Sunday, July 18, 2010

Won't Somebody PLEASE Think of the Children?! (7/18/14)

Won't Somebody PLEASE Think of the Children?!
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

July 18, 2010

Mark 10:13-15
Matthew 19:13-14
Luke 18:15-17

And they would bring children to him so he could lay hands on them, but some followers scolded them. Then Jesus grew indignant when he saw this and said to them: “Let the children come up to me, don’t try to stop them. After all, God’s domain belongs to people like that. I swear to you, whoever doesn’t accept God’s imperial rule the way a child would, certainly won’t ever set foot in God’s domain!
Gospel of Jesus 2:6-8

In the television show the Simpsons, Helen Lovejoy is the wife of Rev. Lovejoy. She likes to gossip and moralize about the activities and the people of Springfield. Whenever the community gathers to face some issue no matter how big or how small, you can count on Mrs. Lovejoy to exclaim in a panic:

Won't Somebody PLEASE Think of the Children?!

"Thinking of the children" is on one hand a rhetorical device. It is an old ploy to appeal to emotion (usually fear). Some adults are opposed to some kind of reform and so they present children as a reason to be afraid this reform. As if just mentioning "the children" is an argument in itself.

Remember Anita Bryant--the beauty queen turned anti-gay activist? In 1977, Dade County Florida passed an ordinance to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Anita Bryant led the opposition to the ordinance. Her homophobic enterprise was called "Save Our Children." The intent of her rhetoric was to stir up fear that somehow gay people would “recruit” the children.

Sarah Palin's internet advertisement for her new political action committee also appeals to the “children under attack” motif. Although the ad is vague on specifics, in fact non-existent regarding specifics, that she and her fan club are “mama grizzlies” is quite explicit. The message appears to be:
"Obama is in the White House. Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?
Have no fear. Sarah "Mama Grizzly" Palin will think of the children.

When someone brings up an emotional and vague appeal to "the children" to make a point, it is wise to be skeptical. This appeal is likely a cipher for a number of irrational and ugly fears just under the surface of awareness. Throughout our history appeals to "the children" were covers for such fears such as homophobia, xenophobia, and racism to name a few.

We shouldn't use "the children" as a rhetorical device to score political points. As if I come to my views because I care about children whereas you do not.

Now all of that said, it is wise to think of the children. We should think about not just "our" children but all children. Not only present day children, but children yet to be born. According to the Great Binding Law, the Constitution of the Iroquois Nations, we find this ethic:
“In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
That is not easy. Nor does it seem to be done very often. Not to pick on politicians, but how many (rhetoric aside) actually think of the impact of their decisions beyond the next election? Not to pick on corporations, but how many (rhetoric aside) think of the impact of their decisions beyond the next quarterly statement?

It is a good question. How far ahead do we think?

The commitment to think of seven generations ahead is a reminder of the importance of sustainability. If we continue our way of living at the way we live today, will our descendants be able to sustain it? That is what is behind this seven generations thing. Is our way of life sustainable? Can we continue this indefinitely? What will be the results on our household if we continue the way we live into the future?

If the decisions we are making are not sustainable, then they are not good decisions. They are not decisions that think of "the children."

When we think of growth, such as growth in the economy, we are talking about using more and more energy. Not only do we consume more but we sink more in terms of waste on the other end. Energy and money are interconnected. There is no such thing as infinite growth in a finite system. Growth will stop. Growth is not sustainable. There is no such thing as sustainable growth.

This I learned from Albert Bartlett. Dr. Bartlett is a retired professor of physics. He taught at the University of Colorado. On Youtube you can watch an important lecture that he gave and continues to give. It is called, "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy."

Bartlett's famous quote is this:
"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."
Anyone whether she or he has a science background or not, will understand the exponential function and its importance after watching this lecture. The basic tenet of the exponential function is this:
Any steady rate of increase will over time eventually approach astronomical numbers.
A helpful formula to understand growth is to divide the % of growth over time into the number 70. That will give you its doubling time, the time in which an amount of a certain quantity doubles.

For example, let's say China's economy is growing at seven percent per year. That means it is increasing its energy consumption by seven percent per year. How big is that? If you take 7 into 70 you get a doubling time of ten years. At a seven percent growth rate per year, China's economy would double in ten years. If it continued that growth it would double again in another ten years.

