Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Sower (1/30/11)

The Sower
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 30, 2011

Gospel of Jesus 12:4-9

Jesus said,

“Listen to this! This sower went out to sow. While he was sowing, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground where there wasn’t much soil, and it came up right away because the soil had no depth. But when the sun came up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered. Still other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, so that it produced o fruit. Finally, some seed fell on good earth and started producing fruit. The seed sprouted and grew: one part had a yield of thirty, and other part sixty, and a third part one hundred.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), pp. 65, 67. Mark 4:3-8; Luke 8:5-8; Matthew 13:3-8; Thomas 9.

When the Jesus Seminar did its work in the 80s and 90s searching for the voice of historical Jesus, they focused on his parables and aphorisms. They discovered a creative personality. They discovered someone with a clear eye and a sensitive ear. They discovered a person who could talk about ordinary things in such a way as to make them sacred.

There has been much debate and disagreement regarding the quest for the historical Jesus. The challenge is to find a method to enable us to distinguish the voice of Jesus from the voices of the gospel writers and later church dogma. I don’t think any of the scholars would claim they succeeded. At best, they may have been able to make some distinctions and to come up with some best guesses.

When seeking to discover what goes back to Jesus, you have to take into account context. That includes the context of the gospel writers and the context of the situation in which these parables or aphorisms were uttered. There could be many. There is an art to doing this work.  Because Jesus never wrote anything, you don’t have a standard to measure other sayings. You have to rely on independent sources recording a similar saying. You have some sort of theory of how the various sources relate to each other. You find a voice, then you compare other things attributed to him in light of that voice.

How do you distinguish what an individual says from what is remembered by others? I am sure you have had the experience of being quoted by others and you don’t really recognize what someone said you said? Any public speaker and especially preachers have this experience often.

Twice in the last couple of weeks, I had the experience of people remembering something I had said. In both cases it was positive. It was meaningful for them, and I yet I didn’t remember ever saying it. I wasn’t sure if in either case what was remembered sounded like me. But I have learned that if it is positive, don’t be bashful. Take credit and be grateful. I very well could have said it and now I am glad I did! It could be that I simply forgot and someone remembered better than I did. I also wonder in cases like this that if it might not be a combination of what the speaker says and what the hearer hears and remembers. There is a creative interplay going on between speaker and hearer. And something new is created.

If that happens to us, it is quite likely that it happened to Jesus. The gospels are layers of memory and creative interplay between what this wandering prophet and sage may said on one hand and how he was remembered on the other. The different gospels will have parables and aphorisms in different settings. They will be different from one gospel to another. In that sense the gospels of Jesus are creative works. They took some raw material floating about such as stories about Jesus and stories that Jesus told and created narratives.   They borrowed from the language in the surrounding culture, from their own scriptures, their own creative imagination and told stories, meaningful stories in which Jesus functioned as protagonist.

So we have Mark’s Jesus, Luke’s Jesus, Matthew’s Jesus, John’s Jesus, Thomas’s Jesus, Mary’s Jesus, the Apostles’ Creed’s Jesus, Constantine’s Jesus, yours and my Jesus. The historical Jesus scholars each have a Jesus too. No one can claim to have “The Jesus” in any objective sense. Although people do like to make that claim. At best we have stories of stories, and creative stories at that.

For those of us in the Jesus tradition, for those of us who value Jesus in some way, the quest for the authentic voice of Jesus is connected to our own personal quest for meaning. The Jesus we find, not that there isn’t objective material there, we do have stories about him, not only in the New Testament but in other literature, but the Jesus we find, that we distill out, is part of us as well. We both discover and create.

I would argue that the gospel writers did this as well. They were creative. They drew from early traditions and created a meaningful story. They may not have been self-conscious that they were doing that or admit it if they were, but they were telling the story of Jesus in a way that was going to speak to their own context. I would further argue that that creative remembering did not end in the first or second centuries when the gospels were written or in the fourth century when the canon of the New Testament was made official.

The medieval Jesus was a product of creative remembering. The Reformation Jesus of the 16th century was creative remembering. The 19th century evangelical Jesus as well as the 20th century liberal Jesus and the contemporary fundamentalist Jesus and the Jesus Seminar Jesus are all products of creative remembering. And this process continues. We here, in a living tradition, are still telling the story of Jesus in our context. We are singing a familiar song in a new key.

I should probably add that not all Jesuses are equally good. In the Presbyterian tradition we have what we call the rule of faith and love. The rule is that if an interpretation of the Bible leads one to greater love and a deeper faith it is more likely true than an interpretation that does not. In other words, if your Jesus makes you more loving and deepens your sense of trust or awe, wonder, compassion, joy that’s a good Jesus. If your Jesus turns you into a miserable, narrow-minded, mean old cuss, then maybe you want to try again.

Many of us have found the Jesus Seminar scholars helpful in this process of discovering/creating a Jesus that is more “real” to us than the one we have inherited in church or in the larger religious culture. The parables provide a window for looking for another Jesus. Founder of the Jesus Seminar, the late Robert Funk called this quest a glimpse of a glimpse.

Let’s look at one of Jesus’s most famous parables, the parable of the sower.

The "Parable of the Sower" has two parts to it, the parable and the explanation. The Jesus Seminar concluded that the explanation did not go back to Jesus. It was either a creation of Mark or a tradition prior to Mark that Mark adapted. The reason we mention Mark is that Mark is likely the first gospel and Luke and Matthew are dependent upon Mark. They follow Mark and add material of their own.

