Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Way of Eloquence (12/27/09 Qur'an Sunday)

The Way of Eloquence
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 27th, 2009
Luke 2:41-52
Surah 19:16-34
Surah 55:1-4

Today we are finishing our reading of the Qur’an cover to cover. Beginning in January we are going to read the Bhagavad Gita cover to cover in 2010. The Qur’an is the scripture central to the Muslim tradition. The Bhagavad Gita is of central importance to the Hindu tradition. What I find interesting in exploring other faith traditions is that if I allow myself to come to them with a Beginner’s Mind or an open mind, I find that there are many points of contact between faiths.

We share many symbols that are deeper than the meaning each faith attaches to them. The life of Krishna and life of Christ are similar in many ways. The Qur’an has a high reverence for Jesus. Today we are reflecting upon a story of the infant Jesus in the Qur’an.

These religious texts, whether they be the Bible, the Qur’an or the Bhagavad Gita are rather mature. The common symbols and archetypes first appear much earlier than what we find in these established religious texts. For instance the precocious divine child is an archetype found in all of the religious texts yet is more primal than any of them.

Exploring other faith traditions enables us to see the larger archetypes and symbols at work in the stories that are common to us. I hope that becoming familiar with the sacred texts and traditions of others will enable us to understand our neighbor, perhaps be more sympathetic to them, and to discover and strengthen bonds of commonality.

Today, stories of the child Jesus take center stage.

When I was a child I remember being disappointed that the Bible said very little about Jesus as a child. We have him as a baby, then when he is twelve and in the temple and that is it. It wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. That shouldn’t be confused with the Gospel of Thomas, which is a sayings gospel of Jesus. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas tells stories about Jesus when he was a child, before reaching the age of twelve.

Here are a few stories from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas:

This child Jesus, when five years old, was playing in the ford of a mountain stream; and He collected the flowing waters into pools, and made them clear immediately, and by a word alone He made them obey Him. And having made some soft clay, He fashioned out of it twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when He did these things. And there were also many other children playing with Him. And a certain Jew, seeing what Jesus was doing, playing on the Sabbath, went off immediately, and said to his father Joseph: Behold, thy son is at the stream, and has taken clay, and made of it twelve birds, and has profaned the Sabbath. And Joseph, coming to the place and seeing, cried out to Him, saying: Wherefore doest thou on the Sabbath what it is not lawful to do? And Jesus clapped His hands, and cried out to the sparrows, and said to them: Off you go! And the sparrows flew, and went off crying. And the Jews seeing this were amazed, and went away and reported to their chief men what they had seen Jesus doing.

He was "being reported" at an early age!

And another:

After that He was again passing through the village; and a boy ran up against Him, and struck His shoulder. And Jesus was angry, and said to him: Thou shalt not go back the way thou camest. And immediately he fell down dead. And some who saw what had taken place, said: Whence was this child begotten, that every word of his is certainly accomplished? And the parents of the dead boy went away to Joseph, and blamed him, saying: Since thou hast such a child, it is impossible for thee to live with us in the village; or else teach him to bless, and not to curse:4 for he is killing our children.

Jesus is dangerous. But helpful:

A few days after, a young man was splitting wood in the corner,11 and the axe came down and cut the sole of his foot in two, and he died from loss of blood. And there was a great commotion, and people ran together, and the child Jesus ran there too. And He pressed through the crowd, and laid hold of the young man's wounded foot, and he was cured immediately. And He said to the young man: Rise up now, split the wood, and remember me. And the crowd seeing what had happened, adored the child, saying: Truly the Spirit of God dwells in this child.

And handy to have around in the carpenter's shop:

And His father was a carpenter, and at that time made ploughs and yokes. And a certain rich man ordered him to make him a couch. And one of what is called the cross pieces being too short, they did not know what to do. The child Jesus said to His father Joseph: Put down the two pieces of wood, and make them even in the middle. And Joseph did as the child said to him. And Jesus stood at the other end, and took hold of the shorter piece of wood, and stretched it, and made it equal to the other. And His father Joseph saw it, and wondered, and embraced the child, and blessed Him, saying: Blessed am I, because God has given me this child.

And smart!

