Friday, December 24, 2010

Via Creativa (Christmas Eve 2010)

Via Creativa
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Christmas Eve 2010

In the 14th century, a theologian by the name of Meister Eckhart was tried for heresy by Pope John XXII. He had the last word. He died before they could come to a decision. His status within the church is still discussed, as recently as of March of this year. Some have been attempting to clear his name. The word from the Vatican, apparently is that since he had never been condemned by name he is still considered an orthodox theologian.

But you don’t hear many orthodox theologians, especially men, saying things like this about Christmas.  This is Meister Eckhart from the 14th century:
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.
Another theologian, who was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church for his views, and is now an Episcopal priest, Matthew Fox, is a devotee of Eckhart. Matthew Fox and his ideas have made an impact on me and on many in this congregation.

He found trouble with the authorities because he challenged the notion of original sin. He didn’t find much that was original about it and instead he suggested we focus on original blessing. Creation is a blessing. Life itself is a miracle. That we exist is amazing. According to Fox, humanity’s primary identity is not depraved, fallen, or sinful, but that we are a blessing.

We homo sapiens can do some pretty incredible things. We can talk. We can think. We can write “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, compose Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and paint Mona Lisa’s smile. We can calculate pi to one thousand one hundred twenty decimal digits, make fire, text our friends during the sermon with our opposable thumbs, and we can show compassion to and aid a complete stranger who is not a biological kin and who is not in a position to aid us.

It took the universe 13.7 billion years to make you. So you ought to see yourself as pretty darn special. That is original blessing. Wow. Early thinkers on matters of theology were so impressed with themselves that they thought that they were created in the image of God. My guess is that they created God in their image but were too bashful to give themselves credit.

Nevertheless that is the spirit. Life is a blessing. When we take time not to take life for granted, we find that it is amazing. Matthew Fox didn’t say there wasn’t sin: that we do not fail to love, that we do not give into fear, that we do not do destructive things—yes we do certainly. But that isn’t primary. What is primary is life, joy, blessing. Life is teeming everywhere. It is a miracle.

Matthew Fox, inspired by Meister Eckhart and others throughout our various traditions, coined the term Creation Spirituality. It is a spirituality that is Earth-based, is appreciative of human knowledge, especially our cosmological and evolutionary history, sees other faith traditions as many wells dipping into the same river, and is deeply concerned with ecological sustainability and invites us to experience deep compassion for all living things. Matthew Fox wants to create a spirituality for a new millennium. One way to describe him is post-Christian. Which is why he got in trouble with the authorities. They are still operating religion 1.0 and he is at 2.0 at least.

He named four pathways or in Latin vias for the holistic or spiritual life.

The way of awe and wonder at creation and life itself. The via positiva.
The way of letting go and honoring darkness, death, and impermanence. The via negativa.
The way of creativity and imagination. The via creativa.
The way of compassion and justice-making. The via transformativa.

These paths are not a ladder climbed but a spiral danced.

At First Pres., your favorite tree-hugging church in the woods, we have been focusing on one particular path during each season.

Spring is compassion and justice-making.
Summer is awe and wonder.
Fall is letting go and impermanence.
Winter is creativity and imagination.

We have entered Winter. This season begins with Winter Solstice. It is no accident that Jesus was declared to be born at the time of Winter Solstice. Christians adopted it and called it Christmas. Honoring Earth’s return from darkness as the old sun dies and the new sun is born again far predates Christianity.

But Christianity has added some great legends, characters, symbols, and traditions. Christmas lives in legend and symbol, not in historical fact. The magic operates at the unconscious level.

The story of Mary giving birth to the Divine Child is generative, creative stuff. The via creativa is the bringing of light and creativity.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1:1-5
All of that coming into being is language for creativity. Christmas is a celebration to honor that which makes us human, our creativity. Like Mary who courageously says to the angel, “Let it be with me according to your word,” we too, are invited to say “Let the Divine be born within me. Let the Light shine in me.”

As Eckhart said:
We are all meant to be mothers of God.
Creativity is about being creative with images. It is letting our imaginations run wild. It is giving birth to new ideas, to new ways of living, being, and relating. We need open our lives to creativity now more than ever. As our planet reaches its limits, the way we have been doing things cannot continue. We are in the midst of witnessing the birth of a major change in human history. We are experiencing the birth pangs of post-Petroleum Man.

One hundred years from now our descendants will be living on renewable and sustainable forms of energy. They will be living with Earth not against it. They will live in balance, renewing its life, not extracting is resources for a one time use.

Now not only are we witnessing this birth, we are participating in it. Now we need the creativity and the courage to give birth to this new reality for the sake of generations to come. Now is when we need to say “Yes” as Mary did and let Creative Wisdom be born in us. Maybe Christmas 2010 will be the time our descendants will remember when humanity woke up, recognized its denial and addictions, realized the danger we are in, took responsibility, and found the courage and creativity to give birth to a new human being—to be in Eckhart’s words—mothers of God.

In his book Creativity, Matthew Fox writes:
Creativity is who we are, creativity can redeem and save our species….All we need to do is release this creativity, get out of its way….What are we waiting for? Let us remove the obstacles, let go of the guilt, and get moving. We have nothing to lose but our pessimism and cynicism….Creativity is not in short supply. There is an abundance of it, plenty to go around. It has always been this way. From the original fireball to the birth of the atoms, galaxies, supernovas, stars, sun, planets, earth and her marvelous creatures. We humans are latecomers to the creative universe, but we are powerfully endowed with creativity. P. 229
That to me is a hopeful message.

For now, for this night, let it be enough to accept that Divine Creativity is being born. We don’t need to force it or calculate it. How creativity comes to one is not the same for another. We don’t need to mimic another. There is no creative act that is too small. We just need to open our minds and open our hearts to the possibility that there is a job for us to do. We are needed. We are a blessing. Each of us, in our own way and in our own place has creativity and light to share.

Like Mary, we have been summoned. Divine Wisdom, Divine Word, Divine Creativity is coming into the world. What Eckhart said 700 years ago is ripe today:
This, then, is the fullness of time. When the Son of God is begotten in us.
Let it be with me according to your word.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Fun's In the Fight (12/12/10)

The Fun’s in the Fight
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 12, 2010
Third Sunday of Advent

Gospel of Jesus 6:1-14

King Herod heard about Jesus’ exorcism and cures---by now, Jesus’ reputation had become well known. Some spread the rumor that he was Elijah, while others reported that he was a prophet like one of the prophets.

Earlier, Herod himself had sent someone to arrest John and put him in chains in a dungeon, on account of Herodias, because he had abandoned his first wife and married her. So Herodias nursed a grudge against him and wanted to eliminate him, but she couldn’t manage it, because Herod was afraid of John.

Now a festival day came, when Herod gave a banquet on his birthday for his courtiers, and his commanders, and the leading citizens of Galilee. And the daughter of Herodias came in and captivated Herod and his dinner guests by dancing. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish and I’ll grant it to you!” Then he swore an oath to her: “I’ll grant you whatever you ask for, up to half my domain!”

