Sunday, May 30, 2010

Looking for a Guide (5/30/2010)

Looking for a Guide
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 30th, 2010
Trinity Sunday

Proverbs 8:1-4; 22-31
John 16:12-15

One of the hymns in our hymnbook begins with this line:
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou are mighty;
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Religion capitalizes on that feeling of being alone and lost. Life is uncertain. We don’t know the “right thing” to do or the "best" decision to make or the "correct" path to take. Life is cold, dark, and barren. Or has Thomas Hobbes put it, "nasty, brutish, and short." How nice it would be if there was someone to guide us through.

We long for someone to take our hand and lead us. Wouldn’t it be helpful if a cloud moved just ahead of us during the day and a pillar of fire by night to lead us along and show us where to go? A voice to tell us what to do and to say? Or maybe there is a bright star we can follow that will lead us to the Messiah?

I remember singing a camp song as a kid, I’m Using My Bible as a Roadmap:
I'm using my Bible for a road map
The Commandments they tell me what to do
The twelve disciples are my road signs
And Jesus will take me safely through

There'll be no detours in heaven
No rough roads along the way
I'm using my Bible for a road map
My last stop is heaven some sweet day

I'm using my Bible for a road map
The children of Israel used it too
They crossed the Red Sea of Destruction
For God was there to see them through
There is something comforting about knowing that we are on a path and that there is a guide leading us to a final destination.

Most of religious belief and practice is based on that notion that there is outside of us, external to the universe, often supernatural, something or someone that has a purpose and destination for our lives. It is no wonder that Rev. Rick Warren’s book, A Purpose Driven Life, is one of the best selling books ever.

We long to be told what to do.
Show me the answer.
Tell me what I should do with my life.
Give me direction.
What is my purpose?
Help me discover it.

The assumption is that there is an external purpose or Google Map made just for us, if only we could find it.

There are many folks who claim to have just that Google Map and who will gladly tell you what to do.

We call them preachers.

Jesus had a name for the preachers or religious leaders of his day. He called them “blind guides.”
You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
Jesus is saying that these people don’t know anything more about life than anyone else. More often than not they focus on the wrong thing and miss what is important. Strain a gnat and swallow a camel.

The question becomes, who are you going to trust?

One of the things that has been dawning on us as we have been contemplating the vastness of the universe, and the indifference of life on Earth as it evolves without any need of interference from an outside guiding force,... that maybe there is no outside meaning.

Instead, meaning is what we make it.

That has always been true. We haven’t always known it.

Every story in the Bible and in any religion is human made.
  • Human beings created the story of Moses coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments.
  • Human beings created the story of Krishna speaking to Arjuna on the battlefield.
  • Human beings created the story of God creating the heavens and the earth.
  • Human beings created the story of the Risen Christ appearing before the disciples.
Once we realize that all religious stories are made by human beings, the balloon pops.

This doesn’t lessen the value or the importance of the stories. It shifts them. Rather than be external realities, they become internal creations. Now we are contemplating, marveling, and celebrating human creativity and imagination. The stories of God or of the gods are our stories projected outward.

A philosopher who I have come to appreciate is Don Cupitt. I discovered him through the Jesus Seminar. He writes in very clear language for non-professionals. He calls himself a radical theologian. In his book, The Meaning of the West, he writes:

In religion and philosophy there is a perennial dispute between two parties. There are those who think that our greatest need in life is to gain security and blessedness by attaching ourselves permanently and securely to something very much greater, stabler and more perfect than ourselves, something that transcends the passing show of existence. I'll call these people the party of metaphysics. They are philosophical realists, for whom our salvation depends upon our relation to something Big out there.

The other party includes all those who think that our chief need is to be cured of the errors and discontents that rob us of our ability to enjoy life and live it to the full. I'll call these people pragmatists, or even nihilists. They say that we don't need to attach ourselves to some great big saving Fact out there; we just need deliverance from our own anxieties, our illusions and our self-concern. We just need pure freedom and life-skills. p. 31.
Cupitt is of the second party. For him there is no “outside.” The self-evolving universe is “outsideless.” Rather than find our purpose, search out a guide, find our path on God’s great Google Map, we instead create it.

