Sunday, June 26, 2011

Life Is A Verb (6/26/11)

Life is a Verb
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 26, 2011

Selections from Ecclesiastes
Lloyd Geering, Such is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), 1:1; 1:16; 2:4-9a; 2:11; 2:22-24, pp. 171-192.

The Words of the Proclaimer, son of David, king in Jerusalem.
“Fast-fleeting,” says the Proclaimer. “Impermanent!
Everything dissolves into nothingness.”

I said to myself, “Look! I’ve greatly increased in wisdom;
I’ve surpassed all who lived in Jerusalem before me.
My mind has absorbed a vast amount of knowledge and

I did things on a grand scale.
I built myself mansions and I planted myself vineyards.
I laid out for myself gardens and parks
and planted in them every kind of fruit tree.
I made myself reservoirs of water
to irrigate the orchard then sprouting with trees.
I acquired for myself slaves and servant-girls
even though I already had a large household
and already possessed cattle, sheep and goats
more numerous than all my Jerusalem forbears had owned.
I amassed for myself such treasures of silver and gold
as only kings and nations can boats.
I acquired men and women singers,
and what delights all men most—mistresses galore!
And so I grew great, surpassing all who had lived before me in

And yet, (since my wisdom remained with me)
when I surveyed all that my hands had done,
all that I had struggled to achieve,
everything was as futile as chasing after the wind.
I had made no gain at all in this world.

What comes to people for all the hard work and mental stress
their occupation has force them to endure in this world?
For all of their days bring pain and grief;
even at night their minds get no rest. This too is futile.
The best that any of us can do
is to eat and drink and enjoy ourselves in our work.

It is summertime! A new season is a chance to start afresh. When we are intentional about observing the seasons we get to start over four times a year.

This is a new season. For the past couple of years I have been designing our worship services around the seasons, Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. We have been attaching to each season a path from Creation Spirituality.

The path for summer is the way of awe and wonder. In the Latin, it is the via positiva. The three other paths are the way of letting go, the way of creativity, and the way compassionate action. Theologian Matthew Fox, says that these paths are not ladders to climb but spirals to dance.

I have to say a little about Matthew Fox. I have had the honor of meeting him a couple of times and hearing him speak. I am impressed with him. He is a prolific and creative writer. He is an Episcopalian priest because he was kicked out of the Roman Catholic priesthood for promoting heretical views.

His 1983 book, 
Original Blessing, which is an introduction to Creation Spirituality, put him on the wrong side of the church. He challenged the notion of original sin. Fox’s innovation was this: rather than think of ourselves as born into original sin we should think of ourselves as born into original blessing.

That may sound innocent enough. However, when you unravel original sin, (that is the notion that we are all born sinful because of Adam and Eve) then the whole theological superstructure crumbles.
  • If there no original sin, there is no need for punishment, so we don’t need hell.
  • If we don’t have hell we don’t need anyone to save us from hell, such as Christ dying on the cross for our sins.
  • If we don’t need Christ dying for our sins to save us from hell, then we don’t need the church’s sacraments (that is Christ’s presence) to keep that salvation machine going.
  • Before you know it the church is out of business.
You can’t have that. So Matthew Fox was invited to leave the Roman Catholic Church. And he has been doing his heretical thing ever since.Heresy comes from the Greek word that means choice. The heretic chooses for himself or herself what to believe. The conversation goes like this:
Here is what you must believe.
I don’t believe all of that.
You must believe it.
I choose to believe this instead.
Then you are a heretic. You will burned at the stake at dusk.
The church has done that. It once had power to do that. The modern era, the Enlightenment, was a response to this power and control. The modern era encourages freedom of thought and freedom to choose. In that sense, in the modern era, we are all heretics. We all choose. If we were all examined regarding our doctrine today, the church would be lighting up the sky burning heretics day and night. It is really an anachronism to even talk about such a thing as heresy today. Ideas change so quickly, it is impossible to even keep up.

Old habits do die hard. And our religious institutions still cling to the notion that to be a Christian you need to believe certain things and not believe other things (even as Christians don’t even agree on what those things are). It is helpful to look at our tradition and see that it is far more diverse than it is often portrayed. This includes the Bible itself.

