Sunday, March 27, 2011

Spiral of Violence (3/27/11)

Spiral of Violence
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 27th, 2011
Third Sunday in Lent

Gospel of Jesus 12:32-38

Jesus told this parable:

“A person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers, so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so the farmers would give him the vineyard’s crop. They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master. His master said, “Perhaps he didn’t know them.” He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one as well. Then the master sent his son and said, “Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.” Because the farmer knew that he was an heir to the vineyard, they grabbed and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do?”

Jesus would say,
“The Father’s imperial rule is like a person who wanted to kill someone powerful. While still at home he drew his sword and thrust it into the wall to find out whether his hand would go in.
Then he killed the powerful one.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 51, 53. Thomas 65:1-7; 98:1-3; Mark 12:1-9; Matthew 21:33-39; Luke 20:9-15

The parable of the vineyard is found in four gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Thomas. This parable is a good illustration of how a parable of Jesus is shaped and modified by the gospel writers. After killing the son, the different gospel writers respond.

Mark’s ending:
What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come in person, and do away with those farmers, and give the vineyard to someone else. Haven’t you read this scripture,

“A stone that the builders rejected has ended up as the keystone. It was the Lord’s doing and is something you admire?”

Matthew’s ending:
When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those farmers then?

They say to him, He’ll get rid of these wicked villains and lease the vineyard out to other farmers who will deliver their produce to him at the proper time.

Jesus says to them, “Haven’t you read in the scriptures, “A stone that the builders rejected has ended up as the keystone. It was the Lord’s doing and is something you admire?”

“Therefore I say to you, God’s domain will be taken away from you and given to a people that bears its fruit.”

And when the ranking priests and Pharisees heard his parable, they realized that he was talking about them. They wanted to seize him, but were afraid of the crowds, because everyone regarded him as a prophet.

Luke’s ending:
What will the owner of the vineyard do to them as a consequence? He will come in person, do away with those farmers, and give the vineyard to someone else. When they heard this, they said, “God forbid!”

But (Jesus) looked them straight in the eye and said, “What can this scripture possibly mean: A stone that the builders rejected has ended up as the keystone? Everyone who falls over that stone will be smashed to bits, and anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.
In all three gospels, this exchange is followed by the religious leaders wanting to arrest Jesus then and there.

Because of the way the gospel writers interpreted this parable, it became an allegory in which God is owner, the vineyard is Israel, the farmers are the temple authorities or religious leaders, the slaves are the prophets, and the son is Jesus.

There is another version of this parable in the Gospel of Thomas. It is for the most part the Thomas version that I printed in the bulletin. The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar determined that Thomas preserved the original parable. There is no allegory attached to the Thomas reading.

After killing the son, Thomas has Jesus say: “Anyone here with two ears had better listen.”

My rule of thumb with Jesus’ parables is that any character with authority and power such as a king, a judge, or a wealthy landowner should warrant suspicion of any attempt to equate that character with God. The gospel writers may do that and the later tradition does that, but when we get back to the figure of Jesus we find that the parables are more subversive.

My interpretation of this parable is indebted to William Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.

Another interesting detail that may be connected with the original telling is found in both Mark and Matthew. They begin the parable this way:
“Someone planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a winepress, built a tower, leased it out to some farmers and went abroad.”
Jesus is telling a parable to people who know all about vineyards and wealthy absentee landowners. From the people’s perspective the landowners aren’t the good guys. If Jesus’ audience is largely made up of the peasant class or 80 percent of the population, they would identify with the farmers.

Where did the landowner get the land to build his luxury vineyard? Land stayed in the family for generations. The only way you get land is to take it. Herod funded his huge building projects including the Temple by forcing peasants off their land to work for large landowners for the purpose of making cash crops. This parable of Jesus reflects this reality as a conflict between a member of the ruling class and the peasant class.

Of course the process of taking land from the poor was common before Herod. In Isaiah chapter five, there is in an interesting parallel to our parable that provides a hint of its context:

My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones,    and planted it with choice vines; he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
In Isaiah, the metaphor of wild grapes is social injustice. A few verses later we read:

Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!
The consolidating of land is the injustice. Jesus speaks in the tradition of the prophets of social justice. The dream of these prophets was that one day everyone would sit under his or her own fig tree. The land would be returned.

In our parable, whose land is it? Does it belong to the guy who planted the vineyard or does it belong to the peasant farmer who has been displaced? We can have an opinion, but we can imagine that there would be debate. Who owns Libya? Who owns Egypt or Syria or the Gulf of Mexico? These are the conflicts of distribution of power and resources.

During times of quiet there is a tenuous balance whatever the arrangement. But in times of stress, when resources are not as easily available, the balance leads to open conflict, and even violent conflict.

Herzog suggest that this parable describes a peasant revolt. The parable codifies the “spiral of violence.” Elites expand their land at the expense of the peasants and they are kept at subsistence levels. This element of injustice, “wild grapes”, to use the metaphor from Isaiah, is embedded within the system itself. That is the first level of violence.

