Sunday, February 27, 2011

You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down (2/27/11)

You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 27th, 2011
Celebrate the Gifts of Women

Gospel of Jesus 12:27-31

He told them a parable:

Once there was a judge in this town who neither feared God nor cared about people.

In that same town was a widow who kept coming to him and demanding,
“Give me a ruling against the person I am suing.”

For a while he refused; but eventually he said to himself,
“I’m not afraid of God and I don’t care about people, but this widow keeps pestering me.
So I’m going to give her a favorable ruling,
or else she’ll keep coming back until she wears me down.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 59, 61. Luke 18:2-5.

When a gospel writer tells you the meaning of the parable before telling the parable, you want to raise your eyebrow in suspicion. Luke not only tells you up front what he thinks the parable means but then puts words on the lips of Jesus at the end to reinforce not the parable but the explanation.

It is like a reporter who rather than report on the actual event, instead uses the event as a starting off point to tell his or her own story.

Yesterday about 200 people held a rally in Johnson City on behalf of teachers and union workers. There was a small counter protest of about a dozen, twenty at most. The reporter wrote that hundreds of people lined both sides of the street and said:

“They were voicing their opinions on both sides of a growing debate in Tennessee to change public education.”
According to the report, one would think there were equal numbers on both sides. It wasn’t the case. Except for a few brief words from the rally's organizer, the reporter didn’t actually talk to the demonstrators but to a woman who happened to stumble on the scene and offer her views about education and teachers, which were not favorable. Then the reporter spoke to a member of the handful of opposing voices. The reporter had a story to tell but it had little to do with the events that had actually occurred. We call that spin. A far more accurate report, however, is in today’s Johnson City PressWJHL on did a pretty fair job as well.

The gospel writers used spin when they told the story of Jesus and when they repeated the stories he told. They took the parables of Jesus and used them to spin their own narrative. That is why the quest to get underneath the stories is so important. We are looking for what the guy said rather than what was said about him. It doesn’t mean that work is easy or is definite by any means. It is an attempt, however, to be honest to Jesus.

Luke has a theme.

The readers should pray always and not lose heart because the Son of Man is coming, the one who will deliver justice.

It is perhaps not a bad message. It just doesn’t have anything to do with the parable. You don’t even need the parable to deliver the message. Here is the message, both prologue and epilogue without the parable:

He told them a parable about the need to pray at all times and never to lose heart.  This is what he said:
And then he tells the parable about a corrupt judge and a widow. Then Luke creates this epilogue:
And the Lord said, “Don’t you hear what the corrupt judge says? Do you really think God won’t hand out justice to his chosen ones—those who call on him day and night? Do you really think he’ll put them off? I’m telling you, he’ll give them justice and to give it quickly. Still, when the son of Adam comes, will he find trust on the earth?”
If that is the message, Luke picked the wrong parable to tell it. The judge in the parable is certainly not a good symbol for God. He is a better symbol for Dr. Evil. No amount of praying to this guy is going to change anything. No appeal to justice, no appeal to common decency, will ever change him. It is rather bizarre that Luke would use this example to make the point that God will grant justice and grant it quickly.

In the parables of Jesus, whenever we have characters in positions of authority such as judges, kings, or wealthy landowners, the tendency has been to interpret that character as a god-figure. The gospel writers themselves will often do that. To do so misses the scandal of the parable. Be very suspicious of any character in authority in the parables of Jesus.

We have two characters in this parable, a judge and a widow.

A widow is not simply a woman whose husband has died. That person would be called a matron. A widow is a person whose husband has died and who is destitute. Widows were singled out along with orphans and immigrants as people who needed special care. This occurs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

In Deuteronomy the people are to pay a tithe of their produce and give it to
…the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns… 26:12
And again in Deuteronomy:
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 24:21
Special care is to be given to those most vulnerable. That is what it means to be decent. A compassionate and just society cares for the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow. A compassionate and just society treats the poor with respect.

Psalm 68:5 describes God in this way:
Father of orphans and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation.
The prophet Isaiah writes against lawmakers in his time in chapter 10:
Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
2 to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!
Sometimes I feel like going to Nashville or Washington and reading to them from the Bible. They are all into the Bible aren’t they? All these Christian men. They love the Bible.

A widow symbolizes the vulnerable. When there is a story about a widow seeking justice, that story is a judgment story on society. We don’t even need to know (nor are we told) the specifics of her complaint. It could be relatives of her deceased husband who are holding out on giving her a share of his property. We don’t know. It doesn’t matter. She is a widow and she is seeking justice. The convention of storytelling lets us know that she is in the right.

The judge we know by the narration and by the character’s own admission is bad to the bone. There are a couple of hints we might miss that emphasize the corrupt nature of this enterprise. William Herzog points this out in his book Parables as Subversive Speech. Normally, you would have more than one judge decide a case. That would prevent corruption. What we have here is one judge likely getting bribed by her opponent.

