Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Trouble With Sermons (1/31/2010)

The Trouble With Sermons
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 31st, 2010

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Luke 4:21-30

Last week I titled the sermon, Being a Sermon. It was part 1. The guiding text featured Jesus preaching in the synagogue. According to Luke, fresh from being tempted by the satan in the wilderness, he is filled with the Spirit, returns to populated areas and begins teaching in the synagogues.

He builds up a reputation as a teacher and as a healer. Scholars of the historical Jesus have determined that he was probably a wisdom teacher and a healer of some sort. While miracles attributed to him, such as turning water to wine, raising the dead, and calming the seas would be exaggerated legends, he probably was able to do some kind of psychosomatic healing.

By the time the gospel writers are writing about him, Jesus has achieved legendary, god-like status. It is a challenge to separate what might be historical from what is mythical when we are reading the gospels. Even a story that may seem historically plausible, like offering a sermon, is still part of the larger legend that the author is creating.

So as we read stories of Jesus in the gospels we are reading the author’s version of Jesus. Jesus functions as a character in the various dramas the authors create. It isn’t so much that Jesus did this or said that, but that Luke’s Jesus did this and John’s Jesus said that and so on.

So…after Luke tells a story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by the satan, Jesus begins to preach. The satan is not the red devil with horns or the prince of darkness who develops his own mythology. Here he is the adversary. He is a figure in the heavenly court, kind of like YHWH’s prosecuting attorney. His job is to mess with people to test them. He tests Jesus to test his character.

After successfully passing all the tests, Luke’s Jesus begins teaching and apparently healing around the countryside. Then he returns to his hometown. He is initially well-received. He has made a reputation. He is a hometown boy who has become a teacher and a healer. On the Sabbath, he is given the honor of reading from the scroll and of commenting upon it.

He reads that wonderful text from Isaiah that we heard last week:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Then he rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, sits down, and says,
Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
That is where I ended it last week. Be a sermon. Jesus embodied the good news. He took on as his life’s quest to be on behalf of the poor, the captive the blind, and the oppressed. The story of the gospels and of the Christian wisdom tradition is that we are anointed in that same way. Our baptism is a sign of that anointing, to be a blessing, to be and to do good.
This past week I picked up an interesting book by a man named Greg Epstein. He is a young guy, in his early 30s. He is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. His book is called Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. I am finding it a really good book. He is a nice guy. Unlike Richard Dawkins, Epstein is not hostile to religious people but sees progressive religious folks as allies. He offers a philosophy of humanism. He writes:
The good is that which facilitates human dignity and the health of the natural world that surrounds us and sustains us. The bad, or evil, is that which creates needless human suffering. P. 137.
The passage from Isaiah is a humanist sounding passage. That is probably why I like it. Be a sermon. We are invited to live for the cause of human dignity, to relieve needless human suffering, to promote the health of Earth and of all living things with whom we are in relationship.

So Jesus gives this nice message and everyone marvels.
Isn’t this Joseph’s son? How about that! Our local boy made good!
Then Jesus does something very strange. Rather than enjoy that and get reacquainted with old friends, perhaps do a couple of healings, he turns on them. He tells them that sure they heard of the great things he has done in Capernaum,
...but you aren’t going to get any of that here. Nope, no healings for you. Let me tell you a couple of stories.
He tells them about the famine when there was no rain and Elijah did not help the widows in Israel but the foreigner in Sidon.
And he tells them about the time when there were many lepers in Israel, but Elisha didn’t heal them. Instead he healed the foreign king, Namaan, the Syrian.
So there. Nothing for you.
Jesus comes home and ticks them off. The story says they try to throw him off the cliff but he escapes in some miraculous way and away he goes. You can bet he won’t be invited back. He is one of those guest preachers folks remember. Don’t get that guy.

So what is up with this? I said that this is Luke’s story. This is Luke’s Jesus. Luke who is also the author of Acts wants to communicate that this new Christian religion is bigger than Judaism. It is a religion good enough for the Romans. Luke ends his book called Acts with Paul preaching in Rome, the center of the Empire, unabated. The point is that Jesus is not just a Jewish messiah, but a messiah for the whole world.