Herzog writes:
“The spiral begins in the everyday oppression and exploitation of the poor by the ruling elites. This violence is often covert and sanctioned by law, such as the hostile takeover of peasant land. More often than not, peasants simply adjust and adapt to these incursions by the elites in order to maintain their subsistence standard; but…even peasants have their breaking point.” Pp. 108-109.
The second level of the spiral of violence is seen in the peasants’ response to the servant. We can imagine that disputes would arise when the servants or retainers for the landowner come to collect the rent. Perhaps the rent is too much and they are pushed to the point of frustration. In the parable, the farmers beat the servant and send him away empty-handed.

The spiral of violence escalates. The landowner sends another, same thing, but the violence increases. A third they kill. Now it is getting serious. Finally, the landowner sends the son, the heir. The landowner is confident that by sending his son, the peasants will stop this revolt.

Then the master sent his son and said, “Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.”

Respect is respect for superior firepower. The landowner means business now.

But the peasants are feeling their oats. Their revolt is getting heady. They say to themselves that if they kill the son, they will take the land back. The landowner will give up. So they do. They kill the son. The parable ends.

The first level of the spiral of violence is the violence that is embedded in the injustice, the “wild grapes” of oppression and exploitation.

The second level of the spiral of violence is the peasant revolt that leads to a climax of no return in which the son is killed.

There is a third level in the spiral of violence. That is how Jesus likely ended the parable.
What will the owner of the vineyard do?
Will he give up and let the peasants take back the land and leave his son un-avenged? Not likely.
Will he respond with crushing violence? More likely.

That is the third level of the spiral of violence. A crushing response. Herzog makes this chilling observation that in ancient societies there were many peasant revolts but there were no peasant revolutions. The powers were simply too overwhelming.

Why did Jesus tell this parable?

Before answering that, I want to talk about another parable I included in today’s reading, the Parable of the Assassin. Found only in the Gospel of Thomas, this was one of the few that while not in the canonical gospels, the seminar determined did reflect Jesus.
Jesus would say,
“The Father’s imperial rule is like a person who wanted to kill someone powerful. While still at home he drew his sword and thrust it into the wall to find out whether his hand would go in. Then he killed the powerful one.
Then there is another saying that the Fellows ruled black, but I think helps to makes sense both of the parable of the assassin and the parable of the vineyard laborers. It is found only in Luke 14:31-32
“What king would go to war against another king and not first sit down and figure out whether he would be able with ten thousand men to engage an enemy coming against him with twenty thousand? If he decided he could not, he would send an envoy to ask for terms of peace while the enemy was still a long way off.” 
I think that Jesus told these parables to an audience of exploited and oppressed people to communicate a couple of things.

One: I am with you. I am on your side. So is God. The realm of God is when we have our daily bread, and the land is returned, and there is restorative justice. Blessed are you poor who are hungry now, who are oppressed now. You will be satisfied. It is clear that Jesus was an advocate for those who were oppressed by the elites whether the elites were fellow Jews, Romans, or religious leaders. He has sympathy and compassion. He is one of them.

Second: Jesus wanted to tell them to be smart and to be cool. Before you decide to take on these guys, count the cost, have a plan, and don’t underestimate your enemy. Even an assassin makes sure he can get the job done before he tries it. Even a king with an army makes sure he has enough troops first, and if not makes terms for peace. It is great and I am all for you leading a revolt against wealthy landowners and brutal dictators. But remember why they call them “brutal dictators” in the first place. Taking on the powerful head on doesn’t end well. If you act violently, what will the owner of the vineyard do?

Third: Jesus communicated something else. It isn’t in the parable itself except in the question Jesus leaves with the hearers. If not with violence, then how do we take on the “powerful one”? How do we effectively respond to injustice? How do we transform it? I think Jesus wanted to channel their righteous anger toward a third way, the way of resistance, but in a way that did not escalate the spiral of violence.

The story of Jesus that is preserved is that he did enact this third way by example. He never allowed anyone to take away his dignity even though they could harm his body. He didn’t take on violence directly. He didn’t respond to violence with violence. He was non-violent and yet was executed. But his death came to mean far more than it would have had he been a violent bandit.

Because of his non-violence, his execution exposed the injustice and raised the level of consciousness of his early followers. It has been a model for non-violent resistance ever since. This is what Ghandi and King taught and lived through their efforts to change social injustices through non-violent resistance.

This model of non-violent resistance is still in its infancy. As an infant it must be cradled, nurtured, fed, blessed, and given every opportunity to grow. This is the via tranformativa, the spiritual path of compassion and justice-making.