Also, a woman normally wouldn’t seek a judgment by herself. A woman in this society would be represented by a man. Why has no man anywhere taken up her cause? That also shows the level of corruption. The fact that she is appealing to him by herself is a sign of the shame of this corrupt situation. She doesn’t even have representation.

No appeal to justice will matter. The judge himself is portrayed as a cartoonish villain.
“I’m not afraid of God and I don’t care about people.”
He sounds like Snidely Whiplash.

He will not have a change of heart.
He will not see the truth.
He will not do his duty.
What do you do when the justice system is unjust?
A losing battle is it not?

Maybe not. Luke’s answer is pray always. Some day the son of man will return. Well, OK. Prayer may be a good thing to do. Prayer is good. Prayer is nice. But what saves the widow is action.

What she is forced to do is make a spectacle of herself. She has to go and publicly shame this guy. Again and again and again. The judge says that she keeps “pestering” him. He decides to give in before she "wears him down". The word in Greek is a boxing term which means give one a black eye. Here is this widow, the most vulnerable, taking on the powerful and the corrupt. Every day she goes and gives him a black eye, figuratively speaking.

You can’t keep a good woman down.

That is the title that Brandon Scott provides for this parable in his book Hear Then the Parable.

The spectacle of pestering works because it is still in the judge’s interest to maintain the pretense of justice. If every day she is giving him a black eye, at some point, it won’t be worth it for him no matter what the bribe to keep taking this punishment. Why does he relent? It could be a matter of exhaustion, but even more than that, he could finally relent because he is afraid that enough people could be watching and public opinion could decide in her favor.

He relents not because he has compassion.
He relents not because it is the right thing to do.
He relents because of convenience.
She is more trouble than she is worth.

Our parable paints a cynical view of society to be sure. But those who have seen and who have experienced life from the widow’s perspective are well acquainted with this view of so-called justice. It is not much more cynical than what we experience today.

And yet…

The judge is not afraid of God.
The judge is not afraid of people.
The judge is afraid of this “powerless”, vulnerable widow.

Those who have ears let them hear.

A political cartoon in today’s Johnson City Press had a drawing of two figures. One is a teacher and the other is a Wall Street CEO. The text says:
Judy Peaches: Third grade teacher. Tasked with nurturing the intellects and talents of our best shot at keeping America great. Pay: $34,742. Bonus: Hugs

Joseph P. Sherk: Wall Street CEO. Very nearly drove the economy off a cliff decimating public pension plans in the process. Pay $5,950,000. Bonus: $24,700,000.

Guess who gets to make “shared sacrifices”?
But there were 200 Judy Peaches and friends of Judy Peaches on the streets in Johnson City yesterday.

They were “pestering”.

Yes, like the widow they were making a public spectacle of themselves on behalf of workers and basic human decency. It is shameful to society that this has to be done.

These bills that are being enacted across the country and in Tennessee are not just about teachers or government workers. They are about what it means to be a public society and what it means to have a public consciousness. Public education is called “public” for a reason. It is about education for all people. Sure some of us can send our children to private schools. So what happens to the vast majority of people who cannot do that? What happens to them? A decent society cares.

Well, we know that our legislators will not be convinced or have a change of heart. We have some of the best legislators money can buy. However, from our story we recall:

The judge is not afraid of God.
The judge is not afraid of people.
The judge is afraid of this “powerless”, vulnerable widow who makes a spectacle again and again.

Those who have ears, let them hear.

I know it may appear to be unseemly for a preacher to talk about so-called political matters from the pulpit. I don’t think they are political as much as they are moral. Nevertheless, I promise not to talk about social justice, poverty, corruption, and compassion any more than Jesus did.

It was justice day yesterday, I suppose.

Last night about 80 attended a concert here that was the idea of one of our folks, Jennie Young. She had a couple of singer/songwriter friends Dana and Susan Robinson who sang some songs and who raised awareness about mountain top removal strip mining.

Talk about an uphill battle. Taking on coal companies and every weak-kneed, paid for politician in the state can be a tad daunting. But Patricia Hudson does it.

You can’t keep a good woman down.

Pat Hudson is from an organization called L.E.A.F. the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship. It is a group of women from Knoxville who think that caring for Earth is a matter of faith. They are on a mission to educate and inspire on behalf of our mountains, streams, and the people of Tennessee and Appalachia. They want faith communities to care.

Mountain Top Removal Mining in which up to 500 feet are blown off the top and dumped in the valleys below in order to get the coal is about the most destructive thing we can imagine to Earth and to Earthlings. It is coming to Tennessee.

Patricia Hudson and her friends at L.E.A.F. are blowing the whistle. They are creating spectacle. They are informing an uninformed public that this is happening under our noses and behind our backs.

I don’t know if the situation is as cynical as the situation with the judge and the widow in Jesus’ parable. I may have been a bit harsh on our politicians. Yet what I take from this parable is that the power for change comes from unexpected places and unexpected people.  

People who in the words of Winston Churchill "never, never, never give up."

The judge is not afraid of God.
The judge is no respecter of humanity.
The judge is afraid of this “powerless”, vulnerable widow who makes a spectacle again and again.

