Friday, December 24, 2010

Via Creativa (Christmas Eve 2010)

Via Creativa
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Christmas Eve 2010

In the 14th century, a theologian by the name of Meister Eckhart was tried for heresy by Pope John XXII. He had the last word. He died before they could come to a decision. His status within the church is still discussed, as recently as of March of this year. Some have been attempting to clear his name. The word from the Vatican, apparently is that since he had never been condemned by name he is still considered an orthodox theologian.

But you don’t hear many orthodox theologians, especially men, saying things like this about Christmas.  This is Meister Eckhart from the 14th century:
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I also do not give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time. When the Son of God is begotten in us.
Another theologian, who was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church for his views, and is now an Episcopal priest, Matthew Fox, is a devotee of Eckhart. Matthew Fox and his ideas have made an impact on me and on many in this congregation.

He found trouble with the authorities because he challenged the notion of original sin. He didn’t find much that was original about it and instead he suggested we focus on original blessing. Creation is a blessing. Life itself is a miracle. That we exist is amazing. According to Fox, humanity’s primary identity is not depraved, fallen, or sinful, but that we are a blessing.

We homo sapiens can do some pretty incredible things. We can talk. We can think. We can write “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, compose Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and paint Mona Lisa’s smile. We can calculate pi to one thousand one hundred twenty decimal digits, make fire, text our friends during the sermon with our opposable thumbs, and we can show compassion to and aid a complete stranger who is not a biological kin and who is not in a position to aid us.

It took the universe 13.7 billion years to make you. So you ought to see yourself as pretty darn special. That is original blessing. Wow. Early thinkers on matters of theology were so impressed with themselves that they thought that they were created in the image of God. My guess is that they created God in their image but were too bashful to give themselves credit.

Nevertheless that is the spirit. Life is a blessing. When we take time not to take life for granted, we find that it is amazing. Matthew Fox didn’t say there wasn’t sin: that we do not fail to love, that we do not give into fear, that we do not do destructive things—yes we do certainly. But that isn’t primary. What is primary is life, joy, blessing. Life is teeming everywhere. It is a miracle.

Matthew Fox, inspired by Meister Eckhart and others throughout our various traditions, coined the term Creation Spirituality. It is a spirituality that is Earth-based, is appreciative of human knowledge, especially our cosmological and evolutionary history, sees other faith traditions as many wells dipping into the same river, and is deeply concerned with ecological sustainability and invites us to experience deep compassion for all living things. Matthew Fox wants to create a spirituality for a new millennium. One way to describe him is post-Christian. Which is why he got in trouble with the authorities. They are still operating religion 1.0 and he is at 2.0 at least.

He named four pathways or in Latin vias for the holistic or spiritual life.

The way of awe and wonder at creation and life itself. The via positiva.
The way of letting go and honoring darkness, death, and impermanence. The via negativa.
The way of creativity and imagination. The via creativa.
The way of compassion and justice-making. The via transformativa.

These paths are not a ladder climbed but a spiral danced.

At First Pres., your favorite tree-hugging church in the woods, we have been focusing on one particular path during each season.

Spring is compassion and justice-making.
Summer is awe and wonder.
Fall is letting go and impermanence.
Winter is creativity and imagination.

We have entered Winter. This season begins with Winter Solstice. It is no accident that Jesus was declared to be born at the time of Winter Solstice. Christians adopted it and called it Christmas. Honoring Earth’s return from darkness as the old sun dies and the new sun is born again far predates Christianity.

But Christianity has added some great legends, characters, symbols, and traditions. Christmas lives in legend and symbol, not in historical fact. The magic operates at the unconscious level.

The story of Mary giving birth to the Divine Child is generative, creative stuff. The via creativa is the bringing of light and creativity.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1:1-5
All of that coming into being is language for creativity. Christmas is a celebration to honor that which makes us human, our creativity. Like Mary who courageously says to the angel, “Let it be with me according to your word,” we too, are invited to say “Let the Divine be born within me. Let the Light shine in me.”