The stories of the Bible are not stories of external realities, but stories of human beings finding themselves, and when we put ourselves in these stories they are stories of our own self-discovery. So in Genesis chapter one when God creates order out of chaos, that is our task. We are the ones to create order out of chaos.

Jesus is the precursor to helping us get this.

The irony is that Jesus’ teaching was so radical that the tradition turned him into a god. This is the last thing he wanted. This is why I think the historical Jesus study is so important. There was a person there who had some radical things to say. We have covered him with mythology and distorted his voice. Part of his radical teaching was to forget searching after an external purpose and meaning. The kingdom of God is not “out there” he said.

The kingdom of God is within you.
Even the Gospel of John, which contains hardly anything that can go back to the historical Jesus, still has Jesus affirm that the external God (Father) is known in us through Spirit. This means, I think, that we need to take ownership for that which we have projected onto God or onto Jesus.

When we project onto God or Jesus love, compassion, justice, strength, Jesus says to us,
“Take it back. You are love, compassion, justice, strength. Don’t say, ‘I am weak but Thou art strong.’ No. You are strong."
Jesus tells us:
"You are your own guide. Claim it.”
I am going to quote Cupitt one more time. This is from his book, Jesus and Philosophy:
In the old mythology, God, confronted by the Primal Chaos, by a free and purely generous act of will chose to conquer chaos and create the world. The Israelite prophets saw the religious problem—namely, the infinite qualitative difference between the Holy God and the wayward human individual—as being solved when God relocates himself within the human heart. Jesus takes that thought and radicalizes it, in order to force upon the individual a repetition of the original creative choice. When I feel that everything is crumbling and I am confronted with pure chaos, I have to make a free, generous and founding choice of life itself. This original choice, a choice to launch oneself bravely out upon the sea of contingent existence, comes from what we speak of as ’the heart.’ By it we live. P. 94
Jesus is the transition between an external God (Father) and Spirit within the heart, the human choice. It has taken us two millennia to get this.
  • We have projected onto God all goodness, when instead we need to claim it and live it.
  • We have said that only an external God can give us meaning, when instead we create it for ourselves as individuals and as a human community.
  • We have said that we need to obey an external moral law that is absolute and revealed to us, when instead it is written on our hearts—in other words we create morality by listening to one another and stumbling through together.
Once the balloon pops and we dare to utter to ourselves the blasphemous truth that we created the concept of God, and that we created the stories about God, then we need to take a deep breath.

It is both liberating and frightening.

It is frightening because we realize that we are our own guides. No one else to blame. No one else to credit. 

It is up to us to live life.

It is liberating because someone else’s concept of God no longer has power over us. No one else has power to make us feel guilty or sinful or shamed or whatever. With this liberation comes responsibility to make our world a place we really want to live in.

This liberation is not from goodness or compassion, it is liberation to create as a human family a world that works for the blessedness of all.

Rather than a Bible as an infallible code of law, we create a declaration of human rights. We create a loose-leaf Bible of the wisdom we have gleaned that is on-going and outsideless.

This is from Joanna Macy:
People are not going to find their truth-force or inner authority in listening to experts, but in listening to themselves, for everyone in her or his way is an expert on what it is like to live on an endangered planet.
Is there still a place for projection? Is there still a place for a hymn to “mothering God” or the Divine Sophia or the Great Jehovah or our ishta deva (our chosen deity)? Of course. As long as we are aware of what we are doing. We are getting out, we are bringing forth, what is within us.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is reported to have said:
"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." (70)
We are getting it out. It is psychologically healthy and necessary to do so. But we also must remember to bring it back. We are the mothering God, we are the Divine Sophia, we are the Great Jehovah, we are our own guides.

If you are looking for a guide, for someone or something to direct you, lead you, give you a purpose, a reason, and meaning, you are welcome to look all over. You are welcome to join all kinds of spiritual groups, self-help clubs, churches, and so forth.

And when you are finished searching and have learned all kinds of wonderful things, come home and find You.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Have You Been to Jail for Justice? (5/16/2010)

Have You Been To Jail for Justice?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 16th, 2010

Acts 16:16-34
John 17:20-26

The via transformativa or the way of justice making is the spiritual path we are exploring during Spring. This is the path of the prophet, the activist, the doer. This is the path that invites and inspires each of us to be agents of change. This is the path for those of us who are not satisfied with the way things are but are interested in what they may become.

