Sunday, November 29, 2009

Expecting (11/29/09)

John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 29th, 2009
First Sunday of Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36


I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.
--Sylvia Plath

Twice in three Sundays we are faced with the apocalyptic Jesus. I would normally skip over this ancient superstition, but since I am following the lectionary, here we are. As I spent time talking about the apocalyptic two weeks ago, I will refer you to that sermon, Embracing Change. It was based on Mark 13. Luke 21 is a rewrite of Mark 13.

Here is my short version explanation of this text in Mark and its parallels in Matthew and Luke:

This refers to an historical event that is long gone, the destruction of the temple and the burning of Jerusalem that happened in 66-70 CE. The gospel authors writing during (or in Luke’s case) after the event put on the lips of Jesus who lived 40 years before this event a prediction of this event.

If you have interest in this period of time, pick up a copy of Josephus, The Wars of the Jews.

The gospel authors, Mark, Matthew, and Luke all use a combination of apocalyptic imagery and possibly reports of actual events and put it all on the lips of Jesus as if he is predicting it all.

Why would they do that?

By having Jesus predict his own death and his resurrection and having him predict the major political event of the millennium, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans, it provided a sense of hope.
All the stuff that we have been through and are going through is part of the divine scheme, so we shouldn’t get too freaked out about it.
John Hagee, Pat Robertson, the Left Behind authors and all the wild and woolly rapture predictors are misreading the Bible. That is no surprise. Throughout history folks have been poring through the Bible in search of clues to predict “the end.” In times of crisis, both real and perceived, apocalyptic types take center stage and rile up the masses. It is an old trick.

I wonder if there is a psychology behind all of this. I am just playing armchair psychologist but I wonder if it has to do with anxiety on two levels.

1) Anxiety about no end to the universe. It will go on without me.
2) Anxiety about my end. The universe will go on without me.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a divine being, the creator of all, tied up all the loose ends by ending the universe and creating a new one in which each of us (at least the good people) lives forever in it? It would solve the problem of the universe not ending when it should, and of us ending when we shouldn’t.

Hope in that scenario is hope in an endless existence that the creator will provide. I can live through any temporary setback, inconvenience, or hardship, because one day I am going to cross the Jordan and rest on Canaan’s shore.

That is pretty much the theology of Christianity for these past 2000 years.

We would have been fine with that if it hadn’t been for those meddlers, Galileo and Darwin. Galileo uprooted the heavens putting Earth where heaven is supposed to be and heaven where Earth is supposed to be. Darwin uprooted humanity making us closer to the orangutans than to the angels.

Ever since, science has taken us at warp speed away from our superstitious past.

The problem is that science isn’t so helpful in the hope department. A member of our congregation recently told the adult forum that while Richard Dawkins is a fun read, on the death bed he is not a warm fuzzy.

So while we are content, in fact demanding, of what science has given us, it seems we have yet to find meaning and hope in its world.

We have tapped into Earth’s crust and from its oily nectar created a world that neither Jesus nor the Gospel writers could have ever imagined.

The dark side of that is that we use Earth. We call what we use resources. Thus we have reduced ourselves, us wise humans, homo sapiens, created in the image of God, to consumers of resources. That is a demotion. It is not fitting to who we are as human beings nor is it fitting to our responsibility to and to our relationship to Earth and its living beings.

Not only that, but we homo sapiens--wise humans--are making the most unwise decisions. We are not living as though we (that is the human race) are going to be here for a while. We are living as though this Earth is going to be destroyed as part of a divine plan and we are going to be magically transported to a new one.

We are living as though John Hagee, Pat Robertson, and the rapture wackos have won the day. We have handed meaning-making over to them. Their meaning is this:
“Use it up. Let’s get this apocalyptic ball rolling. The sooner the place gets devastated, the sooner the saints get into heaven.”
Even most of my mainline colleagues still think--as far as I can tell--that hope is about getting into heaven when we die. We have not discovered and articulated clearly a theology or a philosophy of hope that centers on Earth as both home and destiny.

Maybe we already are on Canaan’s shore.

Maybe our work should be how to make Canaan a little more heavenly or at least a little less hellish.

Or if we can’t do that, maybe we can hope for peace of mind that accepts our limits.

Maybe we should just admit with Carly Simon that “these are the good old days.”

The Christian season of Advent is rich with metaphor. Its posture is one of waiting. It is the invitation to take a breath or several and wait. Not do. That freaks me out because I want to do.

At our house we do this cruel thing to the animals. We have three dogs now. Every now and then I say, “Treat!” And they get all excited. I get out the bag of treats and they get more excited. Then I go into the living room with the treats and say, “Sit.” They sit. Then I put the treats in front of them, one in front of each. I say, “Wait. Wait.” They look at the treat or they look at me. Finally, I say, “Take it!” The treats are gone.

I don’t know why I do that. Probably some kind of need for power and control I have that I take out on my hapless dogs.

The posture of Advent is waiting. Marvelously agonizing it is. The whole buildup. My daughter told me just recently how much she loved Advent and having the Advent candles be lit in church, one at a time. It helped her as a child to know how many candles were left to light until Christmas.

The waiting is an expectant waiting. One of the symbols of Advent is pregnancy, particularly Mary pregnant with the Christ.