And Joseph, seeing that the child was vigorous in mind and body, again resolved that He should not remain ignorant of the letters, and took Him away, and handed Him over to another teacher. And the teacher said to Joseph: I shall first teach him the Greek letters, and then the Hebrew....And Jesus said to him: If thou art really a teacher, and art well acquainted with the letters, tell me the power of the Alpha, and I will tell thee the power of the Beta. And the teacher was enraged at this, and struck Him on the head. And the child, being in pain, cursed him; and immediately he swooned away, and fell to the ground on his face. And the child returned to Joseph's house; and Joseph was grieved, and gave orders to His mother, saying: Do not let him go outside of the door, because those that make him angry die.

A power every child wishes to possess! And finally:

And after this the infant of one of Joseph's neighbours fell sick and died, and its mother wept sore. And Jesus heard that there was great lamentation and commotion, and ran in haste, and found the child dead, and touched his breast, and said: I say to thee, child, be not dead, but live, and be with thy mother. And directly it looked up and laughed. And He said to the woman: Take it, and give it milk, and remember me. And seeing this, the crowd that was standing by wondered, and said: Truly this child was either God or an angel of God, for every word of his is a certain fact. And Jesus went out thence, playing with the other children.

Jesus is the precocious child. These stories don’t tell us much about Jesus, I suppose, but they do tell us about our fascination with The Child Archteype. These stories as well as the one in Luke and in the Qur’an feature the eloquent or wise child. Jesus, speaking with wisdom and authority astounds the scholars.

Where does this eloquence or wisdom come from? According to the stories it is not from learning. It is not human wisdom. It is from God. It is a gift. Its source is Divine Creativity. There is a mythology of innocence at work here. We think of a child’s purity before being corrupted by learning and by living. The wise child who teaches adults reflects our desire for innocence.

We think of the newborn is closer to God. You might have heard the story of the five year old girl who looks into the crib of her newborn baby sister and asks her:

Tell me about God. I forgot.

We often say that prejudice is not innate but learned. Also, true enough. The precocious or eloquent child celebrates the innocence--the goodness--of children before the corruption of culture. The shadow of this kind of thinking is that you can end up with a devaluation of education in favor of superstition. We see this in religious leaders who put down education in favor of charisma, being caught up in the spirit and so forth.

The child archetype has its shadow. It can lead us to become childish as well as childlike. How can we draw from the child archetype and use it as a constructive aspect of our personality?

Caroline Myss (Mace) has some instructive ideas regarding the child archetype. I don’t know much about Caroline Myss. She has written some popular books and appears on the Oprah show frequently. I am neither recommending her or not recommending her. I did find this helpful. These are some of her thoughts on the child archetype. She writes:

The mature personality of the Child archetype nurtures that part of us that yearns to be lighthearted and innocent, expecting the wonders of tomorrow, regardless of age. This part of our nature contributes greatly to our ability to sense playfulness in our lives, balancing the seriousness of adult responsibilities. The balanced Child is a delight to be around because the energy that flows from this part of our personality is positively infectious and brings out the best in others, as well as in us.

Subsets of this archetype include the wounded child, orphaned child, eternal child, magical or innocent child, and needy child. We all have within us a child. It is an archetype or a personality blueprint that we work from usually unconsciously. We can be aware of this archetype by being conscious of our dreams, of telling the stories of our childhood, by connecting with the values we learned. Particularly it is important to pay attention to what is "shaming" as well as what makes for “good little boys and girls.”

It might be odd for me to talk about this today, because it could be right on the surface. At Christmas many of us reconnect with family. The rule of thumb here is that your family remembers you as you were not as you are. Not only as you were but as you were in their eyes. So you can be 40 but go back home and you are ten again. These can be humorous episodes or painful but they can be learning.

What is it that pushes our buttons?
What keeps us from growing up?
What sense of childlikeness have I lost in a desire to keep the hurt child protected?
Do I never let the child out—that is the playfulness, spontaneity, creativity—because if I do she or he might be hurt?
Do I not trust because I may end up being orphaned or abandoned?
Is there unfinished business, needs not met by my parents that I want others to meet?

I know we make a lot of fun about the inner child and the pseudo-psycho self-help industry that surrounds it, but actually it is a good thing to do this child work. Doing the important, and sometimes painful childhood work, can save some wear and tear on current relationships.

When Jesus said,

“Unless you become like a child, you won’t enter the kingdom of God,” what was he talking about? The assumption here is that he wanted his followers to be childlike not childish.