An excellent book on this parable and on the Gospel of Mark is Mary Ann Tolbert’s Sowing the Gospel. In this book she takes this parable and its explanation and sees it as the guiding metaphor for the gospel. The types of people in the parable are seen in the characters of the gospel. The seed becomes the gospel and types of ground are types of people as they respond to this gospel.
  • The hard path would be the religious leaders who immediately hear what Jesus says and dismiss it.
  • The rocky soil refers to the disciples who all flee when trouble hits. They are excited but have no root to withstand the heat.
  • The thorny ground would be for example the rich man who came to Jesus and who wants to follow but in the end cannot part with possessions.
  • The good soil, the good earth is the one who hears and lives and produces fruit. There is one character in the gospel who is that good earth. This is the unnamed woman who anoints his head with oil. After being criticized by the disciples for wasting the ointment Jesus says, “Leave her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me….she has done what she could.”
We can read Mark and read the various characters as types of ground. The moral is to be good earth. We know we are good earth by the fruits we produce. Mary Ann Tolbert showed us the creativity of the community that put together the gospel of Mark. This is an example of a gospel author that took a parable of Jesus and went with it.

Jesus Seminar scholars and others are doubtful that Jesus provided the explanation to this parable. Thomas has the parable (saying 9) without the corresponding allegory. Allegories tend to be second-order explanations. The writers of Mark or the early tradition before Mark said:
“Jesus’s parable is hard to understand so let me tell you what it means.”
This parable ended up being a parable that could fit into an allegory with a moral. The sower becomes God or Jesus. The seed is the gospel. The ground is the people. Credit the creativity of Mark for shaping his narrative around it.

We have heard this parable as a moral. Be good soil. But if we hear it without the allegorical explanation it has a different tone to it. The parable itself is a parable about a person scattering seed. It isn’t about the person. The person fades away as soon as he is introduced. The parable may have no moral to it at all. The sower doesn’t have to be God or Jesus. The seed doesn’t necessarily mean the gospel. The ground doesn’t necessarily mean people. It is seed falling on ground. The harvest (30, 60, 100 fold) is a typical harvest. There is not even hyperbole there. It is like many of Jesus’s other parables such as a woman who conceals leaven in bread or another woman who loses a coin and sweeps the house or a mustard seed that grows to become a weed.

The parables are so plain and ordinary that we think well what is the point?

The parables of Jesus are about what he called the empire of God. Stories about empires and the emperors who rule them are stories of conquest and success. They are stories of benevolence and abundance and exceptionalism. The emperor brings stability.
"Peace to Rome and quiet to the provinces."
Yet the parables that Jesus told about the kingdom or empire of God are not parables that are worthy of empires as we know empires to be. No conquest. No victory. No tallying up of gold or silver booty.

In fact they are stories in some cases of failure. Seed that falls on four different types of soil. Just scattered seed. In three cases, the path, the rocky soil, and the thorny ground, the seed doesn’t mature into a plant. Only in the fourth case does it produce, and nothing dramatic, just a normal harvest. In three of four cases, the seed doesn’t mature. That is the empire of God.

The seeds that fall on the hard path, rocky soil, and thorny ground, are not necessarily mistakes. They are what they are. Each seed has its own little purpose.

I think Paul Daniels’ poem that he wrote for us for worship today is a wonderful reflection on the parables of Jesus.
“…we’ll just keep being ourselves, this little seed and me.”
Nothing big, nothing dramatic, yet when seen with an eye that is attuned to the sacred, that little seed
“holds the same magic inside as the moon, the stars, and the sea.”
What is implied in that, in both Paul’s poem, and in Jesus’s parable is that that same magic, that empire of God, is within you.

I think that the parables of Jesus were contra-empire. They were not head-on critiques but they glanced off. A glimpse of a glimpse. Empires as we know them are associated with big speeches and big shows. They are demonstrations of power and high drama. The language of empire is about competition and conquest. It is about growth.
We will out-grow, out-educate, out-perform the other guys.

It is a sputnik moment.
I am not criticizing our president as such by making that reference to his state of the union speech. I know what he is doing. He is offering encouragement and hope. But the language he has to use, the only language available to him as commander in chief, is the language associated with empire—victory over the competition.

What if we decided to have a compassion moment.
Or a just chillin' moment.
Or a helping others moment.
Or a planting a garden moment.
Or a loving our enemies moment.

The parables of Jesus are contra-empire in that he isn’t interested in the competition or in competing. His is more realistic. Life is three times out of four being scattered and falling on the wrong place. When we do land on a fertile spot, well the results are about average. That’s life isn’t it? That’s OK.

Not only is it OK it is sacred.

I think we spend a lot of time thinking that we need to measure up to some kind of standard. Then we need to beat that standard. Get on that treadmill and compete and conquer because there is not much room at the top you know. Once we get there, if we do, then what?    High blood pressure and a heart attack.

What if a nation or a group of folks or an individual said,
“You know I don’t think I want to play.”
I don’t have to be the best in order to be. I don’t have to have the largest GDP or the biggest military or the most stuff. I am just cool right here, being a seed. A seed of mercy. A seed of justice. A seed of compassion, wherever I am scattered. I will fail at it three times of four and that will be just fine.

I'll give Paul the last word:
So while others may struggle trying to become
what they think that they should be,
we'll just keep on being ourselves,
this little seed and me.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Purity (1/23/11)

John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 23rd 2011

Gospel of Jesus 14:1-10

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus
(Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), pp. 65, 67. Mark 7:1-5, 14-16; Thomas 14:5; 89:1-2;
Matthew 15:10-11; 23:25-26; Luke 11:39-40

The Pharisees gather around him, along with some of the scholars, who had come from Jerusalem. When they notice some of his disciples eating their meal with defiled hands, that is to say, without washing their hands, the Pharisees and the scholars start questioning him: “Why don’t your disciples live up to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating bread with defiled hands?”

(Recall that the Pharisees and the Judeans generally wouldn’t think of eating without first washing their hands in a particular way, always observing the tradition of the elders, and they won’t eat when they get back from the marketplace without washing again, and there are many other traditions they cherish, such as the washing of cups and jugs and kettles.)

As usual he summons a crowd and says to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and try to understand! What goes into you can’t defile you; what comes out of you can. If anyone has two good ears, use them!”

Jesus said, “Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Don’t you understand that the one who made the inside is also the one who made the outside?”

The disciples are accused of not washing their hands before they eat.

Our response to that is, “Eeww! Why don’t they wash their hands? Don’t they know about germs?”

