perplexed. That didn’t make any sense.

Jesus keeps going. He says,
“It is easier for a camel to squeeze through an eye of a sewing needle than it is for a person who has too much stuff to be at peace with herself."
The disciples say to themselves, “No way” (because that is the opposite of what they learned in capitalism school). They say to Jesus,
“Who then can possibly be whole, happy, content, and at peace?”
Jesus says,
“Anything is possible in this universe. There are many paths to peace, but collecting too much stuff isn’t one of them.”
Peter says,
“We have left all of our stuff and followed you! Why are we still so ornery, miserable, and confused?”
Jesus says,
“It isn’t enough just to let go of stuff. That is only the beginning. It doesn’t help to be miserable while doing it or thinking that doing it is some great sacrifice. When we let go of clinging to our stuff we actually receive much more, 100 times more! When we give up clinging to our stuff we realize that all is ours. We all have enough. Earth has enough for everyone. Enough to share and to spare. When we let go of our hoarding we will see that. That is the good life I am talking about. A new age is dawning. It is a complete reversal of what we think is normal.”
The disciples weren’t quite sure about all of that, but they decide to keep following him anyway.

Jesus had more to say about money and stuff than any other topic, except perhaps the kingdom or queendom of God. But even this kingdom/queendom/realm of God about which he spoke was primarily about how human beings are to relate to one another and share the blessings of Earth. In short, how we manage stuff.

Michael Moore in his film, Capitalism: A Love Story inserts a scene in which he takes clips from the film Jesus of Nazareth. He dubs capitalist phrases onto Jesus’ lips:

“Blessed are those who increase their market share.”
It is funny because we know that Jesus was nothing like that. The stories about Jesus show a disdain for profit-making and for the accumulation of wealth.
  • “Sell what you have. Give it to the poor and follow me.”
  • “Blessed are you poor” and “Woe to you who are rich!”
  • Even his mother said, “God has sent the rich away empty and has filled the poor with good things.”
Yet much of what passes for Christianity today ignores Jesus’ powerful, profound, and insistent critique of economic injustice. I suppose that illustrates the power that stuff and the fear of not having enough stuff has over us.

This was in the Chicago Sun-Times in December 2006:
The richest 2 percent of adults still owns more than half of the world's household wealth, perpetuating a yawning global gap between rich and poor....

The report from the Helsinki-based World Institute for Development Economics Research shows that in 2000 the richest 1 percent of adults -- most of whom live in Europe or the United States -- owned 40 percent of global assets.

The richest 10 percent of adults accounted for 85 percent of assets, the report said.

By contrast, the bottom 50 percent of the world's adult population owned barely 1 percent of the world's wealth.
It is also true that if every person on Earth possessed as much stuff as the average American, we would need five planets worth of stuff to keep up with the demand. In essence Earth does not have enough stuff to keep everyone at the level at which most of us are accustomed.

We realize that at some point something has to give. It is obvious that we need to change. We know that. We don’t know how. We become anxious, suspicious, competitive, or depressed.

I have been reading some speculative fiction. These are novels about our future. They are forecasts of what life will be like if we keep going as we are going. Margaret Atwood has just published, The Year of the Flood. This is the second of her trilogy. The first was entitled, Oryx and Crake. It is genetic engineering run amok among other things.

In one scene, after the waterless flood in which a plague finally diminishes humanity, one of the characters, Toby, who happens to survive reflects:
Surely I was an optimistic person back then, she thinks. Back there. I woke up whistling. I knew there were things wrong in the world, they were referred to, I’d seen them in the onscreen news. But the wrong things were wrong somewhere else.

By the time she’d reached college, the wrongness had moved closer. She remembers the oppressive sensation, like waiting all the time for a heavy stone footfall, then the knock at the door. Everybody knew. Nobody admitted to knowing. If other people began to discuss it, you tuned them out, because what they were saying was both so obvious and so unthinkable.

We’re using up the Earth. It’s almost gone. You can’t live with such fears and keep on whistling. The waiting builds up in you like a tide. You start wanting it to be done with. You find yourself saying to the sky, Just do it. Do your worst. Get it over with. She could feel the coming tremor of it running through her spine, asleep or awake. It never went away… p. 239
The gospels were composed at a time when the known world had collapsed. The temple was destroyed and Jerusalem burned. Jesus appeared just before that. All of what Jesus is recorded to have said and done is in this context of change. His advice to prepare for this change is quite simple:

Let go. As opposed to attempting to secure your future by hoarding and worrying, do the opposite. Give and trust.

Practice giving. If someone wants your coat, give him your shirt too. If someone wants you to carry a pack for a mile, carry it for two. Give it away. Give yourself away.