I really like this kind of old fashioned way of putting it: “She’s expecting.” It sounds more mysterious and proper than “She’s pregnant” or “She’s got a bun in the oven.”

She’s expecting. She’s waiting with anticipation. This waiting includes preparation. The waiting cannot be rushed. It won’t happen before its time.

Life is changed for us when we are expecting. We anticipate big changes, a new way of living. We use this time of pregnancy to prepare for a new way of living, for the changes that this new life, literally, this new baby, will bring. Those changes have already begun. We are already starting to live as if this new reality has begun.

Advent waiting is living now as though what is promised is already here. We wait with expectation.

We are also very alert and very present to the present.

It is a time of dreaming what our child will be like and a little anxious worrying if we will be good parents or not, or if we are really ready or not.

(The answers are:
1. the child will be both like you and unlike you;
2. yes you will be fine parents; and
3. no you are not nor will you ever be ready).

A woman expecting, pregnant with possibility, is an image for Advent.

Medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart said:
"What does God do all day long? He gives birth. From the beginning of eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth to the All. God is creating this whole universe, full and entire, in this present moment."
Or we can flip it around. If God is pregnant with the world it is also true as Angela of Foligno said:
"The world is pregnant with God."
And to flip it again, to quote Eckhart once more:
"We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born."
That is the creativity. That is our salvation. To use the ancient words of Luke:
“Your redemption is drawing near.”
Luke wrote his gospel to provide encouragement and comfort. In Luke’s three-tiered universe, redemption was the Son of Man returning on a cloud.

Perhaps for us our redemption is to give birth to the Cosmic Christ. We are to give birth to wisdom, to creativity, to life.

In either case, whichever the metaphor, hope is that the Divine Mystery is close. As anxious as we are about what is happening around us, we are invited to stand up and raise our heads,

--to be human beings.

The way of letting go, the via negativa is letting go of the quick fix. We want to fix things. We want a better world right now. Waiting is a path that asks something of us first. It is a path that says we have some things to learn first.

Wendell Berry is a good poet for Advent.

I will give him the last word:

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill-more of each
than you have-inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your work,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Not Of This World (11/22/09 Cosmic Christ Sunday)

Not Of This World
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 22nd, 2009
Cosmic Christ Sunday

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
John 18:33-37
The Great Turning

If I were the king of the world
Tell you what I'd do
I'd throw away the cars and the bars and the war
Make sweet love to you
Sing it now...
--Hoyt Axton

Today is the final Sunday in the church year. Next Sunday is the beginning of the new church year. Next Sunday will be the First Sunday of Advent. Advent means coming. Advent anticipates the birth of Christ. I think of the birth of Christ or Christmas as symbolizing the Divinity within all of creation. Words for Christmas are birth, creativity, incarnation, the light in the darkness. Advent is a season that proclaims this light is coming and coming soon! The axe is at the root of the tree. It is a season pregnant with promise.

That is how we begin the year. We begin that story next week, in the dark. It is in the darkness, in the via negativa, that the light of creativity will shine.

Christmas is not about the birth of Jesus, the historical person. No one knows anything about that. Christians adopted December 25th for the birth of Christ. At the Winter solstice when in the northern hemisphere the days are short and the nights are long, Christ is born. It is all properly mythological. We aren’t celebrating the birth of an historical person as much as the birth of Christ consciousness. The Cosmic Christ born in us.

I am getting ahead of myself. I’ll talk more about that during Advent and Christmas.

Today is the last Sunday of the year. This is the end of the story. This is the climax, the conclusion, the happy ending. Of course the end doesn’t mean there is nothing left to say. We start again. On this final Sunday of the church year, Christians proclaim that Christ is King.

Let’s mix it up. Christ is Queen. Christ the Goddess is King and Queen. 
We have to shake all that sexism out of us.

Today is a day to honor the royalty. Today is a 
via positiva day in the midst of a via negativa season. It is Cosmic Christ Sunday!

What is Christ the King? What or who is this Cosmic Christ? Perhaps what we should ask is, what does the Cosmic Christ do? The Cosmic Christ inspires us to treat one another like royalty. That is who we are. So none of that, “I’m such a miserable sinner,” stuff. Each of us is a royal being. We honor the Cosmic Christ in each of us.

The Cosmic Christ is known by many names.

I should say a few words about that. When we hear Christ the King we might hear male-dominated Christian extremism.
Our religion is right and yours is wrong. Our god is macho king and yours isn’t.
Let’s put that to rest.

As I see it, to say Christ is King or Jesus is Lord is an ancient Christian way of honoring the highest good, the sweetest song, and the beauty of the universe. It is a way of aligning my own life with the highest values I know and of those I don’t know. I give my life to justice, love, peace, hope, joy, mystery, life, and good tunes. To say Christ is King or Jesus is Lord is to say I want the blessedness of creation to live in me and I open myself to that.

While my default name, my home name for the Royalty of the Universe is Christ or the Cosmic Christ, and that the traditions surrounding Jesus point to and give content to that, I honor other names. Krishna, Buddha, Allah, Great Spirit, and on and on and on are other ways and names for the Mystery in which we all live and move and have our being.

In other words, if the religious symbol, the Cosmic Christ, meant my religion alone is true, then I wouldn’t use the symbol. I don’t think that is what it means.