No, they didn’t know about germs. Germs and hygiene is something we have become aware of in modern times. A few weeks ago I talked about Ignaz Semmelweis, who in the mid 19th century had difficulty convincing his doctor colleagues to wash their hands before delivering babies after they had been dissecting corpses. These are doctors. Now we know about washing hands for hygienic purposes.

A couple of years ago our confirmation class visited the synagogue in Blountville, the B’nai Sholom Congregation. The occasion was a question and answer gathering by the congregation to provide information to the larger community about the congregation and about Judaism in general.

The rabbi told us that the kitchen was “clean” in two ways. It was clean in the sense that we think of clean, that is germ-free, or as germ-free as we might hope for a kitchen reasonably to be. But it was also “clean” in the religious sense, that is ritually clean or ritually pure according to religious law and custom. The milk is kept separate from the meat and so forth. It is kosher. That is proper or correct.

In a website called Judaism 101, the author explains what kosher means. He said that a survey reported that in the year 2000, twenty-one percent of American Jews reported that they kept kosher in the home. This includes those who consider themselves Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform. Within that designation there is variance about what exactly to observe. The author writes:
The strictest people will eat only foods that have reliable Orthodox kosher certification, eating only glatt-kosher certified meats and specially certified dairy products. They will not eat cooked food in a restaurant unless the restaurant has reliable Orthodox certification, and they are unlikely to accept an invitation to dinner from anyone who is not known to share their high standards. Others are more lenient, accepting less reliable certifications without question or "ingredients reading," accepting grocery store items that have no certification but do not contain any identifiably non-kosher ingredients.
The author tells this joke:

As rabbi/humorist Jack Moline noted,

"Everyone who keeps kosher will tell you that his version is the only correct version. Everyone else is either a fanatic or a heretic."
The question to the disciples is why aren’t they keeping kosher laws? The answer is who’s asking and who says we aren’t kosher?

Christianity has often played Jesus over against Judaism. This has led to tragic consequences over the centuries. As if Jesus wasn’t Jewish or as if Jesus meant to supplant Judaism. None of that is true. Jesus was Jewish. Like Jews now, Jews then differed with one another about important things such as the law and how to keep kosher.

It wasn’t until many decades after Jesus that a separation occurred between Judaism and the followers of Jesus who were later called Christians. When we read in the gospels about conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees, some of those conflicts reflect later divisions between two communities that had begun to separate. It is that later division that is reflected in the gospels and projected back onto Jesus.

You get the absurdity, for example in the Gospel of John and in the Gospel of Matthew, of “the Jews” opposed to Jesus and being responsible for his crucifixion. Jesus was a Jew. The execution of Jesus was the execution of yet one more Jew by the Romans.

Christians mistakenly have assumed that Jesus did away with all the rules that the Jews observed therefore showing that Judaism had been replaced by this new Jesus religion. It is only recently that we are slowly coming to terms with the anti-Jewish bias within Christianity including within the gospels and within the historical reconstructions of Jesus that often pit Jesus as superior to his Jewish heritage.

Did Jesus have conflicts with religious leaders? Certainly. Jesus didn’t have conflicts with the religious leaders of his time because of their Judaism. I am sure if Jesus were here today he would have conflicts with me. But it wouldn’t be because of my Christianity. It would be because I have neglected the most important parts of my Christian faith in favor of the superficial aspects. I would be accused as Jesus is reported to have accused the religious leaders of his day of being scrupulous about incidental matters and neglectful of the weightier matters, such as justice and compassion.

The disciples are accused of not washing their hands. Not all of them, just some. Why didn’t they wash their hands? That really Is a good question. Do they not care? Are they defiant or careless? Are they making a statement or just lazy? Is it because they willfully refuse or because they are unable to do so? Maybe it isn’t that big of a deal for them. We don’t really know.

The reason for keeping kosher and observing these commandments is to be conscious. The observance of Shabbat and the observance of dietary laws are practices designed to show respect for God, for Life, and for the Holy. They are practices that enable the practitioner to be aware of the sacred and to appreciate and notice the holiness, sacredness, and wonder of life. The purpose of sacred ritual whatever the ritual and whatever the tradition the ritual is associated is to open our hearts to the sacred. That is the plan anyway.

Let’s take a ritual from our tradition, communion.
  • Or is it the Eucharist? Or is it the Lord’s Supper? We Christians cannot even agree on what to call it.
  • How often should we do it? We cannot agree on that.
  • What does mean? We cannot agree on that.
  • Who should administer it? Who gets to take it? We cannot agree.
  • What words should we use? Can’t agree.
  • What should we drink? Grape juice or wine? Red or White? Is wine from a box OK?
  • Should we eat chunks of bread or those little petroleum product wafer thingies? Can’t agree.
  • Should we come up and rip and dip or stay in our pew and sit and sip? Can’t agree.
  • Should we have music when we do our communion thing and what kind? Can’t agree.
If there is anything I am sure we all can agree upon, it is this: when I administer communion, I do it wrongly.

Some Christians don’t want to do communion at all. Some Christians take communion even if they haven’t been baptized. They all could be asked by religious leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) why they don’t do communion according to the precepts set forth in the Book of Order.

Let’s take some liberties with our text:
The Presbyterians gather around Jesus, along with some of the scholars, who had come from Louisville. When they notice some of his church members not participating in communion and others doing it wrongly, the Presbyterians and the scholars start questioning him: “Why don’t your church members live up to the tradition of the elders, instead of defiling this holy sacrament?”
That is what I think is the sense here. There is an internal religious squabble about ritual observance. In the case with the Pharisees, Jesus and the disciples it is about keeping kosher. Keeping kosher is a good thing, like worship and communion is for us. The reason there is a squabble about it is because these observances are living observances. They matter to the community even as the community is not in agreement with each other as to how and why they matter. They just do. They matter to the extent that the community wants to be intentional about them. We want to do it “right” even though we don’t agree what “right” is.

Jesus uses this interchange to raise the level of awareness.

Why do we do these rituals in the first place, or in the case of at least some of his disciples, why has this particular ritual of washing hands not being observed? Why is what is important to these religious leaders not as important to some of Jesus’ disciples?