The Apostle Paul said,

“When I was a child I thought like a child, reasoned like a child, spoke like a child. When I became an adult I put away childish things.”

Fundamentalisms of all kinds are childish. They come from the needy child who desires authority. Give me all the answers. Give me the magic book. Give me a savior. You don’t have to grow up. You don’t have to take responsibility and think for yourself. You just have to obey. That is what children do in authoritarian households. They obey. That may be fine when you are five. But not when you are 25 or 45 or 75.

Even societies can get stuck in childish ways. Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is a scary individual. He has all the power of divinity but none of its maturity. He is a terror to the neighbors. “Teach him to bless and not curse. He’s killing our children!”

Because he is the divine child he is supposedly innocent and pure. That is a dangerous combination. Power and innocence or more accurately power and perception of innocence.

Think of the United States and its citizens. We are the city on the hill. Manifest destiny. God's chosen. Pure and innocent. All of our forays into other countries are for benevolent causes. Our history is one of goodness and mercy. We have a childish self-perception. Even when we are faced with facts of our non-innocence, we cannot see them for the over-arching shadow of the myth of innocence.

The challenge of the via creativa the way of creativity, the way of eloquence, is to move from childishness to childlikeness.

At the beginning of the sermon I mentioned the importance of the Beginner’s Mind. Zen teacher Shunryo Suzuki-Roshi said:

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

So part of the childlikeness that we want to move toward is to be teachable. To approach life with awe, wonder, openness, and possibility. To do this we use our imagination, our creativity, our confidence, our skills, and our eloquence.

Eloquence is to speak truthfully in such a way that evokes beauty. The eloquent uplifts as well as informs. Sometimes that speech seems childlike in its simplicity, such as the parables of Jesus or a Zen koan, but actually comes from a long history of living.

May we discover eloquence in all of our speech.

I will let the Qur’an have the last word:

The all-Merciful!
He taught the Qur’an,
He created humankind,
He taught them eloquence.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Holy Within (12/24/09 Christmas Eve)

The Holy Within
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Christmas Eve 2009
The Silent Shepherds
The Three Kings

Where do we go from here?
We left our country,
Bore gifts,

Followed a star.

We were questioned.

We answered.

We reached our objective.

We enjoyed the trip.

Then we came back by a different way.

And now the people are demonstrating in the streets.

They say they don't need the Kings any more.

They did very well in our absence.

Everything was all right without us.

They are out on the streets with placards:

Wise Men? What's wise about them?

There are plenty of Wise Men,

And who needs them? -and so on.

Perhaps they will be better off without us,

But where do we go from here?

Where do we go from here?” ask the befuddled wise men—the kings of renown.

I chose some odd poetry about shepherds, angels, and kings to contrast with the traditional scripture texts for fun in part. Also to show what a different world we live in from those who created and told these stories.

We don’t often run into shepherds, angels, and kings in our daily lives.

I don’t think I have ever met a shepherd. I knew people who ran sheep—sheep ranchers. But that is almost an agri-business. I don’t know shepherds who live in their fields. Doesn’t mean there aren’t any, I just don’t run into them in my daily rounds to the Wal-Mart.

I know I haven’t met any angels, except in the romantic sense. My lovely is, of course, an angel. But angels bounding about to and fro in and out of heaven proclaiming things in lights is not part of my experience.

I haven’t met any kings either. I was once a stone’s throw from President Bill Clinton when he visited Fort Drum in upstate New York. But I never thought of President Clinton as either a king or a wise man.

Shepherds, angels, wise men, virgins giving birth to sons of god….these characters are from an age long past. We haven’t lived in their world for a long time. We repeat this story year after year. What does it mean, if anything, today? How do we hear this story?

Where do we go from here?

A long time has passed since these marvelous legends were created. The universe has become larger. The Hubble telescope has shown us images of light of the Universe’s oldest galaxies, 13 billion years old.

The Earth has become smaller. To use a phrase by astronomer Carl Sagan, Earth is a pale blue dot in the suburbs of the Milky Way galaxy.

Time is longer. Earth is four billion years old. Modern humans are just 200,000 years old.

There is no more heaven up there. Earth is in heaven as we realized when we first glimpsed photographs of Earth from behind the moon on the Apollo spacecraft. There are no more gods or sons of gods coming down in human form.

Where do we go from here?