Let's say China wanted to increase its oil consumption by 7% per year in order to grow its economy. If they use 8 million barrels per day, in ten years they will use 16 million per day. Ten years after that 32 million per day. Then by 2040, 64 million per day. That is not going to happen. There are all kinds of reasons to stop that growth from happening. The amount of oil available would be one reason.

Thinking seven generations ahead is actually something we can do mathematically. What will steady growth of a certain quantity look like seven generations from now? If we take an arbitrary number of 20 years as the length of a generation, we can think of seven generations as 140 years from now.

For instance, let's say the administration at ETSU wants to increase enrollment at the university by a rate of 3 and one-half percent per year. I am not saying they want to do that. But just for fun, let's say they did. 3 1/2 percent divided into 70 has a doubling time of 20. At a steady growth rate of what appears to be a small number, 3 1/2 percent, the amount of students at ETSU will double every 20 years.

What would the enrollment be in seven generations?

Let's think of the children.

Today 15,000 students
1--20 years from now (2030) -- 30,000
2--2050 --60,000
3--2070 --120,000
4--2090 --240,000
5--2110 -- 480,000
6--2130 -- 960,000
7--2150 --1,920,000 students at ETSU

Obviously, that isn't going to happen. The university would take over all of the Tri-Cities. In other words, a 3 1/2 percent growth rate is not sustainable. It isn't just that 3 1/2 is not sustainable, no steady rate of growth is sustainable. A smaller number simply means the doubling time is longer.

In a finite system, such as Earth, any steady rate of increase cannot sustain itself. This goes for population, energy consumption, the amount of fish in the sea, the amount of oil under the sea, the amount of coal in the mountains, fresh water, economic growth, everything.

Any time we see a percentage of growth in the news, divide that number into 70 and see what that doubling time will be. Then think of the children and think of what that quantity will be in seven generations.

Then ask, if it is not sustainable, is it just? If we can't keep it up for seven generations is it just to do it today? Who are we robbing in order to "grow?"

Amidst all the calls to grow and to stimulate the economy, we might step back and ask, "Is that the sustainable direction?" Is it perhaps our addiction to growth that is the problem? Some very wise people, such as Albert Bartlett, are saying not growth but a managed reduction is required. As we reach our limits, that should be more and more obvious.

I have to say, that is the first time that preaching on Jesus welcoming the children has led to a sermon on the exponential function.

I do think that in a certain way it fits. As the story goes, people were bringing children to Jesus and Jesus stopped what he was doing and he blessed them. His followers were perturbed. We can imagine them saying to one another, "We have got to move on. Jesus has important stuff to do. We have a movement to grow."

Jesus uses this event as a teaching moment. This is a teaching moment for the adults. He says, "Unless you become like children, you will not enter God’s domain."

What does it mean to become like a child? Maybe it has to do with recapturing a sense of wonder. Seeing things again for the first time. Trust, delight, living in the moment. Maybe Jesus was thinking of these or of other romanticized notions of childhood that we should emulate.

Or maybe Jesus was talking about the vulnerability of children and that children are dependent upon others for survival. Becoming like children means recognizing our dependence upon one another and upon Earth. Perhaps he was telling us that what we think of as unimportant is really most important.

Maybe the smallness of children is the lesson. Perhaps rather than becoming big and expansive, to participate in God’s domain of justice, peace, and sustainability, we need to become small, to allow space for others and for Earth’s creatures. The values of bigness and growth are reversed as we see the child.

Perhaps Jesus was reminding us to think of how our decisions impact the least of these, those who will pay the consequences for today’s actions.

In Douglas John Hall’s theology book, Thinking the Faith, he quotes from a novel, The Blue Mountains of China, by Rudy Weibe. It may give us insight to what Jesus was talking about:

Jesus says in his society there is a new way for [people] to live:
You show wisdom, by trusting people;
You handle leadership, by serving;
You handle offenders, by forgiving;
You handle money, by sharing;
You handle enemies, by loving;
And you handle violence, by suffering.
In fact you have a new attitude toward everything, toward everybody. Toward nature, toward the state in which you happen to live, toward women, toward slaves, toward all and every single thing. Because this is a Jesus society and you repent, not by feeling bad, but by thinking different.

I don't know what Jesus meant when he said we must become like a child. I don't know what he means by the phrase "God’s domain." I have guesses. But perhaps more important than my guesses is the invitation to think differently.

