Sunday, August 29, 2010

Finding Wisdom (8/29/2010)

Finding Wisdom
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 29th, 2010

Gospel of Jesus 2:27-28

Jesus said:
Ask—it’ll be given to you;
seek—you’ll find;
knock—it’ll be opened for you.
Rest assured:
everyone who asks receives;
everyone who seeks finds;
and for the one who knocks it is opened.


Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 19. Matthew 7:7-8; Luke 11:9-10; Thomas 2:1, 92:1, 94:1-2.

Is it true?

Is it true that we will find what we seek?
That doors will be opened to us if we knock and if we ask we will receive?

I suppose it might depend where we are seeking,
at which door we are knocking,
and from whom we are asking.

Not only that.
But Jesus seems coy as to what it is we are seeking,
where we want to enter,
and the specific question we are asking.

Jesus is tricky that way.
He doesn’t spell it out.

I can think of a number of examples in my own life in which doors remained closed,
questions were not answered,
and things remained lost.

I’ll bet you can as well.

So, is it true? What is Jesus really saying?
Ask—it’ll be given to you; 
seek—you’ll find; 

knock—it’ll be opened for you. 

Rest assured: 

everyone who asks receives; 

everyone who seeks finds;
and for the one who knocks it is opened. 

Is it true?
Let’s ask another question.

The choir sang the song What a Wonderful World.
It was originally recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1968 in the midst of racial and political tensions and the war in Vietnam.
Here are the lyrics to the first verse:
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Is it true?

We can certainly find evidence that it is not a wonderful world.
Here are some top stories from today’s headlines:
  • A volcano erupts in Indonesia.
  • Ground beef is being recalled over E. Coli fears.
  • 17 million Pakistanis have been affected by the floods.
  • Seven U.S. troops have been killed over the weekend in Afghanistan in a war that seems surreal. Who are we fighting and why again? And…
  • Glenn Beck has positioned himself as the new leader for America’s Christians.
I’ll stop there.
And yet the song continues:
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
The song has been used in a number of films such as 
Good Morning Vietnam
,
Bowling for Columbine, and
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

In these films it is used ironically with the soundtrack playing under scenes of bombing, violence, and in the case of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Earth exploding.
The colours of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shakin' hands, sayin' "How do you do?"
They're really saying "I love you"
Clear Channel radio added this song to the list of songs not to be played after the events of September 11th, 2001. The concern was that there would be something inappropriate about this song at that time.

But that is the point of the song, isn’t it?


I think Louis Armstrong’s song was in the spirit of Jesus.
The settings are parallel.
In the midst of crazymaking, oppression, and fear,
Jesus spouts his almost maddening, even inappropriate optimism:
Ask—it’ll be given to you;
seek—you’ll find;
knock—it’ll be opened for you.
Rest assured:
everyone who asks receives;
everyone who seeks finds;
and for the one who knocks it is opened.
He was speaking to people who never find what they seek,
who always have the door slammed in their faces,
and who are ridiculed for their questions.
Yet Jesus says it anyway.

That is the via positiva.
It is the way of awe, wonder, and trust.
The via positiva is not a spiritual path that one travels when all is rosy.
It is the path one travels when all is uncertain.

The via positiva is not a denial of the news headlines.
It is living everyday in the midst of the headlines and noticing the rainbow anyway.

It is learning to live lightly.
It is learning to float.
It is learning to survive.

In Jesus’ lifetime he knew that changes were coming.
He was preparing his followers spiritually and psychologically for these changes.
In that respect we live in a similar time.

You have to be able to live lightly.
You have to be able to float.
You have to be able to trust your instincts.
You have to trust that you will get what you need when you need it.
If you don’t get what you need, you didn’t need it.

There is no place for what
"should" be

or for entitlement
or for a desire to cling to what is slipping away.
All that causes is panic.

Ask, seek, and knock is radical trust that we will receive what we need.
The via positiva is the most important spiritual path in terms of being able to keep your wits about you.