Jesus says:
“What goes into you can’t defile you; what comes out of you can.”
Of course, that is a funny, as the hearers might imagine all the kinds of things that come out of one’s body. Eeww.

And Jesus says:
“Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Don’t you understand that the one who made the inside is also the one who made the outside?”
Jesus is not doing away or dismissing kosher practices, he is inviting them to be conscious about what they do or don’t do. The observance is a vehicle not the destination. It is important to distinguish the two. The vehicle is to bring us to a “thin place”, to an awareness of the sacred. A thin place is a metaphor for those times or places when those everyday barriers to the numinous, holy, and sacred become thin and we experience a sense of the awe and wonder of life.

Another way of saying it from the Christian tradition is “means of grace.” These are practices that are not to be confused with the sacred and the holy or with grace, but help prepare us to be open to the sacred and the holy—to grace. These include among other things, worship, communion, meditation, and prayer in many different forms.

I think that one thing Jesus might be saying to these religious leaders is something like this:
“Take care about criticizing others for their practices and rituals or what you perceive as lack of them. Because you may not know what you are talking about.”  
As Jesus said elsewhere,
“Take the log out of your own eye before trying to remove the speck in another’s eye.”
We can do a lot of ritual and look good doing it, and miss the heart of what we are doing. The inside of the cup, our “heart” and our character are the important things. Do we seek to internalize the compassion and sacredness of our practices? Do we experience the thin place that is characterized by love and peacefulness? The question I want to ask myself is this:
“What good is my religion if it doesn’t make me kinder?”
If religion is used to divide and exclude, to separate the clean from the unclean, the insiders and outsiders, the believers and unbelievers, the impure from the pure, then we have likely missed the point. For Jesus the heart of religion was not being separated from “defilement”. It was about being willing to get dirty. To be earthy. To be human.

I think what got Jesus and his disciples in trouble with the religious authorities is that Jesus challenged those boundaries of "us and them". He identified with those who couldn’t possibly keep the religious rules. He ate with and accepted those who were considered outsiders and the outcasts. Jesus said in effect:
"If eating with and showing compassion for people makes me “unclean”, then “unclean” I will be. It could be that what you consider unclean is what God considers sacred."
Jesus challenged any religious rules that were designed to exclude. Boy do we have a lot of those rules in our Christian churches. The religious leaders in Jesus’ time are similar to those today. Some were more concerned with purity and appearance than they were with compassion.

We preachers can be more concerned with reading our Bibles than in caring for people. It isn’t that one is bad and the other is good. It is about cleaning both the outside and the inside of the cup and not confusing the vehicle with the destination which is compassion.

I am going to close with this observation:

I grew up in a Southern Baptist congregation in Montana. My favorite preacher was a guy named Alvin Petty. He was from Texas and he was six foot seven. The reason he was my favorite is that he would come out to our farm and pole vault the ditch with us. We had a good sized irrigation ditch and we had a pole vaulting pole. The plan is this: You run with the pole as fast as you can, stick it in the middle of the ditch and propel yourself to the other side. It wasn’t easy. Usually you would get hung up in the middle and splash right in the mud. It was a muddy and slimy ditch too. Alvin Petty went for it again and again. I don’t think he ever made it. We have a photo of him covered with mud and ditch slime. Good earthy stuff. As a teenager, I was pretty impressed.

I have that photo in my mind of what authentic ministry is about.

You can’t trust a person, preacher or otherwise, who is afraid to dive in the mud.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Prophet, Artist, Fisherman (1/16/11 Martin Luther King)

Prophet, Artist, Fisherman
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 16th 2011
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Sunday
Gospel of Jesus 3:1-10

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), pp. 21, 23. Mark 1:16-20; 2:14; Matthew 4:18-22; 9:9; Luke 5:27-28; 8:1-3

As he was walking along by the sea of Galilee, he spotted Simon and Andrew, Simon’s brother, casting their nets into the sea—since they were fishermen—and Jesus said to them:“Become my followers and I’ll have you fishing for people!” 

Right then and there they abandoned their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little farther, he caught sight of James, Zebedee’s son, and his brother John mending their nets in the boat. Right then and there he called out to them as well, and they left their father Zebedee behind in the boat with the hired hands and accompanied him.

As Jesus was walking along, he caught sight of Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the toll booth, and he says to him, “Follow me!” And Levi got up and followed him.

Jesus traveled through towns and villages, preaching and announcing the good news of God’s imperial rule. His male disciples were with him, and also some women whom he had cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary, the one from Magdala, from whom seven demons had taken their leave, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided from them out of their resources.

A book that has been influential to me in my ministry has been Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination. Walter Brueggemann is a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures and prolific writer. This little book, The Prophetic Imagination, written in 1978 is more relevant than ever today. Even though it is really just a little book about the Bible.

Brueggemann compares and contrasts the prophetic imagination with the royal consciousness. The prophetic imagination envisions a new reality that the royal consciousness cannot envision. Brueggemann makes his point by showing that the Moses story is an alternative story to Pharaoh’s story. Pharaoh’s story is one of forced labor economics, oppression and religious legitimation of that reality. Alternatively, the god of Moses is a god of radical freedom who can hear the cry of the enslaved.

The god of Pharaoh is an accessible god. It is a god who does the royal bidding. This is a god who is easy to find and this god stays on message. That message is that what the king wants is what god wants. God bless Empire. What we find in the contest between Moses and the Pharaoh’s religious leaders is that the god of Pharaoh, this god of Empire, is no god at all. In the end, it is the god of Moses who leads the slaves out of Egypt.

But the story doesn’t end with Exodus and liberation. The god of freedom and justice is not an easy god to follow. It isn’t long until the monarchies of David and Solomon reintroduce the royal god who was really not that much different than the god of Pharaoh. In Solomon’s time, a time of great prosperity for Israel, you have the same conditions that were in place under Pharaoh: forced labor, standing armies, economic inequalities, oppression, and religious legitimation of that way of life. From the king’s point of view, that way of life is non-negotiable.