Luke’s theological point is similar to that found in the prologue to the Gospel of John,
He came to his own people and his own people knew him not.
So Luke finds stories and themes in the Hebrew scriptures that show YHWH as a universal god as opposed to a tribal god of the Jews. As the Jesus legend grew, stories were told about him to make him appear more cosmopolitan than the historical person ever was.

Unfortunately, these stories were told at the expense of the Jews. As centuries later, Christianity became the world religion, the religion of Empire, the Jewish people were scapegoated as the killer of Jesus, the people God rejected, and so forth. This has fueled the fires of anti-Semitism to this day.

No wonder people write books with titles, Good Without God.

Who was it that said,
“You know you have created God in your image when he hates the same people you do?”
Recognizing that, still is there something we can take away from this story? Can we situate ourselves in it in some way?

We can see this story as Jesus, representing Divine Creativity, provoking us out of our parochialism.

Jesus is the Artist who challenges our tribalism.

Jesus is the Painter who shows us images that take us beyond our comfort zone.

Jesus is the Sculptor who creates figures that are foreign and beautiful.

Jesus is the Composer who writes songs in languages we don’t know yet are blessed.

Jesus is the Poet who crafts lines both exotic and lovely.

Jesus is Creativity that moves us to compassionate action.

One of the traits humans have developed for survival is group selection. Epstein in his book, Good Without God, defines it in this way. Group selection is…
“…the idea that sometimes individuals may sacrifice their own personal success—even the chance to pass on their own genes—and yet still “win” if members of their group have success against members of other groups. This explains a lot about why human beings seem so universally willing to let big groups define them—we give ourselves up for fellow members of our tribe, race, ethnicity, city, state, or nation. P. 24
This is certainly true for religion as well. For some it is the defining characteristic of a religion, although those who define themselves that way don’t realize it. “Jesus is the only way” or “Muhammed is his prophet” is simply another way of saying my group is the best group and the only group that ultimately really matters. We get “saved” and the rest of you don’t.

It can happen with political entities. Loyalty to our nation is drilled into us at an early age. We learn mythology of the divine mission of our nation. We learn to die and kill for it. We are taught that its welfare is more important than anything else. In the immortal words of President George Bush the First at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro: “The American way of life is non-negotiable.” President Obama knows the rhetoric as well.

Group selection is a crucial part of our evolutionary heritage. It has helped us to survive, so far. We are also at a point that what has enabled us to survive has the potential to destroy us. Give a number of groups who think of themselves as God’s chosen a divine mission and some nuclear weapons and let’s see what happens.

So thank creativity for the artist. We need you more than ever. As theologian Matthew Fox writes, everyone is an artist. We need the creativity in all of us more than ever. We need the artist in whatever medium is available to her or to him to provide us with images that challenge group selection. Images of the dignity of the individual, images of the wholeness of the human species sharing one Earth, images of sustainability, images of the diversity of the flora and the fauna and the diversity of human cultures.

One of the symbols that should be on every flag and communion table is a photo of Earth from outer space. Our beautiful, blue home.

Paranoid, greedy, power-hungry empires are frightened of the artist. They do whatever they can to silence the musician, ridicule the painter. The reason that the arts are the first to be cut in budget times is not because the arts are not important, powerful, or necessary. It is the exact opposite. The arts are important, powerful, and necessary, so much so that the empire of the day needs to silence them.

You can’t have people painting lovely pictures of mountains when you are trying to convince the populace that you need to blow the tops off of them. You can’t have the radio waves filled with peace and protest songs when you are beating war drums.

The artist shakes us and wakes us out of our stupor. We are pounded day in day out with images of desire, fear and consumption. The artist shows us images of the dark side of that reality. The artist shows us the injustice. The artist also shows us beauty and dignity.

Howard Zinn was an artist. He died this past week. He understood our role in this time. He wrote:
Our problem is civil obedience.

Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war.

Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country.

That's our problem.
It is dangerous business being an artist. Jesus and Jeremiah knew it. It is safe to say that the historical Jesus was an artist. He told his silly little parables, his quaint poems, his pithy sayings. These little stories and his demonstration in the temple probably got him killed. There is no reason to think he led any violent insurrection. He was a poet who told his truth. He challenged the authorities and their group think.

It is amazing that we even have his story. Of course it has been warped and turned into superstition and then into the service of Empire. But nevertheless, the creativity that inspired him shines through.