I thought since it is summer, the season of awe, wonder, and blessing, I would honor our heretics by celebrating the most heretical book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes.

I invite you to take home a worship guide for the summer or download it from our website. It will provide the themes for the summer. We are always looking for creative input. If you have a poem, song, dance, a meditation, a children’s sermon, that you think might be of interest, do not be bashful.

A helpful friend in working through the Book of Ecclesiastes is another heretic, Lloyd Geering. There is a documentary about Lloyd Geering’s life that you can watch on Youtube. It is called “The Last Western Heretic.” Geering is a Presbyterian minister in New Zealand. He was tried for heresy in the 1960s. It was a public deal. The trial was televised. He was tried for disturbing the peace of the church by writing that he didn’t believe that Jesus rose physically from the dead. He was acquitted.

The larger story is seen in the title of the documentary, “The Last Western Heretic.” The title implies that we don’t do that anymore. Trying people for heresy is no longer a serious practice. The ideas that Geering brought forth are becoming more and more accepted. Views of the Bible, the person of Jesus, cosmology, God, and so on, have been changing in large part because we view the universe differently than we did in previous times.

Some religious organizations are slower to embrace this reality than others. The truth is dawning on institutions (and the authorities who run them) that if they don't catch up they will lose influence and become little more than antiquities dealers.

There is however, a hunger for spirituality and meaning.
  • What does it mean to be a human being?
  • What does it mean to be an Earthling?
  • Who am I?
  • What am I here for?
  • What can I do that matters?
  • What is happiness?
  • How do I cope with suffering?
  • Who are we as a species?
  • What are we doing to our home?
  • What choices can I make that will make life more fulfilling for me and for others?
  • What is a just and compassionate life?
  • How can we live sustainably with Earth?
Those are just a sampling of the great questions that we are asking ourselves. We are finding resources for those questions in many places. We are finding resources from secular sources, from traditional religious sources (including other traditions than the one we are most familiar), from esoteric spiritual sources, all over. People are finding that they can give themselves permission to form their own answers to these questions.

They are heretics. God love ya.

I entitled this sermon, “Life is a Verb” to emphasize this search as ongoing and active. We don’t necessarily arrive at the answers to our questions, recite the creed, and go on with our business. Instead many of us keep asking questions because Life is not static. Life is not satisfied by a creed. Life is a verb.

Lloyd Geering’s latest book is a conversation with the author of Ecclesiastes. The book is called Such is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes. Geering pretends to go back in time and speak to the author of this book.

He has Ecclesiastes respond to Geering’s questions in Ecclesiastes’ own words. Geering also provides his own translation of 
Ecclesiastes that is very readable and insightful. He has a conversation in which he seeks to understand Ecclesiastes from his world and seeks to find points of connection with ours and to recognize where there is not a connection.

I am going to follow Geering’s chapter guidelines for these eight sermons during the summer. Some of the questions Geering explores with Ecclesiastes are
  • What do you mean by “God”?
  • Is life unfair?
  • Is death the end of us?
  • Is it chance or purpose?
  • Why search for wisdom?
Today I am setting it up and asking the first question, “Who is Ecclesiastes?”

Ecclesiastes is a small book in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is twelve chapters. Ecclesiastes comes from ecclesia, a word we associate with church or congregation. Ecclesiastes is the Greek and Latin form of the Hebrew word Qoheleth, which is literally, “leader of the assembly.” Qoheleth is like a philosopher or a teacher, perhaps preacher or proclaimer.

Whenever I use any of those terms, Qoheleth, or the teacher, philosopher, preacher, it refers to the author of the work which is called Ecclesiastes. I will try to reserve the term Ecclesiastes for the work and Qoheleth or one of the other titles for the author.

Ecclesiastes is all in the first person. It is as though someone put a tape recorder up to him and recorded his most profound thoughts on life. What is life about?

Ecclesiastes has traditionally been attributed to Solomon. Chapter 1 verse 1 says,
“The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.”
That sounds like Solomon. Scholars believe, however, that an editor added that verse. In other words, Solomon didn’t write this even as it might have been written in the persona of Solomon. Solomon was king in Israel in the 10th century BCE and this work was probably written 700 years later in 300 BCE or so. Scholars determine that because of writing style and themes that would echo style and themes of that later era.