In this time of David and Solomon and the kings who followed them in the northern and southern kingdoms, there arose by necessity, prophets. These prophets spoke to the royals out of an alternative imagination. David, Solomon, and the kings had a god. This god was very sophisticated with a temple and rituals and priests. It was a god who blessed order and who blessed the emperor and who blessed empire.

But not everyone is blessed in Empire. For instance, an economy based on forced labor is not a blessing for those doing the labor. Prophets like Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah spoke from a different consciousness. It is very difficult for those who benefit by empire to hear the cries of those who do not benefit by empire. If we hear them at all we hear them as whiners and as malcontents. Lazy. They don’t understand that it takes a standing army to be secure. They should be grateful that they are fed and shouldn’t look to closely at where that food comes from or who really pays for it.

The prophets have a role to play in that they speak on behalf of a god of radical justice and freedom. This god is not kept. This god is not kept in the temple. This god does not stay on message. This god speaks on behalf of those who are engaged in the forced labor. This god speaks on behalf of those who pay the price for the blessings of the few.

Who are these prophets? According to Brueggemann, prophets are not predictors of the future. They are not fortune-tellers, even though the future is in mind. Nor are prophets simply advocates of a liberal social agenda. Prophets imagine an alternative reality. This reality is articulated through poetry, lyric, symbol, and theater.

It is poetry of lament and poetry of an energizing vision.

First the poetry of lament.

Rachel weeps for her children and will not be comforted. By the waters of Babylon we weep rivers of tears. How can we sing a song in a strange land? It is a valley of dry bones. Our lips are parched. The poetry of lament is the poetry of passion and feeling. As much as the emperor thinks that his way of life is non-negotiable and will remain that way forever, the prophet reminds him that it is not so. But the prophet, according to Brueggemann, does not scold as much as grieve. It is his pain too. He grieves for the injustice of empire. He weeps for its downfall. He weeps that the emperor refuses to see what is coming. The prophet grieves for an emperor who will not and cannot keep his promise that his way of life is non-negotiable. It is not even sustainable. It is a lie.

The prophet weeps then as now for a people who cannot see and who cannot hear. The Chinese proverb says you cannot wake a man who pretends to be asleep. The royal consciousness, the consciousness of empire is numb. It only knows its present course regardless if that course is headed for collapse.

“We will get that economy back on track. Onward and upward forever,” promises the emperor and his minions. It is a promise that cannot be kept.

The prophet invites us to experience passion. The prophet invites us to compassion. To feel.  To hear and to see. To touch. To weep. To grieve. Today prophets are inviting us to grieve with the mountains, with the Gulf, and with our streams and forests and for a humanity that has lost its connection with them.

This is Jeremiah in particular and Jesus weeping over Jerusalem.

Make no mistake. This is not doom and gloom. This is passion and grief. The royal consciousness cannot hear it. Grief is considered unpatriotic. “Our empire will be here forever!” is its claim. “God ordained it so. We are exceptional.” The royal consciousness is forced optimism. “Our institutions are too big to fail and so are we.” The prophet begs to differ.

That is only one part of the prophetic task.

The prophet also energizes. Once we feel, then we can see. Once get shaken, we can awaken. Once someone pinches our arm and stirs us from our stupor, we can feel the breeze and catch a new fragrance. Once the royal consciousness is shown for the unsustainable, unjust lie that it is, once we are able to grieve and mourn its injustice and its demise, we can hear a new song. All of our senses come alive.

There is an alternative. Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God.” Martin Luther King, Jr. called it the “Beloved Community.” It is an alternative that we speak about through the language of dream, exemplified in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech he delivered in 1963:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood….

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character….

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
How do you make that into a law? How do you make that into a five point plan of action? King was considered a prophet not because of political and social agenda. He was a prophet because he dreamed an alternative reality that ultimately is poetic. He spoke from imagination. He heard the voice of the god of Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Jesus. He spoke of a god on the margins who was free and not beholden to any royal theology.

This prophetic energizing is not exhausted in a particular social or political issue although particular social and political issues are embodied in this energizing. This energizing cannot be reduced to the practical or the reasonable or the politically expedient. That is the agenda of royal theology. Once you start with what is politically expedient, it is over.

Prophetic energizing is imagination. It is the imagination of the artist. It is the imagination of the fisherman who discovers he is an artist. It is an imagination that looks to the future and sings we will overcome. The language of the poet is the language of the prophet. It is the language of hope.

The lion shall lie with the lamb. A shoot will grow out of the stump. The blind will see. The lame shall walk. The poor will hear good news. The captive will be free. Everyone shall sit under his or her own fig tree. No one shall hurt on my holy mountain. Spears shall be made into pruning hooks. Swords shall be made into plowshares. Guns shall be turned into singing bowls.

Prophetic lament and prophetic energizing is the via creativa, the spiritual path of creativity. It is the prophetic imagination. Jesus invited his disciples to participate. He invited these fishermen to be prophets and artists.

The readings from the scripture feature the calling of the disciples. The overarching symbol is the fisherman’s net left behind. The fishermen dropped their nets and followed Jesus. Levi left his business and followed him. Wealthy women left their positions and followed him too. What are they doing? It isn’t that any of those things are necessarily bad. But they are lifeless in comparison.

Jesus invites them to take what they know and turn it into something they don’t know yet. To the fishermen he says “I will teach you to become fishers of people.” Whatever that means, right? He is inviting them on an adventure. Would you, if you could?

Oh it is not practical, is it? My life is all planned out. I have too many responsibilities. From birth to grave I will stay right here and follow the script that has been written for me. I won’t step out of line. I couldn’t possibly think of doing something different.
“Leave your nets. Follow me,” says Jesus.

The god of Moses and Miriam, Sarah and Abraham, Jeremiah, Jesus, and Mary, is a god of adventure. This is a god on the move and on the margins. This is a god of creativity and imagination. This is a god that hears the cry of suffering. This is god that feels. This is a god who calls us to travel lightly and eat the bread provided for the day. This is a god who invites us to imagine an alternative reality.