As Eckhart said:
We are all meant to be mothers of God.
Creativity is about being creative with images. It is letting our imaginations run wild. It is giving birth to new ideas, to new ways of living, being, and relating. We need open our lives to creativity now more than ever. As our planet reaches its limits, the way we have been doing things cannot continue. We are in the midst of witnessing the birth of a major change in human history. We are experiencing the birth pangs of post-Petroleum Man.

One hundred years from now our descendants will be living on renewable and sustainable forms of energy. They will be living with Earth not against it. They will live in balance, renewing its life, not extracting is resources for a one time use.

Now not only are we witnessing this birth, we are participating in it. Now we need the creativity and the courage to give birth to this new reality for the sake of generations to come. Now is when we need to say “Yes” as Mary did and let Creative Wisdom be born in us. Maybe Christmas 2010 will be the time our descendants will remember when humanity woke up, recognized its denial and addictions, realized the danger we are in, took responsibility, and found the courage and creativity to give birth to a new human being—to be in Eckhart’s words—mothers of God.

In his book Creativity, Matthew Fox writes:
Creativity is who we are, creativity can redeem and save our species….All we need to do is release this creativity, get out of its way….What are we waiting for? Let us remove the obstacles, let go of the guilt, and get moving. We have nothing to lose but our pessimism and cynicism….Creativity is not in short supply. There is an abundance of it, plenty to go around. It has always been this way. From the original fireball to the birth of the atoms, galaxies, supernovas, stars, sun, planets, earth and her marvelous creatures. We humans are latecomers to the creative universe, but we are powerfully endowed with creativity. P. 229
That to me is a hopeful message.

For now, for this night, let it be enough to accept that Divine Creativity is being born. We don’t need to force it or calculate it. How creativity comes to one is not the same for another. We don’t need to mimic another. There is no creative act that is too small. We just need to open our minds and open our hearts to the possibility that there is a job for us to do. We are needed. We are a blessing. Each of us, in our own way and in our own place has creativity and light to share.

Like Mary, we have been summoned. Divine Wisdom, Divine Word, Divine Creativity is coming into the world. What Eckhart said 700 years ago is ripe today:
This, then, is the fullness of time. When the Son of God is begotten in us.
Let it be with me according to your word.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Fun's In the Fight (12/12/10)

The Fun’s in the Fight
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 12, 2010
Third Sunday of Advent

Gospel of Jesus 6:1-14

King Herod heard about Jesus’ exorcism and cures---by now, Jesus’ reputation had become well known. Some spread the rumor that he was Elijah, while others reported that he was a prophet like one of the prophets.

Earlier, Herod himself had sent someone to arrest John and put him in chains in a dungeon, on account of Herodias, because he had abandoned his first wife and married her. So Herodias nursed a grudge against him and wanted to eliminate him, but she couldn’t manage it, because Herod was afraid of John.

Now a festival day came, when Herod gave a banquet on his birthday for his courtiers, and his commanders, and the leading citizens of Galilee. And the daughter of Herodias came in and captivated Herod and his dinner guests by dancing. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish and I’ll grant it to you!” Then he swore an oath to her: “I’ll grant you whatever you ask for, up to half my domain!”

She promptly made her request: “I want you to give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter, right now!”

The king grew regretful, but, on account of his oaths and the dinner guests, he didn’t want to refuse her. So right away the king sent for the executioner and commanded him to bring his head. And he went away and beheaded John in prison.

Jesus began to talk about John to the crowds: “What did you go out to the wilderness to gawk at? A reed shaking in the wind? What did you really go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? But wait! Those who wear fancy clothes are found in regal quarters.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 37, 39. Mark 6:14-29; Matthew 11: 7-8; 14:1-12
Luke 7:24-25; Thomas 78:1-2

Elizabeth Creamer
All I would say was not said in the dance
which, despite the reviews, was not me wholly
but a mimicry of what I learned as a girl

in the market following my mother 
through back alleys to low-ceilinged rooms
where shrouded women whispered of power
as the starting salary for a beauty like me
who could polish her act until it gleamed
so bright it would mirror a man's self-image

like the silver platter at the feast that night. 
No, all I would say was not said in the dance
but the bump and grind was my mother tongue, 
breasts and hips an ingenue's scripted part.
The Baptist risked his neck to exhort a wasted king,
but for me, the daughter, he offered not one sermon.