We need to keep our wits about us because we have role to play.
We have to be the midwives for a new era that those being born today will inherit.
They will need to learn how to float and we will need to teach them even as we have no idea what we are doing or what we should be doing.
We will know in time.

We just need to remember the trust ethic:
ask,
seek,
knock.
We need to trust that we will get what we need when we need it.

The via positiva is in the midst.

In the midst of this world,
as it teeters on the precipice of change,
we have to notice that it is a wonderful world.

In the midst of angst over our children’s future,
We ask, seek, and knock and
we sing this powerful verse of trust:

I hear babies cryin',
I watch them grow
 
They'll learn much more than I'll ever know
 
And I think to myself,
what a wonderful world
 
Yes, I think to myself,
what a wonderful world
 

Oh yeah
Oh yeah.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Emptiness and Awareness (8/22/2010)

Emptiness and Awareness
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
August 22nd, 2010

Thomas 97:1-4 Jesus used to say, “The Father’s Imperial rule is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her along the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.”

In the mid 90s when the Jesus Seminar published their work on the sayings of Jesus, they called their book The Five Gospels. In Sunday School we learned there were four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. What is this fifth gospel?

It is the Gospel of ThomasThomas is not in the Bible. It was discovered in 1945 in a collection of documents found in clay jars near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. This collection is thus called the Nag Hammadi LibraryThomas was discovered with a number of other documents dating back to the fourth century. Apparently, these documents had been hidden away for safe-keeping.

The document that has stirred the most interest is the Gospel of Thomas. It is a collection of sayings of Jesus. The language is Coptic. It is divided into 114 sayings or logia. Some of these sayings are very much like, almost identical to, the sayings of Jesus in the canonical gospels. Some of these sayings are similar to them but with significant differences. Other sayings are completely unfamiliar.

This is why Thomas is interesting. The big question is this:
Are the sayings of Jesus found in The Gospel of Thomas independent of the sayings found in the canonical gospels, or are they dependent upon them?
If dependent, then Thomas tells us little about Jesus. The author copied sayings from the canonical gospels, changed some of them, and simply made up the other sayings a century or more after Jesus.

However, if they are an independent collection of sayings of Jesus, they may be at least as valuable as the canonical gospels in going back to Jesus. We may have found a collection of sayings of Jesus that we haven't known about for 1600 years.

One would think that the church would celebrate this finding. How fascinating to find out more about our hero, Jesus! But that hasn’t been the case. The church on the whole has been defensive. It has called this document pejoratively a Gnostic heresy and claims that it is a distortion of the teachings of Jesus.

Other scholars are saying, not so fast. These sayings could very well go back to Jesus or be as legitimate as the sayings in the earliest gospel, Mark, and perhaps Q, a source for both Luke and Matthew.

Of course we can imagine why the church would be defensive. After all, there would be a great deal of paperwork involved. You might have to republish the Bible, rewrite the creeds, change your picture of Jesus.

In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus doesn’t die on the cross for your sins. There is not a lot of doctrine in Thomas. You are to find your own path.

Steven Davies in his book, The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom, writes:
Thus, to understand the text to be as it appears to be, an early independent list of sayings attributed to Jesus that has no generative connection with any other known piece of Christian writing, seems to be the most reasonable alternative. Accordingly, it is about as valuable a source for the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as are the synoptic Gospels, and considerably more valuable than the Gospel of John. P. xx.
The Jesus Seminar determined that Thomas was an equal authority to the canonical gospels in regards to sayings that might go back to the historical Jesus and view Thomas as an independent source. The Seminar, ended up being, in my view, somewhat conservative regarding the sayings in Thomas that were unique to Thomas.

Only two sayings, the parable of the empty jar, and the parable of the assassin were given pink votes. In part this is due to their methodology. Multiple attestation requires that a saying be found in more than one independent source to be authentic. By that criterion, anything unique to Thomas would not likely make the cut. However, by that same criterion, the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son wouldn’t make the cut either as they are found only in Luke. So the seminar still might have harbored doubts about Thomas, in part because of canonical boundaries and perhaps because they were haunted by that old Gnostic bugaboo.