She promptly made her request: “I want you to give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter, right now!”

The king grew regretful, but, on account of his oaths and the dinner guests, he didn’t want to refuse her. So right away the king sent for the executioner and commanded him to bring his head. And he went away and beheaded John in prison.

Jesus began to talk about John to the crowds: “What did you go out to the wilderness to gawk at? A reed shaking in the wind? What did you really go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? But wait! Those who wear fancy clothes are found in regal quarters.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 37, 39. Mark 6:14-29; Matthew 11: 7-8; 14:1-12
Luke 7:24-25; Thomas 78:1-2

Elizabeth Creamer
All I would say was not said in the dance
which, despite the reviews, was not me wholly
but a mimicry of what I learned as a girl

in the market following my mother 
through back alleys to low-ceilinged rooms
where shrouded women whispered of power
as the starting salary for a beauty like me
who could polish her act until it gleamed
so bright it would mirror a man's self-image

like the silver platter at the feast that night. 
No, all I would say was not said in the dance
but the bump and grind was my mother tongue, 
breasts and hips an ingenue's scripted part.
The Baptist risked his neck to exhort a wasted king,
but for me, the daughter, he offered not one sermon.

If the man had only thought that I might think,
I would have chosen a different veil.
As it was, I danced.
It was the only way I knew
for a girl like me
to get a head.

The theme as you can read from the bulletin cover for this Third Sunday of Advent is Joy. That fits quite nicely don’t you think with the beheading of John the Baptist? It is a happy little story filled with drunkenness, sexual politics, the arrogance of the powerful, and violence.

It is a heartwarming tale for Christmas.

Most preachers will tell you that Advent is the most difficult season. Hymns are in a minor key, the texts are depressing, and the season itself has overtones of an apocalyptic end-times scenario.

Then of course there is our reality. Christmas is the season that is the driving force behind our consumerist economy. Forty percent of all retail goods sold during the year are purchased between Thanksgiving Day and December 25th. Ministers are supposed to make you feel bad about that, too. Even though many of us, in fact, probably all of us, count on high retail sales for the success of our businesses, investments, and incomes. We are, after all, interconnected. The Wise Men had no idea what bringing gifts to the Christ child would become.

And we have our own worries. Health, family, livelihoods, drama. Drama is a word I picked up from middle and high school students these past few weeks. They use that word often. Drama. It has to do with volatility and angst in social interactions. Drama. Drama at school. Drama at home. Drama at work. Drama at church.

Christmas with all of its pressures and expectations is certainly a season of high drama.

In that sense, maybe this story about John the Baptist does fit. Who doesn’t fantasize about beheading someone right about now?

If it makes it easier, the story is likely fiction. According to historical Jesus scholar, Dominic Crossan, Mark probably adapted it from an earlier well-known story.

According to this story set in 184 BC, a Roman Senator, Lucius Quinctius Flaminius was expelled from the senate for this atrocious deed. It has to do with a woman. Flaminius was infatuated with the lovely Placentia. She was a notorious woman. Flaminius invites her to dinner. He is trying to impress her by bragging about how many people he has in his prison that he intends to behead. Placentia is reclining below him and tells him that she has never seen a beheading and wouldn’t he mind entertaining her?

According to the text, “the generous lover, ordering one of the wretches to be brought to him, cut off his head with a sword.”

This is all in the context of feasting and drinking. Flaminius is expelled from the senate for this not because the guy was innocent—he would have been beheaded anyway—but because that is no way to exercise power. You don’t execute justice to please a mistress at a party.

Mark’s story of Herod’s misuse of power likely recalls that story. Crossan, Jesus, pp. 35-39

John the Baptist was probably not beheaded because he criticized Herod for taking his brother’s wife. He was, however, executed by Herod. First century historian Josephus hints that Herod was worried that John and his wild-eyed preaching was going to lead to an insurrection.

John probably was an apocalyptic preacher who thought God would finally act (as God acted in Old Testament times) on behalf of Israel over its enemies. John is preparing these people through baptism to stage some sort of protest in anticipation of God’s activity. There were many who did similar things during this volatile period. It usually did not end well. The Romans simply massacred them.

Jesus hears that John is executed. John who baptized him. The writing is on the wall. You follow John the Baptist, you will likely end up like John the Baptist. According to our text:
Jesus began to talk about John to the crowds: “What did you go out to the wilderness to gawk at? A reed shaking in the wind? What did you really go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? But wait! Those who wear fancy clothes are found in regal quarters.”
I think what Jesus is saying is that this is serious business. Standing up to Empire is dangerous. This could be your fate as well as mine. This work is not for those who wear fancy clothes or who are easily shaken like a reed in the wind.

Crossan and some other historical Jesus scholars say that Jesus had a different approach than John. Whereas John was apocalyptic thinking that the kingdom of God would come in a dramatic supernatural way (an analogy would be the modern day rapture believers), Jesus saw it differently. Jesus saw the kingdom of God as already present, within you and among you. He was like John in that he saw the present order of things as corrupt and unsustainable (to use a modern word).

Jesus, like John, rejected the values of domination and exploitation and peace through violence. Unlike John, Jesus saw this new reality, this new way or relating as something that exists now and that we can participate in now. As we look at the things that Jesus did we get a glimpse of what it might mean to participate and to anticipate this kingdom he spoke about.

What did he do? He welcomed all at the table. He transcended ethnic boundaries. He provided healing for families and communities, he resisted oppression not with violence but with non-violence. He declared that the poorest and the left out were the favored ones. He inspired people to hope and work for economic, political, and social justice.

For Jesus, the miracle of the kingdom coming is not a lightning bolt from the sky that wipes out the bad guys, but a gradual awakening and awareness of people living out the values of justice, peace, compassion, and truth.

This work by Jesus is no less risky than that done by John. Jesus was executed as well. Jesus is reported to have said,
“If anyone wants to follow me, let that one pick up a cross.”
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time that do not want equality.
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time that are exploitative of people and of Earth.
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time who think that a very few are destined to control the wealth of the planet.
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time who advocate for endless war to achieve their ends.
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time that have no regard to the future beyond their own immediate future.
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time that will destroy lives and life itself to get their way.
Naming, resisting, and working to change these forces is risky business. It is not for reeds shaken by the wind. The question for each of us is this: Is it worth it?

Picking up the cross doesn’t sound like fun.
What is the difference if it is a losing cause anyway?

First, regarding losing causes.
I quoted Reinhold Niebuhr 
last week and will do so again.
This quote from Niebuhr makes it into my loose-leaf Bible:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
therefore, we are saved by hope.

Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.
It is not up to us to decide beforehand what is or is not a losing cause. What is up to us is to decide what is the right thing and to do it. The outcome is not up to us. We cannot know in advance what our work today will produce tomorrow.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s last book before his death, A Man Without a Country, he tells the story ofIgnaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor. Vonnegut said that Ignaz Semmelweis was his hero. He was born in 1818. He became an obstetrician, devoting his life to the care of mothers and babies.