Jesus was inviting his audience, and as we enter the story, us, to think differently about what is valuable. He was inviting his audience to challenge conventional wisdom even when, perhaps especially when, this wisdom comes from powerful and influential people.

He was inviting us, each of us, to claim our role, to be informed and responsible about the decisions that are being made and to think differently.

At face value, perhaps we should take seriously what Helen Lovejoy of the Simpsons says:
Won’t Somebody PLEASE Think of the Children?!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Citizens of the Kingdom (7/11/2014)

Citizens of the Kingdom
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Walt Whitman, Selections from "Song of Myself"
Luke 6:20-21
Matthew 5:3-4, 6
Thomas 54; 69:2

Congratulations, you poor!
God’s domain belongs to you.
Congratulations, you hungry!
You will have a feast.
Congratulations, you who weep now!
You will laugh.
--Scholars' Version

When the Jesus Seminar translated the gospels they used the word “congratulations” in place of the more traditional word, "blessed” when Jesus pronounced his so-called Beattitudes.

“Blessed” sounds churchy. Blessed is a nice word, though. I on occasion close a note with “Blessings” or “Blessed Be.” There is a bit of slight formality to it. We say a blessing for a wedding or for confirmation or at a dinner party. At the end of the worship service today, I will offer a benediction or a blessing. Something sacred is being conveyed.

Yet in this context, if we are not careful, “Blessed are you poor,” could offer a hint of pity to it, almost condescension. “Bless your heart.” The world sucks and you have a miserable life, but “bless you.”

The Good News translation uses the word “happy.” That sounds a little chatty. Happy are the poor. It is hard to say that the poor, hungry, and mourning are happy. Put on a happy face!

It is not easy to find the correct word because the word you use depends upon what you think the text means as a whole as well as the meanings of the original word in Greek and the connotations in modern English.

I don’t think “Congratulations!” does it either. It sounds a little too clever actually. It is as though scholars want to use this word to teach us something. That is, of course, the case. The Jesus Seminar wanted to convey the sense of surprise of favor on the unsuspecting.

The word in Greek is makarios and my Greek English lexicon defines it as “blessed, fortunate, happy.” It is used in the sense for a “privileged recipient of divine favor.”
A privileged recipient of divine favor.
That is what needs to be captured.
You, my friend: poor, hungry, in mourning, are a privileged recipient of divine favor. You are royalty. You are a rock star.
Or as Walt Whitman said,
“Divine I am inside and out!...

And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick
of the earth,”
You are divine inside and out.

The reason that is so scandalous and well, crazy, is that in the default world of the normality of civilization, poverty, hunger, and mourning are signs of failure not of divine blessing. When we read Deuteronomy through Kings, one of the main voices of the Hebrew scriptures, we find that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and blessing. Poverty, hunger, and suffering are signs of God’s neglect or punishment.

Those we consider fortunate are so because they have a fortune. Fortune personified as a deity has smiled upon them and given them great riches.

So when Jesus says, presumably to those around him that they are fortunate, favored of God, and blessed, it doesn’t make much sense in the default world. In the default world of the normalcy of civilization, those who have the stuff are considered favored by God. God bless America.

Those who don’t have the stuff are considered to be, well…probably sinners. They need to get right with God and then God will bless them. In the default world, if you are poor, hungry, and depressed, you probably deserve it.

And that is a great theology for those who have stuff. Civilization channels stuff from the many to the few. The king, considered God’s viceroy, gets the most stuff because God has blessed him. This is royal theology. In Jesus’ time this would have been the theology of Rome, Roman Imperial theology. It would have been the theology of David and Solomon in Old Testament times.
Every civilization has a theology or philosophy that justifies and rationalizes who gets the stuff.
God bless America. City on the hill. A Christian nation. A new Jerusalem. How do we justify consuming 20 million barrels of oil every day when we only produce 8 million barrels per day? We deserve it. We are blessed. We are entitled. We are accustomed.

Richard Heinberg who writes a lot about issues of energy, population, and stuff said that anthropologists have identified 15,000 human cultures but only 25 civilizations. Civilizations are energy hoarders. To survive they must constantly grow and take from outside of themselves until they eventually implode.

When humans moved from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, civilization came into being. With the growing of crops comes surpluses and those who control them. You eventually have a wealthy elite controlling the many.

You need priests and bureaucrats and economists to justify that inequality as normal. The “invisible hand” (is that not a theological phrase?) of the economy will guide us we are told. In Imperial theology the wealthy are the blessed. The mythical vehicle for getting blessed is to “work hard” and get right with God. This means that those who are poor or hungry did not work hard enough or they are sinners.

