Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Guesting Side of God (6/27/2010)

The Guesting Side of God
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 27th, 2010

Luke 14:16-24
Thomas 64
Matthew 22:2-14

Today is the first Sunday of summer. This week we explore a new via. Welcome to the via postiva. This is the spiritual path of awe and wonder. It is the path of celebration. It is vivid. It is lively. It is hot. It is life! Yes! Our senses are filled. Creation is showing off her stuff.

And we are alive.

Time for a party.

During this summer I am going to look at some of the parables of Jesus as starting points. I think that is what Jesus intended them to be. Starting points. Jumping off points. Diving boards. You don’t just stand on the diving board, analyze it, admire its craftsmanship and then call it a day. You use it to dive into the pool.

The parables of Jesus are like diving boards that bounce us into the big splash of life.

I have a few initial thoughts about the parables of Jesus. I don’t think they are primarily allegories to emphasize or illustrate theological doctrine. I don’t even think they are about God, or certainly not some concept of God that we have been taught to believe. I also don’t think they are for the purpose of moralizing—
good boys and girls are like this and bad boys and girls are like that.
The parables are quite ordinary on one level. They are about normal things, a woman searching for a coin in the dirt, a man hiring laborers, a son who runs away and spends his father’s money, a woman baking bread, a farmer sowing seeds in a field, a mustard weed growing, and a man throwing a dinner party.

But you know as you hear them that they are not really about any of those things. They touch on the meaning of those things, the life within those things, but they only touch, they don’t clobber. Rather than insist they agitate. It is as if Jesus is saying,
Oh, so you think this is what it means to be happy? This is your idea of justice, is it? You know compassion, do you? Well, try this one on for size…
And then Jesus proceeds to tell a parable of a man beaten and left for dead in the ditch. He doesn’t speak a word or perform any action. He is helpless and in need. The scandal is that he has to bear the humiliation of being helped by his enemy.

Some of the most interesting work on the parables has been done in the last few decades by fellows of the Jesus Seminar. We are fortunate to have Brandon Scott and Art Dewey come to Elizabethton in October for a Jesus Seminar on the Road. The focus of that seminar will be the parables. These parables of Jesus give us insight into his voice.

It is tricky work, because many other voices have been added to Jesus’ voice, so we don’t always know who is speaking. Is the writer of Luke’s Gospel speaking or is it Jesus? Is this Matthew speaking or is it Jesus?

For instance, the parable of the Dinner Party is found in three Gospels: Matthew, Thomas, and Luke. Matthew's version is quite different from the other two. In Matthew’s version, the host is a king and it is a wedding. When the king discovers that his friends have refused his invitation, he sends out his soldiers, kills them, and burns their city. The moral of that story is that there are some parties you make sure you attend. But even then you aren’t guaranteed a good time, because one guy shows up and he doesn’t have a wedding garment. So he is cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew has taken this parable and turned it into a theological salvation history.

Thomas is not in the Bible. This gospel discovered in the 1940s contains sayings of Jesus. Some are familiar; others are not. It contains the parable of the Dinner Party. All of the invited guests who refuse the invitation do so for business reasons. For some reason, the author of the Gospel of Thomas didn’t like merchants or business people. Apparently, the author of the Gospel of Thomas has an aversion to the worldly matters of buying and selling and puts that concern on the lips of Jesus. Thomas has Jesus interpret the parable by saying:
Buyers and merchants will not enter the places of my Father.
Luke takes the parable yet one more direction. Luke has a concern throughout his gospel for the poor. So he adds the specific invitation to the “poor, crippled, blind, and lame.” And when they don’t fill the house, then another invitation to all who would come.

When we look at the parables, we will find that the different gospel writers take a core parable and add to it, or subtract from it, or change it around, or place it in a certain context that suits their needs. They didn’t invent these ideas out of whole cloth. They are not necessarily being deceptive. It is how they saw Jesus.