This is a god who invites us to…
  • Imagine a world in which there are no weapons because no one can ever think of a need for one.
  • Imagine a world in which we don’t fear each other but enjoy each other.
  • Imagine a world in which no one ever needs to worry about what to eat or what to wear or where to sleep.
  • Imagine a world in which we give what we take and everyone has enough.
  • Imagine a world in which our talents and creativity are valued for the joy they bring not the profit they make.
  • Imagine a world in which the circle of care is so large that no one is left out.
  • Imagine a world in which education is a lifetime love of learning.
  • Imagine a world in which we live with the rhythms of Earth.
  • Imagine a world in which we respect and care for all living things.
  • Imagine a world in which the decisions we make are made with the awareness of how they will affect seven generations to come.
  • Imagine a world in which we are daily filled with awe and joy.
Imagine a world…
Imagine your world…

Imagine that you are a prophet.
Live your truth.


Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Artist's Baptism (1/9/11)

The Artist’s Baptism
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 9th, 2011
Gospel of Jesus 1:17, 21-31

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 79, 81. Mark 1:9; Matthew 3:13; 4:1-11; Luke 3:21; 4:1-13

Jesus came from Nazareth, Galilee, and was baptized in the Jordan by John.

Then Jesus was guided into the wilderness by the spirit to be put to the test by the devil.

And after he had fasted ‘forty days and forty nights,’ he was famished.
 And the tester confronted him and said, “To prove you’re God’s son, order these stones to turn into bread.” 

He responded, “It is written, ‘Human begins are not to live on bread alone, but on every word that comes out of God’s mouth.’”

Then the devil conducts him to the holy city, sets him on the pinnacle of the temple, and says to him, “To prove you’re God’s son, jump off; remember, it is written, ‘To his heavenly messengers he will give orders about you, and ‘with their hands they will catch you, so you won’t even stub your toe on a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Elsewhere it is written, ‘You are not to put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again the devil takes him to a very high mountain and shows him all the empires of the world and their splendor, and says to him, “I’ll give you all these, if you will kneel down and pay homage to me.”

Finally Jesus says to him, “Get out of here, Satan! Remember, it is written, ‘You are to pay homage to the Lord you God, and you are to revere him alone.’”

Then the devil leaves him, and heavenly messengers arrive out of nowhere and look after him.

Do you renounce evil and its power in the world?
We don’t often get asked that question. Nor do we often ask it of ourselves or others. But today we ask it. We ask it formally and liturgically. We ask it as we are celebrating new members joining our congregation by affirmation and reaffirmation of faith and by baptism.

That question, put pointedly and starkly:

“Do renounce evil and its power in the world?”

doesn’t sound very polite. It doesn’t sound even “progressive.” We don’t talk about sin and evil anymore do we? Haven’t we left that language behind? Only the Bible thumpers talk like that, right?
If we have given up on that language it is our mistake. I think there is such a thing as evil. Progressives do use that language. Don’t let our poetry and liberal theology fool you. We are all about naming, facing, resisting, and renouncing evil. It begins with ourselves. This is point eight of the eight points of progressive Christianity: 

Recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.
That is a good phrase: conscientious resistance to evil. 

Do you renounce evil and its power in the world?
What is evil? 

Yesterday, six people were killed and twelve injured by a gunman in Arizona. One of the injured is congresswoman 
Gabrielle Giffords. She is believed to be the target of the attack. This is evil. But we need to say more. What is this evil specifically? What exactly is the locus of the evil? 

  • Is it the 22 year old who fired the shots?
  • Is it something within him, some mental illness that wasn’t treated?
  • Is it some "demon" within not exorcised?
  • Is it our collective lack of care for our youth and for each other?
  • Is it our messed up priorities?
  • Is it our abuse of creation, each other, and ourselves?
  • Is it the atmosphere of our nation and world?
  • Is it the angst about future?
  • Is it the fear and paranoia and our love affair with weapons of all kinds?
  • Is it in our inability to communicate, cooperate, and create together?
  • Is it our need to separate us vs. them, good vs. evil, blue vs. red, either you or me?
  • Is it the nastiness of our political discourse exemplified by a politician who creates a map with gun sites targeting her opponents?
  • Is this evil a form of terrorism in an attempt to keep people fearful and silent?
  • Is it the human condition that we find in Genesis 8: “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth?”

And yet that same book also said that humankind is created in the image of God. 
It is confusing. It is complex.
There is such a thing as evil. But it is hard to know exactly what it is and where it is and what we are to do about it. Yet we are asked: 
Do you renounce evil and its power in the world?
The answer to that question is, “Yes, I do.” And the answer needs to be, “Yes, I do.” And we need to say it clearly and with conviction and with humility. We need to say it even when we don’t know the extent of it or have a precise plan of how to renounce it. Not only do we need to say it, but we need to do it. 

For those of us in the Jesus tradition, our model of resisting evil is Jesus of Nazareth. After his baptism, the text says he was led by spirit into the wilderness to be confronted by the adversary, the satan.

In Hebrew mythology the satan functioned as the prosecuting attorney in the heavenly court. He is the official tester. This is the same character who tested Job. The fact that spirit leads Jesus to the wilderness shows that this is a test of his integrity. This is something he needs to go through. It is part of his spiritual path. Will he have what it takes to resist evil?

This is of course a legendary story, yet even historical Jesus scholar, Bob Funk of the Jesus Seminar felt compelled to include the temptation scene in his book, The Gospel of Jesus. He  thought this scene went back in some sense to the historical person. He thought that Jesus probably did go on some sort of vision quest, a time of fasting and self-purifying, to discover who he was and what kind of business he was to do. It is a story of integrity.

The story is powerful and true.
It is a story of renunciation of evil. On one hand, the three things that Jesus renounces don’t really seem that evil. Turn a stone into bread, test to see if God will keep promises by jumping off a building, show allegiance to something other than God, well…those are things that don’t seem that large on the evil-meter. 

There is a sense in which we all do them.