When something no longer becomes believable it becomes either superstition or poetry. Superstition for many is inevitable. We have to live with those who cling to superstitions and we hope that they will be harmless. And we hope that we will be harmless. In the meantime we must create poetry.

And there is something beautifully poetic about giving birth to the son of God. What better image could there be that gives permission to be creative? The creativity, imagination, and consciousness of the universe is born within us. We give birth to divinity. No species that we know of has achieved a consciousness as aware as that of human beings. We are the eyes and ears—the poets of the Universe.

The same material, the same dust, star-dust, that was present at the Big Bang is within us. And it has taken 13. 7 billion years give or take for the universe to tell stories about itself. We are the bards of the Universe.

Certainly it is possible that consciousness has arisen to our degree or past it somewhere in the Universe. We don’t know about it yet. But we are here. And it is a miracle. That is what our ancestors were trying to communicate through these Christmas stories. Life is a miracle! Don't miss it!

Of course they chose a baby as a sign. We have a new baby in our family. My new great-niece, Anjelica, is not quite nine weeks old. I met her for the first time today. I held her. What do I do when I see her? I approach her as if I am approaching a goddess. With care, with awe. My eyes get big. I look intently into her face. You can’t help it. That is what a baby does. She draws you to herself. Makes you look. Then of course, I act like an idiot. Coo coo! Try to make her smile. I do anything to impress the goddess.

All of these images, metaphors, archetypes that surround Christmas and the Winter Solstice are designed to remind us that we are incredibly special, precious, and important. Life is a miracle and we have an important job to do. It is a critically important job. We have to tell the universe’s story. We have to pass it on.

I realize that now I am 48 and Anjelica is nine weeks. What will this world be like when Anjelica is 48? There is no question more important than that. 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart said,
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I also do not give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time. When the Son of God is begotten in us.
The greatest crime we can commit is to sell ourselves short.

Where do we go from here?

We have important work—each of us—for our future, for Anjelica’s future. After 14 billion years of birth pangs, the universe has given birth to us. We need to take responsibility and tell its story and preserve the lives of its storytellers. We have much opposition. Fear, greed, violence, apathy, and shortsightedness, are all as strong now as they have ever been. There is a darkness to be sure. But the ancient scriptures also preserve this important truth. With it, I close:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The light is within you. Let it shine.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Blues for Christmas (12/21/09 Tidings of Comfort/Solstice)

Blues for Christmas
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
December 21st 2009

Today is the longest night.

The spiritual path of darkness is the via negativa.

It is for those who are acquainted with the night, like Robert Frost in his 1923 poem:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
O luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

There is a story about Carl Jung, the famous psychotherapist.

The story is that when people would come to him with sad feelings, uncertain feelings, angst or anger, grief or despair because of something that had happened. The story is that he open a bottle of champagne (must have had a lot of champagne) and would tell them, “This is great news! Good things are bound to happen now!”

When someone would come with news of a promotion at work or some other seemingly fortunate event, he would shake his head sadly and say how sorry he was for them.

I am sure it is apocryphal but insightful nevertheless.

The truth is that “this too shall pass.”

Whatever this is, it will pass. Change is the harshest and most glorious truth of all.

As seasons come and go, so our lives come and go, and ebb and flow.

The wise among us allow the seasons and the tides and the cycles of birth and death to be our teachers.

So on the darkest night of the year, what we appropriately celebrate is light! Because from now on (for at least a half a year), we will be experiencing more light each day. Good things are bound to happen now!

If you are here tonight it is very likely that you, too, are acquainted with the night. A loss, a disappointment, a relocation, a tragedy, an illness, or a lingering melancholy, perhaps aided by cloudy, cool, dark skies can put one in a funk.

The whole happy family Christmas thing that is continuously piped in so that every nook and cranny is flooded with Christmas cheer can serve to make it worse.

As that song from Dean Martin goes:

The jingle bells are jingling
The streets are white with snow
The happy crowds are mingling
But there's no one that I know

I'm sure that you'll forgive me
If I don't enthuse
I guess I've got the Christmas blues

I've done my window shopping
There's not a store I've missed
But what's the use of stopping
When there's no one on your list
You'll know the way I'm feeling
When you love and you lose
I guess I've got the Christmas blues

When somebody wants you
Somebody needs you
Christmas is a joy of joy
But friends when you're lonely
You'll find that it's only
A thing for little girls and little boys

May all your days be merry
Your seasons full of cheer
But 'til it's January
I'll just go and disappear

Oh Santa may have brought you some stars for your shoes
But Santa only brought me the blues
Those brightly packaged tinsel covered Christmas blues

So tonight, we take it on.