I personally regard Thomas as authoritative as the canonical gospels regarding the sayings about Jesus. I think we should include it in the Bible. I think to do so would break the iron clasp of dogmatic theology upon the church, would make us more aware of the diversity of early Christianity, and give us more insights into the person of Jesus.

What do we make of this parable of "The Empty Jar"?

We all know the feeling of this woman, don’t we? We all have similar stories. We lose something valuable. When she gets home we know she must have been angry with herself, possibly in a panic. She didn’t just drop a loaf of bread out of an otherwise full grocery cart. This jar of meal could have been all the food for her and her family for a week. This is a serious loss.

Where does Jesus come off saying this is like the kingdom of God? This is a negative story, bordering on the tragic.

Perhaps it is symbolic. Perhaps we are to regard it as a metaphor for emptying oneself and one’s mind. I have used that idea in today’s liturgy with the saying from the 11th chapter of the Tao Te Ching.

Even so, I am not so sure. It seems perhaps a little too clever and hip. It feels like I want to make Jesus a Buddhist. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But…

Some fellows of the Jesus Seminar thought the parable of "The Empty Jar" it was a spoof on the Elijah story where the woman’s jar never runs out of meal. Again, clever. It connects Jesus’ parable to the Hebrew scriptures. It is like the spoof of the mustard weed being compared to the cedar of Lebanon. The kingdom of God is more like a weed than a tall cedar. The kingdom is an empty jar not a full one. Perhaps.

It could be that as we also know a bad event can open us up to something unexpected. Over the weekend my lovely and I saw the film, Eat, Pray, Love. The main character played by Julia Roberts gets divorced and is of course feeling awful. She is filled with worry and self-doubt. She goes to the bookstore and buys a couple of books with these titles: Who Moved My Cheese? and From Crappy to Happy.

Maybe that is what Jesus is doing with this parable. Jesus is saying in effect:
Don’t cry over spilled milk, or in this case, spilled meal. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Yeah, this sucks, but hey, this could open new horizons for you. From crappy to happy.
Am I getting annoying yet? We have heard those clich├ęs so often. Yet it is true that when we get to the point that bad events are not only bad events we can find in them opportunities for change and growth and even unexpected joy. Maybe that is what Jesus is talking about. Maybe.

My hunch is that your wheels are turning. You are trying to figure out this parable. Perhaps that is the point.

The challenge of the Gospel of Thomas is trying to figure out what it is about. It has no plot. It has no easily identifiable theology or ideology. The old pejorative dismissal that it is a Gnostic heresy is being challenged by many different scholars today. But it is hard to find in it any overall structure or meaning. While individual scholars have claimed to find a pattern or a theology, there is no consensus regarding that.

Steven Davies suggests that that should give us a clue. He says that Thomas is a collection of sayings in no particular order. He further suggests that it was designed not to offer a plot or a theology but as a collection of individual oracles. He says that Thomas was used for “random oracular divination.” He writes:
Its purpose is to determine the answers to an individual’s questions by reference to an established set of statements, verbal or non-verbal, which are presumed to be of supernatural origin. Those statements, to be functional, must be indeterminate in meaning and so applicable to various situations. P. 157
Think of a set of Tarot cards. You go to an expert with your problem and the expert turns over cards and with you interprets an answer.

If you have ever read your horoscope in the newspaper, read a fortune cookie, been to a psychic, had your dreams analyzed, meditated, read your Bible, or even gone to church to hear a sermon, with the hope, perhaps even expectation, that you might get a Word or insight from something outside your own mind, you are in familiar territory. The fundamental difference between any of those things is whether or not you trust their authority.