That creativity is available to each of us.

We need to embrace it more than ever.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Being A Sermon (1/24/10)

Being a Sermon
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 24th, 2010
Nehemiah 8:1-10
Luke 4:14-21
Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2

Krishna said: Those who lack discrimination may quote the letter of the scripture, but they are really denying its inner truth. They are full of worldly desires, and hungry for the rewards of heaven. They use beautiful figures of speech. They teach elaborate rituals which are supposed to obtain pleasure and power for those who perform them. But, actually, they understand nothing except the law of Karma, that chains people to rebirth….

….When your intellect has cleared itself of its delusions, you will become indifferent to the results of all action, present or future. At present, your intellect is bewildered by conflicting interpretations of the scriptures. When it can rest, steady and undistracted, in contemplation of the Atman, then you will reach union with the Atman.

This is from British born, American poet Edgar Guest:
I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I'd rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way:
The eye's a better pupil and more willing than the ear,
fine counsel is confusing, but example's always clear.
I do like that. I would rather see a sermon than hear one, too.
Even better than to see a sermon is to be one.
The best you get from me today is that you will hear one.

The scripture texts today feature characters who are reading scripture texts. From Nehemiah, we find a ceremonial scene. People are standing and listening as Ezra reads the Law (which if the Law refers to the first five books of the Bible would take a long time) and not only that but there are people explaining and interpreting. According to the text:
So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
On one level, that is good. But it is also risky business. Interpreters twist things you know. Whether they mean to or not, whether they have ill motives or good, people interpret from their own experiences and viewpoints. That is why you should never believe what a preacher tells you. Check it out for yourself.

I have heard a lot of horror stories in my ministry from people who believed what they heard from a pulpit. What they believed about themselves or others or what they were supposed to do often didn’t turn out so well. It is frightening the power that interpreters of sacred texts can have over people.

This last Thursday at our PFLAG meeting we had a guest speaker. His name is Marc Adams. He wrote a number of books about growing up gay in a fundamentalist household. He started an organization called Heartstrong. The organization is to help students whose lives are literally threatened by religion. Particularly gay youth who learn about homosexuality from the pulpit.

Marc told his story how when he was a young boy he first heard a preacher talk about homosexuality. Marc saw himself in this description. Finally, he thought, here is someone talking about him. Then the preacher went on to say that homosexuals will become child molesters and then die from AIDS. Marc went into deep depression as an adolescent because he knew his future would be one in which he would become a child molester and then die from AIDS. His preacher said so. He never thought that he could ever question a preacher.

As it turned out for Marc, he got lucky. He eventually finally found a way to listen to his doubts and to take seriously his questions. His mission now is to help other students who grow up in religious schools, where unlike public schools there is no protection from this kind of abuse—to literally save them from suicide—by getting to them good information.

Of course, this can be about anything. Think of all the damage being done at this very moment from pulpits all around the country. The damage isn’t the content of what is said, it is the authority that comes with it. You should never believe anything your preacher says, and that includes me, of course. Check it out for yourself.

If you grew up in a religious tradition that encouraged free-thinking, consider yourself fortunate. It is sobering to discover how many people are victims of religious abuse.

It might be good to reflect on scripture. What is it, exactly? What makes some texts sacred?

I heard a minister say not long ago as he forcefully patted his Bible:
This is the only book God ever wrote!
I thought it was funny. As if God wasn’t a bit more prolific. I have no idea what it means to say that God wrote the Bible or that God inspired the Bible or that the Bible is the Word of God. To me it appears to be theological speculation bordering on superstition.

I do know that human beings wrote the Bible and the Qur’an and the Bhagavad Gita and the epic of Gilgamesh and everything else that has been written. I am not sure if they were inspired by anything more than human creativity, which is no small thing.

Let’s give humanity credit where credit is due. We are creative. From cave drawings to inscriptions on stone our ancestors communicated their fears and desires in the way they knew how. They told all kinds of stories, made music and created rituals to help themselves cope with life’s struggles. They even created God in their image.

We need to continue to be creative. I don’t know what it means to say God wrote a book, but if so, I think “God” wrote a lot of books. Earth is filled with God’s creative writing. You can read scripture in tree rings or in light from distant stars.