There is a higher consciousness at work in the universe than my individual ego. I call that consciousness the Christ consciousness or the Cosmic Christ. It is a symbol that is rich with stories, narratives, hymns, practices, liturgy, and art. This symbol points me to a higher level of awareness. The Cosmic Christ invites me to become more aware, more conscious, to embody the higher values, to become a human being.

I want to experience a little bit more than I do normally that mystical union we call love. I want to love creation, my neighbor, and myself a little bit more. So Cosmic Christ can you help out on that score? That is what it means, as I see it, to confess Jesus is Lord. It expresses the desire to be more loving and Christ-like and to let go of my need to control how that will come about.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus is before Pilate and he says:
‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’
What does this mean?

Does it mean Jesus’ kingdom is in heaven on some other plane of existence as opposed to the world of trees, forests, oceans, animals, and people? Is he speaking of a spiritual disembodied world that we only get to after we die?

I heard a sermon the other day in which the minister said that we are only in the presence of God after we are dead. In this view the real world is the world that exists when we are free of these physical husks that entrap us.

I am agnostic about that.

I don’t think that is what the author of the Gospel of John is talking about here. In the Gospel of John, the word world appears 78 times. In Greek the word translated world is kosmos. Depending on the context it can mean different things. It can mean the physical existence of Earth. Mostly it means what we might translate as “system.”

More precisely, the Domination System. This is the embodiment of the values of the powers, seen and unseen, conscious and unconscious, that run things. Here is how Walter Wink defines it in his important book, The Human Being:
Domination System: a world-encompassing system characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, patriarchal gender relations, prejudiced racial or ethnic relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence in order to maintain them; in short, “civilization.” P. 270
Let’s try this sentence from the Gospel of John and change world to civilization.
‘My kingdom is not from this civilization. If my kingdom were from this civilization, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’
Now it actually makes more sense. This isn’t a question of a physical earth vs. a spiritual heaven, this is about a contest of values on Earth. It is about how we will live and by what values will we live. Here is how the passage continues, again substituting civilization for world:
Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the civilization, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’
John’s Jesus is the Cosmic Christ who has come to tell the truth about our civilization which from John’s perspective isn’t going so well. How do we know it isn’t going so well? Well, it killed Jesus. And he was a good guy. It is unjust, violent, oppressive, and unsustainable.

The Gospel of John has nothing to do with other heavenly realms. It had to do with changing the world--changing the system—changing the civilization--to make it more just. Here is how Walter Wink puts it:
The Gospel of John does not disclose heavenly secrets. For John, the gospel reveals “this world” (kosmos) as the Domination System. The gospel inaugurates an alternate reality, the Reign of God. John likes to call it “eternal life”—life in a new dimension, which begins the moment one encounters the son of the man. To “believe in the Human Being” is to affirm that this new reality that Jesus incarnates and reveals is from God. To “believe” is to join the struggle against the authorities and powers that seek to extinguish this new revelation. P. 203
To say Jesus is Lord,
to say Christ is King,
to worship the king O glorious above,

is to “join the struggle against the authorities and powers” that deny our humanity.

For John, civilization or world is not a bad thing. It is not a hopeless thing. It is not a thing that is to be destroyed or abandoned. It is to be transformed. Listen to this familiar passage with new ears.
‘For God so loved civilization that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into civilization to condemn civilization, but in order that civilization might be saved through him.’
Let’s try it again with new eyes for the familiar words believe and eternal life.
For God so loved civilization that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who affirms and joins the struggle on behalf of the new reality Jesus incarnates may not perish but may have life in a new dimension.
It is a bit wordy and not as poetic as the King James, but we get a very different sense of what is being said. Jesus came to transform our Earthly lives, not provide escape from them.

We might think of civilization as the human project. It is a good thing. I know some have said that the world would be better without human beings. I disagree. We are inheritors of a theology that says human beings are totally depraved. Again, I disagree.

Human beings are the consciousness of the universe. We are the eyes, ears, the thought, the Word, to use a metaphor from John’s Gospel. The universe becomes conscious of itself through us. Civilization is the unique gift that human beings bring to the universe. It is the way we participate with one another and with Earth.

But it is also broken. Unjust, oppressive, violent, and unsustainable.
  • When 1 percent of humanity controls 40 percent of the wealth that is unjust.
  • When we use the gifts of Earth in such a way that our descendants will be paying for our debts, we are not living sustainably. We are not living justly.
  • When we uphold these economic disparities by having standing armies all over the globe, we are not living as human beings.
We cannot survive long like that. We will perish.

John’s Jesus is the archetypal human being. The one who testifies to the truth. This is why he tells Pilate:
My kingdom is not of this civilization. If it were my people would be coming down on you violently, just like you are doing to me. But that isn’t the way I roll. The kingdom I am testifying to is non-violent. It doesn’t need violence because it is just. It is about harmony and peace.
My interpretation of Jesus is that he as the Cosmic Christ symbolizes the consciousness and the conscience of humanity. We are human beings for crying out loud, not consumers, not slaves, not products, not market demos, not mercenaries, not statistics, not abusers of Earth and of one another, not exploiters, not exploited.

We are the consciousness, the Word of God, the Royalty of the Universe, the blessing of creation. So be it. Why settle for less?

For the record I am in favor of civilization continuing. Returning to hunter/gatherer status and eating nuts and berries may sound romantic, but it is not likely to work for six billion people.