Those who have ears let them hear.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Creativity and Shrewdness (2/20/11)

Creativity and Shrewdness
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
February 20th, 2011

Gospel of Jesus 12:14-26

Jesus used to tell this story to his disciples:

There was this rich man whose manager had been accused of squandering his master’s property. He called him in and said, “What’s this I hear about you? Let’s have an audit of your management, because your job is being terminated.”

Then the manager said to himself, “What am I going to do? My master is firing me. I’m not able to dig ditches and I’m ashamed to beg. I’ve got it! I know what I’ll do so doors will open for me when I’m removed from management.”

So he called in each of his master’s debtors. He said to the first, “How much do you owe my master?

He said, “Five hundred gallons of olive oil.

And he said to him, “Here is your invoice; sit down right now and make it two hundred and fifty.”

Then he said to another, “And how much do you owe?”

He said, “A thousand bushels of wheat.”

He says to him, “Here is your invoice; make it eight hundred.”

The master praised the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus
(Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 59. Luke 16:1-8

This parable has stumped folks for many centuries. It stumped even the author of the Gospel of Luke. There are nearly as many words that were added in an attempt to explain the parable than the parable itself contains.

The parable probably ends after the master’s praise. The first explanation is the following:
“…for the children of this world exhibit better sense in dealing with their own kind than do the children of light.”
Then another explanation was added:
“I tell you, make use of your ill-gotten gain to make friends for yourselves, so that when the bottom falls out they are there to welcome you into the eternal dwelling places.”
Then still another. Notice how the explanations get more far-fetched as they go:
“The one who can be trusted in trivial matters can also be trusted with large amounts; and the one who cheats in trivial matters will also cheat where large amounts are concerned. So if you couldn’t be trusted with ill-gotten gain, who will trust you with real wealth? And if you can’t be trusted with something that belongs to another, who will let you have property of your own?”
Then a well-attested saying of Jesus is attached at random:
“No servant can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account.”
Finally, Luke attaches this narrative setting:
“The Pharisees, who were money grubbers, heard all this and sneered at him. But he said to them, “You’re the type who justify yourselves to others, but God reads your hearts: what people rank highest is detestable in God’s estimation.”
So at least five morals were added to this parable either by Luke or by a tradition that Luke inherited.

This shows that the parable did not have a moral to begin with or at least not an easily discernible one. These explanations are attempts to soften or to explain away this parable.

Part of the problem in hearing the parables of Jesus is that
  1. we want to put a moral on them and
  2. we tend to think that characters in authority such as kings, judges, and masters are stand-ins for God. That God-figure must then be right and good.
If you remove those two assumptions, you have a parable. You have a story that can be used to start a conversation rather than provide an answer. You have characters that are not necessarily good or bad, but are participants in a story that invites reflection upon life.

I am going to offer a way to hear this parable that is indebted to William Herzog and his book Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.

Herzog looks at nine of the most challenging parables of Jesus. These include the Unjust Judge, the Talents, the Unmerciful Servant, the Wicked Tenants, and this one. He invites us to look at them through the social situation of the characters in 1st century Palestine.

In this society
  • 1-2 % would make up the ruling class (the master in this parable)
  • Retainers (the steward) would make up 5-7%.
  • Merchants (the ones with whom the steward is dealing) another 5%.
  • Artisans (not in this parable) 3-7%
  • Peasants, the unclean and degraded, and the expendables (who are all the hearers of Jesus’ parables) 80 to 85%.
There is constant conflict within and between these groups. The ruling classes need to keep that balance. They need to keep the peasants at a subsistence level, but not so low that they starve as they are needed to produce the wealth.

Meanwhile, the peasants and expendables have internalized the values of the ruling class. The order is set up by divine right or so it is believed.

The parables of Jesus, according to Herzog, offer a slice of life, a reflection and a critique upon this economic system and the theology that undergirds it. It is for Jesus, “the kingdom of this world.”

Jesus preached the kingdom of God.

This for Jesus appears to be a kingdom of justice and compassion.
It is a kingdom where the poor are blessed.
The outsiders are in.
Peace comes not through victory but through justice.

Throughout the centuries the church “theologized” and “moralized” Jesus’ teachings and parables and turned them into otherworldly tales. The kingdom of God became “heaven” up above and beyond.

Herzog and other commentators who have looked at the social and economic situation of this period and place are showing us that Jesus was speaking about real economic situations—real kingdoms—especially the kingdom of Caesar.

Jesus offered a critique of the kingdom of oppression and dominance as well as encouragement and wisdom for those suffering under its weight. The kingdom of God was an alternative way of imagining life together. He invited his hearers to contemplate a life without oppressive debt, starvation, and brutality.

He did it by telling stories.

He told creative little parables that illuminated, poked fun, inspired, delighted, and empowered.

It is possible that the characters in Jesus’ parables might be a bit roguish. They would use as Herzog calls them, the "weapons of the weak".