Davies suggests that Thomas functioned like that. He compares it to “the Homer Oracle”, a collection of 216 sentences. There are instructions that go with it on how it is to be used. 216 is an interesting number. It is six cubed. If you were to roll three six-sided dice there are 216 possible combinations. The idea of the oracle is that you roll the dice and you land on a saying. That saying is the Word for you. You work that. It is ambiguous enough for you to spend a great deal of time interpreting it, perhaps with the assistance of an expert.

Davies says that Thomas was like that. He also suggests that we have numbered the sayings incorrectly and that are 108 sayings, not 114. One hundred eight would be half of 216. You could use the dice with Thomas too.

Regardless of the method, this collection of the sayings of Jesus would have been understood as a collection of random divine oracles that would be used under the proper circumstances to help a person work out their problems or questions.

That does not mean that Jesus meant them as such when he uttered them. He may not have uttered all of them any more than he uttered all the sayings attributed to him in the canonical gospels. But the collector saw them as such and created this document with this in mind.

Many people read the Bible in this way. The idea of the lectionary is based on a reading for a particular day. You read it listening for what Spirit may say to you. Thomas may have had a similar function. In order for it to work, you need:

1) To trust that the oracles are authoritative (ie. sayings of Jesus, a spirit-intoxicated prophet).
2) Each saying to be open-ended and ambiguous enough to allow for interpretation.
3) A randomness factor so that neither the client or the diviner chooses the oracle, but is seen as "chosen" for the client.

So back to "The Empty Jar". What does it mean? Wrong question, if we think we can find a definitive, objective meaning. The right question is what might it mean for me today? Take this parable and work it. Live with it. Let it question you as you question it. Allow your question or problem to be spoken to. Trust that no one can give you the right answer but that you can discover it for yourself. The Gospel of Thomas can be a tool to help.

During our meditation time this morning, I asked each of you to focus on a particular problem or question with which you were wrestling. Now, bring it to mind. Let this parable speak to it:
Jesus used to say, “The Father’s Imperial rule is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her along the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.”
What say you?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

God and Birds, Sparrows, Crows, Lilies, and Grass (8/15/2010)

God and Birds, Sparrows, Crows, Lilies, and Grass
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 15th, 2010

Gospel of Jesus 2:29-38

He used to say to his disciples, “That’s why I tell you: Don’t fret about life—what you’re going to eat—or about your body—what you’re going to wear. Remember, there is more to living than food and clothing. Think about the crows: they don’t plant or harvest, they don’t have storerooms or barns. Yet God feeds them. You’re worth a lot more than the birds! Can any of you add an hour to life by fretting about it? So if you can’t do a little thing like that, why worry about the rest? Think about how the wild lilies grow. They don’t slave and they never spin. Yet let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of them. If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and tomorrow is tossed into an oven, it is surely more likely that God cares you, you who don’t take anything for granted!”

Our Father,
Give us the bread we need for the day.

Jesus said, “What do sparrows cost? A dime a dozen? Yet not one of them is overlooked by God. In fact, even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Don’t be so timid: You’re worth more than a flock of sparrows.”

--Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), pp. 19-21. Luke 11:3; 12:22-28, 12:6-7, Matthew 6:9,11, 25-30, 10:29-31, and Thomas 36:1-2


The via positiva, the way of awe and wonder, is a spiritual path of delight. It is the path of joy.  On this path, we recognize our nobility. We are human beings. We have consciousness, language, creativity, compassion, opposable thumbs. We are, theologically speaking, created in the image of God.

The via positiva is the celebration of Life. Yes!

This is not a path reserved just for the times when all is going well, when our stomachs are full, our health is vigorous, and our prospects bright. 
No the via positiva is for times too when life is a struggle. Perhaps especially then we need the realization that God cares for the crows and the sparrows and will care for us too. 