If there is a message for people of conscience, for which the Cosmic Christ is a symbol, it is to be a transforming presence. For the human project--that is for civilization--to continue, it will necessarily become sustainable which is another word for just.

What is exciting is that creativity is exploding all over. There is no more exciting time to be alive than now. Frightening? Absolutely.

In the midst of all of this, we might ask what can I do?

I suggest two things:

The first is to discover your passion. Discover your vocation. Spend some time and energy doing that which gives you joy.

Frederick Buechner defined vocation as the place where our deep joy and the world's deep hunger meet.

I receive emails everyday from groups of people, some organized some semi-organized, right here in the Tri-Cities who are following their passion. Whether it is healthcare reform, creation care, cooperation between religions, building bike trails, working to stop sexual violence, you name it, creativity is exploding. Do your joy.

The second thing is to trust. To honor the Cosmic Christ is to trust that something in the universe is larger than I and in control where I am not. It is trust that the creativity of the universe is beyond our consciousness.

It is a trust in the goodness and creativity that is unseen. We see only the tip of an iceberg. 90 percent is under the water. 90 percent of our awareness is unconscious. Even as we cannot see we trust that we will find what we need when we need it.

We live our joy and we trust and in so doing we become human.

That is all that is required.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Embracing Change (11/15/09)

Embracing Change
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 15th, 2009

Daniel 12:1-3
Mark 13:1-8

Was Jesus apocalyptic?

That is one of the questions bantered about between scholars in the historical Jesus debate.

The debate is whether or not Jesus believed that the end of human history was coming and that God would bring it with supernatural fury.

The task of the debate is how to interpret Mark 13 and other passages in the gospels that look apocalyptic. Scholars call Mark 13 “the little apocalypse.”

Before you tune out on me by thinking this is just another exercise in speculation over archaic texts, I am going to suggest that this exercise is contemporary. How we see Jesus reflects how we see ourselves.

We need to define what we mean by apocalypse.

Apocalypse means literally revelation. The last book in the Bible is called “The Revelation to John” or “The Apocalypse to John.” The meaning of that is that some guy named John received a revelation or an apocalypse from heaven. Apocalypse is special divine insight.

In popular parlance, apocalypse means a violent or a cataclysmic future. This is a future that tends to be fixed, predicted, even fated. The most popular expression in Christian extremism is found in the Left Behind novels. This is pulp fiction for the Christian extremist crowd. It reflects religious escapism. The basic plot is this: God is going to wipe out the world. Get on the Jesus train so you can get raptured before he trashes the place.

This view is as common as dirt. We see it in Christian extremist TV preachers. We see it in Muslim extremists. We see it also in the New Age Mayan calendar predictions, (ie. 2012), Nostradamus predictions and so forth. The packages may be different but the product is the same.

This is the product: There is a plan and a timetable that has been supernaturally decided and revealed to those who have special insight.

1) The view is pessimistic. Humanity or even life on Earth is not going to make it.
2) It is escapist. Only the true believers will escape and live forever in some other realm.
3) And it shirks responsibility. There is no reason to address the problems of Earth or contemplate its future because the “Supernatural” will fix it.

That is common definition and the one I am going to use for apocalyptic.

As you can tell by my tone, I don’t believe it. I think it is a dangerous and destructive view. Unfortunately, it is a popular view. As humanity faces more challenges and changes, we might expect apocalypticism to become more popular.

Was Jesus apocalyptic?

From reading Mark 13, it certainly seems like it. Listen to his language:

“Wars…earthquakes…famines…the end is still to come…the sun will be darkened…the stars will be falling from heaven…they will see the son of man coming in the clouds…heaven and earth will pass away…keep awake!”

What was he talking about? Was he talking about the end of the world? Was he talking about a local political event? Was he wrong? Was he exaggerating? Was he strange? Was he a product of his time? Was it really Jesus?

Here is how I learned it in seminary. Mark was written sometime during the Jewish-Roman War in 66-70 CE. The temple was destroyed and Jerusalem was burned. The western wall of the temple stands today. It is called the wailing wall. It has never been rebuilt. On the site of the temple is a Muslim mosque called the Dome of the Rock. For the Jews it was the end of their world.

First century historian, Josephus, recounted the horrors of this time in his work The War of the Jews. Many of the things we find predicted in Mark 13, Josephus described in his account of events including false messiahs, war, hunger, fleeing to the mountains, etc.

The view I learned in seminary and embraced is that Mark 13 was a creation by the author of Mark. The historical person of Jesus never said any of this. It was a creation by the gospel author. That would also be the view of liberal scholars such as Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, and other Fellows of the Jesus Seminar.

In their picture, the historical Jesus was a wisdom sage and poet. He was a critic of Empire but the kingdom would come not dramatically by supernatural intervention or apocalypse but by gradual moral improvement. “The kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus is reported to have said. The kingdom of God is like a seed that grows and produces fruit. He was against Herod’s and the Roman Empire’s economic policies, was critical of the temple, got on the wrong side of the authorities, and was executed as a troublemaker. His vision lived on in his disciples. They were mystically connected with him through this mystery they described as resurrection.

However, the other view is that yes Jesus was apocalyptic. This view is also held by liberal scholars such as Bart Ehrman, Paula Frederickson, and James Tabor among others. They follow in the tradition of the great historical Jesus scholar, Albert Schweitzer. He wrote his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus in 1906. It provided a critique of 19th century liberals who thought Jesus was a prophet of moral progress. See how things come around again and again.