When Jesus goes around pronouncing blessedness on the poor, the hungry, and the suffering, he is messing up the system. It is heresy. He is reversing imperial theology. He is putting on its head the way the world works.

The danger is that the poor, the hungry, and the suffering will believe him. If they do believe him, if they do realize that they are divine inside and out, that they are blessed of God, that there is nothing wrong with them, that in fact God is on their side, you got problems.

People begin to question the “normalcy of civilization.” People might actually organize. Then you have to make sure you have constructed enough crosses and publicly execute radicals like Jesus who spout heretical nonsense that God blesses the poor.

Then what you do is you don’t badmouth Jesus. Instead you turn him into a god. You take what he said and add a few prepositional phrases here and there. So instead of “Blessed are you poor,” Matthew has Jesus say, “Blessed are you poor in spirit.” And you can convince folks that Jesus did love the poor and promised them a spot in heaven especially if they are humble and don’t get above their raisin’.

Imperial theology and inequities of the normalcy of civilization go hand in hand and they still do today.

Every now and then, people do discover the radical Jesus who has been buried under centuries of dogma, superstition, and greed. Sometimes even the clergy get it.

Roman Catholic archbishop, Helder Camara of Brazil, understood the radical teachings of Jesus and he understood the power and dominance of imperial theology. This is his famous quote:
“"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist."
When Jesus said:
Congratulations, you poor!
God’s domain belongs to you.
Congratulations, you hungry!
You will have a feast.
Congratulations, you who weep now!
You will laugh.
I have to think that he meant it. That he meant it literally. That he meant it in this world.

He was offering to those who often didn’t hear it because they didn’t think they deserved to hear it, that they are valued.

“Divine I am inside and out!” Shouts Walt Whitman.

Yes. It is the via positiva. It is the way of recognizing our own royalty. We are all kings and queens and not because of anything we have or don’t have, but because we are.

When for whatever reason, people are devalued and beaten down for so long, it takes an act of divinity to turn it around. That is what we need to be to one another. We need to be for one another that divine promise.

This goes for everyone caught in the web of inequality and consumerism.

When I was serving my first church in New York state I was asked to serve on the mental health board. I remember when they had changed the name of the people they were serving from clients to consumers. Rather than patient, or client, a consumer was more dignified, so went the rationale.

I thought it odd that the best term we could come up with to describe a human being's dignity was consumer. Consumers? Is that what we are? Is that who we are?

No, we are royalty, divine inside and out.

We need to pronounce to ourselves and to one another, the way of awe and wonder, beauty, and royalty. We need to be to and for one another and for all earthlings, divine messengers.

This is a poem from Mary Oliver that I think comments on these sayings of Jesus:


My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

How important it is to know that we are royalty as we are. That we don’t have to fit into some prescribed stereotyped plastic mold. That we don’t have to wait to be congratulated until we achieve some goal that our society sets for us as normal.

Divine you are, inside and out.
You are beloved.
You are a blessing.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Jesus, The Party Animal (7/4/2010)

Jesus, The Party Animal
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

July 4th, 2010

Luke 7:31-35
Matthew 11:16-19

Some people are just never happy.

No matter what you do, some people still will not like you.

The sooner we learn the lesson that we cannot please everyone the more at peace we will be in our own skin. If we don’t learn that lesson we will forever be changing ourselves in order to meet the expectations of others. No cat will ever catch that tail.

We played the flute for you,
But you wouldn’t dance;
We sang a dirge,
But you wouldn’t weep.

Apparently, that was a verse of common wisdom that Jesus used to make a comparison. The same people who were criticizing John the Baptist were criticizing Jesus. The criticism against John was that he fasted and led an ascetic lifestyle. The criticism against Jesus is that he ate and drank. Jesus is saying,

“You guys are never happy. You don’t like fasting. You don’t like feasting. We play the flute, you don’t dance. We sing a dirge, you don’t weep. Your are nothing more than a bunch of whiners. Wisdom is vindicated by her children. Or in other words, If the shoe fits, wear it. Truth is as truth does. Am I right or am I right? ”

Jesus is showing that his critics are simply shallow whiners. They are ignoring the message of both John the Baptist and Jesus by criticizing their personal lives. That is an old, old trick that the busybodies fusspots, tattletales, and scolds never tire of playing.