In a few weeks we are going to celebrate Evolution Sunday. It is becoming one of my favorite holy days. The story of evolution is scripture. Scientists might bristle at that, but I am just being poetic. It is a sacred story in that we are reading our history, our deep history, and it rightfully fills us with awe and amazement.

Of course our different religious traditions and their various sacred texts tell sacred, holy stories as well about life and its struggles. I still find myself surprised at how contemporary stories from scripture can be.

For instance in today’s reading from the lectionary, Luke records Jesus’ first sermon. Who knows if it happened like this at all, but it makes a great story.
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Now when we look at the world in our time and in the time of Jesus we know that all the captives have not been released, that the poor still hear crummy news, that the blind are still blind, and the oppressed are not free.

One can imagine that first century Rome was wonderful for a powerful and wealthy few and less wonderful for many others. It was a plutocracy in which the few with power and wealth made decisions that affected the many. Some have suggested that the United States is becoming a plutocracy. The latest Supreme Court decision could be a sign of that fundamental change that is being made right before our eyes. It isn’t so difficult to see that decisions increasingly are made of, by, and for wealthy corporations rather than the people.

So maybe Jesus or Luke wasn’t telling the truth. Or maybe Jesus and Luke were telling us a different truth. Maybe this sermon was an invitation to be a sermon.

I think Jesus was saying that the creative power in this text is in him.
Not only in him but in his hearers too.
And if we would listen, in us.

This creative power is to live the sermon--to be it.
To be on behalf of the poor in Haiti and Tennessee,
the captive in Guantanamo and in Mountain City,
the blind in both places of power and misery,
and the oppressed everywhere.

And to never, never, never give up.

The text from the Bhagavad-Gita reminds us of another way to be a sermon. Krishna is speaking to Arjuna and says:
When your intellect has cleared itself of its delusions, you will become indifferent to the results of all action, present or future.
This does not mean to be cold, uncaring, or lacking compassion. It is quite the opposite. It means to be pure of motive so we don’t try to control what we have no control over anyway.

It is to be present fully. We are better able to do what we need to without constantly evaluating the profit or loss of what we are doing. To be non-attached from the results of our actions helps us not be so overwhelmed by the mountain of problems we have to climb that we don’t take the first step.

Perhaps both Krishna and Jesus are telling us that amidst all of the forces that are life-denying, humiliating, imprisoning, blinding, and wrenching, that the human spirit is yet present and powerful. We can’t see the future. We can’t calculate the results. We don’t need to do so.

We need to be and trust.
We need to know where we need to be and to live with integrity from that place.
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Today you and I can be this sermon.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Like Water to Win (1/17/10 Martin Luther King)

Like Water to Wine
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
January 17, 2010
Martin Luther King

Isaiah 62:1-5
John 2:1-11
Excerpt from Letter from Birmingham Jail

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist....But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I am reading the new book by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I am reading it in anticipation for Evolution Sunday coming up in February. He isn’t writing this book without a context and a reason. On the cover panel of his book, the publisher wrote:
In 2008, a Gallup poll showed that 44 percent of Americans believed God had created man in his present form within the last 10,000 years. In a Pew Forum poll in the same year, 42 percent believed that all life on earth has existed in its present form since the beginning of time.
Dawkins writes how frustrating it is to teach when you are constantly fighting this backlash of superstition. His book is great. It shows evidence for evolution. He says evolution is a fact. He writes:
Our present beliefs about many things may be disproved, but we can with complete confidence make a list of certain facts that will never be disproved. Evolution and the heliocentric theory [the theory that Earth goes around the sun] weren’t always among them, but they are now. p. 17
He goes on to say:
In the rest of this book, I shall determine that evolution is an inescapable fact, and celebrate its astonishing power, simplicity and beauty. P.18
Which is the point. It is the greatest show on Earth. Perhaps the greatest story ever told. We should be teaching it and celebrating it in school and in church with religious fervor. We need to sing hymns to the glory of natural selection. I am serious.