Vonnegut also told the story of Ignaz Semmelweis during a commencement address. Vonnegut told this story in the context of the “forces” that I mentioned above, who Vonnegut called “the guessers”. Ignaz Semmelweis stood up to the guessers. Here is Vonnegut’s telling:
Ignaz Semmelweis …believed that germs could cause diseases. He was horrified when he went to work for a maternity hospital in Vienna, Austria, to find out that one mother in 10 was dying of childbed fever there.

These were poor people - rich people still had their babies at home. Semmelweis observed hospital routines, and began to suspect that doctors were bringing the infection to the patients. He noticed that the doctors often went directly from dissecting corpses in the morgue to examining mothers in the maternity ward. He suggested as an experiment that the doctors wash their hands before touching the mothers.

What could be more insulting. How dare he make such a suggestion to his social superiors. He was a nobody, he realized. He was from out of town with no friends and protectors among the Austrian nobility. But all that dying went on and on and Semmelweis, having far less sense about how to get along with others in this world than you and I would have, kept on asking his colleagues to wash their hands.

They at last agreed to do this in a spirit of lampoonery, of satire, of scorn. How they must have lathered and lathered and scrubbed and scrubbed and cleaned under their fingernails. The dying stopped - imagine that! The dying stopped. He saved all those lives.

Subsequently, it might be said that he has saved millions of lives - including quite possibly yours and mine. What thanks did Semmelweis get from the leaders of his profession in Viennese society, guessers all? He was forced out of the hospital and out of Austria itself, whose people he had served so well. He finished his career in a provincial hospital in Hungary. There he gave up on humanity, which is us, and our knowledge, which is now yours, and on himself.

One day in the dissecting room, he took the blade of a scalpel with which he had been cutting up a corpse, and he stuck it on purpose into the palm of his hand. He died, as he knew he would, of blood poisoning soon afterward.

The guessers had had all the power. They had won again. Germs indeed. The guessers revealed something else about themselves too, which we should duly note today. They aren't really interested in saving lives. What matters to them is being listened to -as however ignorantly their guessing goes on and on and on. If there's anything they hate, it's a wise guy or a wise girl.

Be one anyway. Save our lives and your lives too. Be honorable.
That was Kurt Vonnegut recounting the story of Ignaz Semmelweis. A sad story, on one level, for him personally. It shows that we do not know in advance if our cause is lost or not. An important story for us. We need to take the risks to stand up to the guessers-- the forces-- for what is right and good and decent.

That is why it is worth it figuratively, or perhaps literally, to pick up the cross and take the risk.

I am going to suggest that there is a bonus.

Beheadings notwithstanding, fighting the good fight can be fun and downright joyful.

I think another difference between Jesus and John the Baptist is that Jesus might have had a bit more fun. The gospels recount that people criticized Jesus because he and his followers feasted and ate and drank while John’s followers fasted and looked gloomy. Maybe that is why Jesus outlasted John. Jesus resisted the guessers—the forces—as much as John did, but Jesus had fun doing it.

Don’t forget to enjoy life—to consider the lilies—to enjoy what you can.

Joy is not found in the absence of drama, but in its midst.

This Third Sunday of Advent is for Joy. I think it is the joy of a good scrap.

Another individual who has made it into my loose-leaf Bible is Molly Ivins. Those who have been paying attention at sermon time, know that I have quoted Molly before. But as with all Scripture, it is good for the soul to hear it more than once. This is from an article whose title I borrowed for my sermon title, “The Fun’s in the Fight”:
So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.
Let us pray:

Tender God, touch us,
Be touched by us,
Make us lovers of humanity,
Compassionate friends of all creation.
Gracious God, hear us into speech,
Speak us into acting,
And through us, recreate the world.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Outside the Beltway (12/5/2010)

Outside the Beltway
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 5th, 2010
Second Sunday of Advent

Gospel of Jesus 1:1-15

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 11, 13. Mark 1:4-6, 15; Matthew 3:1-2, 4-10; Luke 3:7-15

John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness calling for baptism and a change of heart that lead to forgiveness of sins. And everyone from the Judean countryside and all the residents of Jerusalem streamed out to him and got baptized by him in the Jordan River, admitting their sins. And John wore a mantle made of camel hair and had a leather belt around his waist and lived on locusts and raw honey.

John would call out: “Change your ways because Heaven’s imperial rule is closing in.”

John would say to the crowds that came out to get baptized by him, “You slimy bastards! Who warned you to flee from the impending doom? Well then, start producing fruits suitable for a change of heart, and don’t even start saying to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father.’ Let me tell you, God can raise up children Abraham right out of these rocks. Even now the axe is aimed at the root of the trees. So every tree not producing choice fruit gets cut down and tossed into the fire.”

The crowds would ask him, “So what should we do?”

And he would tell them, “Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none; whoever has food should do the same.”

Toll collectors also came to get baptized, and they would ask him, “Teacher, what should we do?”

He told them, “Charge nothing above the official rates.”

Soldiers also asked him, “And what about us?”

And he said to them, “No more shakedowns! No more frame-ups either! And be satisfied with your pay.”

The people were filled with expectation and everyone was trying to figure out whether John might be the Anointed.

John’s answer was the same to everyone: “Someone more powerful than I will succeed me, whose sandal straps I am not fit to bend down and untie. I have been baptizing you with water, but he will baptize you with holy spirit.”

What is John doing in the wilderness?

What sort of baptism is he performing?

Is it for personal ritual piety or is he preparing people for a revolt?

Dominic Crossan in his book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography helps us get a handle on John the Baptist and what he was doing. Crossan writes that the
“Wilderness is not just sand and the Jordan is not just water”. P. 46.
Water could be found in many places. John wasn’t simply baptizing with water. He was baptizing with water from the Jordan.

The Wilderness and the Jordan River were powerful symbols for the Jewish people. It was in the wilderness that according to Torah the Israelites spent forty years wandering with Moses.   It was a time of preparation, of penitence, of purification, of accounting for sins in order to prepare them for the Promised Land.

After these 40 years, from this Wilderness, across the Jordan and into the Promised Land Joshua marched the Israelites. They circled Jericho with trumpets until the walls came a tumblin’ down.

That is the story. It is fiction, to be sure, but it is their fiction. It is how they defined themselves.   In the time of John the Baptist, it isn’t the Canaanites who need to be defeated but the Romans. The Romans with their armies are in the Promised Land. John the Baptist is preparing the crowds. He is creating to use Crossan’s phrase, “ticking apocalyptic time-bombs” to go back into the Promised Land and await God who is to come with fire and apocalyptic judgment separating wheat from chaff, the good from the bad.