The icon of the via transformativa in modern times, particularly in this country might be Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was an advocate for justice, for civil rights, and for compassion.   Speeches, marches, and demonstrations were the steps he took on this path. The goal of his transformative vision was for America to be what it declared itself to be, to live out its vision and its creed, "that all people are created equal."

King as a Christian also embraced Jesus's vision that all would be "one".

This path is a dangerous path. It is dangerous in a couple of ways.

Those who travel the via transformativa can if they do not also take the time to travel the other spiritual paths (the paths of delight, letting go, and creativity) end up burned out, bitter, and self-absorbed. Change rarely happens the way we want it or at the speed we want it. That can lead to disappointment and disillusionment, sometimes even despair.

This path requires great humility. We are not omniscient so we cannot see from all points of view. We must keep ourselves centered and open to different voices.

Martin Luther King is an example of one type of action. But we travel the via transformativa in many ways. Whether we teach minds, care for bodies, work as public servants, care for our loved ones, whatever we do, we are bringing some kind of blessing to Earth and to life. We are all activists. We all travel this path as we travel all the paths. We are a blessing or a vehicle of blessing to others. That blessing, that love has to come from some where.

The activists among us and within us, are those who need the practices of meditation and laughter just so we don't take ourselves too seriously. The activists and the doers are the ones who need the inner peace workshop we have coming up next weekend. Or something like it.

We may not think we do, we might like to think of ourselves as Iron Man or Iron Woman but really we are made of blood, flesh, bone, and feeling. We are tender, wounded, beautiful human beings and each of us needs nurture and care. So we do have to be conscious and mindful about taking that time to engage in those practices that nurture our Spirit, whatever those practices might be for you.

So, you activists, if you need a note from your minister to give yourself permission to take a mental health day consider this the note. Earth needs you. Allow Earth to care for you too.

It is no fun fighting for justice unless you have fun.

One danger of this path is burn-out. But it has also been said that it is better to have burned out than never to have burned at all.

Earth needs those who will take risks and act on behalf of compassion and justice.

The via transformativa is also dangerous in that there are forces that resist transformation. These forces are powerful, entrenched, ruthless, and intent on maintaining the status quo. It doesn't matter what institution you are trying to transform, these forces of inertia are present. When pushed too hard, these forces bite back. This is why Martin Luther King and those who demonstrated and marched for civil rights found themselves on the wrong side of the law time and time again.

In 1963, King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama. From his jail cell he wrote what is arguably the most articulate and passionate defense of civil disobedience ever written. It is called the Letter From Birmingham Jail. King wrote:
I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.
If you count seminary, I have been in the ministry for more than twenty years. In all of that time, on the front burner of our denomination has been discrimination against gay and lesbian people. It is written into the constitution. We have had studies and votes and fooled around and fussed about and quoted the Bible, good Lord have we quoted the Bible (mostly misquoted I should say), and we still don’t have justice. I know we don’t have justice because I get emails from young people whose parents have not accepted them because of religious convictions.

There is no solution to this except to remove the discriminatory laws. There is no way to satisfy the principles of justice and equality on one hand and to satisfy those who want to keep some people as second class citizens on the other. The moderates tell us we want peace. We want to keep everyone at the table they tell us. There is a difference between the peace that comes with justice and the peace that comes with the oppressed simply keeping quiet.

King understood this too. This is from his Letter From Birmingham Jail:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says:

"I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
There will be tension at the upcoming General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church which happens to meet over Independence Day this summer. We need to remove the discriminatory language. The time is now. To quote again King from that same letter:
Justice delayed is justice denied.
Until that time when discrimination is written out of our constitution, some of us will defy that discrimination and treat all people with equality and dignity.

We will have fun and be stylish while doing it. If you know how to knit you might help the cause by 
knitting rainbow stoles for our General Assembly commissioners.

When I think of the call to the via transformativa I think of the late Howard Zinn. He said:
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.
One of my favorite scenes in the Bible is of Paul and Silas in prison.