Hey, rather than sit in front of the TV you made it out.

Santa may have brought us the blues for Christmas,
...but it is bound to get better.

We tell a little bit of truth tonight.

Sometimes life is heavy.

We sing the blues to get through it.

The via negativa or the way of letting go and letting be is recognizing that even as we may not be conscious of what is happening, life is happening in the dark.
Growth is occurring.
Seeds are germinating.
Creativity is being nourished.

It is in the darkness of the womb—that is why we celebrate Mary being pregnant with the Son of God! It isn’t literalism, it is archetypal. In the darkness of the womb is where God—where Life—is creating!

The darkness of earth nurtures the seed.
The darkness of space nurtures the stars.
The darkness of our experience nurtures our creativity and our blessing.

We don’t have to know how it all works now.
We don’t have to search for it.
It is enough to know that creativity is at work while we sit.

The tears we shed as we walk the darkness looking down “the saddest city lane” will will water the creativity that will someday be a blessing to us and to others.

Tonight, we don’t need to figure any of it out.

It is OK to sit with our Christmas blues and let it go.

One more poem.

This is by Rebecca Parker and it’s entitled Winter Solstice.


for a moment
the typewriters will stop clicking,
the wheels stop rolling
the computers desist from computing,
and a hush will fall over the city.
For an instant, in the stillness,
the chiming of the celestial spheres will be heard
as earth hangs poised
in the crystalline darkness, and then
Let there be a season
when holiness is heard, and
the splendor of living is revealed.
Stunned to stillness by beauty
we remember who we are and why we are here.
There are inexplicable mysteries.
We are not alone.
In the universe there moves a Wild One
whose gestures alter earth's axis
toward love.
In the immense darkness
everything spins with joy.
The cosmos enfolds us.
We are caught in a web of stars,
cradled in a swaying embrace,
rocked by the holy night,
babes of the universe.
Let this be the time
we wake to life,
like spring wakes, in the moment
of winter solstice.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Fruits of Letting Go (12/13/2009)

The Fruits of Letting Go
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Luke 3:7-19

My father gave me a great gift. He taught me how to play chess. When I was a teenager we would play in chess tournaments in Montana, Idaho, Washington, and sometimes we would go to California.

One year we went the Paul Masson winery for a tournament. This was in the wine country of California. We toured a winery while there. The tour guide showed the winery and the fields where they grew the grapes.

I noticed that the grape vines were really scrawny. Almost like sticks. I was expecting a lush bush with grapes. Anticipating that the host told us that the grapes are pruned in such a way that all of the energy of the plant goes to the fruit as opposed to branches and leaves.

Pruning is a way in which the gardener tries to focus the energy of the plant toward producing fruit. Rather than the energy of the plant going to branches and leaves it goes to fruit.

Plants would be replaced as needed. A plant that doesn’t bear fruit is worthless. It takes up space and energy. The unproductive plant is used for burning.

So John the Baptist is using this metaphor to get people to think about their own lives.
  • Am I doing good stuff with my life?
  • Is it aimless?
  • Am I going through motions?
  • Am I growing useless branches here and there?
  • Am I producing fruit?
John is asking the folks who come to him for baptism, “Is your life fulfilling?”

I think he would have meant fulfilling in the fullest sense of that word not in a self-absorbed way.

Nor is it a legalistic, fear-based, guilt-based thing.

John the Baptist gets a bad rap. He has been viewed by much of the tradition as a firebrand, turn or burn, repent you sinner, kind of figure. The common spiritual model of fall into sin and repentance reinforces that aspect of guilt, fear, and self-loathing. But that isn’t how we have to see him. So let’s go of that.

Let’s read John the Baptist in a different way.

We aren’t going to let go of John’s urgency or his high energy or his honesty, but we are going to let go of the guilt, fear, and shame that often comes with the fall/repentance path of spirituality.

Creation Spirituality invites us to look at John the Baptist, Jesus and the Christian wisdom tradition through a four-fold spiritual path.