John the Baptist is an apocalyptic prophet in the stream of the Hebrew prophets before him, announcing the Empire of God that is closing in. Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote his work in the first century around the same time the New Testament was written, writes about John:
Herod had put him [John, surnamed the Baptist] to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behavior.
That seems pretty mild, doesn’t it? Why would Herod put anyone to death for baptizing people for sins or for exhorting people to live good pious lives? Josephus gives it away as he continues:
When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to await for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and see his mistake….John, because of Herod’s suspicious, was brought in chains to Machaerus, and there put to death. (Crossan, Jesus, pp. 33-4)
Now we have words like “crowds, aroused, sedition, uprising, upheaval”. That doesn’t sound like harmless piety any longer.

But Josephus gives no details or explanations.

The Gospels seem also to want to whitewash John the Baptist.

I think that both John the Baptist and Jesus who was baptized by John, who accepted John’s vision, were both about resisting Empire and preparing people to resist Empire. The writers of the Gospels who told their stories and who told them after the disaster of the Jewish Revolt and massacre at the hands of the Romans had to be careful how they told this story. They concealed as they revealed. They couldn’t be seen as overtly anti-Roman.

They paint John the Baptist as little more than a forerunner to Jesus who then becomes a supernatural figure who dies for our sins, our personal peccadilloes. Once the prophets go mainstream and become tools for Empire, they lose their teeth. They no longer are able to call Empire to task. They are no longer able to prepare people to resist Empire.

We are here now in the second decade of the 21st century. We are the inheritors of Christianity. We are "raking through the ashes of Christendom" (via), looking for symbols, figures, narratives, mythologies, and rituals to help us face the challenges of our time.

John the Baptist, from the wilderness, outside the beltway, off the grid, eating locusts and wild honey, might be a helpful symbol for us. He speaks from a vantage point of critique. He can see from the outside what we on the inside cannot see. He instructs us. He shows us what Empire is doing, the destruction it is causing, the waste it produces, and the death it causes. He baptizes us, redefining us, providing us with a role to play and the spiritual strength to play it. He sends us back in to be leaven, to witness to a different way of living, to speak the truth.

There are many modern day John the Baptists. On my list (and you may have a list of your own) include Matthew Fox, Bill McKibben, Michael Ruppert, David Ray Griffin, Joanna Macy, Dianne Dumanoski, Richard Heinberg, Naomi Wolf, Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva, Walter Wink, all telling us as John the Baptist, did 2000 years ago, “the axe is at the root of the tree.”

Simply put: Empire is unjust. It is unsustainable. It is changing. Be prepared.

John gets specific. He speaks about economic justice.

Crowds ask him,
“What should we do?”
He tells them,
“Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none; whoever has food should do the same.”
The principles of corporatism that have taken hold of our elected leadership have taken what John the Baptist has said and twisted it. They think John the Baptist really meant this:
“Whoever has two shirts should find someone who has one and take it too.”
Those are the folks who want to lower taxes for the wealthy while the two million people whose unemployment benefits are running out right now, this week, at Christmas, can go ahead and starve. What? Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

To the toll collectors who made their living by extortion and collaboration with empire:
“Charge nothing above the official rates.”
To the soldiers he said:

“No more shakedowns! No more frame-ups either! And be satisfied with your pay.”
All of those statements have to do with abuse of power. He wasn’t speaking just to individuals but to an entire system of injustice and inequity embedded in Roman occupation and oppressive taxation of the poorest and most vulnerable.

How do you begin to overcome that?
You baptize individuals.
You wake folks up so they can see what is happening.
You unleash creativity within them so they can resist.
You start conversations.

This past Thursday, Dr. Matthew Johnson of Every Church A Peace Church spoke from this pulpit. He preached a sermon then did question and answer about Every Church a Peace Church. This is Dr. Johnson from the website:
Every Church A Peace Church is committed to the vision of PAXION (peace action) as the method to bring about a just social order, which entails the elimination of militarism (and its pernicious spawn of rabid nationalism masquerading as patriotism) poverty, racism in all its guises, materialism and gender bias. It is our firm conviction that these institutional realities are the structural harbingers of the violence we witness daily in our homes and streets, as well as that perpetrated by our and other governments the world over. This sequela of injustice, greed and hatred has worn the cloak of religious sanctification for centuries. ECAPC is determined to help strip it away by revealing to our local communities, nation and our world the will of God for a humble, just and merciful humanity.

We believe that if you are not actively engaged in overcoming these realities you are in complicity with an oppressive status quo. Jesus of Nazareth was no such conformist. He was a creative non-conformist. Our goal is to help summon the church to its larger call to shake off the apathy grown in the soil of a jaded consumerism, cultivated in a spiritual climate of ignorance and isolationism and take up his cross and follow him. Now is the time for us to respond with head and heart to the challenges before us. The challenges at hand provide the greatest opportunities for a true witness to the living God and her care for a morally depleted and violent world. Join us in our efforts. Become a part of God’s new movement to forge ahead in the realization of the age old vision of a beloved community.
Dr. Matthew Johnson is another to add to the list of John the Baptist types. When he was here he talked about the importance of overcoming our isolation, of connecting with one another, even as we take on particular issues. The work of PFLAG is related to the work of United Religions Initiative is related to the Alternative Giving is related to Appalachia Service Project is related to the Shepherd’s Inn is related to Green Interfaith Network and everything else I haven’t mentioned. We are all in this together.

There is much in the Christian tradition that I don’t mind letting go. As we rake through Christendom's ashes, there is much I don't mind leaving in the ash heap.

But John the Baptist I want to keep. He is the wild man from the wilderness who calls it as he sees it and wakes us up and gives us a job to do.

There is no whining in the Empire of Heaven.
No moping and complaining about how others don’t get it right.
Instead you repent of sin which simply means to me that we admit we are not infallible or as righteous as we think we are.

If we are down on ourselves we repent of thinking that way too.
We aren’t as fallible or as unrighteous as we think we are.
We are human beings in all of its mud and beauty.

We take the plunge in the water of humanity, dry ourselves off and get to work.
No work is too small.
No job is too big.
We do what we find before us to do.

We have no idea what the future will hold.
We need not be afraid.
Just awake.
There is no need to feel guilt and shame for our past nor fear our future.
We are forgiven.
We are loved.

It has been said that some of the best work done for the kingdom of God was done by people who weren’t feeling well that day.

I like that.

We don’t need to wait to have it together to do the work we have the passion to do.

I will give Reinhold Niebuhr (yet another John the Baptist figure) the last word:
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
therefore, we are saved by hope.

Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
therefore, we are saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
therefore, we are saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own;
therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Un-kingdom of the Un-god (11/21/2010)

The Un-kingdom of the Un-god
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Jesus the Un-king Sunday
November 21st, 2010

Gospel of Jesus 3:18-22 

Jesus would advise them, “Be as sly as snakes and as simple as doves.”

Jesus used to recommend, “Be passersby.”

Jesus would say, “Struggle to get in through the narrow door; I’m telling you, many will try to get in, but won’t be able.”

Jesus said, “When you are about to appear with your opponent before the magistrate, do your best to settle with him on the way, or else he might drag you up before the judge, and the judge turn you over to the jailer, and the jailer throw you into prison. I tell you, you’ll never get out of there until you’ve paid every last red cent.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 25. Thomas 39:3; 42; Matthew 5:25-26; 7:13-14; 10:16; Luke 12:58-59.