Dawkins and number of scientists and theologians wrote a letter to the Prime Minister regarding teaching evolution in school. Apparently, Great Britain is being hounded by the superstitious as is America. If 44 % of Americans believe that God created Earth as it is 10,000 years ago, this should be a problem for church as well as science. While he is happy that enlightened bishops and theologians are writing letters, they need to do more. He writes:
To return to the enlightened bishops and theologians, it would be nice if they’d put a bit more effort into combating the anti-scientific nonsense that they deplore. All too many preachers, while agreeing that evolution is true and Adam and Eve never existed, will then blithely go into the pulpit and make some moral or theological point about Adam and Eve in their sermons without once mentioning that, of course, Adam and Eve never actually existed! If challenged, they will protest that they intended a purely ‘symbolic’ meaning, perhaps something to do with ‘original sin’, or the virtues of innocence. They may add witheringly that, obviously, nobody would be so foolish as to take their words literally. But do their congregations know that? How is the person in the pew, or on the prayer-mat, supposed to know which bits of scripture to take literally, which symbolically? Is it really so easy for an uneducated churchgoer to guess? In all too many cases the answer is clearly no, and anybody could be forgiven for feeling confused.
Dawkins isn’t finished. He pushes his point:
Think about it, Bishop. Be careful, Vicar. You are playing with dynamite, fooling around with a misunderstanding that’s waiting to happen—one might even say almost bound to happen if not forestalled. Shouldn’t you take greater care, when speaking in public, to let your yea be yea and your nay be nay? Lest ye fall into condemnation, shouldn’t you be going out of your way to counter that already extremely widespread popular misunderstanding and lend active and enthusiastic support to scientists and science teachers? Pp. 7-8
That is Richard Dawkins in his book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I hope you will all read it.

I agree with Dawkins and I thank natural selection for him. I am also thankful for religious scholars like Bishop Spong, Robert Funk, Marcus Borg (who by the way is going to be at Lees McRae College in February) and the Jesus Seminar for bringing religious literacy to the public. Superstition is not good for a nation.

I am thankful for Uta Ranke-Heinemann. She was the first woman professor of Catholic theology in Germany; she taught in the theology faculty at the University of Essen. In 1987, the Catholic Church declared her ineligible to teach theology after she pronounced the virgin birth a theological belief and not a biological fact.

You can’t make this stuff up. This is where we are.

She transferred to history of religion and continued to teach until her retirement at the College of Essen. This is what is says on the back of her book, Putting Away Childish Things:
When Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven was published a few years ago, it was immediately condemned by New York’s Cardinal O’Connor, who likened it to “scrawling dirty words about the Church on bathroom walls.” The uproar that ensued made Ranke-Heinemann’s devastating critique, in which she accused the Church “of degrading women and undermining the sexuality of believers”, the most controversial religious bestseller of the 90s.

In this comprehensive new book she goes much further and dismantles virtually all of the Church’s doctrines as a distortion of Jesus’ real message and of authentic Christian faith. She shows how the Church requires its members to remain lifelong children and to believe without questioning that mythic tales about Jesus are literal historical facts.
Her book is Putting Away Childish Things, how the myths behind the Church’s key doctrines--such as the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the empty tomb--distort Jesus’ real message.

So...energized by a good dose of rationalism by Dawkins and Ranke-Heinemann, what do we make of Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine?

The author of John’s gospel says it was the first sign that Jesus performed. There are a number of these signs in John that are numbered. They probably come from an earlier collection of miracle stories attributed to Jesus from which the author draws.

David Friedrich Strauss called this a luxury miracle. It didn’t really help people in need unless as Heinemann put it: “it’s genuine human distress when people who are already drunk have nothing left to wet their whistle with.” P. 80.

Although theologians have spent much time and spilled much ink over the meaning of this story, it really means little more than the story in the infancy gospel of Thomas where the child Jesus turns clay pigeons into real ones. Both are amusing fables.

Turning water to wine is a miracle story that was invented and attributed to Jesus. Heinemann writes:
Incidentally, some people are disturbed that Jesus snapped so rudely at his mother in this episode and even refused to call her Mother: “O woman, what have you to do with me?” But anyone fretting about this can rest assured that Jesus never did anything of the sort.” P. 81
The Jesus Seminar colored nearly all of the Gospel of John black in terms of whether or not the historical Jesus said or did the things attributed to him. Red meaning definite yes, black meaning definite no. This story is representative of the Gospel of John—complete fiction.