Schweitzer’s view was that Jesus felt the end was near and that God was about to do some big thing and that he was part of this big thing. He went to Jerusalem thinking he was going to start things in motion. He succeeded in getting himself killed. For Schweitzer, Jesus’ story is a tragic story. He was a product of his time. We, however, said Schweitzer don’t live in that time. This is how Schweitzer put it:
That Jesus expected the final consummation to be realized supernaturally whereas we can understand it only in terms of the result of moral effort, is merely the result of the change in fundamental thought-forms. … All that is required is that we think of realizing the kingdom by moral effort with the same passion as that with which he expected it to be realized by divine intervention, and that we know among ourselves that we must be prepared to sacrifice everything for it. P. 484
Schweitzer’s apocalyptic Jesus was not the Jesus of Christian orthodoxy and certainly not Christian fundamentalism. Jesus was mistaken, but his passion for the kingdom is to be admired and emulated.

After writing this book he went on to study medicine. He received the Nobel prize for his humanitarian work. His philosophy of a “reverence for life” was embodied in his life of service, particularly the hospital he started in Africa.

My views of Jesus are starting to change. I think that Mark 13 isn’t completely separate from the historical Jesus. I think he did have the destruction of the temple on the horizon of his vision. He could see events shaping up for a clash of civilizations between the Jewish people and Rome. He likely used vivid metaphorical language of the prophets to describe what he saw. I think he used the language and thought forms of his time. He probably did think in terms of divine intervention like the Hebrew prophets before him.

I don’t want to strip away the rough edges away from Jesus. I don’t want to tame him to where he fits in my world view. I will let him be a first century God-infused prophet with a passion for justice.

Our world view has changed a great deal since the time of Jesus. He obviously couldn’t have envisioned the universe we see today or the depth of time of natural history. Apocalypticism is nonsensical for us today.

That said, I do think that Jesus can be an important figure. I do like what Schweitzer says about the mystical relationship between ourselves and Jesus. He wrote:
Our relationship to Jesus is ultimately of a mystical kind….We can achieve a relation to such a personality only when we become united with him in the knowledge of a shared aspiration, when we feel that our will is clarified, enriched and enlivened by his will and when we rediscover ourselves through him. P. 486
How we face our future and our present is a matter of will. Do we have the will as individuals and as a country and as a human race to face reality and act appropriately?

In our text today, we find the disciples behaving like yokels visiting the big city.
One of the disciples looked up at the temple and said, “Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
I think this saying did go back to Jesus. He saw what was coming. He had the will to face reality and to name it. It wasn’t a magical, superstitious prediction. It wasn’t fatalism. It was a realistic assessment of the conflict that was brewing between Rome and Jerusalem. It was an invitation to his disciples to wake up. I think the author of Mark embellished much of the 13th chapter of Mark, although I am not sure how much. But I think Jesus did see an end of an era, an end of an age, an end of a world.

Most importantly, he was telling his disciples that the end of this era was not the end of everything. In fact, it was a new beginning. This end while painful and destructive was the beginning of something new. Whether it was Jesus or Mark, they blur, nevertheless, it was encouragement to hope in the most frightening time.

The prophets of today are like Jesus in that they are speaking to the yokel within us who says, “Look at my new cell phone! Isn’t our technology incredible?” The prophets are saying in return: “There will come a time when our technology is going to crumble.” Whatever the medium, these prophets are showing us through film, music, fiction, non-fiction, and so forth that we are not living sustainably with our planet and that this age, this era, this world is coming to an end.

In a sense, this song from the musical group, The Talking Heads, is a modern version of Mark 13. Here are the lyrics of the song, “Nothing but Flowers:”

Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it's nothing but flowers

There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers

We caught a rattlesnake
Now we got something for dinner

There was a shopping mall
Now it's all covered with flowers

If this is paradise
I wish I had a lawnmower

Years ago
I was an angry young man
I'd pretend
That I was a billboard
Standing tall
By the side of the road
I fell in love
With a beautiful highway
This used to be real estate
Now it's only fields and trees
Where, where is the town
Now, it's nothing but flowers
The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture
I thought that we'd start over
But I guess I was wrong

Once there were parking lots
Now it's a peaceful oasis

This was a Pizza Hut
Now it's all covered with daisies

I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention

I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries

This was a discount store,
Now it's turned into a cornfield

Don't leave me stranded here
I can't get used to this lifestyle

Modern day prophets are also telling us about hope. What is hope?

Hope is not escapism. Nor is hope denial.

Believing in superstition is not hope.
Denying reality is not hope.

Hope is a matter of character. It is a belief, a conviction, a confidence that we have what it takes to deal with whatever comes when it comes.

Margaret Atwood, author of The Year of the Flood, which is of the genre speculative fiction, was asked this question in an interview:
I just finished the book "The Year of the Flood." I thought it was amazing and left me feeling hopeful and hopeless about the human race at the same time. How do you have hope? What do you find hopeful about human beings?
She answered:
I think hope is part of the human toolkit, like music. It comes with, for the simple reason that those who did not have it - in the deep past - are not our ancestors.
Dianne Dumanoski, the author of The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive a Volatile Earth, a book we are going to read next for our Thursday reading group, concludes her book with a chapter entitled “Honest Hope.”