The Un-kingdom of the Un-god is a phrase I borrowed from the late Robert Funk in his book, 
A Credible Jesus. Funk points out that Christian tradition turned the human Jesus into an oriental monarch. We even give him a special Sunday, Christ the King.
I do like this poem by Muriel Spark, "The Three Kings". I used it during last year’s Christmas Eve service.
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?
We don’t hear too much about kings these days. Of course we do hear of dictators and warlords. Saudi Arabia has the House of Saud. They are a bit problematic, really. We don’t want to look too closely at human rights violations. It is their culture after all, we rationalize. Besides, whoever controls the oil spigot gets to be king. At least for a while. 

Of course there is the British royal family. I listened with mild amusement while NPR spoke about the upcoming wedding between Prince William and Kate “the commoner” Middleton. They still use that term, “commoner”. 

Writing in the L.A. Times, Michael McGough says that the antics of the royal family and of Hollywood celebrities in the United States are similar. For us, the joys and travails of the beautiful people in the tabloids and corporate news networks provide distraction from the news to which we ought to be paying attention. Perhaps the royal family does the same for the British citizenry. 

The royal family is symbolic to be sure. The queen doesn’t really run the navy. “But” says 
…symbolic or not, the monarchy enshrines in law a distinction between commoners and those who owe their prominence, not to mention their fortunes, to bloodlines. At least Hollywood stars earn their celebrity -- sometimes anyway.
The smart way is to have all the characteristics of Empire, and to keep those fortunes flowing for the privileged, while officially not being an Empire. It is to pretend to democracy but only offer choices that essentially are the same. Such as…
  • Two political parties that have little more than superficial differences.
  • Three or four corporate food producers that control virtually all food production.
  • Three or four energy corporations that control extraction and supply of energy.
  • Three or four media corporations that control virtually all media, which in turn is funded and whose message is provided by these other corporations.
Then provide virtually unlimited funding and access to elected officials by these corporations while distracting the populace with celebrity puff and infotainment, and you have won the day. 

You have sealed the deal.
 Give yourself a crown. It is American Empire that pretends otherwise. 

Boy preacher, you are meddlin’ this morning.

It is Christ the King Sunday. What am I supposed to do? 

It is in this world of empire that Jesus appeared. Different names, same Empire. 

The gospels are stories of conflict. The conflict is between Jesus and the authorities. The conflict ends in his torture and execution at the hand of established authority that is Empire. You can’t get any more political than that. 

According to these early rabble-rousers, the Gospel story does not end there.

The early followers of Jesus had the chutzpa to say that Empire did not win the day even though it had executed their hero, their un-king. They cobbled together metaphors (such as “getting up” from the dead, son of God, Lord and Savior, Peace, and Gospel). They took these metaphors that the Roman Emperor had used for himself and with tongue in cheek applied them to Jesus, this “peasant with an attitude” as Dominic Crossan calls him.

They said funny things like…

Jesus is the anointed one! 
Jesus is son of God.
Jesus’ message of “God favors the poor” is Gospel.
Jesus “got up” from the dead and is among us.
Jesus is Emperor and Savior.
Jesus offers peace but not as Empire gives.
All of this strange juxtaposition, this odd and creatively subversive application of the honorific titles of Caesar to Jesus, helped our early heroes resist the dehumanizing forces of Empire’s boot. They found dignity and power. They found community and with that support and alternative to Empire.

It is certainly true that empires and kingdoms and governments and institutions (including the institutional church) since that time have found ways to use Jesus to serve their interests.

They turned him into a king, who acts like a dictator, letting some people into his kingdom and sending others (most?) to hell. 

And this King Jesus has been used to justify, sanctify, and promote

  • inquisitions,
  • the oppression of women,
  • slavery,
  • religious intolerance,
  • wars for profit, resources, and territory,
  • fundamentalism,
  • persecution of Jews,
  • persecution of Muslims,
  • persecution of heretical Christians,
  • persecution of indigenous people,
  • persecution of gays,
  • psychic damage,
  • guilt,
  • shame,
  • superstition,
  • the squelching of doubt,
  • the silencing of science,
  • the abuse of Earth,
  • really tacky bumper stickers, and
  • bad praise songs.

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.
That’s right. We don’t need kings. Even King Jesus.

Instead, we are discovering and reclaiming Jesus the un-king. 

While all of this kingdom making has been happening over the centuries, at the same time there has been a prophetic voice that has been a voice for what Matthew Fox calls a Creation-Centered ethic. 

This is the voice of

  • Jesus the nobody.
  • Jesus the peasant.
  • Jesus the bullied.
  • Jesus the friend of Earth.
  • Jesus the healer.
  • Jesus the way of non-violence.
  • Jesus the gatherer of the outcast.
  • Jesus the teller of truth.
  • Jesus the voice of peace and compassion.
  • Jesus the way of justice and sustainability.

That is the voice we need to hear and to follow today.

This voice is not loud. It is barely audible. It surfaces then goes under again.
It is a voice that is sly as a snake and simple as a dove.It is a voice that learns how to settle with opponents rather than to be put in their prisons.(Although, it doesn’t always learn). 
It is a voice with patience.
It knows of change. 
This too shall pass so be a passerby.
It is a voice that speaks of the way of peace that is a narrow door few can enter because the broad path of violence looks so easy, tempting, and obvious.
It is a voice of parable and subtlety that stuns the mind and disturbs the soul.
  • It was heard in the cadences of Martin Luther King Jr.’s preaching.
  • It was heard in the edgy wisdom of Dorothy Day.
  • It is heard in the beat of an African djembe.
  • It is heard in the songs of women in the Congo.
  • It is heard in the songs of birds,
  • in the crash of waves,
  • in the words of poets, like Mary Oliver, who writes:

At the edge of the ocean I have heard this music before, saith the body.
It is the voice of the body, of bodies, of bodies diseased and beaten, of bodies tortured for greed and profit, of bodies who no longer have voices, but whose voice we hear from those who courageously carry their memory in their bodies.
It is a voice that says no to greed and lies and yes to life, yes to sharing, yes to cooperation, and yes to forgiveness. 

All over Earth, if we listen, we can hear the voice of Jesus the un-king. Known in many forms, known beyond all religions. Underneath the din and the noise of Empire, Jesus the un-king speaks peace.

The writer of John's Gospel heard this voice and repeated it in his own refrain. For him, he heard Jesus the un-king say:

Peace I give to you. Not as the world gives—not as Empire gives—not as the military machine gives—not as the profit and loss statement gives. Peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not let them be afraid.
Peace. Peace. Peace. Amen.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Jesus' Family Values (11/14/2010)

Jesus’ Family Values
John Shuck

November 14, 2010

Gospel of Jesus 11:1-18 

Then he goes home, and once again a crowd gathers, so they could not even grab a bite to eat. When his relatives heard about it, they came to get him. (You see, they thought he was out of his mind.) Many folks were saying, “He’s out of his mind and crazy. Why pay attention to him?”