Qoheleth might not have been King Solomon, but he was a man of means. He had the luxury to write his thoughts. From his own story he had wealth and the resources for knowledge. As we read him we should keep in mind his class which was likely, "super upper." He is also a male and that comes through. He boasts of mistresses galore. He is a person of privilege. He has wealth, power, and access to the resources of his time. He is literate and writes quite well. As opposed to Jesus, for instance, who was likely illiterate and poor.

Is he happy or sad? Someone said to me that Ecclesiastes is a mystic who had a bad day. Maybe he was generally a happy guy, but was feeling down when he wrote this out. Catch him on another day, he might have been happier.

A side note. I remember a teacher in seminary whose name was Karlfried Froelich. He taught church history and had studied under Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian. I remember one day when I became endeared to Dr. Froelich. He told us quite candidly with his German accent:
“Some days I wake up and I believe in God. And some days I don’t.”
I thought now that is real. That is honest.

That is how I find Qoheleth. We may have caught him on one of those downer days, but it is an honest day nonetheless. In an age and time, that is today, when we happy believers are all supposed to put on our fake smiles and just believe Jesus, a little honesty is refreshing.

The thing about Qoheleth is that he never gives up or gives in to easy answers. He begins his work with a refrain that he will repeat throughout:
“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
The word translated as vanity in Hebrew is hevel which means “vapor” or “mist”. Lloyd Geering translates the verse this way:
“Fast-fleeting,” says the Proclaimer. “Impermanent! Everything dissolves into nothingness.”
That I think is a more accurate translation. Life is impermanent. Life is a verb. He sounds a bit like Buddha. All is impermanent. That is true. As my great, great grandmother said,
“This too, shall pass.”
That is true whether the “this” appears for us good or bad. It will pass. Life is not permanent. No matter how hard we try. No matter how much we worry. No matter what we do, we cannot stop change. Our bodies change. Our relationships change. Our minds change. Things change more quickly than we expect them to change.

So “vanity” is a more negative word than what Qoheleth was saying. He is stating a truth. Life is impermanent. Once we decide to stop denying that reality and stop pretending that life is permanent, then we can be aware of how we might like to respond.

For Qoheleth, impermanence is an absurdity and an insult. What is the point of life if it doesn’t last, if I am not remembered forever? I wonder if Qoheleth might be revealing his privilege here. He can't imagine that a man of means like himself will no more be remembered than the most common person.

We may have our own responses to him. Perhaps we have asked those questions ourselves. It is good to hear him out. Ecclesiastes did make it into the Bible. To me, that says that there is room even in our tradition for the skeptics to have their voice.

Sometimes you have to ask the hardest questions and go behind and beyond the platitudes. The skeptics and the heretics have provided that path. They are the ones who have been the models for honest, real searching. We don’t have to accept their answers. We don’t have to accept the conclusions of Ecclesiastes or Lloyd Geering or Matthew Fox or even Jesus himself. Their gift is to show us how to search and how to be honest and real.

There are times in which Ecclesiastes does get down. 

“It is better to have not been born”
he says on one occasion. Then he comes around again. As you read him you experience his mood swings. Whatever he is, he is always real. He comes back again and again to this advice, which all in all is pretty good advice:
The best that any of us can do
is to eat and drink and enjoy ourselves in our work.
Life is a verb.

Live it!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Good Life (6/19/11 Trinity Sunday)

The Good Life
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 19, 2011
Trinity Sunday

A Trinity

Of three in One and One in three
My narrow mind would doubting be
Till Beauty, Grace and Kindness met
And all at once were Juliet.
--Hillaire Belloc

Gospel of Jesus 17:1-14

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 1999), pp. 73, 75. Mark 8:35, 10:1, 23, 25; Matthew 5:42; 6:24; 10:39, 16:25; 19:23-24; Luke 6:30, 34; 9:24, 12:16-20; 17:33; 18:24-25 John 12:25; Thomas 47:2; 63:1-4; 95:1-2

And from there he gets up and goes to the territory of Judea and across the Jordan, and once again crowds gather around him. As usual, he started teaching them.