In an oppressive situation, those without power resist not in direct ways such as protest and revolt but in everyday forms of resistance. These forms of resistance include pilfering, foot dragging, passive non compliance, or shucking and jiving.

You know where the phrase “shuck and jive” comes from? The best explanation I have heard is this:
"To shuck and jive" originally referred to the intentionally misleading words and actions that African-Americans would employ in order to deceive racist Euro-Americans in power, both during the period of slavery and afterwards. The expression was documented as being in wide usage in the 1920s, but may have originated much earlier.

"Shucking and jiving" was a tactic of both survival and resistance. A slave, for instance, could say eagerly, "Oh, yes, Master," and have no real intention to obey. Or an African-American man could pretend to be working hard at a task he was ordered to do, but might put up this pretense only when under observation. Both would be instances of "doin' the old shuck 'n jive."
The Uncle Remus stories about Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit fall under the category of trickster tales.

Shuck and jive.

They are parables that would have inspired these forms of resistance.

For example, here is a poem by James Weldon Johnson, Brer Rabbit, You’se de Cutes’ of ‘Em All

Once der was a meetin' in de wilderness,

All de critters of creation dey was dar;
Brer Rabbit, Brer 'Possum, Brer Wolf, Brer Fox,
King Lion, Mister Terrapin, Mister B'ar.
De question fu' discussion was, 'Who is de bigges' man?'
Dey 'pinted ole Jedge Owl to decide;
He polished up his spectacles an' put 'em on his nose,
An' to the question slowly he replied:

'Brer Wolf am mighty cunnin',
Brer Fox am mighty sly,
Brer Terrapin an' 'Possum — kinder small;
Brer Lion's mighty vicious,
Brer B'ar he's sorter 'spicious,
Brer Rabbit, you's de cutes' of 'em all.'

Dis caused a great confusion 'mongst de animals,
Ev'y critter claimed dat he had won de prize;
Dey 'sputed an' dey arg'ed, dey growled an' dey roared,
Den putty soon de dus' begin to rise.
Brer Rabbit he jes' stood aside an' urged 'em on to fight.
Brer Lion he mos' tore Brer B'ar in two;
W'en dey was all so tiahd dat dey couldn't catch der bref
Brer Rabbit he jes' grabbed de prize an' flew.

Brer Wolf am mighty cunnin',
Brer Fox am mighty sly,
Brer Terrapin an' Possum — kinder small;
Brer Lion's mighty vicious,
Brer B'ar he's sorter 'spicious,
Brer Rabbit, you's de cutes' of 'em all.

What’s the moral of that story?

Well, there might not be a moral but those with two good ears ought to listen. The Uncle Remus stories and the poetry they inspired were tales of delight and of resistance.

This world is not easy and it is not set up for you to win.
Consider, therefore, Brer Rabbit.
The one who survives in this world is not necessarily the strongest,
...but the cutest.

So what then of our so-called “dishonest” manager?

He might not be dishonest, just cute.

The world of this parable is the world of high finance. It is not the 80% of the world made up of the peasants and expendables. The characters of this story, the ruler, the steward or the retainer, and the merchants are the elite. They can all read and write.

We can imagine Jesus telling a parable about the lives of the rich and famous and how funny they are.

They are all in competition.
None trusts the other.
It is a constant game of balance.
You need to be greedy enough to make a profit but you can’t be too greedy or you will arouse suspicion and get knocked off your pedestal.

The rulers, masters, or landowners extract from the producers (the peasants) the produce. The peasants give up so much to the landowner for rent and keep a small amount for themselves. This is negotiated through the steward. The merchants are another level of bureaucracy. They get the produce to the cities and the markets.

The steward needs to negotiate with them and write contracts on behalf of the owner. These contracts include interest (although you have to be careful with that as in a Jewish setting there are rules about interest—so it has to be hidden). The steward needs to make his own profit off the books.

In this parable, there are no peasants; just the stewards, merchants, and the ruler. There is always gossip, rumors, and one-upmanship going on. It appears that the merchants have been trash talking the steward. Word gets to the ruler that the steward is ripping him off. Who knows if it is true or not?

It doesn’t really matter as none of this is what we would call honest. The reality is that they are all crooks. The merchants are playing power games in attempt to get better negotiating prices. If they can threaten the steward, they might negotiate a better price.

So the steward sees the game.

He needs to keep his job or set himself up to be a retainer for another owner. He isn’t going to become a peasant or expendable. Digging ditches and begging are euphemisms for a death sentence. He needs to find a way to be cute.

So he does.

He goes to the merchants one by one and makes with each a behind the scenes deal. He knocks off the interest, that is, the profit, for the owner. The amounts the steward has them knock off are not just random amounts, but the interest, the profit for the owner.

The merchants sign these new contracts with the owner through the steward. The merchants are happy. They realize they are indebted to the steward. They praise the ruler for the good price.

When the steward shows the owner the books that he has demanded, the owner sees what has happened. The ruler can either accept the praise of the merchants and retain the steward or fire the steward and make him a martyr. That would blacken his reputation.