So separating out Thomas, Matthew, and Luke’s concerns, an earlier version of the parable might have gone like this:
A man was giving a big dinner and invited many guests. At the dinner hour the host sent his slave to tell the guests: “Come, it’s ready now.”
But one by one they all began to make excuses. The first said to him,
“I just bought a farm, and I have to go and inspect it; please excuse me.”
And another said,
“I just bought five pairs of oxen, and I’m on my way to check them out; please excuse me.”
And another said,
“I just got married, and so I cannot attend.”
So the slave came back and reported these (excuses) to his master. The master said to his slave,
“Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.”
Brandon Scott thinks that what is going on here is a social snubbing and a shaming. The excuses are lame. The invited guests are purposely refusing the host’s hospitality. The tradition is that a formal invitation would be sent and then when the time for the party would come, guests would be escorted to the party. So it isn’t as though the invited guests didn’t know it was coming.

And the excuses themselves are pitiful. Who buys a farm and then goes and inspects it? Who buys oxen and then checks them out? Why would the person who must have known he was getting married, accept the invitation in the first place?

Others have suggested that these excuses are legitimate. In the original version of the parable, these guests are caught off guard. This is a sudden invitation and they had plans already made to check on newly purchased farms and oxen in the first two cases and to celebrate a marriage in the third. The host miscalculated. He thought everyone would drop everything and come to his party, but you know, people have lives to live. Just because you throw a party, it doesn’t mean it is all about you. Disappointed and angry the host invites whoever will come.

Snubbed or not, I suppose it doesn't matter. That happens sometimes. No use burning cities over it or forcing folks to attend your dinner party. Whether the excuses are legit or not probably doesn't matter either. If you don't want to do something, one excuse is as good as another.

One of the difficulties with parables especially in church is that we think they are about religion. They must be about God, heaven, and hell. So we automatically think that the host is either God or perhaps Jesus referring to himself. The Dinner Party must be heaven. But there is no requirement that that be the case. In fact, it doesn’t work so well with God as the host. Is it really God’s character to invite the wealthy first and then the others only after the wealthy refuse? What does that say about our conception of God?

Perhaps the parable is a challenge of our expectations. It invites us to think about our lives.

I am going to offer a secular reading. I don’t think the historical Jesus cared that much about theology. I don’t think he talked about God that much. He talked about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God it seems to me was more of a metaphor for Life, Life with a capital L. I also don’t think he cared about moralizing. I think Jesus told parables to shake people up so that they could move beyond convention and see their life with fresh eyes.

The big questions are
How does one find happiness in this vale of tears?
How does one become an appropriate guest to Life?
We know that there are all kinds of rules and stories, parables and mythologies of how one is supposed to be happy, what it means to be happy, and who gets to be happy. There are other rules that tell us if we are happy in that way (whatever way that might be), then we aren’t really happy.

We are born and raised with all kinds of conventions, that is, conventional wisdom, about what happiness is and how we are to get there. Religion certainly is not the only happiness broker. Most of our ideas of happiness come from our parents. We live out their desires and inadequacies unconsciously.

The parables of Jesus invite us to challenge conventional wisdom or at least to think about it.

Jennifer Michael Hecht is a philosopher and historian. I am enjoying her book, The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote to What Isn’t Working Today. The title may be somewhat misleading. She is not saying that happiness is a myth. She is inviting us by strolling through history and culture to analyze our own myths of happiness. We may be happier than we think, if we would allow ourselves to be. Happiness may take work, but it is not impossible. She writes:
According to the great philosophers, your worst barrier against happiness is you, your own wrong thinking. Your four problems are these: You cannot see yourself or much about the world you live in. You are ruled by desire and emotion. You will not take your place or rise to your role. You are alternately oblivious to death and terrified of it. As such, your job is to master these four errors in yourself. If you do, you will be happy and more free to love, work, and play the way you wish you could. None of this comes easily; it has to be practiced a great deal, and it never works completely. However, there are no useful alternatives to the effort. P. 67.
Notice her adjective, “useful.” What we are doing here gathered on a Sunday is practicing something useful. Practices for happiness. Happiness practice.

We can be happy having a beer and watching television. That is a form of happiness. We can also be happy working hard (which will entail some agony) to complete a project. Both are forms of happiness. If we only work in one arena, if we spend all day, every day, drinking beer and watching television, we won’t be happy for long. Yet if we are at the office 80 hours a week for 40 years, we may find that we have missed the bus.