This is the time to breathe deeply, to look at what is around us and in front of us and to trust Life as a blessing. The 
via positiva is what Wendell Berry writes about in his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things”:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Jesus lived a trust ethic and he taught his followers to live this ethic. Trust the universe.
  • Get your marching orders from the sparrows. God’s eye is on them.
  • Follow the lead of the grass in the field. Here today. Gone tomorrow.
  • Look for wisdom and guidance from the lilies who never toil or spin but are more beautiful than Solomon in his royal finery.
  • Think deep thoughts like the crows. They don’t waste intellect or time building barns or storerooms. And yet crows eat.
The opposite to trust is to fret and it simply doesn’t help. If it added an hour to life, there might be something to it, implies Jesus. But if worrying doesn’t help you live longer then why bother? 

The reason Jesus needed to remind us to look at the crows, sparrows, lilies, and grass is because he knows how difficult (or at least how rare) it is to trust. Mostly we fear and fret.

We are like this poem from Jeanne Marie Beaumont.
 It is called, “Afraid So”:
Is it starting to rain? 
Did the check bounce?
 
Are we out of coffee?

Is this going to hurt? 
Could you lose your job?
 
Did the glass break?
 
Was the baggage misrouted?
 
Will this go on my record?
 
Are you missing much money?
 
Was anyone injured?
 
Is the traffic heavy?
 
Do I have to remove my clothes?
 
Will it leave a scar?
 
Must you go?
 
Will this be in the papers?
 
Is my time up already?
 
Are we seeing the understudy?
 
Will it affect my eyesight?
 
Did all the books burn?
 
Are you still smoking?
 
Is the bone broken?
 
Will I have to put him to sleep?
 
Was the car totaled?
 
Am I responsible for these charges?
 
Are you contagious?
 
Will we have to wait long?
 
Is the runway icy?
 
Was the gun loaded?
 
Could this cause side effects?
 
Do you know who betrayed you?
 
Is the wound infected?
 
Are we lost?
 
Can it get any worse?
Do we fret and worry and fear? I am afraid so. And it is no use, preacher, telling us that to worry is a sin. That only gives us more to worry about.
Not only could it get worse, but I am sinning and making God mad because I am worrying!
But there are times when we, like Wendell Berry, “rest in the grace of the world.” There are times when our worries lift and we are present to Life. That is what Jesus is offering. He is offering a very practical method of how to "rest in the grace of the world", even if just for a moment.

One way to do that is to look around us and to practice the via positiva, the way of awe and wonder. Even if we don’t feel like we are trusting, we can act it and allow the feeling to come later. And if we can’t seem to get that feeling of trust from watching nature, we can read the poetry of those who do.

Emily Dickenson famously said there was only one commandment of Jesus that she could keep.

“Consider the lilies.”
She could do that. That is enough. If “Considering” sounds too intellectual, you can just stand there and stare with your mouth open. Like this poem from W. H. Davies. “Leisure”:
What is this life if, full of care, 
We have no time to stand and stare?
 

No time to stand beneath the boughs
 
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
 

No time to see when woods we pass,
 
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
 

No time to see, in broad daylight,
 
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
 

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
 
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
 

No time to wait till her mouth can
 
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
 

A poor life this if, full of care,
 
We have no time to stand and stare.
That certainly is true.

A poor life this if, full of care, 
we have no time to stand and stare.
Don’t just do something. Stand there. 

There is another direction to this trust business. Not only are we to trust God or the Universe, the scandal, the crazy idea, is that the Universe (or God if you prefer) trusts us. One might say that was a mistake. But that is the story. 
According to the biblical tradition, God trusted humanity, put them in a garden, showed them the critters, made for the man a sexy mate and said, “Be fruitful.” 

God trusted the 
homo sapiens not to trash the place. We are just about at the verge of finding out whether that was a smart thing for God to do or not. Trust us? The folks who managed to pump the Gulf of Mexico full of oil? But that really is the biblical narrative. God trusts humanity. God keeps hanging in there with all the fumbling bumblers. God trusts us and has entrusted to us the care of creation. 

Even if you look at it from an evolutionary perspective, it is about trust. Human beings evolved and have thrived and have been the eyes, ears, and consciousness of the globe because we were successful at adapting and manipulating our environment. We are the smartest thing Natural Selection could come up with. And that is really funny when you consider some of the folks I went to school with.
 