This is the spiritual path of cleaning house, of letting go and letting be that is so necessary right now. The world is changing. Of course it is. The universe has been changing for 13.7 billion years. That is what it does. What Jesus was telling the guy with the stuff who was anxious about doing it right, you know, living life correctly, was to lighten up. Lighten up. Loosen up. Give it up.

Like you I watch the news and listen to the pundits. The intensity is overwhelming. There is a frantic desire to continue the status quo, as in the words of the first President George Bush:The American way of life is non-negotiable. Well, silly, of course it is. In a changing world you negotiate or you don’t survive.

How much suffering is brought upon ourselves and others when we prop up a status quo that is not sustainable?

What do we do? We breathe. We recognize that life is short and wild. It is amazing that we are alive at all. It is amazing that we are alive at this time. There will come a time when we are not on this Earth. Regardless of what we might believe about what happens to our consciousness after we breathe our last, nevertheless, at some point each of us will breathe her or his last here.

That is liberating. That means we are on borrowed time. It is all free. All we have to do is to live it. Since nothing is permanent there is no need to desire permanence. That desire does nothing but cause anxiety and suffering. We can let it go. We can let it be.

Jesus’ advice to the rich guy could be his advice to each of us if we will hear it. Give it away. Let whatever has come to us flow through us to others. Let it go. Let it be. Be a blessing.

We could say whoever dies with the most stuff wins. We could say that. We could live like that.

Or we can say whoever dies after giving the most away wins.

I think when we look through history, we will find that the people
  • we have most admired,
  • that we think have brought the most blessing to a hurting world,
  • who have been the most at peace with themselves and with others
are those who lived by the second philosophy.

Whoever gives the most away wins.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Open Table (10/4/09 World Communion)

Open Table
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 4th, 2009
World Communion Sunday

Genesis 2:18-24
Mark 10:2-16

The sermon theme today is letting go of the need to be a busybody.

Of course, I know that none of you are busybodies. But your friends might be. You can pass this sermon on to them.

Busybodies, fusspots, and scolds do their best to make life difficult for others. The modus operandi of the busybody is to try to look good by making others look bad. Busybodies are masters at downplaying their own shortcomings and elevating the shortcomings of others. Some do it under the pious guise of wanting to hear God’s Word and follow God’s will. These godly busybodies enjoy finding passages in the Bible that condemn the supposed sins of others. It is important for busybodies to find sins that other people commit that the busybodies themselves do not.

Abortion and homosexuality are for many busybodies their bread and butter. It used to be divorce. But now that so many busybodies are divorced or have been divorced, they don’t go after that one quite so zealously. But divorced busybodies, if they didn’t learn anything from that experience, are as busily bodied as ever in making sure you know that they are better than you.

In the Gospels, the Pharisees are the archetypal busybodies. It should be noted that the Gospels were not fair to the Pharisees. If you go to a synagogue and talk to the local Rabbi, he or she will tell you that the gospel portrait of the Pharisees is one dimensional. The gospel writers used the Pharisees as a literary foil for Jesus.

In actuality, the Pharisees are the precursors to the rabbis of today. They kept the narrative, the traditions, and the teachings. They were the scholars and the leaders. Many of the sayings of Jesus were originally spoken by Pharisees such as Hillel. We know the famous story regarding Hillel. He was asked by a scoffer to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot. He said: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others." Sounds like Jesus.

The Gospel writers typecast the Pharisees as narrow-minded, sneaky, petulant busybodies. In the story, these busybodies come to Jesus to test him. They want to trap him. They want to mess with him. They want to discredit him and if they are lucky, make him suffer the same fate as John the Baptist. John the Baptist, as you know, lost his head.

John was beheaded because of divorce. Herod’s wife, Herodias, had been the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. She divorced Philip and married Herod. John the Baptist told Herod that he had broken Jewish law by doing that. Some might say John the Baptist was being a busybody. Could be. Herod had John the Baptist put in prison.

At one of Herod’s parties, Herod’s step-daughter, that is the daughter of Herodias (who was formerly Herod’s brother’s wife, but who now his wife) does a dance for him. Herod and the guests are so impressed that Herod promises her anything she wants including half his kingdom. The daughter asks her mother, Herodias, what she should ask for. Her mother replies famously: “the head of John the Baptizer.”

There you go: political intrigue, scandal, and naughtiness in high places. And that, good people, is how the wealthy elite get a head.

Not long after this incident the Pharisees come calling. They ask Jesus about divorce.

The busybodies who are asking Jesus about divorce are not asking him because they really want to know. They don’t want to learn anything. They know the law. Jesus knows they know. It is a test. It is a question that no matter how he answers he will look bad to somebody.

The Pharisees could read as well as Jesus. They know what is written in Deuteronomy chapter 24. For entertainment value you might read the book of Deuteronomy. It will take about an hour.