If the Dinner Party is a metaphor for happiness, how do we read it? Perhaps there is no one who is right or wrong in this picture. Maybe the folks who are getting married, buying oxen, and checking out their new farm are happy. So let them be. If they aren’t happy, even more reason to let them be. There will be other parties.

Not only is the party, Life. But not going to it is Life as well. At the end of the day, each of us has to negotiate how we will balance immediate and long-term joy.

The best commentary on the Dinner Party might be this poem by Mary Oliver, The Summer Day:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
The hopeful news is that the Dinner Party (or Life or Happiness) is for everyone, not only for the wealthy and well-connected. Some things--perhaps the most important things (like grasshoppers)--are those that are available to all of us if we know how to pay attention. If we discover how to be a guest.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Taking On Legion (6/20/2010)

Taking on Legion
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 20, 2010

Luke 8:26-39

The Jesus Seminar determined that Jesus probably was an exorcist. He was believed to be successful in casting out demons. Now that doesn't mean the Jesus Seminar thinks there are or ever were demons, but the pre-modern culture in which he lived did. Afflictions that we might understand as mental illness would have been in Jesus' time and place caused by unclean spirits. People who could get rid of these unclean spirits would be holy men and women. Jesus apparently had skills at this.

However, the Jesus Seminar voted this particular account as a fiction. It has the feel of a horror movie. A horror movie that ends with a comic twist. Demons named Legion asking for and taking up temporary residence in the pigs and drowning them in the sea must have been an amusing detail for those who saw pigs as unclean.

The author of Luke copied this story from Mark. Mark has more detail that Luke left aside. Here is how Mark describes the man:
He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.
Mark also provides a detail of the number of pigs, 2000.

That number, that Luke misses, is interesting. I think it is one of a number of clues that the original storyteller was telling us a story. The demon is named Legion and Legion enters 2000 pigs and is drowned in the sea. Wink. Wink.

Legion was the name of a Roman fighting force. A legion could contain anywhere from 1,000 to 6,000 soldiers. Palestine was occupied by the Roman army. Jesus was killed on a Roman cross. The New Testament is a response to this Roman occupation. Jesus is drowning the Roman army in the sea.

Mark, as crafty storytellers will do, shows us without telling us what this story is really about. The story is not about Jesus casting out a demon as if that is all that is wrong. It is a story of resistance to and liberation from Roman oppression.

The Roman occupation is the unclean spirit. The shackles and chains, the howling and the bruising, are the effects of this occupation. This is the human suffering, the toll that is taken on the people of Palestine by this occupation.

For Mark it is a battle between Jesus and Caesar and Mark throws down the gauntlet in the first sentence of his gospel:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Proclamations throughout the Empire would begin with good news from the emperor, son of God. Mark spoofs that pompous proclamation.

Mark is taking head on Roman Imperial Theology. The real son of God, the real power, is not in Caesar and his standing armies and his weaponry and his legions and his economic system based on slavery and his unsustainable lust for land and his abuse of people and of Earth. No, the real son of God, who represents the empire of God, of justice and peace, is in this peasant-teacher-exorcist--rabble-rouser, Jesus, and his movement of non-violent resistance.

Even the demon, Legion, knows who Jesus is, according to the story. When the demon sees Jesus coming, shouts out,

"Don't torment me!"

Don't torment Roman occupation? That's funny. Jesus had told the unclean spirit to leave. The 2000 pigs represent a legion of soldiers (pigs!) drowning in the sea as YHWH drowned Pharoah's army in the exodus from Egypt. That is the power of the good news Mark and Luke are telling us.

Who are the people who own the pigs and who ask Jesus to leave because they are afraid? Maybe they are those who benefit economically from the oppression of their own kin. In the logic of this story they are not innocent farmers, they represent the interests of the occupation. They are doing just fine with Rome and with Legion and they don't take kindly to Jesus messing up the good thing they have going.

Another detail. The man possessed by the unclean spirit lives in the tombs. The land of the dead. Being occupied is death. It is being shackled. At the end of the story, the tomb is empty. This living person is no longer in the tomb.