She says that blind hope kills. “I fear blind hope as much as despair,” she writes. She says we must avoid a despair on one hand that says “it’s too late” or a sunny optimism that says “we’ll figure out something, because science always does.” Then she writes about real hope:
I discovered that one finds strength when one has to and simply endures what seemed beforehand terrifying and impossible….Such moments of great trial are not only the worst of times, but for many they can also be the very best, because one often experiences life at its most precious, intense, and meaningful.

….Looking ahead, it is natural to focus on the dangers, but those who will be making their way in this uncertain future will also have unusual opportunities, although these may not be of the kind that one would have chosen wittingly. In the struggle to continue the human journey, they may live lies enlarged by a shared sense of great purpose, leavened by imagination, and enriched by the creativity that survival has always required. P. 252.
Was Jesus apocalyptic? No. Not in the sense that we use that word. Jesus was realistic and hopeful. That is why we still tell his story. He showed us—and in that mystical sense that Schweitzer speaks of, when our wills our enriched and clarified by his will—Jesus still shows us how to do the most important thing human beings have ever done or have ever had to do.

He shows us how to embrace change.

We can do that.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Desperation and Hope (11/8/09)

Desperation and Hope
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 8th, 2009
Stewardship Sunday

As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

Today is Stewardship Commitment Sunday. This Sunday finishes our pledge drive. Later in the service we will have the opportunity to engage in a ritual of stewardship. I want to say as clearly as possible that this community is a great place in which to give. I think we do important work here. Participating in a community like this helps us raise our consciousness, connects us with others, inspires us develop a sense of meaning and well-being, and challenges us to live more authentically and more sustainably. It is good to participate in something larger than ourselves that brings us and the world joy. This congregation does that. It is a blessing. As we are a voluntary organization we operate based on gifts from our members, thank you for being part of it and for supporting it with your time, talent, and treasure.

Now I am in a bit of a pickle.

I have decided to follow the lectionary readings for the Fall. The text for today is about the widow and her mite. One would think that text would be a natural for stewardship Sunday. She is the inspiration for giving, right? Be like the widow. Give it all! Here is a poem I found on the internet:

She came for Temple worship
And from her penury
Cast her gift, the widow's mite,
Into the treasury.

Another came that Sabbath day,
Rich and finely dressed,
And from abundance gave his gift
Much greater than the rest.

But God who weighs the human heart
And gifts both great and small,
Chose to praise the widow's mite...
"This woman hath given all!
-Linda Wright
As the faithful and pious widow gave her all to the temple, so ought we be humbled and inspired by her commitment. We should not therefore complain when the stewardship committee comes calling.

John Calvin, the 16th century Protestant Reformer had this to say about this passage:

This reply of Christ contains a highly useful doctrine that whatever men offer to God ought to be estimated not by its apparent value, but only by the feeling of the heart, and that the holy affection of him who according to his small means, offers to God the little that he has, is more worthy of esteem than that of him who offers a hundred times more out of his abundance. In two ways this doctrine is useful, for the poor who appear not to have the power of doing good, are encouraged by our Lord not to hesitate to express their affection cheerfully out of their slender means; for if they consecrate themselves, their offering, which appears to be mean and worthless, will not be less valuable than if they had presented all the treasures of Crœsus.

On the other hand, those who possess greater abundance, and who have received from God larger communications, are reminded that it is not enough if in the amount of their beneficence they greatly surpass the poor and common people; because it is of less value in the sight of God that a rich man, out of a vast heap, should bestow a moderate sum, than that a poor man, by giving very little, should exhaust his store. This widow must have been a person of no ordinary piety, who, rather than come empty into the presence of God, chose to part with her own living. And our Lord applauds this sincerity, because, forgetting herself, she wished to testify that she and all that she possessed belonged to God. In like manner, the chief sacrifice which God requires from us is self-denial.
A great deal of interpretive weight has celebrated this passage and this figure, the impoverished widow who gives her all, as a model for giving to the institutional church. This common reading has equated the Temple with the church.

That is our first mistake.

It could be that the institutional church is similar in some ways to Herod’s Temple. But if so, that is no compliment. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has nothing but contempt for the Temple.

His first act with the temple is an act of spectacle in order to raise consciousness. In a demonstration he turns over the tables in the temple. This is not because he objects to the selling of pastries in the foyer. He turns the tables then explains what he is doing by quoting the prophet Jeremiah, “You have made the house of prayer a den of robbers.”

A robbers’ den is where robbers hide out after they do their robbing. The temple has become cover—a hiding place—for those who have exploited the people. The temple is religious legitimation for exploitation. That is the first encounter Jesus has with the Temple in Mark’s gospel. That should be a clue that the mission of the temple and the mission of Jesus are not the same.

Later, the disciples are marveling at the temple. They are Galilean peasants on a field trip to the big city. One of them says to Jesus: “Look, teacher at what large stones and what large buildings.” Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

Later, Jesus' accusers say that Jesus declared that he will destroy the temple made with hands and build another not made with hands. Whether or not Jesus said that, we can't know but neither the Temple nor its keepers receive good marks from Mark who interprets Jesus' ministry and mission as anti-temple.