This past week was the 31st anniversary of the assassination of arch-bishop Oscar Romero. Two weeks before his assassination, he was asked by a Mexican reporter if he was afraid of death. This is his reply:

"I have often been threatened with death. I have to say, as a Christian, that I don't believe in death without resurrection: if they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. I tell you this without any boasting, with the greatest humility. As pastor, I am obliged, by divine command, to give my life for those I love, who are all Salvadorans, even for those who are going to assassinate me. If the threats are carried out, even now I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Martyrdom is a grace of God I don’t think I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my blood be the seed of liberty and the sign that hope will soon become reality. May my death, if accepted by God, be for the freedom of my people and as a witness to hope in the future. You can say, if they come to kill me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully they may realise that they will be wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish."
Bishop Romero embodied the third way. We have seen the third way work. Democracy is the third way. It is the process of changing power through voting. A global emphasis on human rights and dignity is an example of the third way. The recent peaceful revolution in Egypt is an example of a non-violent third way.

The situation in Libya is a step backward. There are still third way possibilities there if there is the political will to choose peace. Non-violence is not passivity. It is resistance. It requires creativity. It requires negotiation. It requires sacrifice. What if 5,000 or 10,000 people of conscience from around the world went to Libya without weapons and simply stood arm in arm in front of Gaddafi's tanks? It will require more of the American people than sitting at home watching the bombing on television disconnected from the reality of the U.S. military fighting battles for us and in our name.

Peaceful alternatives to war are not flashy or terribly exciting, but war will not lead the world to the security we seek.

Jesus told his parables to show his friends that violence does not bring about a lasting and just peace. It only escalates it. The via transformativa, or the way of compassion, peace and justice-making is hard work, but the way of peace is the narrow road that leads to life.


Stanley Hauerwas on a Christian Response to War.
Quaker Statements on Libya.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

On This Day Love Is Permitted (3/20/11)

On This Day Love Is Permitted
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 20th, 2011
Second Sunday of Lent

Gospel of Jesus 10:1-1

It so happened that Jesus was walking along through the grainfields on the Sabbath day, and his disciples began to strip heads of grain as they walked along. And the Pharisees started to argue with him: “See here, why are they doing what’s not permitted on the Sabbath day?”

And Jesus says to them:

The Sabbath day was created for Adam and Eve,
Not Adam and Eve for the Sabbath day.
So, the son of Adam lords it even over the Sabbath day.

Then he went back to the synagogue, and a fellow with a crippled hand was there. So they keep an eye on him, to see whether he would heal the fellow on the Sabbath day, so they could denounce him. And he says to the fellow with the crippled hand, “Get up here in front of everybody.” Then he asks them, “On the Sabbath day is it permitted to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”

But they maintained their silence. And looking right at them with anger, exasperated at their obstinacy, he says to the fellow, “Hold out your hand!”

He held it out and his hand was restored.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 51, 53. Mark 2:23-24, 27-28; 3:1-5; Matthew 12:1-2, 8-13; Luke 6:1-2, 5-10

Every now and then I come down with religion envy.

Religion envy is the experience of wishing one was of a different religion.
I wish I were Buddhist then I could do that.
Or, if I were Wiccan, I could do that!
I went to a Roman Catholic high school. I was a Protestant. In fact, a low-level Protestant at that. I envied all the cool stuff that the Catholic faith was about. The statues, the history, the secret handshakes and genuflecting. I envied the practices associated with the various seasons and holy days of the year such as Lent. We plain old Baptists didn’t have any of that cool stuff.

The mainline Protestant church as a whole has been experiencing Roman envy. I think that is the reason we had all of this liturgical renewal in the 70s. Protestant clergy now follow the lectionary and have added bells and whistles from our past to worship over the last few decades.

Religion envy.

Whenever I get a chance to visit a synagogue (and that isn’t very often) I get Jewish envy.

I really like the concept of the Shabbat or the Sabbath. Shabbat begins at sunset, considered to be the beginning of the day. At a certain time in the service, worshipers turn to the rear of the hall and welcome the new day, the Shabbat, like a queen. It is a day of rest, holy rest from sundown to sundown.

As Jay Michaelson writes in an article about Shabbat:
Shabbat is a day of being, not doing….the rest of the week, we Jews are exhorted to improve the world, better ourselves, and provide for our extended families in whatever roles in which we find ourselves. But this day: just be. Serve God not in changing the world, but in relaxing into what’s already there.
I like that. In Creation Spirituality, Shabbat is the way of awe and wonder—the spiritual path of appreciation. Take it in and notice. That is holy rest. And we need it, don’t we?

Wendell Berry in his poem “The Peace of Wild Things” writes about this holy rest:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their lights. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The first chapter of the Bible is about the Shabbat. The story of God creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh is a “just so story” to explain why we keep the Sabbath. Over 100 years ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote a number of delightful “just so stories” to explain how animals received their characteristics. How the leopard got his spots and why the rhinoceros has loose skin.

Why do we rest on the Sabbath? Sit down and let me tell you a story.
“When God began creating the heavens and the earth…”
…and we settle in for a good story about how we can make sense and experience joy in this strange and disconnected existence.