The story from Acts is filled with supernaturalism. There is a great deal of fantasy and hyperbole, but there is a likely a kernel of history. Paul gets thrown in jail because of this verse which is central to Paul’s theology and philosophy. It is Galatians 3:28:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
All great reformers (Buddha, Jesus, Paul and so forth) challenged inequality. They challenged racial inequality, gender inequality, and economic inequality. Paul was thrown in jail because he challenged the ways of Empire that profited from these inequalities. The historical Paul was not about religious superstition. Nor was he about being passive in the face of social inequality. Paul was framed by later writers who wrote in his name. The historical Paul regarded women in leadership as equal to himself, regarded slaves as free, and challenged all rules that made distinction between ethnic groups.

No wonder he was thrown in jail. The communities he started and fostered challenged the way Empire did business. Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg have helped us discover the historical Paul. I recommend their book, The First Paul.

Acts is filled with supernaturalism. It has its own spin on the story. In the words of Dominic Crossan it hides as it reveals. For all of that it does capture the joy of disobedience.

While our heroes, Paul and Silas are in prison they are neither bummed nor grumpy. They sit in jail and they sing loudly. Raucous songs they sing. They sing for freedom. They sing from joy. No jail can hold this joy. The via transformativa must be fun. Don’t take this path if you are not going to enjoy it.

In that spirit, the late, Molly Ivins gets the last word:
“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.”


Sunday, May 9, 2010

When the Spirit Says Do (5/9/2010 Mother's Day)

When the Spirit Says Do
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 9, 2010

Acts 16:9-15
John 14:23-29

May you have a blessed Mother's Day.

Mother's Day is a day of interesting challenge for those of us who prepare worship services. It is not technically a church day. My father dismisses it as yet another day the stores made up to sell us stuff. My mother kind of likes it, though. She knows she will get phone calls for sure.

I have found that it is one of the higher attendance days. For some reason Mother's Day inspires people to go to church. On the other hand, some people avoid church particularly on Mother's Day. We should be aware of why that is so.

Churches have tended to use Mother's Day as a platform to promote particular values and roles for women. You know, the godly woman. Author Anne Lamott, herself a mother, wrote a piece for Mother's Day, entitled "Why I Hate Mother's Day."

She wrote:
It celebrates the great lie about women: That those with children are more important than those without.
She goes on to say:
I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure. The non-mothers must sit in their churches, temples, mosques, recovery rooms and pretend to feel good about the day while they are excluded from a holiday that benefits no one but Hallmark and See's. There is no refuge — not at the horse races, movies, malls, museums. Even the turn-off-your-cellphone announcer is going to open by saying, "Happy Mother's Day!" You could always hide in a nice seedy bar, I suppose. Or an ER.
I do love the way Anne Lamott writes about painful things by making us laugh. I think it is important to acknowledge that this day can be a particularly painful day especially in a religious setting. If there is anything the church does well is lay on the guilt. We can make you feel guilty for just getting out of bed and using carbon. Think of what we can do with Mother's Day.

As with everything, we can try to ignore it, avoid it, fight it, or transform it.

Since we are celebrating the via transformativa, the way of justice-making and compassion, let's see what we can do with Mother's Day. I first realized that it was possible for church communities to transform Mother's Day into a day of justice-making and compassion when I visited a church in Dobbs Ferry, New York. I was just out of seminary in my first call and was attending a conference for new ministers in Stony Point, New York. We attended worship at South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry. It was at the time, and I suppose it still is, a progressive, social justice type of church.

It happened to be Mother's Day. Above the entrance to the church, an old stone building, was a huge banner. The banner read:
Celebrate Mother's Day: End Racism.
I thought now that is a different idea than simply giving out a flower arrangement to the mother who has the most children. It was an interesting congregation. In the fellowship hall you could have coffee and sit around tables writing letters to your congressperson. The social justice committee supplied the paper. Obviously, this church ten miles north of the city was helping the larger community be aware of issues of racial and economic injustice. The message was if we are going to be about motherhood, let us work for justice for all mothers.

Before Hallmark turned Mother's Day into a sentimental money-maker and before the certain forms of Christianity turned it into a so-called "traditional values day" Mother's Day was all about social justice.