1) a path of wonder and amazement about being alive in this fantastic universe,
2) a way of letting go rather than clinging to that which we need to let go,
3) a way of creativity and strength,
4) and a way to use that creativity on behalf of compassion

No shame here, no beating up of oneself. There is no spiritual benefit for beating up on ourselves or for feeling bad about ourselves. No points for that. I do that on occasion. I beat up on myself. I am glad when I hear that I don’t have to do that. When I hear that I do it less. I am a blessing. A good person. So are you. We all are. We don’t have to do that.

We need to be honest. Yes. We need to evaluate. Yes. But we don't need to beat ourselves up or invent a God who beats us up.

The word translated as repent is metanoia which literally means change or turn. As in change in direction or turn toward a new way of living.

So John is asking them if their lives are fulfilling and authentic. He is challenging them to turn and to change and to bear fruit.

To do that, we need to let go of unhealthy parts of our lives that are not fruit producing. To mix some metaphors, if we are
spinning our wheels,
drawing from a dry well,
bearing branches and leaves but no fruit,
then it might be time for a turn.

John the Baptist gives them a ritual to go with their new conviction. A baptism. A jump in the river. A cleansing to start anew. He says this is just water. The Christ, the Spirit, the creativity of the universe is the real power. This power is on the way. We think of Christmas as creativity of Christ being born within us.

So the people are excited about this.
We are too.
We want that.
We want to bear fruit.
To be a blessing.
To have what we do be meaningful and helpful.

Sometimes that change that turning might be a recognition that we are a blessing already but we aren’t aware of it. That is the story of the Wizard of Oz, right? The wizard who is a good man but a bad wizard gives awards to the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion. They all are lacking wisdom, compassion, and courage respectively. But the wizard shows them that they already possess these qualities. They already are a blessing. They just need to recognize it.

It could be that we are already bearing fruit (and I would say we are) but we don’t think of it as such. We are doing good work and are already a blessing.

Back to our story. The people ask John the Baptist: “What do we need to do?”

Here is his answer:

Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.

That is to the heart of the matter. The great accomplishment of civilization is that people didn’t have to live hand to mouth. The agricultural revolution allowed for surpluses and for towns and cities and educated classes and governments and roads and standing armies and all kinds of marvelous things.

It also resulted in great inequities. While on one hand some had food to waste, others starved.

John the Baptist is speaking to those whose privilege has allowed them to benefit by this economic system. In John’s audience there might have been those who had no coat and who had no food. What is recorded is John’s speech to those who did have extra coats and food. John is putting the responsibility on those with means and privilege to turn the system so it is more just.

This is not a matter of individual charity. This isn’t about giving a can of corn to the homeless shelter at Christmas. That is a great thing to do. John is asking a great deal more. He is talking about changing our values and the way we live. If we always shared the surplus we wouldn’t need homeless shelters.

I can’t read this passage and not think of the health care debate. Where are our values? .

“I have health care. What should I do, Mr. John the Baptist?”

I think John might have replied,

“Well why don’t you see to it that others have it as well?”

John believes that some great change is upon them. The axe is at the root of the tree, he says. This change, this metanoia, this repentance, this turning will involve a reversal of sorts. When the angel announced to Mary that she was to give birth to Jesus, she said,

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Throughout the gospels Jesus is quoted as saying,

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

Wisdom teachers are always aware of the change and the turning that is about to take place. Only the foolish think that things stay the same.
Life is change.
Let us let go and let be.

The values of this age, the values of domination and injustice, are about to be turned upside down. That is the message of the gospel. John is inviting people of privilege to be a part of this change and to bear fruit for this change.

Participate in economic justice…food, clothing, shelter, health care…move from clinging to sharing.

Then the text reads:

“Even tax collectors came to him to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher what should we do?”

And he said to them,

“Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”

If that were to happen, the system might collapse. It isn’t as if tax collectors were salaried employees like IRS agents. Their job was to shake you down, pay their quota to Rome and keep as much as they could for themselves. The tragedy is that the collectors were the oppressed extorting their own people. Rome did what it did well; it divided and conquered. It pit the people against each other. The taxes were heavy and they were collected by their own people so the rage was directed at them as opposed to Rome.

It is interesting that Luke records the three major sources of oppression by the Roman Empire over the Jews.
  1. Surplus and inequity,
  2. taxation, and
  3. armed occupation.
That is the third group that comes to John:

Soldiers also asked him,

“And what should we do?”