Where did it come from? This story appears in the lectionary around the time of Epiphany which means appearance. On the feast of Epiphany, the church has used three stories to celebrate the divine revealing—the arrival of the wise men, Jesus’ baptism, and the wedding at Cana. The common lectionary spreads these stories out over successive Sundays.

Epiphany is January 6th. Another god celebrated his divine epiphany on the 6th of January, the god of wine, Dionysus or Bacchus for the Romans.

The feast of Dionysus to whom legends of turning water into wine are also attributed celebrated his epiphany to the world. According to Heinemann:
On his feast day, Dionysus made empty jars fill up with wine in his temple in Elis; and on the island of Andros, wine flowed instead of water from a spring in his temple. P. 82
The religion of Dionysus would have been popular when the Christians decided that January 6th would be a good day to read the story of Jesus turning water into wine.

What we have here is an ancient one upmanship or one upgodship. Our god is better than your god. Jesus is better than Dionysus. To put it simply, in the words of the great New Testament scholar, Rudolph Bultmann:
“No doubt the story [of the marriage feast at Cana] has been borrowed from pagan legends and transferred to Jesus.” P. 82 Heinemann
Now we might say even if it is fiction that it still can have value. We can still have fun, right? Well sure, I don’t doubt that. Let your imagination run as wild as the wine. Jesus is a party god. Celebration, joy, marriage, love, all are blessed by the Cosmic Christ. Instead of ‘our god is better than your god’ we can celebrate that our religions are all inter-related and they all have roots and common symbols. The symbol of wine, the fruit of the vine, is a reminder to take notice of the pleasures of life and to enjoy what we can when we can.

On another day I might have left it there. To reflect on that story today seems rather shallow. We can’t read the scriptures without also reading the news. Haiti is in the news. The people of Haiti need a real miracle of real water and real food and real medicine and real shelter and real healing. They need it quickly and they will need it for a long time to come. Are we up for participating in that kind of miracle?

I don’t take much stock in miracle fables attributed to Jesus. Those who argue for their reality, I say, so what then is the miracle-working Jesus doing for the people of Haiti? Or did he just do all those tricks in the past that we are supposed to believe and then call it a day? Then you get all kinds of theological backtracking and often bizarre and callous comments like those that come from the lips of televangelist, Pat Robertson.

However, if Jesus whether the historical person or the divine legend that humans created, can inspire compassionate action, then I am all for him. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we honor this weekend, was inspired by Jesus. King’s letter from Birmingham Jail was a piece of genius in the way he showed his hypocritical colleagues what Jesus was about. King took the stories about Jesus as models for ethics and action. The hatred of prejudice needed a miracle to overcome. King’s creative extremism was exactly that miracle. Like Jesus, King wrote, we need to be extremists for love.

Maybe water to wine can be a symbol for creative extremism.

Probably more than anything right now, the people of Haiti need the help that comes from relief agencies. You know as well as I do the agencies that are out there. I personally vouch for the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. It doesn’t just help church people. It doesn’t stop helping once the news organizations have stopped reporting. PDA has already been working in Haiti in response to the hurricanes. If you would like to give to them, instructions are in the bulletin.

To inspire your giving, in addition to the plethora of Jesus stories, I offer this story from the Buddhist tradition. This story to my mind captures the true spirit of religion. This is from a wonderful little book called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones:
Tetsugen, a devotee of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the Sutras, which at that time were only available in Chinese. The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an edition of seven thousand copies, a tremendous undertaking.

Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him a hundred pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. After ten years Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task.

It happened that at the time the Uji River overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the funds he had collected for the books and spent them to save the others from starvation. Then he began again his work of collecting.

Several years afterwards an epidemic spread over the country. Tetsugen again gave away what he had collected, to help his people.

For a third time he started his work, and after twenty years his wish was fulfilled. The printing block which produced the first edition of sutras can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.

The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and the first two invisible sets surpass even the last. p. 35

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Way of Wisdom (1/3/10)

The Way of Wisdom
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
January 3rd, 2010

Over the holiday our family saw the film, Avatar. James Cameron’s blockbuster has grossed over $800 million worldwide, so he doesn’t need my promotion. But it is a remarkable film.