The Universe trusts Life. The Universe has been at it for nearly 14 billion years, so I guess it is wise to trust its trust in us. It will be interesting to see. What a long strange trip it’s been.
That is the via positiva. Yes, it is to trust ourselves.

We are to trust that we are not a disease, a curse, or a mistake, but instead, a blessing. For whatever reason, whether you think God created humankind and put them in a garden, or whether you think we evolved through scratch and hassle, we are here today and we have great power.
I don’t trust our economy. Nor do I trust our technology. But I do trust humanity. I trust our creativity. I trust our capacity for compassion.

I trust that when the time comes, human beings will take the high road rather than the low one.
I trust that human beings will be neighborly and not nasty.
I trust that we will share and not hoard,
and cooperate rather than compete. 

I trust that we will live to the best of what we might become.
The best will come out of us in times of change.
 

The poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe (GER-ta) wrote:

“If you treat a person as she appears to be, you make her worse than she is. But if you treat a person as if she already were what she potentially could be, you make her what she should be.” -- Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, p. 84.
Sometimes our worries don’t come true. Sometimes things do turn out OK. 

That is what Sheenagh Pugh writes about in this poem with which I will close. It is called, “Sometimes”:

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.
Amen.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Mustard and Leaven (8/8/2010)

Mustard and Leaven
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
August 8, 2010
Gospel of Jesus 2:19-22

The disciples said to Jesus,
“Tell us what Heaven’s imperial rule is like.”

He said to them, “It’s like a mustard seed. It’s the smallest of all seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant, which becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.”

When speaking of the kingdom, Jesus would say:
“What does God’s imperial rule remind me of? It is like leaven that a woman took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 17-18, based on Mark 4:30-32, Matthew 13:31-33, and Luke 13:18-20

In Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, The Year of The Flood, she tells the story of God’s Gardeners. These are folks in the near future whose saints are environmentalists and ecologists. They are a religious community that seeks to live off the grid. Their patron saint is Euell Gibbons, who you might remember was the guy who taught us that nearly everything is edible. God’s Gardeners live off the weeds. They have their own hymnbook. One such hymn is called, O Sing We Now the Holy Weeds:

O sing we now the Holy Weeds
That flourish in the ditch,
For they are for the meek in needs,
They are not for the rich.
God’s Gardeners would have appreciated Jesus’ parables of the Leaven and the Mustard Weed. They are parables of the Empire of God as opposed to the Empire of Caesar or Herod.

Historical Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan, says this of parables.

“[Jesus] was not crucified for parables but for ways of acting which resulted from the experience of God presented in the parables." p. 32
It wasn't the parables that got him in trouble but that he believed them and acted on them. The subject of the teaching of Jesus was the kingdom of God. What is this? The Greek word is Basileia. How do you translate that? Parable scholar, Brandon Scott, uses the phrase Empire of God.


Brandon Scott, by the way, will be with us in October. He and Arthur Dewey of the Jesus Seminar will lead us in a weekend exploring the parables. I do hope that all of you will be able to participate and to invite your friends and neighbors. I think you will find it rewarding.

Brandon Scott says this about Empire:
"Some will object that empire is too negative when applied to God, especially in the aftermath of Star Wars, and Ronald Reagan's famous remark about the evil empire. But this negative connotation is precisely the point. From the point of view of those oppressed by the Roman Empire, basileia has a negative connotation. Translating the phrase as "empire of God" reminds us implicitly of its opposite.” p. 31
What is Empire?

Empire is not a place but an act, a way of being. The Empire, whether it be Rome in the 1st century or the United States in the 21st century is a way of being in the world. Whether one thinks of military bases in virtually every country in the world as a benevolent gift or a dominant presence depends upon point of view I suppose.

Power and mighty deeds are the way of Empire.

We know how the Empire of Rome acted.