Fast forward to the end of Mark's gospel. After Jesus' crucifixion, the women go to the tomb to cover his body in spices. When they get there the tomb is empty. The tomb that the Roman occupation put Jesus in cannot contain him. The man or angel at the empty tomb tells the woman that Jesus of Nazareth has been raised and has gone ahead to Galilee. Follow him. The woman run away afraid and that is how the gospel ends. It ends with a question mark. Will we be afraid like the owners of the pigs, or will we follow? Will we continue the resistance?

None of this is literal or supernatural. It is symbol and metaphor.

And it is true.

Well it could be true.

It is true to the extent that we trust that it is true and act on its truth.

It is true if we use our imagination and our courage and bring this story to the present.

This is where Bible class ends and preaching begins, I suppose. You can apply the story of Jesus casting out Legion to the present in many different ways. That is the power of a symbolic story.

The story of the man in the tombs is a great story for coming to terms with addiction. Drugs, alcohol, and other addictive behavior keep us in the tombs howling and hurting. The only solution is to name the demon and send it away. That requires brutal honesty. No denial, no anger and blame, no depression or feeling sorry for oneself will help. Legion is an unclean spirit that won't stop until you are dead. Get rid of it. It can be done. No excuses. Anyone who is in recovery knows that. Those for whom recovery does not work are those as the AA manual says:
"constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves."
The story of the man in the tombs is a great story for recovery from addiction on the individual level. With honesty and help that is available immediately, addicts can rise from the dead and lead healthy, whole, productive, unclean spirit-free lives.

It is also a great story for recovery from addiction on the collective level.

We, and particularly Americans, who at 4% of the population use 25% of the world's oil, are addicted to fossil fuels. President Obama told us that a few days ago from the Oval Office. Addicted. That is not a figure of speech. That is a reality.

We are possessed by an unclean spirit.

For the past 150 years the human population of Earth has increased from under 2 billion to over 6 and one-half billion because of fossil fuels, particularly oil, the elixir of the depths.

It isn't so much that we are addicted to oil as we are addicted to the economy of oil which is unlimited growth and consumption. Food, housing, transportation, everything is based on the abundance of cheap oil. It is a lifestyle that a former president said is non-negotiable. That is an addict talking. That is Legion.

Oh, yes it is negotiable and Mother Earth will negotiate on her terms.

The numbers are telling us that global oil production has peaked. This means Earth will provide less and less oil as we demand more. The implications for Peak Oil are sobering. There are plenty of books, videos, and websites that tell what these implications are.

But we are in denial. We are addicts. Addicts lie to themselves and to others.
Oh, when the time comes we will switch over to solar power, or wind, or we'll drive those cute little hydrogen powered cars, or we'll burn corn in our tanks.
Addicts will believe anything as long as they don't have to change. None of that is feasible. Not even close. We will need alternative sources in a post-peak world for human survival, but nothing will replace fossil fuels and keep us on our current addictive lifestyle or anywhere close to it.

Watching on our computer screen 60,000 barrels of oil pour into the Gulf each day because of our desperate drilling adventures should be the bottom that addicts need to hit before they realize they need to change. But so far, no.

Rome fell because it overextended itself. Its energy was slavery and in order to expand it had to continually conquer more land and hence more slaves. It was a military-slavery economy. It finally reached its limit, its peak, and it imploded.

We have a military--fossil fuel--consumptive economy. Infinite growth and finite resources yield collapse. We are there.

Folks may check out at this point because it is too depressing. My answer to that, in my most pastoral voice possible, is tough. You need to stay with us. We do not have the luxury to be depressed.

We need to buck up and face it. We cannot stop the grieving process at denial, or depression, or anger, or bargaining. We have to move to acceptance of reality. Only then can we face the decisions we need to make.

We can cast this demon out.
We can get rid of Legion.
We can change pro-actively our addictive lifestyle.
It will take brutal honesty.

As Americans we no longer have the luxury of denying reality. We live in a representative democracy. For it to function, every citizen must be informed. Each of us must act as if we were president and realistically think through the options. We need to know the numbers and the facts, not the corporate spin, not the blind patriotism, not the polarization of left and right, but the facts.

The future is going to be local. Local food. Local energy. Little driving. We need to prepare our local governments for this. We need to use our influence in Carter County and Washington County and Sullivan County, wherever we live, to prepare ourselves realistically for a post-petroleum world. This is not for some time in the future. Now.