If the man had only thought that I might think,
I would have chosen a different veil.
As it was, I danced.
It was the only way I knew
for a girl like me
to get a head.

The theme as you can read from the bulletin cover for this Third Sunday of Advent is Joy. That fits quite nicely don’t you think with the beheading of John the Baptist? It is a happy little story filled with drunkenness, sexual politics, the arrogance of the powerful, and violence.

It is a heartwarming tale for Christmas.

Most preachers will tell you that Advent is the most difficult season. Hymns are in a minor key, the texts are depressing, and the season itself has overtones of an apocalyptic end-times scenario.

Then of course there is our reality. Christmas is the season that is the driving force behind our consumerist economy. Forty percent of all retail goods sold during the year are purchased between Thanksgiving Day and December 25th. Ministers are supposed to make you feel bad about that, too. Even though many of us, in fact, probably all of us, count on high retail sales for the success of our businesses, investments, and incomes. We are, after all, interconnected. The Wise Men had no idea what bringing gifts to the Christ child would become.

And we have our own worries. Health, family, livelihoods, drama. Drama is a word I picked up from middle and high school students these past few weeks. They use that word often. Drama. It has to do with volatility and angst in social interactions. Drama. Drama at school. Drama at home. Drama at work. Drama at church.

Christmas with all of its pressures and expectations is certainly a season of high drama.

In that sense, maybe this story about John the Baptist does fit. Who doesn’t fantasize about beheading someone right about now?

If it makes it easier, the story is likely fiction. According to historical Jesus scholar, Dominic Crossan, Mark probably adapted it from an earlier well-known story.

According to this story set in 184 BC, a Roman Senator, Lucius Quinctius Flaminius was expelled from the senate for this atrocious deed. It has to do with a woman. Flaminius was infatuated with the lovely Placentia. She was a notorious woman. Flaminius invites her to dinner. He is trying to impress her by bragging about how many people he has in his prison that he intends to behead. Placentia is reclining below him and tells him that she has never seen a beheading and wouldn’t he mind entertaining her?

According to the text, “the generous lover, ordering one of the wretches to be brought to him, cut off his head with a sword.”

This is all in the context of feasting and drinking. Flaminius is expelled from the senate for this not because the guy was innocent—he would have been beheaded anyway—but because that is no way to exercise power. You don’t execute justice to please a mistress at a party.

Mark’s story of Herod’s misuse of power likely recalls that story. Crossan, Jesus, pp. 35-39

John the Baptist was probably not beheaded because he criticized Herod for taking his brother’s wife. He was, however, executed by Herod. First century historian Josephus hints that Herod was worried that John and his wild-eyed preaching was going to lead to an insurrection.

John probably was an apocalyptic preacher who thought God would finally act (as God acted in Old Testament times) on behalf of Israel over its enemies. John is preparing these people through baptism to stage some sort of protest in anticipation of God’s activity. There were many who did similar things during this volatile period. It usually did not end well. The Romans simply massacred them.

Jesus hears that John is executed. John who baptized him. The writing is on the wall. You follow John the Baptist, you will likely end up like John the Baptist. According to our text:
Jesus began to talk about John to the crowds: “What did you go out to the wilderness to gawk at? A reed shaking in the wind? What did you really go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? But wait! Those who wear fancy clothes are found in regal quarters.”
I think what Jesus is saying is that this is serious business. Standing up to Empire is dangerous. This could be your fate as well as mine. This work is not for those who wear fancy clothes or who are easily shaken like a reed in the wind.