Julia Ward Howe in response to the horrors of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 began a one-woman peace crusade. She issued a manifesto of peace. It is considered to be the original Mother's Day proclamation.

In 1872, she went to London to promote an international Woman's Peace Congress. She began promoting the idea of a "Mother's Day for Peace" to be celebrated on June 2, honoring peace, motherhood and womanhood.
Julia Ward Howe's proclamation is worth repeating at least in part on Mother's Day:
Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace...
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God -
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.
Now that is the via transformativa. That is path of passionate and compassionate action.

Julia Ward Howe was inspired by another woman, Ann Marie Jarvis.
Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, a young Appalachian homemaker who, starting in 1858, had attempted to improve sanitation through what she called "Mothers Friendship Day"… She organized women throughout the Civil War to work for better sanitary conditions for both sides and in 1868 she began work to reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors. Ann was instrumental in saving thousands of lives by teaching women in her Mothers Friendship Clubs the basics of nursing and sanitation which she had learned from her physician brother James Reeves, M.D.
It was the daughter of Ann Marie Jarvis, Anna Jarvis, who started Mother's Day as we know it today. She wanted a day to "honor mothers, living and dead." In 1908 in Grafton, West Virginia, the first Mother's Day Service was held in Andrews Methodist Church.

It appears that Mother's Day is a natural for an Earth-centered spirituality, a spirituality dedicated to justice, peace, and compassion.

In Hebrew the word for compassion is rechem. That same root word is translated as womb. Compassion is literally womb-love. That is not sentimental. Hundreds of millions of years of evolution does not lead to sentimentality. There is no sentimentality, no Hallmark Card love, for womb-love. It is fierce protection for the brood. You don't mess with a mama's babies of any species. That is the sense of protective compassion that our ancestors projected onto God or Goddess. Womb-love is divine, fierce, strong love for all creation.

Men also can experience this womb-love and act from it. Jesus embodied and taught this womb-love and invited his disciples, male and female, to embrace it. Perhaps that is the peace he gives "not as the world gives" in today's reading from John's gospel.

If "the world" is the normalization of civilization with its standing armies, with its dualism of matter and spirit, male and female, humanity and creation, with its economic abstractions that divide us from one another and from Earth, exploiting others and Earth's gifts, then womb-love is the peace the world does not know.

Womb-love comes from as Julia Ward Howe said, "the bosom of a devastated Earth" outraged at the abuse of Earth and its life, and in response, rising up and protecting the vulnerable, giving voice to the silenced, in-spiriting our lethargy, opening our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts.

Womb-love is creativity birthed within us, all of us, that surprises us, changes us, moves us, and takes us places we would have never imagined. This is the creative Spirit in Acts that we read about today. The characters are almost passive. They are not. They are active, but responding to the real actor. The actor is Spirit who calls them to action. They follow.

This is the language we use when we are caught up in something that is bigger than individuals or even the sum energy of individuals. When creativity synchronizes toward something beautiful we feel as though we are acted upon. That presence of Spirit is so present and active. All we can do when the Spirit says do, is do.

This creative feeling can happen in destructive ways to be sure. That is why discernment is so vital as well as keeping that circle of conversation as large as possible and giving voice to those without voice. The via transformativa is the shaping of that creativity toward justice and compassion for all of Earth and its life.

The via transformativa is the spiritual path of action.

Since it is commencement season, a quote that will be heard--and should be--many times this year comes from a commencement speech given by Albert Schweitzer. He told a graduating class:

I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.
Schweitzer is a good example of someone who embodied womb-love. After finishing his major work, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, he left the formal study of theology behind. His real study had just begun. He followed Spirit, the womb-love he learned from Jesus, to Africa in order to heal bodies.

I am good for celebrating Mother’s Day. Perhaps like the church in Dobbs Ferry, New York, each of us can make a banner for the way we see Spirit or womb-love at work on Mother’s Day.

Celebrate Mother’s Day: End racism.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: End sexism.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: End war.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: Heal bodies.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: Hug a tree.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: Promote dignity.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: (You fill in the blank)…

Whatever Mother’s Day might mean for you, let it also be a reminder that womb-love is real and within you and is embracing you and is inspiring you to embrace with fierce tenderness all of life.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

How Large Is Your Circle? (5/2/2010)

How Large Is Your Circle?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 2, 2010

Sojourner Truth: Ain't I A Woman?