Then his mother and his brothers arrive. While still outside, they send in and ask for him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they say to him, “Look, your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside looking for you.”

In response he says to them: “My mother and brothers—who ever are they?”

And looking right at those seated around him in a circle, he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will, that’s my brother and sister and mother!”

Once when hordes of people were traveling with him, he turned and addressed them: “If any of you comes to me and does not hate your own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life—you’re no disciple of mine.”

Then he left that place and he comes to his hometown, and his disciples follow him. When the Sabbath day arrived, he started teaching in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astounded and said so: “Where’s he getting this?” and “What’s the source of this wisdom?” and “Who gave him the right to perform such miracles? This is the carpenter, isn’t it? Isn’t he Mary’s son? And who are his brothers, if not James and Judas and Simon? And who are his sisters, if not our neighbors?” and they were resentful of him.

Jesus used to tell them: “No prophet goes without respect, except in his home turf and among his relatives and at home!”

He was unable to perform a single miracle there, except that he did cure a few by laying hands on them. And he used to go around the villages, teaching them.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 53-57. Mark 3:20-21, 31-35; 6:1-6; John 10:20; Luke 14:25-26; Matthew 10:37; 12:46-50; 13:54-58; Thomas 55:1; 101:1-2

I am not an expert on family systems. The most obvious statement in the world is the following:

Families are difficult.

While many politicians and religious figures claim to be all in favor of family values, I wonder if those sentiments are little more than sloganeering. That is especially true when these same family values groups seek to set policy and pass laws that make it harder for some families.

It is even more curious when these family values groups attempt to base their ideology on the teachings of Jesus and the Bible. Jesus in particular. Here is a guy who left his family and lived with a bunch of men begging around the countryside. He urged his followers to leave their families. In fact he is reported to have said:
If any of you comes to me and does not hate your own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life—you’re no disciple of mine.”
I don’t think I have ever seen that verse of scripture on any Mother’s Day greeting card at Walgreen’s.

For mom on her day, a message from Jesus.

I am not an expert on family systems. That should make me less interested in judging others’ families.

Families are difficult.

We should be kind. We should be helpful.

My personal story is a fortunate story. I was lucky to be raised in a loving family that provided for me food, shelter, education, stability, and emotional strength. It was and is a loving family.   I like to think I passed some of that good on to my current family. From my life experience and from interacting with others in the ministry I know that families are very different from each other. All families, even the good ones, have their stuff.

So we should be kind.
Kind to ourselves.
Kind to others as we do not know what they received or did not receive from their families.
Kind (as we can be) to our own family members.

We should be kind as a society to families however they are configured.
  • There is no absolute stamp from heaven that says this is what a family should be.
  • Or...conversely, no stamp from heaven declaring that this is what a family should not be.
  • There is no absolute stamp from heaven that says this person does not deserve happiness or love.
We need families. Whether they are families based on kinship or families of choice, it is wise to be as connected as we can.

There are a couple of things to be said about Jesus and families.

The first is that Jesus did want to strengthen families.

This is from Richard Horsley,
Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor:

Contrary to recent individualist constructions of Jesus as having called his disciples to leave family and village to pursue an itinerant individual lifestyle, the Gospel sources portray Jesus as having sent his disciples into villages to work at the renewal of family and community. In Mark, Jesus repeatedly visits villages or “towns” and places” in Galilee and surrounding areas. Almost in passing, as if it would be obvious, Mark has Jesus teaching and healing in the village assemblies….’ P. 135
When Jesus and his disciples go into villages to heal, cast out demons, and teach, they are doing what we might call today, community organizing. They are helping the village peasantry bond together, resist oppression, and survive economic pressures.

Whenever Jesus does a healing in the gospels, the point is not magical curing of disease, it is about restoring people to community and to family.

The second thing about Jesus and the family is flexibility.

The things that stress families then and now are often pressures from the outside such as economic pressures. The more rigid a structure is when under pressure the more likely it is to crack and break. The more malleable and flexible the more likely it is to bend and to remain strong.

When I counsel couples who wish to be married or have a holy union service, I have them take a relationship inventory. We send it off to Minnesota where the computer evaluates it and send it back. It is a very helpful tool. Through it we talk about communication, conflict, finances, and so forth, those things that make up relationships.

We also look at family of origin issues. One set of questions helps the couple evaluate flexibility and closeness in terms of both their family of origin and in their current relationship.   Flexibility relates to how a family makes decisions and adapts to change. The optimum place on the scale is between rigidity on one side and no structure at all on the other.

Then the couple thinks back on their family of origin and I ask them to name some things that they want to keep from their family of origin and some things they want to let go or leave behind. A strong word for that might be hate.

When Jesus said:
"If any of you comes to me and does not hate your own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life—you’re no disciple of mine.”
What did he mean?

I think he was challenging his people to be flexible. We need to be flexible in defining what a family is who we are to care for and who is to care for us if we are going to make it. I think he was speaking in hyperbolic terms about things of which we need to let go in order to move ahead.

I do know that a lot of mischief has been done in the name of that saying of Jesus as well as this one:
“Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will, that’s my brother and sister and mother!’
Many cult leaders and others with grand ideas have been able to convince people that they should leave responsibilities and family connections for some supposed higher calling.

The question that would need definition is, “What is God’s will?”

I think Horsley is right. Jesus did not intend to start a personality cult. He certainly wasn’t about superstitious metaphysical theories. Jesus was about how to make his people stronger and how to help them let go of unhealthy patterns and develop ones suitable for resistance and survival.

  • That meant loving the enemy,
  • It meant allowing the Samaritan who was as oppressed by Empire as much as the Jew, help you.
  • It was about sharing across family boundaries.
  • It was about creating flexible and strong kinship patterns that would connect villages and communities as opposed to dividing them.
  • Jesus was about caring for the widow and the beggar, not leaving them to starve.
At the end of his life, from the cross, the story is probably legendary, but still it captures his character, he tells the beloved disciple: “Behold your mother.” Whose mother is it? It is Jesus’ mother. Obviously, Jesus did not hate his mother. He provided for her in dramatic terms.

This is your mother. This is your son.
Care for one another as if your tie was biological.

I know many in this room have had struggles with family.
Some have been able to reconcile with family.
Some have not.
Some have been rejected by families.

On October 11th over 100 students gathered at ETSU for coming out day. After that event about 50 or 60 gathered at the Presbyterian Campus House to share their stories. I won’t share any specifics but it is safe to say that it was an emotional night. Many of the stories had something to do with religion. It usually wasn’t positive. Some students were shunned by their own family members. Not all. It did make me happy when someone said how important it was for them to be able to be in a house connected with a church where they were accepted.

Families are difficult.

An important book is entitled,
Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America.

The editor, Mitchell Gold, is from North Carolina, and many of the stories feature people from this area of the country. These are real stories by real people who have had to deal with families.

Families are difficult.

One of the things that is hurting families today is homophobia.
It is prejudice.