Crossan and some other historical Jesus scholars say that Jesus had a different approach than John. Whereas John was apocalyptic thinking that the kingdom of God would come in a dramatic supernatural way (an analogy would be the modern day rapture believers), Jesus saw it differently. Jesus saw the kingdom of God as already present, within you and among you. He was like John in that he saw the present order of things as corrupt and unsustainable (to use a modern word).

Jesus, like John, rejected the values of domination and exploitation and peace through violence. Unlike John, Jesus saw this new reality, this new way or relating as something that exists now and that we can participate in now. As we look at the things that Jesus did we get a glimpse of what it might mean to participate and to anticipate this kingdom he spoke about.

What did he do? He welcomed all at the table. He transcended ethnic boundaries. He provided healing for families and communities, he resisted oppression not with violence but with non-violence. He declared that the poorest and the left out were the favored ones. He inspired people to hope and work for economic, political, and social justice.

For Jesus, the miracle of the kingdom coming is not a lightning bolt from the sky that wipes out the bad guys, but a gradual awakening and awareness of people living out the values of justice, peace, compassion, and truth.

This work by Jesus is no less risky than that done by John. Jesus was executed as well. Jesus is reported to have said,
“If anyone wants to follow me, let that one pick up a cross.”
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time that do not want equality.
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time that are exploitative of people and of Earth.
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time who think that a very few are destined to control the wealth of the planet.
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time who advocate for endless war to achieve their ends.
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time that have no regard to the future beyond their own immediate future.
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time that will destroy lives and life itself to get their way.
Naming, resisting, and working to change these forces is risky business. It is not for reeds shaken by the wind. The question for each of us is this: Is it worth it?

Picking up the cross doesn’t sound like fun.
What is the difference if it is a losing cause anyway?

First, regarding losing causes.
I quoted Reinhold Niebuhr 
last week and will do so again.
This quote from Niebuhr makes it into my loose-leaf Bible:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
therefore, we are saved by hope.

Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.
It is not up to us to decide beforehand what is or is not a losing cause. What is up to us is to decide what is the right thing and to do it. The outcome is not up to us. We cannot know in advance what our work today will produce tomorrow.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s last book before his death, A Man Without a Country, he tells the story ofIgnaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor. Vonnegut said that Ignaz Semmelweis was his hero. He was born in 1818. He became an obstetrician, devoting his life to the care of mothers and babies.

Vonnegut also told the story of Ignaz Semmelweis during a commencement address. Vonnegut told this story in the context of the “forces” that I mentioned above, who Vonnegut called “the guessers”. Ignaz Semmelweis stood up to the guessers. Here is Vonnegut’s telling:
Ignaz Semmelweis …believed that germs could cause diseases. He was horrified when he went to work for a maternity hospital in Vienna, Austria, to find out that one mother in 10 was dying of childbed fever there.

These were poor people - rich people still had their babies at home. Semmelweis observed hospital routines, and began to suspect that doctors were bringing the infection to the patients. He noticed that the doctors often went directly from dissecting corpses in the morgue to examining mothers in the maternity ward. He suggested as an experiment that the doctors wash their hands before touching the mothers.

What could be more insulting. How dare he make such a suggestion to his social superiors. He was a nobody, he realized. He was from out of town with no friends and protectors among the Austrian nobility. But all that dying went on and on and Semmelweis, having far less sense about how to get along with others in this world than you and I would have, kept on asking his colleagues to wash their hands.

They at last agreed to do this in a spirit of lampoonery, of satire, of scorn. How they must have lathered and lathered and scrubbed and scrubbed and cleaned under their fingernails. The dying stopped - imagine that! The dying stopped. He saved all those lives.

Subsequently, it might be said that he has saved millions of lives - including quite possibly yours and mine. What thanks did Semmelweis get from the leaders of his profession in Viennese society, guessers all? He was forced out of the hospital and out of Austria itself, whose people he had served so well. He finished his career in a provincial hospital in Hungary. There he gave up on humanity, which is us, and our knowledge, which is now yours, and on himself.