It is the first story in the Bible. Keeping Sabbath was and still is obviously quite important if the story of the creation of the universe justifies it. It is hard to imagine a more authoritative “just so story” than that.

It is not hard to imagine how guidelines would develop over time to regulate the practice of Sabbath keeping. What to do what not to do, what to do in this situation, in that crisis, under these circumstances. One can imagine that there might have been debate and disagreement over interpretation.

How do we remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy?

I have religion envy for Sabbath Day. Sunday church isn’t quite the same. In modern times, there appears to be no rest at all. We are constantly going. That may be why we get sick. Just need a rest.

When I was in seminary I worked all nights at the local Mobil station and convenience store pumping gasoline. I noticed that there were no locks on the door. It wasn’t because in New Jersey everyone is trustworthy. It is because the store never closed. There is no need for a lock if you are open 24/7 and never close the door.

No Sabbath for Mobil Oil.

There are two versions of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures. One is found in Exodus chapter 20. The other is in Deuteronomy chapter 5. Scholars think that the list in Deuteronomy is older. The one in Exodus was written by the same folks who put together the first creation story. We call that author the Priestly author or “P” for short. “P” made his contribution during or shortly after the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century. A very creative writer, “P” made the case for the Sabbath to be a way to keep one’s identity in a strange land.  We no longer have the temple, but we can still keep Shabbat.

The version in Exodus explains why we keep the Sabbath, by referring to the creation story:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (Exodus 20:8-11)
In Deuteronomy, the reason given is because of slavery. The Lord who rescued you commands you to keep the Sabbath day.
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)
The Sabbath is connected with justice. You give your animals and “your slaves” and the immigrants a day of rest so they “may rest as well as you.” When work was done sunup to sundown every day, often on behalf of another, a day of rest would be most welcome.

One can imagine that the Sabbath Day was hard-earned. Despite how the Bible tells the story, rules don’t just magically appear on stone tablets from the finger of God. They are the result of experience.

The Sabbath in ancient times, like the 40 hour week in modern times, was the result of a great deal of politicking and struggle against oppressive powers. The rules regarding Sabbath observances were the result of blood on every page. The Sabbath for workers is sacred and holy. The Sabbath is about justice for all creation. Don’t mess with it.

So Jesus comes along with his band of brigands and starts plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath. They are harvesting. The poor were allowed to glean. They are taking enough to eat. Yet this is work and it is expressly forbidden on the Sabbath. Those who criticize Jesus and his followers for working on the Sabbath are right. They are keepers of this tradition of justice.

Once people are allowed to break the rules, then what is to keep landowners from breaking the rules? 
Once you start whittling away at the observances, it isn’t long before Sabbath becomes optional and then not practiced at all. And then, you poor schleps only will have yourselves to blame when you are pumping gas day and night seven days a week for less than subsistence wages at your local Mobil station.

Sabbath observance is not simply an archaic religious blue law that the pious impose on the rest of us. From its foundation, it is a matter of justice. Holy rest for God’s creatures. The question for Jesus was not whether to observe the Sabbath, but how do we observe the Sabbath.

The argument between Jesus and his opponents has to do with its meaning and practice. I used to think that these passages about Jesus and the Sabbath were about Jesus doing away with these Jewish rules, because he is, well, Jesus, second person of the Trinity, Light from Light, the Messiah, Christ, Son of God, and so on. That has been pretty much standard Christian fare. The old covenant has been superseded by the new covenant in the person of Jesus Christ.

I don’t think of it that way any longer. I think Jesus was a human being. He was a Jew and an observant Jew at that. He didn’t do away with the Sabbath or with anything. As any good teacher of the law, he reminded people what the Sabbath was about. He reminded them to return to justice and compassion.

When Jesus argues with his opponents over this we shouldn’t think he is arguing with Judaism. These characters such as the Pharisees and Scribes are foils in the gospels. Any Jewish rabbi would agree with Jesus that the Sabbath was created for the Human Being.

Walter Wink in his book, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man, says that Jesus wasn’t elevating himself above the Sabbath. He isn’t saying he is above the law because he is “God” nor did he elevate humanity as such above the Sabbath.

Wink interprets the phrase the “son of man” as the Human Being. The Human Being (with a capital “H” and a capital “B”) is an archetype for the authentic human. The Human Being is the Divine within each of us. The human that is image of God. The human being who incarnates love.

Jesus is saying the Human Being is the Lord of the Sabbath. The human that acts from deep compassion is the authentic human. It is because of deep compassion and justice that we have the Sabbath in the first place—to offer holy rest.

This is risky. It allows for freedom. It is easier to have rules that we woodenly obey than to be encouraged to develop that kind of authenticity and freedom. The Human Being is not satisfied with rules as such. The Human Being asks why we have these rules and who do they serve and how can we interpret and apply them to serve that highest impulse.