To put it in first century terms, homophobia is a demon.

Homophobia is dividing and destroying families and it is dividing our nation and our faith communities. It is preached from pulpits and courted by sleazy politicians who use it to get votes.

Homophobia needs an exorcism.
  • We exorcise that demon by naming it.
  • We exorcise that demon by education.
  • We exorcise that demon by being courageous.
  • We exorcise that demon by stepping out of our own comfort zones and meeting people.
We don’t allow homophobia a home.

It is important for our denomination and for our congregations to get this right. We need to be places of healing and wholeness not places of ignorance and condemnation. We need to be courageous and stand up to name calling and bullying and we need to show the world that it is not cool, it is not manly, it is not Godly to participate in this prejudice either openly or by silently allowing it.

We need to heal our families.

Families are important whether they be families of kin or families of choice.

May this community continue to be a community of courage and strength, welcome and hope to individuals and to families of all kinds.

And above all and in all,
Let us simply remember to be kind.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Whistle-Blower (11/7/2010)

The Whistle-Blower
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 7, 2010

Jesus would tell this parable:

You know, it’s like a man going on a trip who called his slaves and turned his valuables over to them. To the first he gave thirty thousand silver coins, to the second twelve thousand, and to the third six thousand, to each in relation to his ability, and he left.

Immediately the one who had received thirty thousand silver coins went out and put the money to work; he doubled his investment.

The second also doubled his money.

But the third, who had received the smallest amount, went out, dug a hole and hid his master’s silver.

After a long absence the slaves’ master returned to settle accounts with them. The first, who had received thirty thousand silver coins, came and produced an additional thirty thousand, with this report: “Master, you handed me thirty thousand silver coins; as you can see, I have made you another thirty thousand.”

His master commended him: “Well done you competent and reliable slave! You have been trustworthy in small amounts; I’ll put you in charge of large amounts.”

The one with twelve thousand silver coins also came and reported: “Master, you handed me twelve thousand silver coins; as you can see, I have made you another twelve thousand.”

His master commended him: “Well done, you competent and reliable slave! You have been trustworthy in small amounts; I’ll put you in charge of large amounts.”

The one who had received six thousand silver coins also came and reported: “Master, I know that you drive a hard bargain, reaping where you didn’t sow and gathering where you didn’t scatter. Since I was afraid, I went out and buried your money in the ground. Look, here it is!”

But his master replied to him, “You incompetent and timid slave! So you knew that I reap where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter, did you? Then you should have taken my money to the bankers. Then when I returned I would have received my capital with interest. So take the money from this fellow and give it to the one who has the greatest sum.”

Gospel of Jesus 4:24-38

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 29, 31. Thomas 41:1-2; Mark 4:2; Luke 8:18; 19:12-24, 26; Matthew 13:12; 25:14-29.

I could preach a nice sermon on this parable. I have before. It would be a sermon based on the summary I wrote for the bulletin:

In this familiar parable of the man who entrusts his servants with different amounts of money to grow upon his absence, we come to a question of the meaning of life itself. What do we do with what has been entrusted to us? How we answer that question depends upon how we view life itself. Do we approach it with fear or with joy? How do we see “God”? Is God a punisher, a “hard-hearted man” or is God generous and joyful? We can choose to live from fear and bury everything burdened with the task of having to have lived at all, or we can live from joy, recognizing that we came with nothing and we go out with nothing, so there is nothing to lose when we give it back or pay it forward as the case may be!
It would be a sermon that would be in line with the themes of stewardship. It would be a sermon about living life to the fullest, about taking our talents and sharing them rather than burying them. It would be a very good message. It would be inspiring.

You have talent! You have gifts! Don’t be afraid of losing them. Invest them and you will see them multiply! Don’t hide your light under a bushel. Let it shine! Don’t bury your talent in the ground. Use it to make the world a better place.

It would be a very good sermon.

I would be very subtle. “Talent” has that double meaning. It refers to currency, but in English it means skill or gift. So I would slip in just a little hint, a little reminder, that your favorite local congregation would be a great place to invest those talents in both senses of that word.

Boy that would be a great sermon.

This happened to me last year too.

I was supposed to give an inspiring stewardship sermon. I had a perfect text for it. It is the scene where Jesus is at the Temple.

He and his disciples are watching people put money in the temple treasury. Rich folks put in large sums. Then a widow puts in two mites—which amounts to a penny. Jesus says the widow gave more than the wealthy did because she gave everything she had to live on.

It would have been an opportunity to speak about percentage giving. I could tell the folks it doesn't matter how much you give, just give it all. I could talk about how valuable every penny becomes when we add them up.

The punchline to the sermon I was supposed to preach would have been:
“Be like that widow. Look how faithful and trusting she is. She loves God so much she gives everything.”
The problem is that really isn’t what Jesus was talking about in that scene. He wasn’t praising the widow for her piety and faithfulness. He was criticizing the temple establishment for ripping off widows.

This past weekend one of the Jesus Seminar guys told us about widows. Widows were not just women whose husbands had died. A rich woman whose husband had died was called a matron. A widow referred to a woman whose husband had died and who had no means of support. A primary function of the Mosaic covenant was to care for widows. Widows and orphans. Provide for those without the means to provide for themselves.

Just before this scene, Jesus criticizes those who are the keepers of the Temple and the tradition. Harsh words he has for the scribes:
‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
How did they devour widows’ houses? The temple tax. It wasn’t a voluntary gift like filling out a pledge card. You paid it or else. Or else what? Or else you lost your land. The scribes kept the records of who owed what. Rather than care for widows, they were sending them into abject poverty. If the temple were doing its job, it should have been providing for these widows, not taking their last literal penny.

Once you hear that, once you hear what is behind the text, it is difficult to use that text to preach on the importance of being like the widow and giving your last penny to the church. The last thing to which a preacher should want to compare his or her congregation is the temple as Jesus saw it. Jesus saw the temple as the epitome of collaboration with Empire.

The disciples gaze at it with open mouths,
What tall buildings!
Jesus tells them that not one stone will remain on top of another. All will be torn down. He tells them:
“If you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can tell this mountain to be cast into the sea and it will be done.”
He is referring to the temple mount. In other words,
“Have faith my friends and this oppressive system will crumble.”
The widow giving (or rather paying) her last penny to the treasury is not a stewardship text.

Neither is the parable of the landowner who entrusts his retainers with money to invest on his behalf.

The insights I am about to share with you come from a book by William Herzog, Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. That book coupled with Richard Horsley’s Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder are based on social context criticism of the New Testament.

How does the social world of Jesus inform our reading of the Gospels? You have layers of social worlds. You have the layer of each gospel writer and the layer of earlier traditions under that and the layer of Jesus’ world.

This parable of the talents is found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. Material common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark is attributed to a prior source called Q. We don’t have a text of Q. Q stands for the German word Quelle which means source. It is a scholarly reconstruction. Q is a theory, but it is a pretty good one. The theory is that there was a source that contained speeches and acts of Jesus that Matthew and Luke used. They also used the Gospel of Mark as a source. When Luke and Matthew use Q they shape it to fit their own needs.