One day in the dissecting room, he took the blade of a scalpel with which he had been cutting up a corpse, and he stuck it on purpose into the palm of his hand. He died, as he knew he would, of blood poisoning soon afterward.

The guessers had had all the power. They had won again. Germs indeed. The guessers revealed something else about themselves too, which we should duly note today. They aren't really interested in saving lives. What matters to them is being listened to -as however ignorantly their guessing goes on and on and on. If there's anything they hate, it's a wise guy or a wise girl.

Be one anyway. Save our lives and your lives too. Be honorable.
That was Kurt Vonnegut recounting the story of Ignaz Semmelweis. A sad story, on one level, for him personally. It shows that we do not know in advance if our cause is lost or not. An important story for us. We need to take the risks to stand up to the guessers-- the forces-- for what is right and good and decent.

That is why it is worth it figuratively, or perhaps literally, to pick up the cross and take the risk.

I am going to suggest that there is a bonus.

Beheadings notwithstanding, fighting the good fight can be fun and downright joyful.

I think another difference between Jesus and John the Baptist is that Jesus might have had a bit more fun. The gospels recount that people criticized Jesus because he and his followers feasted and ate and drank while John’s followers fasted and looked gloomy. Maybe that is why Jesus outlasted John. Jesus resisted the guessers—the forces—as much as John did, but Jesus had fun doing it.

Don’t forget to enjoy life—to consider the lilies—to enjoy what you can.

Joy is not found in the absence of drama, but in its midst.

This Third Sunday of Advent is for Joy. I think it is the joy of a good scrap.

Another individual who has made it into my loose-leaf Bible is Molly Ivins. Those who have been paying attention at sermon time, know that I have quoted Molly before. But as with all Scripture, it is good for the soul to hear it more than once. This is from an article whose title I borrowed for my sermon title, “The Fun’s in the Fight”:
So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.
Let us pray:

Tender God, touch us,
Be touched by us,
Make us lovers of humanity,
Compassionate friends of all creation.
Gracious God, hear us into speech,
Speak us into acting,
And through us, recreate the world.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Outside the Beltway (12/5/2010)

Outside the Beltway
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 5th, 2010
Second Sunday of Advent

Gospel of Jesus 1:1-15

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 11, 13. Mark 1:4-6, 15; Matthew 3:1-2, 4-10; Luke 3:7-15

John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness calling for baptism and a change of heart that lead to forgiveness of sins. And everyone from the Judean countryside and all the residents of Jerusalem streamed out to him and got baptized by him in the Jordan River, admitting their sins. And John wore a mantle made of camel hair and had a leather belt around his waist and lived on locusts and raw honey.

John would call out: “Change your ways because Heaven’s imperial rule is closing in.”

John would say to the crowds that came out to get baptized by him, “You slimy bastards! Who warned you to flee from the impending doom? Well then, start producing fruits suitable for a change of heart, and don’t even start saying to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father.’ Let me tell you, God can raise up children Abraham right out of these rocks. Even now the axe is aimed at the root of the trees. So every tree not producing choice fruit gets cut down and tossed into the fire.”

The crowds would ask him, “So what should we do?”

And he would tell them, “Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none; whoever has food should do the same.”

Toll collectors also came to get baptized, and they would ask him, “Teacher, what should we do?”

He told them, “Charge nothing above the official rates.”

Soldiers also asked him, “And what about us?”

And he said to them, “No more shakedowns! No more frame-ups either! And be satisfied with your pay.”

The people were filled with expectation and everyone was trying to figure out whether John might be the Anointed.

John’s answer was the same to everyone: “Someone more powerful than I will succeed me, whose sandal straps I am not fit to bend down and untie. I have been baptizing you with water, but he will baptize you with holy spirit.”

What is John doing in the wilderness?

What sort of baptism is he performing?

Is it for personal ritual piety or is he preparing people for a revolt?