Turn a stone into bread. The assumption here is that not everyone can do that. But Jesus can. The temptation here is for Jesus to use his privilege for his own benefit. We know how this can become evil. History and current headlines are replete with powerful, privileged individuals and groups securing “bread” for themselves. Maybe it is not wise for us to turn all stones into bread, all mountains into coal, and all forests into lumber. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. Resisting evil is resisting the temptation to use power and privilege for our gain at the expense of others and perhaps in our time at the expense of nature. Jesus could do it, but refused to do it. Humans do not live by bread alone. There is something more important at work, namely integrity.

Jump off a building. This is the temptation to view oneself as exceptional. We are chosen by God. We are special. We are good and moral. Other nations and other empires may do bad things. But not us. We are favored. When we invade another country it is for their own good. This is the temptation to self-deception. This is the congressperson who says we don’t need to worry about climate change because the Bible says that God won’t destroy Earth. Great evil is done by people who think they are somehow above law, either nature’s law or human law. Jesus won’t buy it. “Don’t put God to the test,” he tells the tempter. We renounce evil when we renounce the temptation to see ourselves as exceptional. We are human no more no less than anyone else.

Worship the satan and gain the world. This is the heart of evil. The temptation is to sell our soul—to sacrifice our integrity for material gain. We have sold the idea of distributive justice and sustainable economics for the illusion of infinite growth. We have sacrificed Earth and Earth’s people and our non-human relations for an ideology of growth that cannot be sustained. We worship growth and profit and have created a monster that we can no longer control. As Thomas Berry wrote:

“The ideal is to take the greatest possible amount of natural resources, process these resources, put them through the consumer economy as quickly as possible, then on to the waste heap. This we consider as progress.”

Jesus said no. Worship God alone. That meant I think that there is no ideal, no rationalization that is more important than justice, compassion, and right relation of humanity and Earth. 
Perhaps evil is
  • ignoring our limits,
  • ignoring the call to compassion,
  • ignoring distributive justice of Earth’s fruits for all people,
  • ignoring the call to live sustainably with Earth and with one another,
  • ignoring our common humanity,
  • ignoring that we are each others’ keeper.
When we ignore all of these things the first thing to go is non-violence. Violence is the fruit of ignoring our call to be human beings. Jesus' baptism and testing in the wilderness is a model for our own personal integrity. It is recognizing that as we see evil out there it is also within. 
Do you renounce evil and its power in the world?

Jesus renounced evil by being creative. Against evil and its power, Jesus used words. He used his artistry as a wordsmith as a teller of parables as a teacher of compassion and justice. Jesus was no guilt-ridden wimpy liberal. He called evil by name and he called people out. He did the inner work to discover his own integrity but then he went to work and he named evil in high places. He spoke truth to power. He renounced evil and its power in the world.

We can do likewise. We can and need to point it out.

In a tense atmosphere in which unstable people have access to guns, when a nationally known political figure creates a map with rifle target sites on her political opponents like Gabrielle Giffords, that is just not cool. 

We need creativity, not just anger and frustration. It is the artist within who will save our souls. It is the musician and the poet within who will soothe and disarm the savage beast. It is the dancer within who will teach us new steps.

In response to this tragedy and to this evil and to the evil of violence, we will tap in to resources within. We will discover creativity and direct it toward compassion. Right now, there are vigils, there are facebook pages, there are sermons preached, there are prayers spoken, there are people uniting to share their grief, to offer love and compassion, and to imagine a more peaceful, just, and kind world.
That is what makes us human.
We are created in the image of goodness, love, and blessing. That is who we are at our core.  We are in turn creative and we have goodness, love, blessing and healing to share. Evil is a distortion. It is powerful but not ultimately so.

More powerful is love, joy, and compassion.
That is how we will renounce evil and its power in the world.
To that question we can respond,

“Yes, we do and we will!”

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Love the Whole Mad World (1/2/11)

Love the Whole Mad World
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 2, 2011

Gospel of Jesus 19:11-13 

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), Mark 4:21; Matthew 5:14-15; 7:16; Luke 6:43-44; 8:16; 11:33; Thomas 32; 33:2-3; 45:1

Jesus used to say:

“A city sitting on top of a mountain can’t be concealed.”
“People don’t light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket but rather on a lampstand, where it sheds light for everyone in the house.”
“You’ll know who folks are by what they produce. Since when do people pick grapes from thorns or figs from thistles?”


If It Is Not Too Dark
Go for a walk, if it is not too dark.
Get some fresh air, try to smile.

Say something kind
To a safe-looking stranger, if one happens by.
Always exercise your heart's knowing.

You might as well attempt something real
Along this path:

Take your spouse or lover into your arms
The way you did when you first met.

Let tenderness pour from your eyes
The way the Sun gazes warmly on the earth.

Play a game with some children.
Extend yourself to a friend.

Sing a few ribald songs to your pets and plants -
Why not let them get drunk and wild!

Let's toast

Every rung we've climbed on Evolution's ladder. 
Whisper, "I love you! I love you!"
To the whole mad world.

Let's stop reading about God -
We will never understand Him.

Jump to your feet, wave your fists,

Threaten and warn the whole Universe
That your heart can no longer live
Without real love!


Hafiz was a poet in the 14th century in Iran. He had memorized the Qur’an at a young age. Legend has it that he memorized it fourteen different ways. He became a court poet. He wrote poems about romance and life and later his poetry took a spiritual bent. He wrote about God whom he called “Beloved”.

He apparently had some sort of spiritual experience of enlightenment at a still later age. Most of his poetry was written during this time and it had the authority of a spiritual master united with God. Orthodox clergy didn’t care for him and opposed him throughout his life. They even attempted to deny him a Muslim burial. But he achieved much popular support.

Ralph Waldo Emerson called him a poet for poets.

His poetry is playful and musical. He invites, cajoles, and teases the listener to fall in love with Life, with the Beloved, with “the whole mad world”.