In our Bible story, when Jesus casts out Legion, the people were afraid and they told him to leave. We need to accept that telling the truth will anger folks. Addicts can't handle the truth. It is no use directing anger at the oil companies. They supply our addiction. It is no use directing anger at the government. We are the government.

Now remember, and this is most important. The story in Mark’s gospel is a story of good news.

The man possessed, shackled and hurting found his right mind.
He didn't solve all of his problems.
He found a clear head in order to face them.
He found a mind of peace and joy.
Waking up, naming our addiction, and facing the future realistically is good news.
Ending our unsustainable addiction is good news.
It will result in clean water.
In healthy food.
In justice.
In peace.
In life.

We really have no idea what this new life free of addiction look like.
Our great-grandchildren will.
We need to live for them now.
We cannot poison their waters, their food, and their air for our addiction.
We need to live for them.

There will be a new Earth on the other side of this great change.
It only looks scary from this end.
Addicts cannot imagine how they will live without their drug.
When they recover they recover day by day.
They don't magically solve the problems.
They are clear thinking enough to face them.
It is time to wake up and face our addiction and begin the road to recovery.

The story in the Bible is a story of courage.
It is the story of honesty and trust.
I believe it is a true story.
It is a story of the power of truth to set us free.
Let us live it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Forgiveness Without Brokers (6/13/14)

Forgiveness Without Brokers
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 13, 2010

II Samuel 11:2-12:10, 13-15
Luke 7:36-8:3


The church is all about forgiveness.

A few months ago we discovered that professional golfer, Tiger Woods, was in fact, a human being. His personal life was all over the news. Television newscasters and pundits were buzzing about him, wondering in particular what his dalliances might do to his golf game. One such broadcaster, Brit Hume, raised the stakes by stating that Tiger needed to switch religions. This is what he said of Tiger Woods:
He's said to be a Buddhist; I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, 'Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.'
That comment raised a lot of furor. Fundamentalist Christians praised it. The rest of us thought it was tacky and gauche. Buddhist, Robert Thurman said:
Hume is slapping someone who is down by picking on Tiger Woods, who I don’t even know if he is a Buddhist. He is just pandering to the Fox News fundamentalist audience by acting as if Jesus can make everything fine. I think Hume and his colleagues need to commit a little time to interfaith study.
Of course, the obvious question is: what does Jesus, Christianity, or Buddhism have to do with it? If anyone cares, it would be Tiger Woods’ wife. No one else needs to have a role in that drama except for those who are affected personally. It isn't my business or Brit Hume's business or Robert Thurman's business. It isn't Jesus's business. Nor is it God's business.

The Church has claimed that sins, public, private, juicy and otherwise are God's business. Jesus is the vehicle and the Church is the broker. According to this theology, any sin is a sin against God. Jesus is the only one who forgives and since the church is Christ's body, it also the mediator, the broker, or the loan shark of forgiveness.

The historical Jesus never claimed that role. He was placed in it by the church. He spoke and acted against the brokerage system. When you find passages such as the one in Luke where Jesus says to the woman "Your sins are forgiven" the church saw this as proof that Jesus alone had special forgiveness mojo.

But is that really true? As we hear his parables, aphorisms, and injunctions, we find Jesus taking the power away from the institution. He wasn't giving it to himself, but showing by example what any of us can do. His stories of forgiveness and his interactions with others were about interpersonal relations. You don't need priests. You don't need a Temple. You don't even need an abstraction called "God" to intervene in human relationships.

The church was tone deaf to this and turned Jesus into a substitute for the Temple. Jesus dying on the cross became atonement for sins that we owed God. The church completely distorted the message of Jesus. For the historical Jesus, forgiveness had little to do with God and certainly little to do with religious institutions.

For Jesus, forgiveness happens when human beings discover the humanity of one another.

Before I go further with that, I should tie up this loose end. In talking about forgiveness in terms of interpersonal relationships, I am not talking about crimes against the state. That is the secularization of what we once called "sins against God." This is the David and Bathsheba story. David misuses his power to commit murder. He is a king so he has no one to answer to except God. Today, in a secular society, we create a system of laws and a judicial system to enforce them. God has no role in this except perhaps as a symbol for conscience, justice, or morality.