If someone is saying something that really matters, fusspots don’t argue the substance, they attack their personal habits, or personality, or the way they dress. It doesn’t matter if a prophet comes fasting or feasting, those who cannot or will not hear the message will find a reason to disregard the messenger. Jesus here is exposing this hypocrisy.

We know this is true. Think of the people who made a difference and were agents of social or political change. Prophets we might call them. How often were they criticized for things that had nothing to do with their message or work. If you can find a way to discredit the messenger, then we won’t need to hear the message.

Think of all the criticism Al Gore has received for stuff that has nothing to do with his message about making us aware of the impact our use of fossil fuels is having on the climate. Think of former President Jimmy Carter, who told the truth to the American people about energy in the 1970s. We didn’t want to hear it. So we found a way to dismiss him.

Jesus says, “What do members of this generation remind me of?” The answer? Whiners with deaf ears who miss the point. Elsewhere Jesus is reported to have wept over Jerusalem and said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you murder the prophets and stone those sent to you.”

But you know, it is no use complaining about that either. If you are going to be an agent of change, unwarranted criticism and scrutiny are part of the package. Do the best you can, hold your head high, and never, never, never, never give up.

Or as a member of my previous congregation liked to tell me when I was feeling discouraged,

“Party on.”

Jesus was a party animal. That was the conclusion by the Jesus Seminar. Jesus was not an ascetic. He did not shun the pleasures of life but embraced them. He ate and he drank and he did it with the wrong crowd: toll collectors, sinners, and women and men of ill repute. Historical Jesus scholar Dominic Crossan said Jesus practiced an open table.

What we see in the sketch of Jesus is a person who approached life with amazement, wonder, and awe.
  • It is doubtful that he would have ever come up with anything close to resembling a doctrine of original sin.
  • It is doubtful that he would have ever thought that he needed to die on the cross for the sins of others.
  • It is doubtful that he thought that humanity was fallen and needed redemption.
  • It is doubtful that he would have ever thought that we are ultimately spirits or souls trapped in bodies.
All of those doctrines were attributed to Jesus, but I doubt they were part of his own awareness.

I cannot know that for sure. I can only interpret his life from my perspective. I see in Jesus a person who was in love with life. He was so much in love with life, that those who could not experience joy and pleasure despised him. They called him a glutton and a drunkard. Then they killed him.

This poem by Mary Oliver describes those poor souls. It is called A Bitterness:

I believe you did not have a happy life.
I believe you were cheated.
I believe your best friends were loneliness and misery,
I believe your busiest enemies were anger and depression.
I believe joy was a game you could never play without stumbling.
I believe comfort, though you craved it, was forever a stranger.
I believe music had to be melancholy or not at all.
I believe no trinket, no precious metal, shone so bright as
your bitterness.
I believe you lay down at last in your coffin none the wiser
and unassuaged.
Oh, cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful
flowers of the hillsides.

After reading that poem I realized that I don’t ever want to be remembered that way. I felt sorry not angry for those who didn’t see the joy in the life of Jesus or in the lives of the prophets of grace or in the lives of those who could experience happiness.

If there is anything that will save the human species it will be a recovery of joy, humor, awe, amazement, and pleasure. We will need to turn to Earth and accept its transience. We cannot cling or hold. We can only float with it.

We need like a she-bear to scoop out the honey when we find it. This is again, Mary Oliver. This poem is Happiness:

In the afternoon I watched
the she-bear; she was looking
for the secret bin of sweetness -
honey, that the bees store
in the trees’ soft caves.
Black block of gloom, she climbed down
tree after tree and shuffled on
through the woods. And then
she found it! The honey-house deep
as heartwood, and dipped into it
among the swarming bees - honey and comb
she lipped and tongued and scooped out
in her black nails, until

maybe she grew full, or sleepy, or maybe
a little drunk, and sticky
down the rugs of her arms,
and began to hum and sway.
I saw her let go of the branches,
I saw her lift her honeyed muzzle
into the leaves, and her thick arms,
as though she would fly -
an enormous bee
all sweetness and wings -
down into the meadows, the perfections
of honeysuckle and roses and clover -
to float and sleep in the sheer nets
swaying from flower to flower
day after shining day.

Bitterness or Happiness?

Life is so short.
We get one spin on the big wheel.
This day will never come again.
Neither this moment.
Party on, friends.
Party on!