The owner sees that the steward had been including the interest in the contracts and that he had been making good deals for him and he sees that the steward had been working in the ruler’s interest all along. The ruler praises the steward for his shrewdness because good shrewd stewards are hard to find.

Is there a moral to any of this?

We tend to think there must be.
Jesus told the story so there must be a moral to it.
It must be about "God" somehow.
There must be some huge theological explanation or insight.

Maybe not.

Perhaps it is a slice of life.
It is a story of turning the tables.
As Herzog writes

“The master who held all the cards lost the hand.” P. 258

The steward who was headed for misery ends up being praised by both the merchants and the ruler.

It is a story of survival.
It is a story of how to keep your cool and how to be creative.

I think Jesus had a practical orientation about him. He didn’t just talk about “spiritual” things.He talked about very practical, earthly things as well. His primary audience consisted of people who did not benefit by the economic system in which they labored.

Jesus’ advice seems to be:
  • The kingdom of this world is not set up for you to win.
  • Don’t take it head on.
  • Discover your creativity.
  • Learn from this rogue.
  • Because at the end of the day...
...he ends up being the cutes’ of them all.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

From Cosmos to Cosmogenesis (2/13/11 Evolution Sunday)

Here is the sermon for today, Evolution Sunday. 

I also told this story about Ozzie the fish for the children's sermon from Connie Barlow's website, The Great Story.

We sang Blue Boat Home for one of our hymns.

And for the offertory, Give It Away by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

OK, that last was a bit random.

From Cosmos to Cosmogenesis
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 13th, 2011
Evolution Sunday

Romans 8:14, 16, 17, 19, 22
1 Corinthians 3:9

For all who are led by the power and purpose of God are the children of God.

God’s power and presence joins us in affirming that we are God’s children. And if we are God’s children then we are also heirs, heirs of God and co-heirs with the Anointed, since we experience the same abuse as he did in the hope that we may share his exaltation.

For the whole creation eagerly anticipates the disclosure of who God’s children really are.

We know that the whole creation has been moaning with birth pangs until now…

We are co-workers for God; you are God’s field, God’s building project.
The Authentic Letters of Paul (Jesus Seminar)

I was asked a few years ago on my blog why my church celebrated Evolution Sunday. The questioner was a bit sarcastic and asked why we don’t celebrate Gravity Sunday? The assumption behind the question was that scientific theories have nothing to do with church.

I thought it might be good to take that question at face value. Why don’t we celebrate Gravity Sunday?

We might feel the need to celebrate Gravity Sunday if less than half the population of Americans didn’t believe in gravity. We might celebrate Gravity Sunday if certain religious groups promoted conferences and influenced school boards to “teach the controversy” between what they called an atheistic theory of gravity versus the biblical account of “intelligent falling”. We might need a Gravity Sunday if sacred texts were trotted out as proof that mysterious, invisible, supernatural divine beings were responsible for the mystical weightiness of Earth. We might need Gravity Sunday if people were told from pulpits and other places that you couldn’t possibly believe in gravity and be a Christian and that on judgment day promoters of atheistic gravitation would go right down the chute to Hell.

But so far, with gravity, we have had no such problem.

The same is not true for the theory of Natural Selection or Evolution.

In a Gallup Poll in 2009, 39% of Americans surveyed indicated that they believed in Evolution. 25% did not believe in evolution and 36% had no opinion.

More hair-raising than that was a poll recently conducted by Science magazine. They found that among 900 high school biology teachers surveyed, only 28% were advocates of evolution. 13% were advocates of creationism. The remaining 60% were neither advocates for evolution nor another non-scientific alternative. They were on the fence.

One of my blog commenters suggested it is like chemists on the fence regarding the existence of atoms.

It is time to get off the fence regarding one of the foundations of human knowledge. So six years ago, Dr. Michael Zimmerman, a biologist from Butler University started the Clergy Letter Project. The idea was to procure 10,000 signatures from clergy who affirmed evolution to counter the viewpoint of some religious people that evolution and Christian faith were incompatible.

As of today, 12,711 Christian clergy have signed the letter. That number goes over 14,000 when Unitarian and Jewish religious leaders are included. In addition to the letter, churches have been asked to raise the level of discussion in their congregations regarding science.

We have participated in Evolution Sunday, now Evolution Weekend for six years since it began. I have been rebuked. I have been called a heretic. I have been told numerous times in numerous ways that I am going to hell and that I am leading my congregation to eternal destruction as well. I guess we have hit a nerve and are doing something right.

Perhaps the reason why biology teachers, who should know better, are on the fence is because they are afraid of being bullied by parents and their preachers. Since this bullying is coming from religious quarters, it is up to religious leaders and religious laypeople to stand up and say,
“We are religious and we affirm science.”
When more people do that, more people are encouraged and empowered. This isn’t the only issue in the world and it may not be the most important one. But what we teach our children and what we learn about the world is important. As it says in the clergy letter I signed:
We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.
That is the presenting reason of why Evolution Sunday.

But there is more.