God also has less and less a role in terms of interpersonal relationships. When I do something to hurt you, I am not hurting "God". I am hurting you. My obligation is not to God but to you. If there is any forgiveness is will not come from God, but from you.

So what is forgiveness?

We tend to think that forgiveness is something we do or we ought to do. We are told that we need to forgive. Self-help literature is filled with admonitions to forgive. If we don't it will eat at us, cause ill health, and turn us into miserable little people that no one wants to be around. We feel obligated to forgive for our own good.

But so often we cannot forgive or we pretend to, but it doesn't feel real.

I can't forgive my husband or my wife for the affair.
I can't forgive my sister or my brother for taking the family's estate.
I can't forgive my mother or my father for treating me badly.
I can't forgive my children for ignoring me.

I am not talking about anyone in particular. These are everyone's stories. Is human forgiveness even possible? How do you do this? What does it look like?

It is not something we do. If we are lucky, it is something we discover.

In John Patton’s excellent book, Is Human Forgiveness Possible? he writes:
Forgiveness is a discovery after the fact, not something sought after and achieved by whatever religious or psychological means. P. 139
Patton’s book is on the top of my list of helpful books in terms of helping me listen to others as they struggle with interpersonal relationships, particularly forgiveness. This is his thesis that he returns to throughout his book:
…human forgiveness is not doing something but discovering something—that I am more like those who have hurt me than different from them. I am able to forgive when I realize that I am in no position to forgive…. P. 16
No one likes to hear that. That isn’t something I say up front, perhaps even ever when I talk with someone. The discovery itself is an act of grace. It cannot be forced. It is a discovery that we are all human beings. We may not even call it forgiveness. We don’t need to have a name for it.

When we think of forgiveness as something we do, we come from a position of power and righteousness. I am right. You are wrong. I choose or do not choose to forgive you. But keeping it in those terms keeps us from moving beyond it. We may not wish to be in relationship with the person who has wronged us. But if we do we will need at some point to discover forgiveness. Otherwise, there will always be unresolved debt and resentment.

It is perfectly OK to choose not to forgive, whatever we think forgiveness is. But if forgiveness is something we are looking for, we will actually discover it by not seeking it. I know that sounds weird. The issue is that forgiveness is human relationship. It is to use one of John Patton’s words, “Neighbor-hood.” It is recognizing that we have a place in the “community of sinners.”

When someone has tried it all and just can’t forgive and it is eating at her or him, and bitterness, rage, resentment are making a permanent abode, then it is time to do some self-work. Rather than worry about forgiveness, one suggestion is to think about coming to terms with one’s own self perception.

This has to do with coming to terms with our own shame, that is our own woundedness. We think it is about guilt, but it is really about shame. Shame is about who we are. When criticized we don’t take it as we have done something wrong but that we are something wrong. Shame is not measuring up. Shame is not being good enough. Shame’s symbol is nakedness. Adam and Eve in the garden feel shame. They need to cover themselves. In the story YHWH covers them as an act of love.

When someone wrongs us, particularly someone especially close, someone who has with us a relationship of intimacy and trust, and betrays that trust, our shame is triggered. We have been shamed and exposed. Our reaction to that is either rage or righteousness.

There is no wonder we can’t forgive the one who shames us because our rage and righteousness is our protection. When we do the self-work, when we find other ways of covering our nakedness (so to speak), we begin to realize that we don’t need the rage or the righteousness to do that.

These past few weeks I have been angry and righteous in regards to BP and the oil leak. But I wonder if some of that rage and righteousness is a cover for my own shame in terms of the lifestyle I lead and the oil I use to maintain it.

We can’t cure shame but we can care for it.
We care for it by being vulnerable and accepting ourselves as we are.
We care for it by allowing others to love us as we are.
We care for it when we see the other person as one who is also covering for shame.
When we can see that, we can discover that we have our humanity in common.
That is forgiveness.

It is not something we do. It is something we discover.

We don’t need a broker, but a third person who can provide the space for us to be ourselves without judgment is a rare pearl.

We don’t need God the cosmic lawmaker and stern judge, counting our debts, but we may need a spirituality that connects us to something larger than ourselves and surprises us with grace.