Acts 11:1-18
John 13:31-35

Much of the New Testament reflects obsession over who can be part of the new community and who cannot. Was this new messianic movement primarily Jewish or not? Should new converts become Jewish or could Pagans get the Jesus mojo without becoming Jews first? From the other side, the question from the Pagan point of view is whether or not "God" had rejected the Jews.

I find these questions tedious. Perhaps from an historical point of view ancient religious superstitions and ethnic prejudices have some interest. They really haven't held interest for me. Must we continue to dredge up these old arguments, Jew vs. Christian?

We can throw Islam into the mix too. Debate within some Presbyterian circles is whether or not Muslims worship the same god as Christians. What is the question again? Are we asking something along the lines of whether or not Zeus and Jupiter are the same? The question for most of us is rather silly on the surface, but the subtext is more serious.

If I can convince myself and others like me that my religious beliefs are true and superior to yours, that helps to keep you out of my circle. If you are infidel, apostate, heretic, lost, or unbeliever, I may not be as passionate as I could be otherwise in defending your rights. It might even justify treating you as an enemy. One could make a case that the history of religion is the history of people finding an excuse to exclude.

I am all for inter-faith dialogue. But it will go a lot smoother without the "faith" part. If you sincerely believe because your holy book tells you that women should cover their heads in church or wear burqas when they go shopping, you don't get a pass for that.

You can believe it, fine. But if you want to bring your conviction to a public forum, if you want to convince someone else of your truth, you will have to do better than say, "My holy book says so." You will have to convince people of your truth on its own merit.

In today's reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus is supposed to have said:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
Who is "one another?" We would likely say, "Well everyone!"

Sure we should love all people, regardless of religion, nationality, politics, race, gender, sexual orientation. Like our church mission statement we should treat with compassion and justice not just kin (even though we battle biology on that one), not just those who are "like us" but all people. We extend that love to all our relations including our non-human relations.   We would add that "love" is not merely sentiment, but consists of compassionate justice and advocacy for their well-being.

How do you love six billion people, let alone non-human relations? We do this through politics. We put it in terms of human rights and a just distribution and access to Earth's gifts. We certainly are a long way from making this love a reality and we are certainly blinded by our shortsightedness and fear. But we we know that to love one another involves hard work toward the goal of healthy food, clean water, shelter, freedom, and equality, for all people alive today and for seven generations after us. Love obviously means caring for our home and all our relations who share this home.

For the author of the Gospel of John, to "love one another" was more narrowly focused. It is about the group having love for each other within the group. The author by putting these words and others on the lips of Jesus wanted to communicate that this group needed to stick together, to sacrifice for one another, to have compassion for one another. To love within the circle. That is good as far as it goes. The challenge even to the scripture itself is to expand that circle.

How large is your circle?
In Acts Peter has a vision of what were to him religiously "unclean" animals being lowered on a sheet. He hears the voice of God telling him to eat.

“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter takes this vision to mean not only that ritual taboos on food no longer apply, but that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile either. According to the text in which Peter is speaking:
This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.
This is a pivotal story regarding the expansion of the Jesus message to Gentiles.
The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.
We tend to like this story as it is about expanding the circle. Contemporary Jews might not appreciate this story, however. They wouldn't see observing kosher food laws the same as rejecting people.

This story has been used to advocate for sexual and gender justice in the church. I have used this story myself in that way. According to this reading, Peter's vision means that heterosexuals in the church need to change their minds in regards to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. We straight folks need to say, like Peter:

The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.
And yet, I have to say, I am losing patience with the church. Even this reading is still a heterosexist reading.

…make [no] distinction between "them" and "us."
Well, of course. And we shouldn't need a Bible verse to tell "us" that. I am frustrated that the church and society are still excluding people and denying basic rights over arcane arguments based on superstition and prejudice. But it is what it is.