A Sunday sermon is not the place to talk in detail about evolutionary theory. There are plenty of books for the non-specialist like me. I particularly enjoyed Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: Evidence for Evolution. For children, Connie Barlow’s website, The Great Story, has many marvelous resources.

Attend our adult forum for the next couple of weeks and hear about the evolution of the human brain with Dr. Julie Wade. Or take a field trip with us this afternoon or anytime to the Gray Fossil Site and Museum.

I do think it is important for people to have the permission to explore the relationship between science including natural selection, cosmology, and so forth with their own personal faith or sense of meaning. I think the reason some religious people are so against science and spend so much time trying to discredit it is because they have not found a way to allow their faith to communicate with what science is teaching them.

Zimmerman said that many people if forced to choose between religion and science will choose religion. We don’t have to choose, but we do have to do some work. We have to build our own meaning. As the Apostle Paul wrote, we are co-workers with God.

Again there are many resources to aid people of faith as they wrestle with science. Some of these resources will resonate with us and others will not. It is up to each of us to make our own way. The only “rule” we might have in this joyous quest is that we cannot distort the facts to fit our religious sensibilities. Well, we can, I suppose, but to do so would be dishonest and less productive.

For example, if science is showing us that Earth is 4.6 billion years old, it would be dishonest to dismiss that because our interpretation of a sacred text requires us to say Earth is 6,000 years old. In that situation, our interpretation of that sacred text might be amiss. We might need another interpretation of this text. Again, biblical scholars can help with this.

Genesis chapter one contains a poem of creation. Probably composed in the 6th century BCE when Israel was in captivity to Babylon, this poem was a creation poem. Creation poems are designed to provide meaning, place, and identity. The creators of this poem drew from the raw material available to them, the myth of the Eneuma Elish.

In this Babylonian myth, Earth was created as an act of violence when Marduk slayed the sea monster Tiamat and with her carcass created heavens above and earth below. The blood dripping from her carcass created the gods. The role of the gods was to keep the universe going and they get tired of all this work, so they create humans to be slaves to the gods. This myth thus justified the hierarchy of the king (who alone is the image of god) and his control of the people. The rest of the human beings are violent by nature and must therefore be controlled by an iron hand.

The Hebrew people created a different story. Earth is created by the speaking of Elohim and Earth is rendered “good”. Human beings are created in Elohim’s image and are “good”. They are not created as the result of violence and are therefore not violent by nature. On the seventh day, Elohim rests. This poem provides a reason why the Hebrew people rest on the seventh day.

Human beings have dignity. They are not created to slave and toil, but are granted holy rest. It is a liberation poem. It was a poem to give the Hebrew people an identity in a strange land.    It is a poem that still reminds us today that Earth is good, and that the universe is good, and that life on earth is good and that humans are created in the divine image and thus have dignity and we are in turn creative.

Even though this poem has functioned over the centuries to tell us of the origin of Earth, stars, and crawling things, it has ceased to be interesting in that way. But that was never its primary power and beauty. Its power and beauty was to inspire human creativity and dignity.

These past several weeks have demonstrated this creativity and dignity. We saw the people of Egypt, young people, peacefully and with courage and grace stand up and stand down an autocratic ruler. They did it in the face of powerful governmental opposition including the blackout of the internet and the infiltration of armed thugs. They peacefully remained resolute in spite of the wringing of hands and the waffling of powerful Empires such as the United States and in spite of calls by so-called allies to end the demonstrations and to go home.

They lived the poem of Genesis chapter 1. They may not have thought of it in that way, and that may not have been their defining sacred text, nevertheless the principle in Genesis 1 is the same as in the Qur’an, that human beings are created with dignity and we live to our fullest expression of that truth when we stand up for it, for ourselves, and for others.

I like that interpretation of Genesis 1 even as I don't claim it is the best or only interpretation. I do think it is a more helpful interpretation than one that uses it as a tool to discard science.

Other evidence of the creativity of human beings is that we developed a method for discerning some of the secrets of the universe. This scientific method is showing us that the universe’s story includes Earth’s story, the human story, and the more than human story. This story is fascinating beyond intuition or imagination.

Yesterday at Roan Mountain State Park we contemplated rocks that are over one billion years old. A billion with a B. That is deep time. Physicist Brian Swimme said,
“If you let hydrogen gas alone for 13 billion years it will become giraffes, rose bushes and humans.”
You may ask,
“If that is the case, where is God in all of this?”
I say that is a great question and don’t ever stop asking it. Keep asking it and don’t settle for ugly answers. An ugly answer is one that says:
You have to believe this about God or you are going to hell.
You can’t believe that or you are not a Christian.
You have to believe the Bible the way I tell you to believe it.
Those are ugly answers.

Go for beauty instead.

A beautiful answer is an open-ended question.
It allows for exploration.
It gives permission to search and to doubt.

A beautiful answer just isn’t in the head, it isn’t just a matter of intellect but a matter of the heart as well. When we ask “Where is God in all of this?” we may discover that is a heart question not just a head question. We may discover that we are asking, “Where am I in all of this?”