Jesus advises, “Give to everyone who begs from you.”

Jesus said, “If you have money, don’t lend it at interest. Rather, give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back. If you lend to those from whom you hope to gain, what merit is there in that? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to get as much in return.”

Jesus said to his disciples, “I swear to you, it is very difficult for the rich to enter Heaven’s domain. And again I tell you, it’s easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy person to get into God’s domain.”

Jesus said, “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.”

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who had a great deal of money. He said, “I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce, that I may lack nothing.” These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”

Jesus said, “Whoever tries to hang on to life will forfeit it, but whoever forfeits life will preserve it.”

With what are you left when you strip from Christianity the miracles of Jesus?

With what are you left if you regard the Trinity as a metaphor?

What remains if you leave behind the notion of Jesus as a supernatural being?

What do you have when you separate the myth from the man?

Many would say,

“Not much. The magic is the mojo.
Why even bother with Jesus if he was just a guy,
just a slob like one of us,
another stranger on the bus.”
Others, like the late C.S. Lewis, feel quite strongly about it and say that Jesus if not Lord was either a liar or a lunatic. To quote Lewis from his book, Mere Christianity:

Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Those who object to Lewis’ conclusion might offer a fourth option. In addition to lunatic, liar, or lord, the fourth option is legend. In this view, the stories of Jesus’ divinity and miracles as well as some of the words attributed to him were later additions. He was “framed” so to speak. If his teachings and deeds were a painting, the frame of the church has been supernaturalism.

The nice thing about going to an art gallery and seeing paintings in their frames is that the observer has the freedom and the autonomy to interpret and to make up her or his own mind on the matter. I argue the same is true for Jesus. Far be it for me to tell you how you must view him or to pretend to offer the “correct” way to view him.

Back to my original question.

With what are you left when you strip from Christianity the miracles of Jesus?

A church member and I were talking about that a few weeks ago. The church member said that if we strip away the supernatural from Jesus we are left with a moral code that is impossible to keep.

As I was thinking about what this church member said, I thought no wonder the church decided to turn Jesus into an object of devotion. It is far easier to express belief in him than to do what he said.

In some circles the teachings of Jesus have been framed in such a way as to be the opposite of what Jesus said. I am sure you have heard some believers say that it doesn’t matter how good you are. You can be a moral superhero but if you don’t believe in Jesus, down the chute to the fiery furnace for you.
  • Of course, here is the thing. What if there is no fiery furnace?
  • What if there are no streets of gold either?
  • I am not saying for sure either way. I don’t know.
  • But what if our decision as to whether or not to lead a virtuous life,a good life, a moral life, has nothing to do with whether or not we will be judged eternally for it?
  • What if we had the choice each day to be good for goodness sake?
  • What if there is no stern Santa making a list of who’s naughty and nice?
  • Would we do it?
  • Would we seek the good?
Over the past couple of years, I have been preaching on the red and pink sayings and deeds of Jesus that the Jesus Seminar distilled in their collective quest for the historical Jesus. I have preached on his parables and aphorisms and have tried to offer my assessment of who Jesus was and speak of the values he held.

The red and pink sayings and deeds are those things they voted as more likely than some other sayings and deeds to be voiceprints and footprints of an actual guy who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago.

I am nearing the end of that project. I will close this series of my sermons on Jesus with this collection of sayings in today’s bulletin.

It is easy to see that these things are not easy to do.

Give to everyone who begs from you.
Really, Jesus? Really?

Common wisdom says we aren’t to do that because they will just spend it on liquor. Knowing that makes me feel a little better when I pass them by. That moral code is a piece of cake if you know how to spin it.

Jesus said: If you have money, don’t lend it at interest. Rather, give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back.
Really? That’s just un-American. Of all of the teachings of Jesus, is there any that we have more blatantly defied and ignored than this one? The whole thing--our whole world-- Industrial civilization itself and its globalized economy--is based on lending money at interest. It is the basis for economic growth. Yet as we read and hear the news, we can see where our economic philosophy is leading us. In the future, our descendants, should they survive us, may discover that Jesus was right after all.
Jesus said, “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.”
On that score, we decided that what Jesus really meant was that the size of our bank account is evidence for how much God has blessed us. The bigger the bank, the better the blessing.