Dominic Crossan in his book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography helps us get a handle on John the Baptist and what he was doing. Crossan writes that the
“Wilderness is not just sand and the Jordan is not just water”. P. 46.
Water could be found in many places. John wasn’t simply baptizing with water. He was baptizing with water from the Jordan.

The Wilderness and the Jordan River were powerful symbols for the Jewish people. It was in the wilderness that according to Torah the Israelites spent forty years wandering with Moses.   It was a time of preparation, of penitence, of purification, of accounting for sins in order to prepare them for the Promised Land.

After these 40 years, from this Wilderness, across the Jordan and into the Promised Land Joshua marched the Israelites. They circled Jericho with trumpets until the walls came a tumblin’ down.

That is the story. It is fiction, to be sure, but it is their fiction. It is how they defined themselves.   In the time of John the Baptist, it isn’t the Canaanites who need to be defeated but the Romans. The Romans with their armies are in the Promised Land. John the Baptist is preparing the crowds. He is creating to use Crossan’s phrase, “ticking apocalyptic time-bombs” to go back into the Promised Land and await God who is to come with fire and apocalyptic judgment separating wheat from chaff, the good from the bad.

John the Baptist is an apocalyptic prophet in the stream of the Hebrew prophets before him, announcing the Empire of God that is closing in. Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote his work in the first century around the same time the New Testament was written, writes about John:
Herod had put him [John, surnamed the Baptist] to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behavior.
That seems pretty mild, doesn’t it? Why would Herod put anyone to death for baptizing people for sins or for exhorting people to live good pious lives? Josephus gives it away as he continues:
When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to await for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and see his mistake….John, because of Herod’s suspicious, was brought in chains to Machaerus, and there put to death. (Crossan, Jesus, pp. 33-4)
Now we have words like “crowds, aroused, sedition, uprising, upheaval”. That doesn’t sound like harmless piety any longer.

But Josephus gives no details or explanations.

The Gospels seem also to want to whitewash John the Baptist.

I think that both John the Baptist and Jesus who was baptized by John, who accepted John’s vision, were both about resisting Empire and preparing people to resist Empire. The writers of the Gospels who told their stories and who told them after the disaster of the Jewish Revolt and massacre at the hands of the Romans had to be careful how they told this story. They concealed as they revealed. They couldn’t be seen as overtly anti-Roman.

They paint John the Baptist as little more than a forerunner to Jesus who then becomes a supernatural figure who dies for our sins, our personal peccadilloes. Once the prophets go mainstream and become tools for Empire, they lose their teeth. They no longer are able to call Empire to task. They are no longer able to prepare people to resist Empire.

We are here now in the second decade of the 21st century. We are the inheritors of Christianity. We are "raking through the ashes of Christendom" (via), looking for symbols, figures, narratives, mythologies, and rituals to help us face the challenges of our time.

John the Baptist, from the wilderness, outside the beltway, off the grid, eating locusts and wild honey, might be a helpful symbol for us. He speaks from a vantage point of critique. He can see from the outside what we on the inside cannot see. He instructs us. He shows us what Empire is doing, the destruction it is causing, the waste it produces, and the death it causes. He baptizes us, redefining us, providing us with a role to play and the spiritual strength to play it. He sends us back in to be leaven, to witness to a different way of living, to speak the truth.

There are many modern day John the Baptists. On my list (and you may have a list of your own) include Matthew Fox, Bill McKibben, Michael Ruppert, David Ray Griffin, Joanna Macy, Dianne Dumanoski, Richard Heinberg, Naomi Wolf, Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva, Walter Wink, all telling us as John the Baptist, did 2000 years ago, “the axe is at the root of the tree.”

Simply put: Empire is unjust. It is unsustainable. It is changing. Be prepared.

John gets specific. He speaks about economic justice.