When Jesus heals on the Sabbath he is demonstrating that highest impulse, compassion and love. It is because he loves that he heals.

On the Sabbath, we are invited to observe a holy rest. In our modern times, when busyness comes at us 24/7 we have to be creative and find opportunities to make space for ourselves so we can be and not do. Since Sabbath is about justice and compassion for all creatures, we are obligated to see that our neighbor is not so stressed serving our needs that he or she does not get holy rest.

I have religious envy for the Shabbat. I don’t have to switch religions to observe. Again, from Jay Michaelson:
Shabbat is a day of being, not doing….the rest of the week, we Jews are exhorted to improve the world, better ourselves, and provide for our extended families in whatever roles in which we find ourselves. But this day: just be. Serve God not in changing the world, but in relaxing into what’s already there.
But even then, if we must do on the Sabbath, then do love.

Love is permitted.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Stop Calling People Sinners (3/13/11)

Stop Calling People Sinners
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 13, 2011

Gospel of Jesus 8:1-11

On one occasion Jesus happens to recline at table, along with many toll collectors and sinners. (Remember, there were many of these people and they were all following him.) And whenever the Pharisees’ scholars saw him eating with sinners and toll collectors, they would raise the question: “What’s he doing eating with toll collectors and sinners?”

Jesus responds, “Since when do the able-bodied need a doctor? It’s the sick who do. I did not come to enlist religious folks but sinners!”

Now the toll collectors and sinners kept crowding around Jesus so they could hear him. But the Pharisees and the scholars would complain to each other, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

John’s disciples and the Pharisees were in the habit of fasting, and they come and ask him, “Why do the disciples of John fast, and the disciples of the Pharisees, but your disciples don’t?”

And Jesus said to them, “The groom’s friends can’t fast while the groom is around, can they?  So long as the groom is around, you can’t expect them to fast.”

Jesus said, “Nobody drinks aged wine and immediately wants to drink young wine. Young wine is not poured into old wineskins, or they might break, and aged wine is not poured into a new wineskin, or it might spoil.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 43, 45. Mark 2:15-17, 22; Matthew 9:10-15, 17; Luke 5:29-34, 37-39; 15:1-2

One of my favorite chapters in Robert Funk’s book, A Credible Jesus, is the one on celebration. Jesus preached about the kingdom of God or the domain of God. Funk calls it
“a fiction to be embraced on trust. To trust means to act as though something were true even when the evidence is ambiguous or marginal….Celebration is the by-product of that trust. In other words, celebration is the endorsement of trust. Celebration nourishes trust. Celebration is the heart of liturgy in God’s domain."p. 38
Later in the chapter Funk writes:
“The affliction of much contemporary religiosity, especially of the moralistic variety, is that it is humorless. If we cannot laugh at ourselves and even about the things we hold dear, then God’s reign has eluded us.” p. 41.
Jesus partied with sinners. He was criticized for doing so. He was called a glutton and a drunk and his companions were reviled with the generic label “toll collectors and whores.”

Jesus eats with them.

Jennifer Wright Knust in her new book Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire writes about the slut. She begins her book by recalling a painful time when she was in middle school. She was new to the school and the mean girls started calling her a slut. They made up stories about all the slutty things she supposedly did.

This is a common phenomenon in middle schools and high schools. She said in her case she was lucky. Her parents were supportive, reminding her that she wasn’t a slut and to hold her head high. By eighth grade the popular girls had moved on to someone else. She writes:
“Still, every time I hear people accuse one another of sexual misdeeds, I have to wonder: what is really going on here? My experience at twelve taught me that, when it comes to sex, people never simply report what others are doing or even what they themselves are doing. Those girls called me “slut” not because I was one—whatever that might mean—but because they were afraid of being labeled the slut themselves or, worse, of being asked to become one too. Sex, I have since discovered, can be used as a public weapon.” P. 2
While “slut” is the preferred weapon against girls, “queer” is the preferred weapon against boys. Misogyny and homophobia working in tandem. It is an old, old story that goes back to the Bible itself. For instance, we all know of two characters in the Bible, Queen Esther and Queen Jezebel. We know without even knowing the stories that Esther was good and Jezebel was bad.

However, when we do read their stories, we realize that they were far more alike than different. Both were strong women. Both wanted to hold on to their faith and to the integrity of its practice in a foreign land. Both defended their people. Both had to use their "feminine wiles to advance their goals." Knust, p. 15.

What was the difference between Jezebel and Esther? Jezebel played for the wrong team. The way to slander, dismiss, and ruin the opposing player in biblical times and in the present is to call her a slut. Then, as in Jezebel’s case, have her eaten by dogs. Sexualize your opponent.

Opponents to ordination, marriage equality, and civil rights try to make the argument about sex and so-called moral standards when it has nothing to do with sex. It is about equality and fairness. It is about treating people with dignity and decency and providing equal protection under the law. The tactic of sexualizing one’s opponent is as old as dirt.