You know, all this money stuff is too complicated. Jesus was out of his field here. The important thing to know is that what Jesus really cared about was sex, and who shouldn’t be having it.

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who had a great deal of money. He said, “I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce, that I may lack nothing.” These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”
That guy ended up dead, but he did have a good investment strategy, don’t you think? His portfolio was in order. Sure there is that death thing, that whole impermanence and transient thing about life, but if we don’t take that into account, if we bracket that, the strategy of building bigger barns makes a lot of sense, right? If we ignore death, then building bigger barns is a good plan.
And Jesus said: “Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”
I don’t think Jesus left us with a moral code. I also don’t put much personal stock in Christian supernaturalism. Whatever happens after death is out of my control anyway. I don’t insist. It is just how I see it. The only thing for which I have any control, and that is limited, is what I do in the present.

I don’t think Jesus provided us with a moral code for which we will receive a grade as to how well we followed it. He didn’t give us a code so we could compare ourselves with one another and judge accordingly.

I think instead, he gave us a poke. His parables and aphorisms, even the way he lived his life was a prod, a poke, and a push. He wasn’t giving us a list of things we needed to do to be good or to avoid so we won’t be bad. He was an observer of people and of life. He saw the things that people valued. He poked.

He said,
“Are you sure? Bigger barns? Really?”
It seems that Jesus wanted to point out a truth:
  • Life is short. What are you going to do about it?
  • Those people you have around you won’t be there forever. What are you going to do about them?
  • Is your goal to make a good living or to make a good life?
  • Do you know the difference?
He challenged authoritative structures and conventional wisdom. He exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders and the cruelty of those in power. He criticized our economic ideas for the frauds they are.

He poked and prodded then.
Now 20 centuries later, he pokes and prods us today.

Insightful people who poke and prod us are hard to take. Our human tendency is to react to them out of extremes. In the case of Jesus, we crucified him then turned him into a god. He is either lord or lunatic. We’ll do anything to avoid having to deal with what he actually said.

Jesus said, “Whoever tries to hang on to life will forfeit it, but whoever forfeits life will preserve it.”
What did Jesus mean by that? I could give you my opinion, but it would just be my opinion. He pokes and prods us to take his statement seriously.

What is the good life?
What is life for?
What am I hanging on to that I need to let go?
What do I want to preserve?
What do I need to forfeit so I can do that?

The freeing and frightening thing is that no one but no one can answer those questions for you but you.

To life!

Blessed Be.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Act Up (6/12/11 Pentecost)

What a worship service! We had with us Retta B and the Blessed Hammond Trio. They raised the roof. We read 1 Corinthians 13 in a number of different languages (Spanish, German, Portuguese, French, Finnish, Italian, and Sign) all at once. We sent off our youth with the Appalachia Service Project, partook in communion, and I preached this here sermon.
Act Up
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Acts 2:1-21

John Henson, Good As New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures (New York: O Books, 2004), pp. 233-4. 

It was the spring holiday, and they were all there. It was just like a hurricane sweeping out of the sky. You could hear the noise all over the house. Sudden streaks of light darted about and lit up one friend after another.

They were all filled by God’s Spirit, and she gave them the ability to communicate in new ways.
 There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem at that time, from every country in the known world. The noise attracted a big crowd. It was strange that, though they spoke different languages, they could all understand what the friends were saying.

They found it incredible and said, “They’re ordinary working people from Galilee! How can they communicate with us? They’re talking about he exciting things God has been doing, and we can understand every word, just as if we were hearing it in our own language!”

(There were people there from the countries round the Persian Gulf and further east, from the Celtic lands, from north Africa, Arabia, Crete, and Rome, as well as from districts nearby. Some had been born Jews, others were Jewish converts). They were impressed and confused at the same time, anxious to know what it was all about.

Some thought the whole thing funny and said, “It looks as if they’ve had a few drinks!”