With domination and force.
Military might.
Slave labor.
Crosses.
Torture.

The energy and lifeblood of the many exploited to serve the welfare for the few.
Pretensions to holiness and righteousness.
The Divine Right.

Yet for most, it was the experience of oppression.

What then is the Empire of God?

We discover this through the parables and teachings of Jesus and the way he participated in life. It too is a way of being. It is in the hearing of his parables on Empire of God that we glimpse as to what this way is.

Jesus said:
“What does God's imperial rule remind me of? It is like leaven that a woman took and concealed in three measures of flour until it was all leavened.”
The Jesus Seminar gave the Parable of the Leaven the highest number of red votes. In their judgment, the Parable of the Leaven was the most authentic parable of Jesus. It is independently attested in two early sources and it seemed to the scholars that it exemplified the provocative nature of Jesus.

It doesn’t sound like a particularly exciting parable. A woman making bread.

Yet the kingdom is in the details.

The leaven is a symbol of the morally corrupt. The Apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians:

Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (I Corinthians 5:6-8)
Leaven in the bread is like the proverb, "one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel."


The main sacred feast of the Hebrew people is the Feast of Unleavened Bread:
"Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day you shall hold a solemn assembly, and on the seventh day a solemn assembly; no work shall be done on those days; only what everyone must eat, that alone may be prepared by you. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance." Exodus 12:15-17
There is something funny about Jesus saying that the sacred, the realm of God is like moral corruption.

The woman doesn’t just mix the leaven in the flour. She conceals it. It is a particularly subversive word. She is covertly inserting this leaven in the flour.

Think of the phrase in both Matthew and Luke where Jesus says:

"I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…"
Paul speaks of

"God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory." (I Corinthians 2:7)
Not everyone is given the inside scoop. Only the poor, disenfranchised, and marginalized see the truth for what it is.

The empire of God is hidden in the open. It is right there in your presence but we cannot see it.

Finally the amount of flour is immense. Three measures is about 50 pounds of flour or enough to feed 100 people. This woman is preparing a huge feast.

Also “three measures” is allusion to Abraham and Sarah who entertain the three angels at Mamre when they are told that at the ages of 99 and 100 that they will have a son, Isaac. (Genesis 18:7)

Gideon is visited by the Lord and told that he will raise up an army to defeat the Midianites. Gideon says that he needs a sign that this is person is really an angel of the Lord so he prepares a goat and unleavened cakes from an ephah or three measures of flour. He sets it on a rock before the angel. The angel reaches out his staff and touches the meat and the cakes and fire consumes it like an offering. (Judges 6:19)

Hannah dedicates her son, Samuel, who was a miraculous gift, to the Lord by offering an ephah or three measures of flour. (I Samuel 1:24)

In all three cases, this specific amount, three measures is used as a moment of Epiphany or miracle. It is the amount of flour you prepare for a feast for the Divine. It is a Sacred feast.

The sense conveyed in this parable is that the woman who is hiding leaven in three measures of flour is preparing a Sacred or Divine meal.

Robert Funk writes:
"God's imperial rule inverts the terms of the sacred and the profane." p. 104.
He goes on to say:
"The parable of the Leaven could be seen as…an attack on the temple and the cult, an attack that comports with the displacement of the righteous and pious in Israel with the poor and destitute, the tax collectors and harlots, as Jesus said: "the tax collectors and prostitutes go into God's domain, but you (religious leaders) do not" (Matt. 21:31). P. 103
For whom would this parable be good news? For women. It would give them a major role in the empire of God. For all who are considered leaven in society. Those unable to keep all the purity codes. Those who were considered to be morally corrupt. Those who were the objects of scorn. The poor, the disenfranchised, the outcast.

On the other hand, for those doing well in the Empire of Caesar or Herod, this parable is bad news.