He said to them,

“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.”

It is easy to see that the reason soldiers extorted money is that their wages were not satisfactory. Rome counted on the soldiers to extort. That is how the system worked.

The interesting point here is that John is setting up a revolution. John’s baptizing is changing the loyalties of those who are benefiting from or who are directly involved in Rome’s domination of the Jews. He is targeting the wealthy, tax collectors, and soldiers, and challenging them to do justice and to change things from within.

This is how first century historian Josephus put it regarding John the Baptist. Josephus writes in this elevated elitist language:

Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause…

As Josephus knew, John the Baptist was beheaded because he was meddling. He was up to mischief. He was talking about a new way of living as opposed to systems of economic exploitation. He was about nothing less than changing the values of Empire itself.

The Church, because the Church has historically benefited by the power of Empire, turns John the Baptist into a fundamentalist hellfire preacher obsessed with pecadillos and getting into heaven. A careful reading of the text shows that he was more interested in social, political, and economic justice.

So what about us? What do we do with this interesting story in the Bible?

What I take away from this story is that our personal fruit bearing, and the corresponding pruning that is required to bear fruit is connected to our social good. Bearing fruit is about living with Earth and all its life in a just way. Whatever pruning, letting go, bearing fruit that we are invited to do, it is all connected with being a blessing. We are here to be blessed by the universe and to be a blessing in return.

One of my favorite quotes is from Gary Snyder.

If we are here for any good purpose at all...I suspect it is to entertain the rest of nature. A gang of sexy primate clowns. All the little critters creep in close to listen when human beings are in a good mood and willing to play some tunes.

The second thing I take away from this story is that those with privilege are not left out. This story is not saying the poor are all good and the rich are all bad and there is nothing you can do. In each case, those who come for baptism are those with means who are invited to use their means for good.

There is hope there. Those with privilege are not simply condemned but are invited and challenged to use their privilege for good.

To help somebody.

I have a song to go with that. This is Susan Werner. Crank it up.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Refiner's Fire and Fuller's Soap (12/6/09)

A Refiner’s Fire and Fuller’s Soap
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 6, 2009
Second Sunday of Advent

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 3:1-6

During the Fall we have been exploring the via negativa, the way of letting go. This is one of four spiritual paths in Creation Spirituality. The others are the way of awe and wonder or via positiva, the way of justice-making or via transformativa and the way of creativity or via creativa. These four paths as Matthew Fox puts it are “like a spiral danced.”

I have decided to focus on one path per season during worship. The season of fall as the leaves turn, as the light of the day shortens, and as Earth (at least in the northern hemisphere) gets ready for sleep is a season of letting go. Beginning with the Winter Solstice we will explore the path of creativity. At the darkest, the light comes into the world, the creativity of the Incarnation opens us to possibilities that we had not imagined. This next path may be welcome after a season of letting go.

The via negativa acknowledges that God, whatever it is we might mean by that term, is in the dark places as well as the light places. God is in the grieving as well as in the celebrating. As the psalmist writes to God, “Where could I go from your presence? If I go to Sheol (the Pit) you are there.”

The psalmist is not necessarily wanting God to be around. The experience of the Divine is one of intensity, unbearable intensity and the psalmist wants to be left alone. But God won’t have it. For those whose spirituality feels like tangling, wrestling, or struggling with the Divine, you know what the psalmist is feeling.

In Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus experiences the Divine Spirit not as a gentle dove but as a raptor with talons piercing his skull and lifting him by the head. In Kazantzakis portrait, Jesus just wants a normal life. He wants to marry Mary Magdalene, settle down have kids, a mortgage, be normal, but this Divine Hawk has other plans for him.

What is being acknowledged here is that the experience of life is not always fluffy or easy or normal. Thinking of life and our experience as a way, a path, or a via, is in part how to cope with all of that. We may discover that our life is not “normal,” but perhaps we shouldn’t try so hard to make it so.

One of the distinguishing marks of the prophet (that is a person called out to speak a particular word) is that the prophet doesn’t want the job.
I don’t want to speak this. Get somebody else. Get someone with more skills, someone who is better with words, I just want to be left alone.
Moses and Jonah represent those who don’t want this role and yet it is given to them by the sheer force of Divine presence.