Why? What is the problem with the Temple? For starters, Herod built it. That isn’t of itself so bad. But it should give us pause. The temple was one of several ambitious building projects by Herod.

These included military fortresses at Masada, Antonia, and Herodium and the port city of Caesarea which included a hippodrome for chariot races, an amphitheater, an artificial port, a huge temple dedicated to the emperor, and numerous bath houses.

The Temple that Herod built for the Jewish people was massive and gaudy. First century historian, Josephus, writes:
Viewed from without, the Sanctuary had everything that could amaze either mind or eyes. Overlaid all round with stout plates of gold, the first rays of the sun it reflected so fierce a blaze of fire that those who endeavored to look at it were forced to turn away as if they had looked straight at the sun. To strangers as they approached it seemed in the distance like a mountain covered with snow; for any part not covered with gold was dazzling white...
Herod then appointed his own high priest to run the thing.

Herod built and built. How did he afford all of this? Olive oil was one way. Rather than have subsistence farmers living off their own little plot of land, he turned Judea into Herod-Mart. Now you had landless people working as day laborers for absentee landlords to produce cash crops. He taxed the people heavily, crushingly.

In the passage before the one in which our pious widow gives her last mite to the Lord, we find:
38 As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
In Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore shows a clip of George W. Bush at a town hall meeting of some sort. In the clip a woman says that she is working three jobs. The president grins and says:

“That’s great!”

The president praises her for her piety and hard work. What a good American to work three jobs. It doesn’t dawn on the president that having a woman work three jobs in order to barely get by is not a sign of prosperity. What kind of economic system do we have that requires this?

When Jesus is watching people throw their money (notice the word is throw not give) into the temple treasury, he is not praising the widow. He isn’t saying to her,
“That’s great! Don’t worry about food for yourself or your family. Give your last penny to keep this gold plaited holy of holies in operation!”
Jesus is offering a scathing, damning critique of Herod’s economic system and the religious legitimation of it.

Jesus gathers his disciples to show them this. Here is a teaching moment. Look at these two people coming to the treasury. Giving a good chunk of change doesn’t hurt the rich. They can pay the temple tax and have money left over. The problem is that the temple is funded on the backs of widows who have lost everything. These building projects including this Temple which supposedly is the symbol of God’s presence, have devoured the poor, like this widow.

Yes, the widow is our teacher.

The popular reading regards the widow as a teacher because of her piety. The teaching is that we are to follow her example.

A more accurate reading regards the widow as teacher because of her condition. The teaching is a critique of our economics.

We don't know why the widow gave her last money to the temple treasury. Was she forced to do so like a tax? Was it a last act of desperation like buying a lottery ticket with her last dollar? Was she hoping for the miracle that oil would not run out as in the story of the widow and Elijah?

We don't know. We do know that Jesus did not approve. He did not approve of a temple that either by force or desperation devours widows' incomes after it devours their houses.

It would have been more just for the widow rather than give her last penny to the temple, to instead take some out.

It would have been more just if the rich man who gave a large amount to the temple to have given it to the widow, or perhaps given her her house back so she could make her own living.

It would have been more just for the temple to have been prophetic and spoken on behalf of the economics of God or the economics of the good rather than the economics of exploitation.

I think the Bible, the whole of it, and Jesus’ message in particular, is about how we live our lives in relation to one another and to Earth. It is about economics. The kingdom of God which Jesus talked about more than anything else, is both an economic and a political term. The kingdom of Herod or the kingdom of Caesar is in opposition to the economics of the good.

It is what is fair, just and sustainable versus what is unjust and exploitative.

So this widow’s story can be a story for stewardship. It is a tragic story to be sure. It is a story of desperation. It is a story of what goes wrong when we allow ambition and greed take over reason and compassion.

It is also a story of hope. The gospel story is a good news story. It is only good news when it speaks to reality such as the reality of widows whose houses are devoured. The temple with its religious legitimation of exploitation fell. As Jesus said, not one stone was left upon another. Out of its ruins something new emerged. That is our hope.

Stewardship means to care for life and all that life puts before us, especially those who are most vulnerable. Part of stewardship is to be a voice of conscience. We are given the opportunity to be that voice today. Perhaps more than anything the church is a voice.

We are to give voice to the widows.
We are to give voice to the exploited.
We are to give voice to Earth.
We are to give voice to the injustices so that we can also give voice to justice and to hope.

I am grateful to each of you and to this community as a whole for being that voice.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Embracing Our Tears (11/1/09 All Saints')

Embracing Our Tears
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 1st, 2009
All Saints’ Day

Isaiah 25:6-9
John 11:32-44

Today is All Saints’ Day.

We will take some time today in community, among friends, to remember and honor those who have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.

Remembering those who are not with us brings tears.

This is the season of Autumn. The changing and falling leaves remind us that life is as precious and short as a season. The via negativa or the way of letting go is the spiritual path of being conscious of change.

There is a prayer written in our Book of Common Worship that I almost always read whenever I am asked to lead a funeral or memorial service. I had the honor of officiating at the memorial service for Nancy Odendhal this past week, so this prayer is fresh in my mind. The words are traditional, haunting, and honest.

Eternal God,
We acknowledge the uncertainty of our life on earth.
We are given a mere handful of days,
and our span of life seems nothing in your sight.
All flesh is as grass:
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers the flower fades,
but your word will stand forever;
in this is our hope, for you are our God.
Even in the valley of the shadow of death,
you are with us.