It is set 150 years into the future. Humans (specifically, Americans) have landed on another planet, Pandora. We have a military outpost there and there is a desire for a valuable mineral on this planet, some kind of energy source in the ground. The problem is that on the surface is a forest and people. People of some kind. They are called the Navi and they are nine feet tall and blue with tails. They are like hunter-gatherer forest people with bows and arrows. The forest is lush and beautiful.

The Earthlings are there to secure the minerals. The military is in service to the corporation who wants this valuable commodity. They will take it either by force or negotiation. Also there is a scientific group to study the Navi and their ecosystem. They have been able through technology to take the DNA from the Navi and create Navi bodies. Then through this machine a human can be the brain for the Navi body. These bodies are called avatars. If you play a game on the internet or enter a discussion group you select an avatar, some kind of image, to represent you.

In this case the avatar is a real being. This way the scientists can interact with the Navi. The main character through his avatar is to learn about the Navi. The plan is to get them to move so the mineral can be mined or failing that, to find their weakness so they can be forced out.

The conflict within the story is that this main character comes to develop a sense of compassion and identity with the Navi. Will he do his duty to his Earthlings or will he discover a new purpose and a new duty?

I haven’t given anything away. You can get that from watching the previews.

The reason I take up sermon time for this film is to point out one of its symbols. The word avatar comes from Hinduism. It refers to a deity being manifest in human form. In the Bhagavad Gita, what we are going to be reading in 2010, Krishna is the avatar of Vishnu. In human form, Krishna has the consciousness of God.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is similar. He is the avatar of divine wisdom.

And the word became flesh and dwelt among us.

The avatar in the
Bhagavad Gita is Krishna and he comes to Arjuna the warrior as a blue man. The iconography featuring Krishna has him as a human and his color is blue. Whether a child or an adult when Krishna is depicted in human form he is blue.

Why is he blue?
Why are the Navi, the good guys in the film, blue?
What does it mean for the Earthling, the film’s hero, to become a blue Navi or a blue man?

James Cameron’s film is a sermon. It is an invitation to us to become the blue man or the blue woman in our time. It is set in the future but it is about us.

The blue man is an archetype. Not only is Krishna blue, but Shiva has a blue throat. Shiva earned his blue throat by drinking up the poison from the water. Doing so saved humanity while it turned his throat blue.

Matthew Fox in his book, The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine includes the Blue Man as one of the ten metaphors.

Fox begins this chapter on the Blue Man by recounting visions of two mystics, Swami Muktananda and Hildegaard of Bingen.

Muktananda is meditating one day and has a vision of a blue pearl that becomes a blue man and speaks to him. The blue man is god with form. The blue man is god within all people and all things, yet different from all things. Muktananda wrote of his revelation:
He becomes all things and is yet unique. He gives Him strength to all created things. Like a mother He protects and sustains them and then gathers them all into Himself. He is the supreme light of all lights; all lights take their brightness from Him. There is no darkness about Him. p. 154
Christian mystic, Hildegarde also had a vision of the blue man. For her the blue light became the Christ whose vision she painted as the man of sapphire blue. For her the blue Christ is the compassion and love of God. She writes:
The compassion of the grace of God will make humans light up like the sun. p. 155

In her painting of the Blue Christ, his arms are extending outward, which is the gesture for compassion, the heart of compassion put to work in our hands.

Blue is the color of compassion, peace, and healing.

I didn’t know this at the time, but I wanted my study painted blue. I am glad I did. I must have unconsciously intuited the blue of healing, peace, and compassion.

Blue is the color of Earth. 80 percent of Earth is covered with water. From space we a beautiful blue marble. A pale blue dot. We look up and see the sky blue. Blue is the color of Earth and Sky. Blue precedes the green.

The blue man reminds us of our primordial womb. The Blue person, as Hildegaard said shows us
“the maternal love of the embracing god.”
Mary, the mother of Christ, a figure of compassion and courage, is depicted in artwork with a blue headcovering.

I mentioned already that Krishna is blue. I was curious as to why. There is no exact answer to these things. I did a quick internet search, and I found this on a website entitled Indian Divinity. I thought this explanation was helpful:
In Hinduism, persons with a depth a character and the capacity to defeat evil are blue-skinned. The creator has given the maximum of blue to nature (ie. the sky, oceans, rivers, and lakes) the deity who has the qualities of bravery and determination the ability to deal with difficult situations of stable mind and depth of character is represented as blue colored. Lord Krishna spent his life protecting humanity and destroying evil, hence he is colored blue.
I don’t know. Another website said he was blue because he ate too many sweets. I like the first explanation better.