Before we discover what the book of Deuteronomy says about divorce, we might check what it has to say about other important topics. You will get advice on how to treat a rebellious son:
“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.” -- Deuteronomy 21:18-21
After you conquer your neighboring suburb in battle, Deuteronomy offers counsel on what to do with the women.
“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house for a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.” -- Deuteronomy 21:10-14
Multiple choice: When you mow the lawn, what following pairs of animals are not allowed to pull the lawnmower?

a) Two oxen.
b) Two donkeys.
c) One ox and one donkey.

Deuteronomy chapter 22 verse 10 has the answer. C.
10 You shall not plough (or mow the lawn) with an ox and a donkey yoked together.
That is followed by verse 11:

“You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together.”

If any of you are wearing mixed fabrics would you undress now, please. We are in God’s house. If you insist on keeping your clothes on, no communion for you.

It is within the literary and historical and cultural context of Deuteronomy that we find this eternal wisdom, and the teaching on divorce which goes like this:
“Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.” – Deuteronomy 24:1-4
The busybodies tell Jesus that this is the law on divorce. From the perspective of Deuteronomy, women are the property of men. In other words say the busybodies: 

“We men can divorce our women on a whim, send them out with nothing, and be righteous observers of the law while doing it.”
Jesus tells the busybodies that the reason Moses gave them this option is because people lack compassion.

Jesus says that ideally it isn’t like that. He quotes from Genesis: God made human beings. They grow up. They move out of their parents’ basements. They get married and they live happily ever after. That is the ideal.

Jesus is not offering new, severe, judgmental rules. Jesus’ message is to the busybodies,
“Don’t even pretend to think you are holier than thou. If you think you can find a loophole that gives you divine permission to discard another human being, think again.”
A lifelong, happy marriage is the ideal. But you know, it doesn’t always happen like that. Marriage is important. Those of us in helping professions whether we are counselors, educators, ministers, and legislators, try to help people in their relationships. At times it helps.

But life is complicated. Life is messy. Far too often, life is downright ugly. Why in the midst of woundedness and brokenness would some want to make it even worse for others by denying them, for example, access to Christ’s table?

Busybodies will also use the words of Jesus here against gay, lesbian, and transgender people. “God made them male and female.” Which they interpret as meaning, God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. Ha ha ha. Tell me if you are tired of hearing that one yet.

These same busybodies will work in the name of their religion to deny happiness as well as rights and protections to other human beings. As if Jesus would really be like that.

As far as I can tell, the Jesus who speaks to me from the Gospels is a Jesus who is all about treating people with compassion, fairness, and hospitality. He had little patience with busybodies and with those who twisted laws to justify their mistreatment of others.

Life in Spirit as Jesus saw it and announced it, was not about never making a mistake. It was not about being perfect. For those poor souls who think life is about trying to be perfect, the best they will do is put on a mask and pretend. Trying to bury and conceal woundedness takes a lot of energy. As does trying to project it on others. Life in Spirit is about owning one’s woundedness. It is about forgiving ourselves and others. It is about getting up each day and starting again.

I am not much of a believer in original sin. I do, however, affirm original woundedness. We are all wounded and we carry these wounds. If we don’t bring them to consciousness, name them, and honor them, we will wound others and ourselves even more. We will continue to wound, generation after generation.

During communion, the celebrant lifts the bread in front of the congregation and breaks it. It is a visual symbolic act. A symbolic act is rich with meaning. The action itself means more than what words can convey. When I as celebrant break the bread and simultaneously as congregant witness the bread being broken, I acknowledge my own woundedness.

We are all broken. In the breaking of the bread we are confronted with that at once painful and liberating truth. We are all broken, wounded. That is our common bond.

We are broken in our interpersonal relationships.
We are broken in our individual psyches.
We are broken in our communities.
We are broken in our nation.
We are broken in our global family.
We are broken in our relationship with Earth and with all living things.

The way of letting go and letting be is to let go of the need to keep nursing our particular manifestation of brokenness, our favorite wound. We can let go of the need to blame others for it, to feel ashamed about it, or to demand redress from someone (or society or God) for it.

Paradoxically, when we give up control of our woundedness, we are liberated from the control the wound has over us. We can only truly let go, that is forgive, when we realize that we have no right or power to forgive. Forgiveness only comes when we recognize that our woundedness is connected with that of others.

We are all wounded and broken including the busybodies, fusspots, and scolds. Forgiveness is the experience of being lucky enough to shrug and smile at the busybodies, including the busybody that is us.

As the bread is broken and the wine is poured all over the world today, may we and all living things receive the blessings we need. We are not alone. The bread and wine is for all of Earth, all of wounded Earth and all of its life. The bread and wine is for all of our broken, wounded and wonderful sisters and brothers.

Funny, silly, blessed busybodies all.