With whom is Jesus eating? Who are these people? Who are these toll collectors, sinners, and prostitutes? Scholars have gone to work to identify these people. Robert Funk says that this collection of terms is a generic expression for outcasts and outsiders, for so-called riff raff. It was a way of dismissing Jesus and his mission.

Toll collectors collected taxes for the Roman government so no one liked them. It was a profession that was inherently dishonest. Not only did they work for the Romans, but they became rich doing it, by exploiting fellow Jews.

Prostitutes would be women and perhaps men who were sex workers. I wonder if that term was spread widely like “sluts” is in high school to refer to all women who kept company with Jesus. The most common way to slander your opponents is to sexualize them. Included in Jesus’ retinue were women of means who provided for his needs. Perhaps these were the ones slandered with the label "prostitute".

What about sinners?

From our vantage point, we tend to think that Pharisees are being hypocrites because they are calling people sinners as if they themselves were not sinners. One of the lessons we have learned from church is that we are all “sinners”. Even as there are some a little bit more sinful than I and thou.

But the word “sinner” probably means something more specific when it is used in the gospels.

From the perspective of Marcus Borg, “sinners” were the perpetually “unclean”. That means, they did not or would not keep the purity laws. These were the religious codes outlined in the Torah, especially Leviticus, for being “holy as God is holy”.

There were rules about preparing food and preparing utensils and preparing oneself. Impurity clung and was contagious. An observant Jew, a Pharisee, would eat with those who were also observant.

Eating with those who were ritually impure would make you be contaminated as well. The accusation that Jesus eats with sinners is an accusation that he is not a true teacher of the law. He doesn’t even observe the basics of ritual purity.

But there is another view. A book that has challenged my thinking on the “sinners” is James Crossley’s Why Christianity Happened. He argues that sinners were more than simply the outcasts or the ritually impure. They were not necessarily the poor, exploited, or uneducated.  They were actually the exploiters. They were “the lawless rich”. Jesus was associating with people
“deemed to be exploitative, rich, unjust, and possibly in cahoots with the Romans and/or Antipas. Many might not have shown any signs of reforming.” P. 95.
Crossley writes that Jesus focused his mission on provoking these people into repentance and to observe the law on behalf of the poor. A “sinner” would be someone who is behaving beyond law and covenant.” Of course, Gentiles would be “sinners” by default. Jesus mission to Jewish “sinners” eventually resulted in the inclusion of Gentiles.

Jesus practiced an open table as opposed to a closed table. One can imagine that resulted in exciting meals. Imagine if you had at the table, Governor Walker of Wisconsin, film-maker Michael Moore, the owner of Massey Energy, an eco-feminist environmental activist, Rev. Pat Robertson, Richard Dawkins, Rachel Maddow, and Muammar Ghaddafi. That would be an interesting dinner for eight.

Imagine the criticism. Look who Jesus eats with! According to Crossley, Jesus wanted Jewish “sinners” to repent, that is change, and to do justice. His method was to connect with these sinners and change behaviors from within.

From the point of view of Jesus’ opponents, he was sleeping with the enemy. The danger would be that they would not repent but influence him. What happens when the idealistic young politician hobnobs with corporate executives? Maybe she changes the executives. Maybe the executives change her.

When I started this sermon I was under the impression that the Pharisees are snobs and hypocrites and they criticize Jesus for embracing the outcasts, the poor, the hoi poloi, and the untouchables. To some extent that is the case. But what really angers the Pharisees is that Jesus hangs out with oppressors of the poor, those who take advantage of the poor through usury and toll-collecting.

The biggest scandal regarding Jesus is not that he hung out with the poor, but that he hung out with the rich. That actually gives me a little bit of hope. I and perhaps everyone in this room, compared to the population of Earth, would fall into the “rich” category. I am glad that Jesus might come to our dinner parties.

While at our party, he would remind us to do justice. He might tell us a few parables such as the one about the rich man and Lazarus. Or maybe he would tell us the story of the fool who built bigger and bigger barns to hold all of his stuff that he wouldn’t enjoy because the grim reaper was to visit him that night. He might tell us not to worry about what we will eat or drink or what we will wear, but to live with the care of a sparrow.

Jesus held out hope for us. He held out hope that folks could change and that they could develop a conscience on behalf of justice and compassion. Apparently, he did have followers, wealthy and poor, who were inspired by his vision. Think of Zacchaeus the toll collector. Regardless of whether or not that story is historical, it does tell a memory of Jesus being able to transform the most hardened exploiter into a generous and compassionate man.

It is likely that Jesus was an itinerant without a home and in exchange for his wisdom and perhaps a healing or two, he would get a meal. The meal might have been kosher, maybe not. As Robert Funk writes,

“He seems willing enough to take a handout wherever he can get it.” P. 40.
He was grateful for every meal and for the company he shared when he ate and drank. Perhaps he felt that celebration was the way to transform hearts.