We don’t need Jesus who takes a beating that was supposed to be inflicted upon us, but we may need a Jesus who reminds us of what it means to be human and invites us to participate in our common human life, and who accepts us as we are.

I started this sermon by suggesting that the church is all about forgiveness. That is true but not in the usual sense. It isn’t a broker between us and God, or between us and others. The community doesn't need to supervise forgiveness. It can be, if we are open to it, a community where we don't give up on our relationships. Through that we can be surprised by our humanity and through that surprise discover the humanity of others.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Becoming a Spirit-Intoxicated Prophet of Justice (6/6/2010 More Light Sunday)

Becoming a Spirit-Intoxicated Prophet of Justice
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 6, 2010
More Light Sunday

I Kings 17:17-24
Luke 7:11-17

One of the marks of self-awareness, confidence and maturity is to claim for ourselves what we have projected onto others or onto God. There is no point in saying, for example, God is good or Jesus Christ is truth or Buddha is Enlightenment and leaving all those qualities out there attached to those figures alone.

The goal of the authentic life or the spiritual life if you like is to become transformed, born again, risen from the dead, intoxicated with goodness, truth, enlightenment, compassion, and justice. Claim it. Be it.
I am not talking about hubris. I am not saying that we are to claim that we are absolutely and always good, truthful, enlightened, and so forth. Of course not. That is simply a foolish blindness and denial of one's own dark side. I am talking about taking responsibility for the power we already have. We are to be the peace we want to see in the world. We are to be compassionate as God is compassionate. We are to embrace truth and walk in the light. 

Nor am I talking about getting on some kind of spiritual treadmill in order to work ourselves into a frenzy of good works in order to earn a special spot in heaven. I don't believe there is any supernatural cosmic judge keeping an eternal list of who is naughty and nice. Spiritual authenticity requires no promise of reward or threat of punishment. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita:

Renounce attachment to the fruits.
A secular translation is to do good for goodness' sake.

A legend about Sufi mystic, Rabiah, tells that she would wander the countryside with a torch in one hand and bucket of water in the other. When asked why she said:
I want to use the jug of water to quench hell. With the burning torch I want to get heaven on fire, so that neither fear of hell nor the longing for paradise will prevent me from loving God alone for his sake.
Rabiah was one of those spirit-intoxicated prophets of justice. Historical Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, coined that label for Jesus.
A spirit-intoxicated prophet of justice

I think that is awesome. 
To a world deadened by the drag of being told what we cannot do or who we cannot be, along comes these prophets, drunk on the spirit of life, calling us out and raising us up. The fourth path of Creation Spirituality is the via transformativa, or the way of justice-making. It is participating in the struggle for life. It is about raising people from the dead. 

Our scripture readings feature two stories of raising widows' sons from the dead. Elijah and Jesus both perform this miracle. When we read stories about people coming back to life we know two things.

  • First is that we are in the realm of fiction.
  • The second is that the storytellers really want us to get something important but they have no other way of telling it without resorting to supernaturalism.
What is that something important? I think it is that we are to raise people from the dead. We are to become like Elijah and Jesus and Rabiah, spirit-intoxicated prophets of justice. 

The stories of death to life are not supernatural miracles that we are supposed to believe someone performed once upon a time. They are pointers to the reality that life, our lives, your life and mine, and ours collectively as Earthlings can be transformed. 

The scriptures themselves tell us these stories are metaphors.

Ezekiel goes to the valley of dry bones and the bones come rattling together before his eyes and sinews grow them and flesh grows on them and the spirit of breath blows through them. This isn't a zombie story. This is the story of a people, of a nation, reforming and starting again after being conquered.
In one of Jesus' parables the younger son returns home and the father needs to explain to the older son why he welcomed him home. And he tells him that his brother was lost and is now found. He was dead and is now alive. Stories of death to life are stories about people changing
  • from futility to joy,
  • from going through the motions to living purposefully,
  • from worthlessness to value,
  • from despair to dignity,
  • from shame to pride.
In June 1969 in Greenwich Village, New York City, at a bar called Stonewall, a few spirit-intoxicated prophets of justice decided that they had had enough. They had had enough of being beaten, arrested, and hassled. They had had enough of being misunderstood, of living in the shadows, of living in secret. 