Who am I?
What does my life mean?
What is sacred for me?
What is holy for me?
What does it mean to live a life of dignity and creativity?
How do I relate to my surroundings?
How do I relate to others?
How do I relate to loss?
How do I relate to possessions?
What is compassion?
Where do I see it in others?
Where do I see it in myself?
For what do I hope?
What do I love?
Of what am I afraid?
For what do I stand up?
What do I decide to let go?
How do I know when to do what?
How do I make amends?
How do I allow others to make amends to me?
What is the essence of a good, sacred and holy life?

Ask those kinds of questions with sincerity and you may find your god.

Those questions could keep us religious folks busy for a while.

Perhaps if we spent our time asking those kinds of questions we could trust our scientists to ask questions about the ages of rocks and the evolution of the creeping critters, including human critters, and we could let them be.

I titled this sermon, “From Cosmos to Cosmogenesis”. That is a title of a chapter in Matthew Fox’s book, Original Blessing. The cosmos is not fixed. It is constantly changing, evolving, and creating and we are part of that creative process.

In our 13.7 billion year super saga, human beings have arrived late on the scene. The rest of the universe has been lolling around in deep time and we finally got to the party.

Deep time is the great "relativiser".
Deep time humbles all of our projects and ambitions.
Deep time goes forward as well as back.

Yet here we are.
Created and creating.
Evolved and evolving.

Cosmogenesis is the creativity of the cosmos within us.

The Apostle Paul had no idea about natural selection or the age of the universe. Even the knowledge that Earth revolved around the sun wouldn’t come for another 14 centuries. But Paul did know about human creativity. He did know that humankind had dignity. He labeled that dignity being “children of God.” He did know that we are co-creators and co-workers. He did know that the universe, creation, is constantly giving birth.

The universe is not apart from us.
We are it.
We have been given a rather thrilling job.
We get to tell the universe’s story.
We use our minds, our rhythm, our words, our hands, our feet, our passion, our love, our tears, and our lives to give back and to give forward.
We can hear, see, taste, smell, think, speak, and touch Life.
The creativity of the universe is in us.
Our job is to return the favor.
As the universe constantly gives away of itself, we in its image, can do no less.
To live, to create means to give ourselves away.

That is a sacred calling—to use our creativity.
To live life with awareness.
As we are created, we create.
As we are blessed, we are to be a blessing.

And that is why we celebrate Evolution Sunday.

And we closed with this beautiful poem from Mary Oliver:

"Song of the Builders"

On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God—

A worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside

this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope

it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Stealth Creativity (2/6/11)

Stealth Creativity
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
February 6, 2011

Gospel of Jesus 12:10-13

Jesus would say,
“God’s imperial rule is like this: Suppose someone sows seed on the ground, and goes to bed and gets up day after day, and the seed sprouts and matures, although the sower is unaware of it. The earth produces fruit on its own, first a shoot, then a head, then mature grain on the head. But when the grain ripens, all of a sudden that farmer sends for the sickle, because it’s harvest time.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999),
pp. 57, 59. Thomas 21:9; Mark 4:26-29

This is such a strange little parable that neither Luke nor Matthew copied it from Mark.
Thomas only includes the last line of this parable and it stands alone:

“When the crop ripened, he came quickly carrying a sickle and harvested it.
Anyone here with two good ears had better listen!”

The phrase “put in the sickle for the harvest is ripe” occurs in the Book of Joel.
The context in Joel is pretty heavy duty.
Let’s read the passage:
Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare war,
stir up the warriors.
Let all the soldiers draw near,
let them come up.
10 Beat your ploughshares into swords,
and your pruning-hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, ‘I am a warrior.’

11 Come quickly,
all you nations all around,
gather yourselves there.
Bring down your warriors, O Lord.
12 Let the nations rouse themselves,
and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat;
for there I will sit to judge
all the neighbouring nations.

13 Put in the sickle,
for the harvest is ripe.
Go in, tread,
for the wine press is full.
The vats overflow,
for their wickedness is great.
That sounds like the Battle Hymn of the Republic:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
Nothing like religious fervor to fire up the troops.

Grab the sickle for the harvest is ripe has the tone of apocalyptic,
the wrath of God against wickedness and so forth.
The kingdom of God comes with a terrible swift sword.
Is that what Jesus meant?

In the passage from Joel it says:
Beat your ploughshares into swords,
and your pruning-hooks into spears;
We have heard that before, except we have heard the opposite.
During Advent, often when lighting the Advent candle, we quote this text from Micah:
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
I think what we have is a disagreement within the tradition.
When we find texts that use the same imagery but use it in opposite ways, it may mean that we have people with conflicting philosophies both within the tradition.
How will peace come?

The tradition of Joel says that the kingdom of God,
the kingdom of justice and peace, will come with a sword.
The Lord will arm the righteous and they will slay the wicked.
The harvest is ripe.