By the time Matthew and Luke get a hold of this parable we are in the realm of advanced theological abstraction. Matthew and Luke see the parable as an allegory for Christ’s supposed return. Jesus is the landowner entrusting the gospel message to his disciples and when he returns at the second coming, the parousia, he will be checking to see what you did with your talent. Did you share the message of the Gospel or did you bury it?

That is not how Jesus’ audience would have heard it.

Whenever kings, judges, or landowners appear in the parables of Jesus, we should be very suspicious that they refer to good guys let alone God.

We read this parable through the eyes of modern capitalism. For example, our economy is based on lending money at interest. However the Torah specifically forbids lending money at interest. So it is rather odd for the God figure to tell the third slave that he should have given the money to the banker to earn interest.

But it is worse than that.

In this first century world you had a pyramid of rulers, landowners, and retainers at the top 15% and the rest--merchants, artisans, and mostly peasants--at the bottom 85%.

Landowners wanted to increase their wealth. You did that by controlling the bottom 85%. You kept them at subsistence living by taxing their produce. As money came into the system you could provide a symbolic value for produce. So you lend the peasant seed anywhere from 60-100% interest. In a bad year when crops were sparse, you could foreclose. The peasants would then become sharecroppers on their former land and that would make it easier for them to grow cash crops for you.

Now, to our parable.

A landowner makes no money if he just hangs around the house. They need to go make connections, travel, do business. So the head of the aristocratic household leaves for a long time. He entrusts his retainers, who the text calls slaves, with different amounts based on their power or status.

The first two get busy right away. How do they make money? They exploit the peasants. They lend money at interest, take as much as they can, foreclose when they can, and provide the landowner with an acceptable profit. They keep some extra for themselves.

In the ancient world the rich get richer by exploiting the poor.

Two of the retainers double their investment.

The third takes the talent and buries it, which is probably the safest thing to do.

He doesn’t play the game.

We might ask why?

When the landowner returns he demands an accounting. It is all very polite. The first two retainers show the handsome profit. They demonstrate faithfulness, which is loyalty to him, and enter the joy of their master which means,
“Congratulations, you are on your way up the aristocratic ladder.”
The third, who is the most interesting of all (and as stories of three go, is usually the hero, ie. the Good Samaritan), gives a speech. In his speech, he tells the truth:
“Master, I know that you drive a hard bargain, reaping where you didn’t sow and gathering where you didn’t scatter. Since I was afraid, I went out and buried your money in the ground. Look, here it is!”
He is of course right.

The landowner doesn’t sow. He reaps.
He doesn’t scatter seed. He just gathers profit.

The third retainer is speaking like Isaiah:
Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you... Isaiah 5:8
The landowner doesn’t deny it. He simply ridicules the retainer as being lazy. He shows his hand by saying he should have given it to a banker for interest which is against Torah. Then he takes the talent from him and casts him out.

Why does the third retainer do this?
He must know the game.
What is this story about?

Herzog writes that the third retainer is a whistle-blower.

The parable itself blows the whistle on how Empire works.

Jesus rarely took on the Roman occupation directly. Jesus’ prophetic critique was against the temple and its leadership for legitimizing and collaborating with Rome and for participating in oppressing its own people counter to the Mosaic covenant. Jesus’ audience is the 85% of the peasants, widows, villagers, laborers in the surrounding countryside who are taxed to fund the projects of Herod.

He tells this story of a whistle-blower.
  • He tells the story of someone who tells the truth even as it results in the loss of his own livelihood.
  • He tells the story of someone who refuses to cooperate in the injustice and the oppression of others.
  • He tells the story of someone who follows Torah and who suffers for it.
This parable, like others that Jesus told, is open-ended.
  • What happens to the whistle-blower now?
  • Will anyone take him in?
  • What if others also became whistle-blowers?
I think Jesus told this parable to celebrate whistle-blowers and to inspire his audience to take them in. There are good people who blow the whistle on injustice and we need to stick together. Jesus was not only about pointing out injustice. He was about transforming it.

This story reminds me of a modern day whistle-blower, Wendell Potter. Potter was an insurance executive for Cigna. He had a change of heart, perhaps like the whistle-blower in our parable. He came to realize the injustice inherent in the health-care insurance system and his role in it. He realized that insurance companies make profits when they deny coverage. In regards to the insurance business, he said:

"You don't think about individual people. You think about the numbers, and whether or not you're going to meet Wall Street's expectations."
He had his realization when he took a trip to Wise County, Virginia. He visited a health fair. This is what he said about it:

“I borrowed my dad's car and drove up 50 miles up the road to Wise, Virginia. It was being held at a Wise County Fairground. I took my camera. I took some pictures. It was a very cloudy, misty day, it was raining that day, and I walked through the fairground gates. And I didn't know what to expect. I just assumed that it would be, you know, like a health-- booths set up and people just getting their blood pressure checked and things like that.

But what I saw were doctors who were set up to provide care in animal stalls. Or they'd erected tents, to care for people. I mean, there was no privacy. In some cases-- and I've got some pictures of people being treated on gurneys, on rain-soaked pavement.

And I saw people lined up, standing in line or sitting in these long, long lines, waiting to get care. People drove from South Carolina and Georgia and Kentucky, Tennessee-- all over the region, because they knew that this was being done. A lot of them heard about it from word of mouth.

There could have been people and probably were people that I had grown up with. They could have been people who grew up at the house down the road, in the house down the road from me. And that made it real to me.

….It was absolutely stunning. It was like being hit by lightning. It was almost-- what country am I in? I just it just didn't seem to be a possibility that I was in the United States. It was like a lightning bolt had hit me….

…. I had been in the industry and I'd risen up in the ranks. And I had a great job. And I had a terrific office in a high-rise building in Philadelphia. I was insulated. I didn't really see what was going on. I saw the data. I knew that 47 million people were uninsured, but I didn't put faces with that number.

Just a few weeks later though, I was back in Philadelphia and I would often fly on a corporate aircraft to go to meetings.

And I just thought that was a great way to travel. It is a great way to travel. You're sitting in a luxurious corporate jet, leather seats, very spacious. And I was served my lunch by a flight attendant who brought my lunch on a gold-rimmed plate. And she handed me gold-plated silverware to eat it with. And then I remembered the people that I had seen in Wise County. Undoubtedly, they had no idea that this went on, at the corporate levels of health insurance companies.
Since then he has become a whistle-blower. He took heat for it too.

He is not alone. There are other whistle-blowers.

Many of them are sitting in this sanctuary.

They are folks who are telling the truth.

They are telling the truth about climate change, about Peak Oil, about Empire’s wars, about our unsustainable fantasy of eternal economic growth, about homophobia, about torture, you name it…

There are those who tell the truth even when it is not in their interests to do so.
They do it because it is the right thing to do.
They do it because only truth can set us free.
It is Torah.
It is Gospel.

May their tribe increase.