His poetry has known a number of translators. Daniel Ladinsky is the translator of the poem we used in worship today. His translation is somewhat loose, but free-flowing and contemporary sounding. As with all translations we get the benefit of the creativity of the original author and the translator.

There are some parallels with Hafiz and Jesus.
  • In both cases, we know little about their lives from a historical perspective.
  • Both were regarded as mystics of some sort and had many legends and myths written about them.
  • Both were opposed by the religious and political establishments.
  • Both enjoyed popular support.
  • Both were artists with words.
  • Both articulated and embodied in their own way, creativity.
  • Both inspired their hearers to embody creativity as well.
It is our creativity that enables us to love the whole mad world.

What is creativity?

According to Random House, creativity is:
the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.
Why is there creativity in the first place? British science fiction writer Brian Aldiss writes:
Whatever creativity is, it is in part a solution to a problem.
Developmental psychologist Barbara Biber connects creativity and personality. She writes:
There is a very important and fundamental relation between learning and personality development. . . . The two interact in a "circular process." Thus, mastery of symbol systems (letters, words, numbers), reasoning, judging, problem-solving, acquiring and organizing information and all such intellectual functions are fed by and feed into varied aspects of the personality—feelings about oneself, identity, potential for relatedness, autonomy, creativity, and integration.
Civil rights activist, Sarah Patton Boyle, connects creativity with service:
Service ... is love in action, love "made flesh"; service is the body, the incarnation of love. Love is the impetus, service the act, and creativity the result with many by-products.
That last is sounding almost spiritual. “Love made flesh” with creativity as a by-product.

Episcopal priest, Matthew Fox, has elevated creativity to one of four spiritual paths. Creativity makes us human and is the driving force of the universe itself.

Another theologian, Gordon Kaufman, in his two books on the topic, In the Beginning…Creativity, and Jesus and Creativity, makes the case that the word “God” does not describe a supernatural being or a “divine person” as such, but is a symbol for creativity. In other words God is creativity, or creativity is God.

That is about as elevated language as we can find for creativity.

The point that I am attempting to make with these quotes and definitions is that creativity is essential. It is not the private property of professional artists. It is crucial to human flourishing and survival. It is the answer to the problems we face as a species at this interesting time.

Perhaps our most important task is to encourage, inspire, and unleash creativity among ourselves, especially among our children. The world needs confident, humble, people who are able to trust and rely on their creativity. Oddly enough, formal public education seems to favor standardized testing instead. It regards higher education as little more than job training.

This should be a clear signal that formal education is not enough to give our young people the tools and personality needed to move us to a sustainable future. We need parents, grand parents, and everyone else we can think of to teach and to inspire creativity.

I was encouraged when I googled the word “creativity”.

I found the website, which is about exploring creativity in our everyday lives. It included links to articles and exercises.

From there I found a link to Buffalo State (SUNY-Buffalo) and found the International Center for Studies in Creativity. You can get a Masters of Science degree in Creativity and Change Leadership. The program is designed to help professionals become transformational leaders in their organizations and communities.

One of the authors of Creativity for Life, Tera Leigh, has a website called Tera’s Wish. Just a quick glance showed a number of exercises to help folks unleash their own creativity. These exercises include journaling, making a life map collage, and starting a creative mentoring group. I found it uplifting just looking through the website.

Creativity is giving ourselves permission to fall in love again with life and with our own lives. To love the whole mad world.

There certainly are many forces that seek to stifle creativity. Our modern society is beset with many demons. One of which is television advertising. We sit motionless, except for perhaps moving junk food from hand to mouth, while beaming in countless 30 second messages. Every message says the same thing. “You suck”. You suck until you purchase the right hairspray, toothpaste, and dining room set. None of it will be enough. The point is to create dissatisfaction and therefore desire.

Rather than solve problems, create an identity, or dream our future through creativity, we learn through consuming and ultimately, addiction. The solutions are not solutions at all, but at most a temporary numbing of the pain. It is a vicious destructive cycle.

But it is broken by creativity.

When we break that cycle by doing subversive things like going to the library, visiting a museum, or composing a poem (no one else has to read it), we are awakening. Creativity is giving ourselves permission to have lots of ideas. Obviously, not all of them will be good ideas or ideas that will go further than simply being named. That is not important.

We generate creativity, especially with children, by encouraging ideas without evaluation. Music and arts educator, Abby Connors, in an article entitled, “How to Help Children Stay Creative” writes:
Taking time each day to share a relaxed, fun idea-generating activity, in which ideas are accepted without evaluation, can greatly increase students’ creative thinking skills, as well as their confidence in sharing their ideas with others.
Some of these ideas include simply reading a story and letting the children offer their ideas of what would happen next. Or bringing out some shakers, rhythm sticks, and coffee can drums and letting the children find different ways of making music with them.

The practice of creativity is the key. We don’t know beforehand what the solutions to our problems (from personal to global) will be. We can’t. We need to practice so it becomes second-nature, so we can trust it and ourselves, is the generation of ideas. That comes by letting them bloom.

We can take a lesson from the sheer number of seeds that a tree produces. In Montana we had cottonwood trees on our little farm. It would look like snow when each seed (a potential tree) would be blown about by the wind. Each seed looked like a little wispy cotton ball. Not every seed became a tree. I can’t even imagine what the math would be in terms of number of seeds produced to trees that reached maturity.

That is nature’s creativity. The tree doesn’t evaluate or choose just one seed to send forth. It doesn’t worry about what its neighbors think. It explodes with generativity. Humans could take a lesson from the trees.

Don’t hide creativity. I think this might have been the message in many of the aphorisms of Jesus:

Don’t evaluate creativity and therefore stifle it.

Let it happen
  • like a light on a lampstand,
  • like a city on a hill,
  • like fruit from a plant and seeds from a tree.
This new year, summoning all the authority I have as Minister of Word and Sacrament, I hereby encourage, tease, ignite, jab, goad, incite, excite, stir, spur, prod, propel, galvanize, foment, egg on, inflame, instigate, motivate, stimulate, and nudge you to unleash your creativity.

This whole mad world needs some love.

You have the creativity to do it.