The tradition of Micah says that the kingdom of God,
the kingdom of justice and peace, will come when all people forget how to engage in war.
The Lord will arbitrate and end violence.

This argument rages today.

Will peace come through victory over the wicked, on making sure the “good guys” have weapons?
Or will peace come when no one has any weapons?
In the meantime, what should we do?

Within the Abrahamic traditions, harvest time is a symbol for the day of the Lord,
the consummation of history, the final reckoning, the bringing of peace and justice,
the kingdom of God.

So here is Jesus within this tradition, playing with the two symbols,
the kingdom of God and the harvest, using a phrase straight from Joel (the violent one),
“send for the sickle for the harvest is ripe.”
We might imagine the hearers who would be familiar with this tradition knowing what harvest time means,
“It means that we are going to get justice over these Romans! The time is at hand!”
Army of the Lord stuff.
Instead, Jesus starts with the kingdom and he gets to the harvest, but it is a very different path,
and a very different tone, and I think, a very different meaning.

In fact, I have no idea what it means.

But it doesn’t sound like a getting ready for battle parable.
This isn’t Battle Hymn of the Republic language.
Julia Ward Howe didn’t use this parable (except for the last line) to rouse up teenagers for bloody righteous conflict.


A man scatters seed.
Then he goes to bed.
Then he wakes up.
He chills.
Back to bed.
Up again.
Day after day.
Meanwhile, this seed sprouts and matures.
The guy is totally clueless.
You’d think he might want to water or weed it or something, but no.
The sower is unaware that it is even growing.
He has no knowledge of how it grows.
Then, the earth produces fruit on its own (without any assistance from him).
First a shoot….
…Then, a head…
...then a mature grain on the head….
…and when the grain ripens, then the sower wakes up
He sends for the sickle because it is harvest time.

Kingdom of God!
And everyone says, “Huh?”

I am confused.
I am not sure what the seed is or what the harvest is or what it means to harvest.
But it certainly doesn’t sound like a war parable.
It doesn’t sound like an empire parable.
It doesn’t sound like a “I need to conquer the world” or a
“I need bring peace to the world before next Tuesday” parable.

It sounds like a chill out parable.
It sounds like a take it easy and just watch parable.
It could be that Jesus was offering a parable of the kingdom of God that was really just about this Earth and about sowing and seeds growing and human beings having no idea what is happening.

It sounds like a parable of life happening within us and without us and all around us without our even being aware or of our even noticing.
Perhaps the creativity of life happens while are not aware, by stealth.

The seed matures without our control and it happens on a timetable that is not ours.

The kingdom of God might not be the sickle and the harvest,
or whatever is coming, the judgment, the wrath of God, the future.
The kingdom of God might not be a level of abstraction, the supposed real reality beyond this reality.
It might not be that this parable is a symbol or metaphor for the kingdom of God at all.
It could be that it is actually describing the kingdom of God.

You want to see the kingdom of God? Watch grain grow.
You want to see the kingdom of God? Watch the sun at night.
You want to see the kingdom of God? Count the number of hairs on your child’s head.
You want to see the kingdom of God? On a clear night, imagine what life is like on the third star on the left.
You want to see the kingdom of God? Weigh love on a scale.
You want to see the kingdom of God? Live here now.

Or in this poem that Nancy Jane Earnest wrote for us today,
you want to see the kingdom of God?
“I sit sun flaming flannelled shoulders sweat trickling
recalling days of June summer splendor
somehow I missed
in other worldliness
of pressing concerns obligations
but today today I
live one year fully season by season
in the short span of one delicious day.”
There is a tendency within us--that at times our faith tradition reinforces—
to put the really real outside of life.
It can be in the future or it can be in some other transcendent realm.
But it is not here now.

We can spend our time as Nancy Jane writes:
“in other worldliness of pressing concerns, obligations.”
The power of Jesus’ parable , the drawn out slowness of it, invites us to focus our attention on what is happening all around us and within us in the present.
To live life as life.

I often wonder if we would have far fewer troubles in our own lives and in our lives as a human population if we would live here now.
Just to speak for myself, I think I would.

I am going to close with another parable.
This parable is in my loose-leaf Bible.
I have told it to you before and as with all good scripture, it is good to hear it more than once.
This comes from the Zen tradition.

A man is running.
Because he is being chased by a tiger.
He runs fast. The tiger is gaining on him.
He reaches a cliff and has to make a decision in a split second.
The tiger is behind him.
The cliff is before him.
He jumps.
A branch is growing out of the side of the cliff.
He grabs it and hangs on to it.
The tiger is above him growling, just out of reach.
Below him, hundreds of feet below him, are jagged rocks.
On the branch near the cliff are two mice, one black and one white.
They are chewing the branch.
At the end of the branch, just within reach,
He sees a strawberry.
He picks it.
He puts it to his lips.
He eats it.
He says, “How delicious!”

That, my friends, is living here now.
“But when the grain ripens, all of a sudden that farmer sends for the sickle, because it’s harvest time.”
“…today today I
live one year fully season by season
in the short span of one delicious day.”