Muktananda wrote this about his vision of the blue person:
Every day my conviction became stronger: ‘He is truly my inner Self whose light is spread throughout the entire universe.’ Although I could not see it directly, I saw my inner Self as the Blue Person….I was gaining the realization that the Blue One was my own self, the One who lives within all, pervades the entire universe and sets it in motion, who is One-without-a-second, nondual and undifferentiated, and yet is always at play, becoming many from one and one from many. He is Shri Krishna, the eternal blue of Consciousness. p. 158
If you see the movie Avatar, think of the Blue Person. What it means to become the Blue Person, the compassion, creativity, courage, and connection with all things including consciousness. All of that is in the film. James Cameron did his homework in that respect.

Matthew Fox concludes his chapter on the Blue Man this way:
The Blue Man represents the expanded consciousness and the creative compassion we are all capable of. He is an artist at life, recognizing the beauty and justice and creating it. The purpose of the Blue Man is to empower our hands so that real compassion takes place, the real work of the Divine in our lives. The Blue Man helps us to overcome our fear of death and to let go of our fear-inspired frenzy. Creativity can convert anger and moral outrage into appropriate expressions of protest, so that we build and not simply tear down. …the Blue Man has tasted the divine in the self and in all things and returns for more, returns to assist the healing that Divinity requires of us. When we become the Blue Man, we become the compassionate hands of God putting into practice our compassionate hearts. Pp. 170-1
Today we are honoring the incarnation of Jesus. He is the avatar of divine wisdom, the dabhar or word of God. Wisdom is playful and creative and filled with images. The Wisdom Woman, the Divine Sophia, splashes onto the scene in Sirach:
Wisdom praises herself!
Of course she does! Of course! This is about Divine play. This is about delight and play. Wisdom is more than intellect. It is more than a collection of numbers, dates, and formulas. It is more than cleverness and technology. It is artistry. It is playfulness. It tastes good.
Come to me , you who desire me,
And eat your fill of my fruits.
For the memory of me is sweeter than honey,
And the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb.
Those who eat of me will hunger for more,
And those who drink of me will thirst for more.

This Divine, playful, powerful, compassionate, Wisdom, the
Wisdom Woman, Sophia is incarnated in Jesus! The historical person of Jesus was a sage, an artist, a teller of parables and stories. The tradition picked up on that and made him not only a teacher of wisdom but the embodiment of Wisdom as well.

Jesus and Krishna both symbolize the incarnation of wisdom, creativity, and compassionate action on behalf of Earth and its people. They represent the Blue Person. We need more than ever to discover the Blue Person within each of us.

In James Cameron’s film, Avatar, the Earthlings are smart and clever. They have incredible technology. The weapons are impressive. Traveling to another planet takes some creativity. But they aren’t very wise. They don’t understand the value of a tree and the ecosystems that connect trees with all Life dependent upon it and each other.

Our hero at one point in the movie, says of the Earthlings.
“They destroyed their mother.”
Cameron’s film is not about the future. Nor is it about some place else. It is about the present in this place. It is a film of warning. It is also an invitation to become wise as well as clever. To become compassionate as well as creative. I am hoping his film speaks to those who see it, inspiring in them reflection about our place on Earth at this time. I don't begrudge James Cameron grossing 800 million if his film helps change our consciousness.

More than ever we need the wisdom and compassion of the Blue Man and the Blue Woman. We need the Krishna Consciousness and the Christ Consciousness and the Sophia Consciousness to be incarnate in each of us. We do exist for a purpose—to be the compassionate hands, feet, eyes, and ears of Earth itself.

One of the ways we might access our own creativity, the creativity of the universe is to take the time for meditation or reflection. Take the time to read, write, paint, draw, walk in nature, and to sit and be.

More than all, love the universe.
Love Earth.
Love yourself.
Love others.
Love the dirt.
Love your flesh.
As Sophia/Wisdom loves all of creation,
fall in love with life.

When we do that we will not help but to discover our compassion and become artists, prophets and healers.