Oh Lord, let us know our end,
and the number of our days,
that we may learn how fleeting life is.
Turn your ear to our cry, and hear our prayers.
Do not be silent at our tears,
for we live as strangers before you,
wandering pilgrims as all our ancestors were.
But you are the same,
and your years shall have no end.

I am not as sure as I thought I once was about who “God” is in that prayer. I have no idea what it might mean to “have no end.” It is not likely that a supernatural divine being is moving in and out of our lives, pulling strings here and there.

Yet I do resonate with the lonely plea to whoever might listen: “Do not be silent at our tears.”
And I recognize that the beauty of life will fade like a summer flower.
Like grass that withers, so withers all of our presumption.

It is beautiful poetry. It is the poetry of letting go and acknowledging our limits.
It is the poetry of loss.
It is the poetry of tears.

The ancestors or the saints (in the Protestant tradition everyone gets to be a saint, even the sinners) are always telling us: “Listen: one day you are going to end up just like us.” The job of the dead is to remind the living that even though we do not know the number of our days, they are numbered.

The job of the living is to honor the dead by not allowing one beautiful flower to go unnoticed.
We honor the dead by not letting life slip by.
We honor the dead through peals of laughter.
We honor the dead by embracing our tears and one another’s tears.
We honor the dead by fighting for what is beautiful.

The gospels catch Jesus crying twice. Once when he weeps over Jerusalem and once when he weeps for his friend Lazarus. These glimpses of Jesus’ tears are the gospels’ way of telling us that tears are sacred. Weeping is a holy act. We are called to be men and women of sorrow, warriors of sorrow, like Jesus was.

Matthew Fox in his important book, The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine writes about the warrior metaphor. We need to call forth the inner warrior. We aren’t talking about soldiers and we certainly aren’t talking about mercenaries. We aren’t talking about violence at all. We are talking about strength shaped by sorrow.

We need to find the inner warrior that was manifest in Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks, warrior women twice oppressed by gender and race, but whose sorrows strengthened them in the fight for equality. The warrior was manifest in Harvey Milk, who at the time he was city supervisor in San Francisco, had achieved the highest public office for an openly gay man.

“You gotta give ‘em hope!” was his cry.

He was assassinated while in office. But even in his death he gave us hope.

Sometimes that is what happens to warriors.

Sister Dorothy Stang was a defender of the Amazonian rainforest and of the local people who were persecuted by illegal loggers and landowners. She was assassinated in Brazil in 2005 because of her faithful resistance to the exploitation of people and land.

They are saints, warriors and heroes. We honor them today.

Matthew Fox writes of warriors:

Often, to be a warrior, we must let go of our privileged status in life, no matter how hard-won. Putting aside the cloaks of accomplishment, one strips to what Howard Thurman called “the literal substance of oneself before God,” and one goes into darkness quite alone and vulnerable. That too is part of the way of the warrior. There are no guarantees that at the other end one will emerge as the same person or fit to play the same role in society ever again. One becomes the Via Negativa. Friends and relationships, achievements and titles, salaries and retirement plans, may all be left aside. We may be asked to live out the principle that, as Eckhart said, “all we have in life is on loan.” Life itself is on loan and all our relationships in it. A loan is temporary. The warrior knows about death, does not deny mortality but carries it like a shield, a guard by which to defend self and others. Knowing one’s mortality urges one to live fully now and defend what is beautiful now, not tomorrow. The warrior does not wait to live, does not put off living and loving and defending and creating for another day. The loan will come due, so make your opportunity today. P. 94.
In the reading from Isaiah, our ancestors confidently repeat the promise that one day God will wipe away tears. This is the ancient way of saying that sadness doesn’t have the last word. The Via Negativa is not sadism or nihilism or the glorification of pain and suffering. We embrace the tears and the darkness so we can move through them and discover the creativity we need for transformation.

Grief if not tended becomes depression. But if we can embrace it, feel it, be honest with it and weep through it, it can become compassion. And that is what a warrior is made of. We need warriors who can feel the pain of polluted streams, of blown up mountains, and burned out habitats. We need warriors who can weep over Earth as Jesus wept over Jerusalem and as he wept with Mary and Martha over Lazarus.

Then as the prophet Isaiah writes, God wipes away the tears, fills our emptied, cried out, ripped out, burned out, blown up vessels of our souls with the light of creativity.

Like Jesus who calls the dead Lazarus to come forth, we are to call out to a humanity that has been deadened, numbed, wrapped in plastic and laid in a tomb. We, warriors, need to call out to humanity to come alive.

Come forth! Unbind yourself! Go! Let us make a sustainable and just life for our children and for our grandchildren.

This is not someone else’s calling. It is ours. This isn’t our job tomorrow. It is today.

I read this poem at Nancy Odendhal’s service. Nancy was a warrior by the way. She was a warrior for Earth and a warrior for her friends.

This is Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes:”

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
The ancestors, the saints, the dead, the cloud of witnesses, our loved ones who we miss dearly are rooting for us.

They are reminding us that our days are numbered.

No matter where we are on life’s time-line, if we have breath, there is something we yet can do:

One more flower to smell,
One more story to tell,
One more cheer to yell,
One more polluter to give hell,

There is time and a way to take the world into our arms.