Crowds ask him,
“What should we do?”
He tells them,
“Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none; whoever has food should do the same.”
The principles of corporatism that have taken hold of our elected leadership have taken what John the Baptist has said and twisted it. They think John the Baptist really meant this:
“Whoever has two shirts should find someone who has one and take it too.”
Those are the folks who want to lower taxes for the wealthy while the two million people whose unemployment benefits are running out right now, this week, at Christmas, can go ahead and starve. What? Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

To the toll collectors who made their living by extortion and collaboration with empire:
“Charge nothing above the official rates.”
To the soldiers he said:

“No more shakedowns! No more frame-ups either! And be satisfied with your pay.”
All of those statements have to do with abuse of power. He wasn’t speaking just to individuals but to an entire system of injustice and inequity embedded in Roman occupation and oppressive taxation of the poorest and most vulnerable.

How do you begin to overcome that?
You baptize individuals.
You wake folks up so they can see what is happening.
You unleash creativity within them so they can resist.
You start conversations.

This past Thursday, Dr. Matthew Johnson of Every Church A Peace Church spoke from this pulpit. He preached a sermon then did question and answer about Every Church a Peace Church. This is Dr. Johnson from the website:
Every Church A Peace Church is committed to the vision of PAXION (peace action) as the method to bring about a just social order, which entails the elimination of militarism (and its pernicious spawn of rabid nationalism masquerading as patriotism) poverty, racism in all its guises, materialism and gender bias. It is our firm conviction that these institutional realities are the structural harbingers of the violence we witness daily in our homes and streets, as well as that perpetrated by our and other governments the world over. This sequela of injustice, greed and hatred has worn the cloak of religious sanctification for centuries. ECAPC is determined to help strip it away by revealing to our local communities, nation and our world the will of God for a humble, just and merciful humanity.

We believe that if you are not actively engaged in overcoming these realities you are in complicity with an oppressive status quo. Jesus of Nazareth was no such conformist. He was a creative non-conformist. Our goal is to help summon the church to its larger call to shake off the apathy grown in the soil of a jaded consumerism, cultivated in a spiritual climate of ignorance and isolationism and take up his cross and follow him. Now is the time for us to respond with head and heart to the challenges before us. The challenges at hand provide the greatest opportunities for a true witness to the living God and her care for a morally depleted and violent world. Join us in our efforts. Become a part of God’s new movement to forge ahead in the realization of the age old vision of a beloved community.
Dr. Matthew Johnson is another to add to the list of John the Baptist types. When he was here he talked about the importance of overcoming our isolation, of connecting with one another, even as we take on particular issues. The work of PFLAG is related to the work of United Religions Initiative is related to the Alternative Giving is related to Appalachia Service Project is related to the Shepherd’s Inn is related to Green Interfaith Network and everything else I haven’t mentioned. We are all in this together.

There is much in the Christian tradition that I don’t mind letting go. As we rake through Christendom's ashes, there is much I don't mind leaving in the ash heap.

But John the Baptist I want to keep. He is the wild man from the wilderness who calls it as he sees it and wakes us up and gives us a job to do.

There is no whining in the Empire of Heaven.
No moping and complaining about how others don’t get it right.
Instead you repent of sin which simply means to me that we admit we are not infallible or as righteous as we think we are.

If we are down on ourselves we repent of thinking that way too.
We aren’t as fallible or as unrighteous as we think we are.
We are human beings in all of its mud and beauty.

We take the plunge in the water of humanity, dry ourselves off and get to work.
No work is too small.
No job is too big.
We do what we find before us to do.

We have no idea what the future will hold.
We need not be afraid.
Just awake.
There is no need to feel guilt and shame for our past nor fear our future.
We are forgiven.
We are loved.

It has been said that some of the best work done for the kingdom of God was done by people who weren’t feeling well that day.

I like that.

We don’t need to wait to have it together to do the work we have the passion to do.

I will give Reinhold Niebuhr (yet another John the Baptist figure) the last word:
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
therefore, we are saved by hope.

Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
therefore, we are saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
therefore, we are saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own;
therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.