The Stonewall Inn was not a nice place. It was owned by the mafia. It catered to the most marginalized and poorest among the gay community: drag queens, hustlers, and homeless youth. The folks who hung around the Inn were not church going folks. What happened was not pretty or organized. When the police raided the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, a riot erupted. It was a violent riot. It was spontaneous. People were hurt.
 It lasted for several days.

From this riot a movement coalesced and these marginalized people began to find their spirit and their dignity. Gay activist organizations formed in New York within a few months and a couple of newspapers were organized for gay and lesbian rights. 
These prophets said:
No more. We will take this abuse from society no longer.
It was a movement from death to life. One of the participants, Michael Fader described the mood:

We all had a collective feeling like we'd had enough of this kind of shit. It wasn't anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration.... Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us.... All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren't going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it's like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that's what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we're going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren't going to go away. And we didn't.Carter, David (2004). Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution
Since 1969 there has been a great deal of progress and a great deal of backlash and the churches, whether they like it or not, are in the center of this controversy. In 1974, David Sindt held up a sign at the General Assembly that read,
Is anyone else out there gay?
Like Stonewall in New York, that action at General Assembly is the iconic moment of the liberation movement in the Presbyterian Church.
It is June 2010, 41 years after Stonewall and still the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has discrimination written into its official policy. This congregation is one of the many exceptions. We do not discriminate. We are a More Light congregation. That does not mean we have "more light" than others. It is a spiritual posture of humility. As opposed to the idolatry of certainty that we have all the truth, we know we do not know everything. We anticipate that more light, more wisdom, more truth is yet to come. 

The church is correct that the issue is about morality. However, the morality is not about sexuality. That is a given. The moral issue is about discrimination, prejudice, and homophobia. That is what is immoral. The choice for each of us in our own setting is to confront this immorality with truth.

We are to be spirit-intoxicated prophets of justice. That is no one else's job. It is ours.

Some may wonder why I care. Certainly there are other issues, injustices, and causes that aren't so divisive. Why advocate for gay rights in the church?   Why does a straight guy with a straight family care? Why risk getting church folks upset? 

It was in the context of church that I was made aware. My first week at seminary in 1989 at Princeton I sat with other first year students at orientation. Representatives of different organizations and groups spoke and each offered a description of what they were about. This guy stood up and said he belonged to a group called Presbyterians for Gay Concerns and invited anyone straight or gay to come to a meeting.
I obviously have led a sheltered life. I am sure there were gay-straight alliance groups at the University of Washington where I did my undergraduate work. I didn't know about them. They weren't on my radar. I didn't even know (or know that I knew) a gay or lesbian person. 

So when this guy said that, I thought, "Huh. That's interesting." But what happened in the room next was the defining moment for me. You could feel the tension. I looked around and saw people were looking down to their laps. Praying? The guy next to me said under his breath but loud enough for me to hear at least:

They shouldn't allow a group like that on campus.
That sentence has been my motivation.
They shouldn't allow a group like that on campus.
Why not? That is who he is. I am embarrassed to say that I never contacted the person who told us about his group or attended the meetings. But I look at that moment as the light going on moment. I was made aware of gay people and of homophobia in the exact same instant and all in the context of church and ministry.
They shouldn't allow a group like that on campus.
Those are fighting words.
They shouldn't allow gay and lesbian people to be ministers.
Those are fighting words.
They shouldn't allow gay and lesbian people to have their relationships blessed and honored in church.
Those are fighting words.
They shouldn't allow gay and lesbian couples to have the same rights, privileges, benefits and responsibilities as straight couples.
Those are fighting words. When I saying fighting, I am not talking about fighting people. The Apostle Paul reminds us that we are struggling not against flesh and blood but principalities and powers. We are fighting injustice and misunderstanding. We are fighting the spirit of death and despair, shame and isolation. To do that we become spirit-intoxicated prophets of justice who say Yes! to life, dignity, and hope. 

You are that prophet. 
When you accept yourself as you are… 

When you correct falsehoods…
When you stand up for yourself and for those who are put down…

When you speak the truth even though you think it would be easier to remain silent… 
When you treat others as you want to be treated…
You are that prophet.