I titled the sermon, “Stop Calling People Sinners” and I think we should. The Church has caused a lot of pain by putting people into categories by deciding who is righteous and who isn’t. If Crossley is right, “sinner” probably applies more to me than anyone else.

In actuality, we are all human beings. We get one ride on this celestial ball. How will we ride it?

We could do a lot worse than Jesus who spent his time having meals, healing, making connections, and telling stories about something he called the kingdom of God, where no one is an outsider.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Scraps for the Dogs (3/6/11)

Here is the sermon for today. We played some good tunes that folks had requested for "Music to Live By."

Any Major Dude, Steely Dan
Old Friends, Mary McCaslin
All This Joy, John Denver

Scraps for the Dogs
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 6, 2011

Gospel of Jesus 5:21-28

From there he got up and went away to the regions of Tyre.

Whenever he visited a house he wanted no one to know, but he could not escape notice. Instead, suddenly a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him, and came and fell down at this feet. The woman was a Greek, by race a Phoenician from Syria. And she started asking him to drive the demon out of her daughter.

He responded to her like this:
“Let the children be fed first,
since it isn’t good to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs!”

But as a rejoinder she says to him,
“Sir, even the dogs under the table get to eat scraps dropped by children!”

Then he said to her, “For that retort, be on your way, the demon has come out of your daughter.”

She returned home and found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 35. Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28.

Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend
Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again
When the demon is at your door
In the morning it won't be there no more
Any major dude will tell you
--Steely Dan

This story has been a bit of an embarrassment for the church.

Jesus, I mean really!? We have written songs about you.

Jesus loves the little children,
all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
Well, except for those children you call dogs.

In my first church a woman was very upset with me after I preached on this text. How could I accuse Jesus of being prejudiced? He’s Jesus. He is a major dude. He’s the man, the Son of God. He didn’t call this woman a dog!

Well, according to this text, yes he did.

Maybe he means it affectionately. We like our dogs. They are our pets. They are like children to us. I don't think that is the case here. Jesus is reported to have said to her:
“It is not right to take food out of the children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs!”
That definitely would be an insult.

Most commenters on this text come to Jesus’s rescue as any good press secretary would.
“Of course, Jesus didn’t mean to call this woman and her daughter, ‘dogs’”. That is just a figure of speech. He was just using a phrase that other prejudiced people use to make a point. What Jesus was doing was testing her faith. See?”
The Jesus Seminar had a struggle with this story too. 57% voted red or pink that this story had an historical core, largely because it was an embarrassing story. It is not likely that early Christian evangelists would invent it. The Jesus Seminar thought that Jesus probably did have a conversation with a Gentile woman and that they did exchange witticisms. The idea of an actual demon leaving her child would be in the realm of legend. Yet in this pre-modern society steeped in supernaturalism, demons were believed to be the cause of many ailments. Jesus likely was considered to be an exorcist and a healer. The story as a whole was regarded by the Fellows as pink but the specific details couldn’t get more than a gray rating.

The interesting part of this story to me is that Jesus had his mind changed by his encounter with another human being. I think this is a story of the humanity of another shattering our prejudice. The church has had a theological problem because it assumes that Jesus was perfect in every way. So he couldn’t possibly be prejudiced since that is a bad thing. So we have to make an excuse or explain this obvious behavior away.

But what if we don’t?

What if we don’t let Jesus off the hook?

What if we allow that Jesus was a human being and that he had inconsistencies, warts, clay feet, and blind spots like all of us do?

What if we allow him to be prejudiced as all human beings are?

Personally, I think it makes him much more interesting.

It also allows the story to speak to us in a different way.

The thing about prejudice is that no one has the corner on the market. We all have prejudice towards people to some degree. We all prejudge based on our assumptions about others. Prejudice is the flip side of taxonomy. It is helpful in life to categorize, to make sense of our world. We put things and people in categories and classes. We name and we label.

We do this for the purpose of survival. Those who are not kin or not a member of our tribe are potentially dangerous. There are times when, for the survival of the tribe, that boundaries need to be reinforced building upon the edifice of prejudice.

Legends, fables, pseudo-science, and jokes, are created to reinforce these barriers of prejudice. We need to justify our views and our actions toward these "others". These people are inferior. They don’t deserve the same treatment that we give to our own kind.

Usually it comes down to justifying who gets access to the limited goods that are available as illustrated by Jesus's comment:
“Let the children be fed first, since it isn’t good to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs!”
Access to marriage, to employment, insurance, ordination, all of these things that are contentious within civil and ecclesiastical circles have to do with goods and power. That is why prejudice is such an important and widely used tool in the hands of those with power. It provides a rationale for not sharing with the other.

If you are in a position of power, you want to keep the prejudice stirred up. Especially in times of perceived scarcity, we can see the powerful using prejudice to pit one group against another.