I am happy to be in a room of people today who are not silent about this and are active agents of change. We are asking ourselves and others:
How large is your circle?
The best way to enlarge one's circle is to meet people. I think the real irony and the real plot of the story in Acts is not that Peter and later, Paul, and the other disciples had some great message to give to people. The real irony of this story is that they were confronted by others. One of my seminary professors said that this book should be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit as opposed to the Acts of the Apostles. Spirit is the main character in Acts.

We can debate what Spirit is, but what Spirit does is to expand circles of awareness. This is no less with Peter and Paul and the supposed evangelists as it was with all the characters we come across in this document. All are confronted and transformed by Spirit and brought into relationship by Spirit.

The Book of Acts is a celebration of Path Four in the creation-centered spiritual tradition. It is the way of compassion and justice-making. It is the via transformativa. In this path each of us is a prophet.

A prophet does not predict the future. A prophet is not some super holy person. A prophet interferes. This is what Matthew Fox writes about the prophet in Original Blessing:
But what does it mean to be a prophet? Who is a prophet? A prophet is one who carries on the Dabhar, that is the creative energy or word of God, when it has been stimied or stifled by injustice or laziness or too much belief in the immortality of what already is. The prophet in each of us is our social consciousness, our heartfelt concern about the loved ones of God who suffer needlessly. P. 260
I love that line
"too much belief in the immortality of what already is."
There is nothing immortal about prejudice or superstition.
There is nothing immortal about military regimes, or multi-national corporations, or banks that are too big to fail.
There is nothing immortal about our fossil fuel addiction, and of all the addictions it spawns.
There is nothing immortal about a way of life that consigns the top few percent of the pyramid to wastefulness and the bottom super majority to poverty.

The prophet expands the circle of awareness. The prophet through heartfelt concern, through love, through compassion for those who are hurting interferes with injustice.

Fox again:
The prophet falls in love with creation and especially with the little ones, the anawim, of creation (Path I); she then experiences the bottomless depths of pain that wrench at the beauty and dignity of have and have-nots alike (Path II); from the nothingness experience she recreates, working from the best that both left brain and right brain can offer (Path III); yearning for a New Creation, she launches her creativity in the direction of healing by way of compassion, celebration, and social justice (Path IV). In this manner she interferes with pessimism, cynicism, and despair, and channels moral outrage to rebirth. P. 264.
Last night I finished reading Bill McKibben's latest book, Eaarth. He spells Earth with an extra "a." He does so to make the point that we live on a different planet from the one upon which we built civilization. This new Eaarth with an extra "a" is a planet we have created due to our 200 year fossil-fuel experiment. He makes the case that global warming is irreversible and that we are now experiencing its effects. To survive on this new planet with receding glaciers, rising sea levels, increasing acidity in our oceans and peaking resources, we are going to have to live in a very different way.

We will have to expand our circle of awareness.

It is easy to look at our situation and to be filled with that what Matt Fox says we must interfere: pessimism, cynicism, and despair. Even as we may feel those things, even as they are part of our experience of pain and anguish we must interfere, or perhaps in the spirit of the Bible book of Acts, we must allow Spirit to interfere through us and in us. We must channel that moral outrage to rebirth.

I was heartened by McKibben's book. He pulls no punches in the first half about our current situation. In the second half of his book he interferes with the pessimism, cynicism, and despair that can naturally arise from an honest assessment of our situation. He interferes by pointing to places where green shoots are already appearing in the cracks of our crumbling civilization. He points to people who are challenging old immortalities of things that supposedly cannot be done such as feeding ourselves without relying on agri-business.
At the beginning of this sermon I said that one could make a case that the history of religion is the history of people finding an excuse to exclude. However, there is also a creation-centered spirituality in all of our traditions that interferes with that exclusion. It is a minority tradition to be sure.

It is based on expanding our circle. It is about expanding our circle of compassion. It is expanding the circle until there is no “them and us” but only us. It is expanding our circle of awareness so that our concerns are not quaint and narrow but global. We are one species related to every other.

All creation is in the circle.
All creation is the circle.
Earth is our home.
Including the new Eaarth that we spell with two "a's."
Apart from Earth no one lives.
By the power of Spirit that interferes with all of our fears and insecurities and points us toward justice and compassion, all might live.
How large is your circle?