Jeremiah speaks of the humanity of this. Listen to the pathos of this prophet who is taken over, possessed by Yahweh:

O Lord, you have enticed me,
and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughing-stock all day long;
everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out,
I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’
For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, ‘I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name’,
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.

Jeremiah goes on and on cursing the day he was born because of his role. He has been given this job and he doesn’t like it but he can’t resist it. Like Moses and Jonah and the other prophets, like John the Baptist we read about today, like Jesus, what they did was not easy, pleasant, or normal. What they did ended up being life-giving for others.

Martin Luther King, Jr. could have decided to stay home instead of going to Memphis. But staying home would have gone against his character.

Rachel Carson could have done something besides writing Silent Spring. She could have. But she wouldn’t have done her part in raising awareness as to how we were poisoning our planet.

Harvey Milk didn’t have to run for city supervisor in San Francisco. He didn’t have to lead marches and be outspoken. But he knew he had to give people hope.

All of them experienced the Divine like a Refiner’s Fire and Fuller’s Soap.

These images of Refiner’s Fire and Fuller’s Soap found in Malachi illustrate the intensity of the experience of letting go.

A refiner’s fire would be used purify metal. It was about as intense a fire as ancients could make. You didn’t want to get near it. It needed to be hot and intense to purify or refine the metal.

Fullers were those who bleached and cleaned wool before it was made into clothing. They had to practice their trade outside of the city because of the stench. The soap would be lye, white clay, urine, and ashes of desert plants.

The author of holy scripture, the prophet we know as Malachi tells us that a refiner’s fire and putrid smelling soap is an image for God.

Here is a children's sermon. What is God like kids?

God is like stinky soap made of urine.

That was the point that these ancient authors were making.

The messenger, the prophet, the one who tells the truth, is one who is repulsive as fuller’s soap and a refiner’s fire. Because that is what it will take to wake us up.

The via negativa is emptying, refining, cleansing, purifying.

The prophet of the via negativa, John the Baptist, calling out for a change of heart, is calling for us to face some painful truths. It is up to us as to how to respond.

These past few weeks during the Adult Forum we have been watching a film entitled Home. It is a film about Earth’s history and the human impact on Earth. It spares us little in describing the crises we are facing in terms of ecology. The mood upon watching the film has been sobering, almost despairing. In response to that we feel a need to avoid despair at all cost.
Give me some good news so I don’t have to feel this way.
It will come. But first we have to live with it.

Matthew Fox in his book on the four spiritual paths, Original Blessing, writes of the via negativa:
By the very acknowledgment of our darkness and of our pain we are saved, that is, healed. By refusing to cover up the cosmic despair and the cosmic anguish that life rains on us we make healing possible. We allow an entrance into the wound to take place. By letting pain be pain we allow healing to be healing, and instead of healing our projections or our imaginary darknesses we heal what is truly in pain, what is deeply and irretrievably dark. p. 163
Salvation comes through the via negativa by going into the dragon’s lair and facing the beast. It is embracing the fear and entering the darkest of the dark. This is what it may mean to love our enemies. We embrace that which wants to destroy us.

When we too soon jump to a solution or a platitude for our cosmic anguish, it feels trite. It isn’t real. It isn’t real hope or faith, it is like giving someone a Wal-Mart smiley face after she has lost a dear friend. It is almost insulting. We want to say:

Please don’t, just let me be.

The cosmic anguish is not the end. It isn’t the final answer. But we have to get to zero point first. It is like the alcoholic who has to hit bottom and that bottom can seem bottomless before the creative power of healing can happen. It is a constant return to honesty. You can’t heal unless you are honest.

The Alcoholics Anonymous book, known as the big book says:
Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. P. 58.
The via negativa or the way of letting go is rigorous honesty.

With the via negativa we are going back to our source or our origins. We are going back to our nothingness. There we find the strength underneath the projections and the masks and the fake answers.

That is what this refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap thing is about. It is an unbearably hot and smelly honesty. If we are wise, we won’t hide from it. We will let it purify us. In so doing we will find who we are really are as individuals and as a species.

Langston Hughes, in his poem Mother to Son speaks of the strength of the via negativa:

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So, boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps.
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now—
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

We will find that we have strength within that we had never thought possible. We will find our voices and our courage. We will find our joy, our purpose, our meaning.

Or as John the Baptist put it nearly two millennia ago:

Then the whole human race will see the salvation of God