Jesus says in short:
The empire of God is like moral corruption which a woman took and concealed in flour until it was all corrupted. Be leaven.
The Empire of God is also like mustard.
He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’ Luke 13:18-19
Again, we have an element of the unclean or the improper. Even though mustard has many healing properties, according to the Mishna, planting mustard in a garden was forbidden:
"Not every kind of seed may be sown in a garden, but any kind of vegetable may be sown therein. Mustard and small beans are deemed a kind of seed and large beans a kind of vegetable." p. 38
The problem of the parable is that the mustard seed does not grow into a tree. A four foot shrub is about all you get. If birds nest in it, they are very small birds.

The mustard shrub/tree with birds in the branches is likely a spoof on the idea of Empire as a great and powerful tree. This is from Ezekiel:

Mortal, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his hordes:
Whom are you like in your greatness?
Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon,
with fair branches and forest shade,
and of great height,
its top among the clouds.
The waters nourished it,
the deep made it grow tall,
making its rivers flow
around the place where it was planted,
sending forth its streams
to all the trees of the field.
So it towered high
above all the trees of the field;
its boughs grew large
and its branches long,
from abundant water in its shoots.
All the birds of the air
made their nests in its boughs;
under its branches all the animals of the field
gave birth to their young;
and in its shade
all great nations lived. Ezekiel 31:2-6
What is the way to participate in this Empire of God? Not to be a cedar but a mustard weed. Be pervasive. When ripped up there, spring up here. Mustard is an annual. No permanence like a cedar. Each year it grows anew. Be tenacious, pungent.

Be leaven. Corrupt the whole batch of Empire's pretensions. Spoil the barrel from within. Jesus and his disciples were considered corrupting influences. Jesus takes that and claims it proudly.
Yes, we are. We are going to corrupt your children. We are the heretics your mama warned you about.
Jesus learned from closely observing nature. You have to spend time watching peasant women kneading dough and you have to watch a lot of mustard weeds becoming shrubs before you can make parables about them.

Last night I was watching Free Speech TV, which like leaven is a corrupting influence on society. Free speech is like mustard. You can't get rid of it. You poison it with chemicals and dig it up, and before you finish, it springs up behind your back.

Empire doesn't want free speech. Empire doesn't want critical thinking. Empire wants people to stay on message. That is why they force standardized tests on teachers and students. They don't want critical thinkers. They want compliance. They want students to regurgitate answers not ask questions. Empire wants uniformity not creativity.

Last night on Free Speech TV I watched a show called Bioneers. On the program was a spokesperson for the Biomimicry Institute.

The idea here is that the responses to our problems are concealed in the open. If we look at nature, and mimic it, we may find creative answers to our challenges.

This Biomimicry Institute are biologists who have looked through thousands of articles about flora and fauna to discover how they solve life’s problems. Then they invite creative folks from other fields to look at how we might mimic nature to solve our problems.

For example Termites are the pests of God.

They know to build an air-conditioned mound without needing any fossil fuels. Architects are learning how to design buildings by watching how termites design their self-cooling mounds.      One built in Zimbabwe uses 90% less energy than a conventional building the same size.


God’s power is whalepower.

The idea here is that a whale’s dexterity is due to the bumps on its flippers. Designers have taken the design of the whale flipper to design wind turbines to increase efficiency.

The Empire of God is run by chimpanzees.

Chimps have spent millions of years finding the rights plants and herbs to treat their illnesses. We can watch them to find the plants that can heal us.

After watching the show, I was thinking that Jesus' parables hinted at biomimicry. He regarded nature as a teacher. He observed life and invited his listeners to consider it and to mimic it. I think his parables were parables to shake us up and to encourage our creativity and to trust and not be afraid or put down our non-conformity.

To wrap it up:

What is the realm of God like? How do we participate in the Empire of God?

Be a weed.
Be a holy, sacred, pungent, healing mustard weed in the midst of Empire’s industrialized petrochemical lawn.

Or…

Be leaven.
Be your corrupting, free-thinking, creative self that subverts all of Empire’s lifeless conformity until the whole thing is subverted by Holy Play.

Amen.