When the Tennessee legislature is in session, I never lack for sermon illustrations. The Tennessee legislature is a comedian’s and a preacher’s best friend. I said the same about the Montana legislature when I lived there. It isn’t a West/South thing. Folks is folks all over.

Here is the illustration for today. A legislator from Murfreesboro thinks it will be important for Tennessee to make the practice of Sharia Law illegal.

The Sharia Law is religious literature and law that has developed over the centuries and is interpreted and applied to life by those who practice the Muslim faith. It is similar to the Torah and the Talmud for Jews. It is similar to the Gospel and the Creeds for Christians.

Obviously, civil laws trump religious codes. So if you are going to sell your daughter as a slave according to the instructions of Deuteronomy, a book Presbyterians regard as “Word of God”, you might meet resistance from local law enforcement. The point is you don't need a civil law to make following Deuteronomy illegal. The same is true for Sharia Law.

Nevertheless, according to today’s Johnson City Press:

A bill introduced in the state Senate by Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, would punish organizations that follow Sharia as Class B felons, subject to a fine and a prison term of up to 15 years.
Apparently the concern is that unless we do this before you can shake a stick all Tennesseans will turn into Muslims. All these little Baptist churches will suddenly become The Free Will Church of Muhammad. The message on the church signboards will say things like:
The Qur’an is the Only Book God Ever Wrote.
Allahu Akbar.
Now I am showing my own prejudice aren’t I?

The legislator wants us to be concerned.
There is a big danger in Tennessee.
The Muslims are going to take over.

The Johnson City Press talked with Taneem Aziz and reported on that conversation in today’s paper. Taneem is the president of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee. They have a prayer center in Johnson City. Taneem patiently explained what Sharia Law is as well as the dangerous practices he participates in such as praying, being generous, and honoring parents.

Taneem nailed it though. When asked what this bill in the legislature is all about he said it is “politics as usual”. He said:

“It’s politicians getting ready for 2012….They’re looking at ways to ... well, I call it the politics of fear.”
The politics of fear.
The politics of prejudice.

How do we deal with that fear?
How do we deal with prejudice?

The story of Jesus and the Phoenician woman is a story of how that is done. The important figure here is this woman. Her reply is a classic lesson in non-violent creative confrontation.

She refuses to be snubbed.
She rejects the dehumanization.
She doesn’t bow her head and slink away.
Also, she refuses to return insult for insult.

She knows that the power relationship is in Jesus’s favor, so
  • rather than take that power imbalance head-on,
  • rather than raise her voice in righteous indignation,
  • rather than call Jesus names as he called her names,
she uses her wits.

She disarms Jesus. She doesn’t act in an expected way. If she responded in an angry way or returned his insult with another insult, Jesus could have dismissed her by saying,

“See, these angry dogs are all the same.”
She pretends, for the sake of argument, to agree with his assessment that the “dogs” shouldn’t take the children’s food. And she adds,
…but even the dogs get the scraps from the children’s table.
What can Jesus do to that?
He has been taken off balance.
Jesus knows this woman doesn’t think of herself as a dog.
He knows that she is not accepting his characterization for herself.
She demonstrates to Jesus that she has a brain.
She has forced Jesus to recognize her humanity.
She shows herself to be capable and cool.

Prejudice loses its power when we recognize the humanity of the other, or if we are a victim of prejudice, when we show our humanity to the other.

Suddenly there is recognition. I can imagine Jesus saying to himself:

She and I have much more in common than I thought. 
She is one of my own, too.
I want to say one more thing.

I want to talk about the demon.

After the woman creatively and non-violently confronted Jesus, Jesus responded:
“For that retort, be on your way, the demon has come out of your daughter.”
I have to think that Jesus was impressed. Impressed enough to change his mind and to recognize that something powerful had just happened in that exchange.

The story concludes:
She returned home and found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.
Demons in the gospels function on a number of different levels. The least interesting level is that they are supernatural beings. They are more interesting in these stories as symbols of social dis-ease. They are symbols of oppression, injustice, and inequality. I am thinking of the demon called Legion that left the man and went into the pigs earlier in Mark’s Gospel. That is an obvious reference to the occupation of the land by the Roman military.

In this morning’s case, the demon that afflicts this woman's daughter is the demon of prejudice and enmity between the two ethnic groups that Jesus and the woman represent. If these people are going to form any common resistance, they are going to need to move beyond their tribalism. They are going to need to throw away these old narratives and come up with some new ones. They will need to recognize and appreciate each other as human beings, not as dogs. When they do, the demon vanishes.

That is the story I take home. The demons of racism, homophobia, sexism, religious intolerance, and all forms of prejudice will leave us, “in the morning, it won’t be there no more”, when we, like the woman, stand up, use our wits, and show our true colors.

Now as far as Jesus is concerned,
he is still my hero.

It isn’t because he was perfect.
It is because he could change.