This was the cue for Rocky to stand up where he could be seen, with the other eleven special friends around him. He shouted to the crowd, “My own people, and everyone here in Jerusalem, if you listen carefully, I’ll explain what’s going on. We haven’t been drinking; it’s only nine in the morning! What Joel said in his book is coming true:

‘One day,’ says God, ‘I will fill every living thing in a special way. My Spirit will move your children to speak for me; she will excite teenagers with new ideas and give old people dreams about the future. Even those who have no rights, my favorites, will be full of me and speak my words. There will be earth-shattering events. The sun will be eclipsed and the moon appear red, as signs of God’s coming among us. Then anyone who acknowledges God will be healed.’

The Jesus Seminar completed its ten-year project on the book of Acts. The goal of the Acts Seminar was to determine what in the book of Acts could be historical. Along the way, they might make some good guesses as to when it was written and its setting. This is part of the larger project of Christian origins. When did Christianity start and how?

It appears that Acts is a second-century work, perhaps as late as 120-125. It is mostly fiction and legend. Its purpose appears to provide a storyline for the beginning of the church and to legitimate power structures in the second century. It was pretty effective propaganda. It worked. The church has taken Acts at face value and has regarded it uncritically as history.

Liturgically and theologically, we have embraced Acts and its timeline in the church year. We even call Pentecost the birthday of the church, as if it all happened this way. Scholars are inviting us to rethink Acts and Christian origins. Some people embrace this task. Others find this knowledge a threat.

Our story today—and it is a story, a legend, a fiction to be totally blunt—is nevertheless, a great story. It begins after Christ ascended into heaven (which should be a clue that we are in the realm of legend) and the apostles (twelve males—after Judas’ betrayal and death they choose another by lot) meet in a room.

It is Pentecost which is a Jewish holiday, fifty days or seven weeks after Passover. The Jewish Tradition is that the Ten Commandments were given to Moses on Pentecost. So we have the author of Acts who was also the author of the Gospel of Luke, continuing the process of Christianizing the Jewish holidays.

Passover that commemorates the escape from slavery in Egypt becomes the death and resurrection of Jesus. The receiving of the Ten Commandments in the Wilderness on Mount Sinai and delivery of this Law by Moses becomes the arrival of the Spirit in a room in Jerusalem and the preaching of Peter.

We have the twelve males—officially sanctioned authoritative apostles led by Peter who possesses the keys to the kingdom—all together. Noticeably absent from this list of apostles is Mary Magdalene and other women who followed Jesus. The author of Acts is about legitimizing authority as it is playing out in the second century. He is looking back and telling the story in a certain way.

They are all together. A violent wind, another word for Spirit, blows through their midst and tongues of fire appear on their heads. We may remember the words of John the Baptist who earlier in the Gospel of Luke said that one is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He was referring to Jesus and now this is that event of baptism.

Here is the magic. They all start speaking in different languages. This is not speaking in tongues. This is not glossolalia that we find in Corinthians. These are real languages that people can understand. So Jews who are dispersed all over the known world, who happen to come to Jerusalem, can hear what is being spoken in their own language. Everyone wonders how it is that these locals from Galilee are able to speak all these foreign languages and telling the news of “God’s deeds of power,” says the text.

Some scoff and say they are drunk. This gives Peter the opportunity to preach and offer the official version of the events. Peter tells them that this is the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel, when the Spirit will be poured out on all people
Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old mean shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves,
Both men and women,
In those days I will pour out my Spirit.
The idea is that this day is “those days.”

Peter then goes on and preaches that Jesus was predicted in the Hebrew scriptures to die and to be raised up and to be seated at the right hand of God in the heavens and from that seat he pours out Spirit that they all are witnessing that day. He implores them to be baptized in the name of Christ and receive the Holy Spirit and have sins forgiven. We are off to the races. Christianity has begun, according to Acts.

Then 3,000 people accept the message and devote themselves to the “apostle’s teaching.” The author of Acts wants to make sure that amidst all of this wild pouring out of the spirit that it is still going through channels. This is the continuance of brokered religion in a Christian form. The apostles even perform signs and wonders.

The people are so happy that they live together and hold all things in common. They sell their stuff and give the proceeds to whoever has need. Apparently, that didn’t last long. You get the sense that the author of Acts is pointing back “to the good old days” when we used to do that.

That was before the Tea Party got a hold of them and said the apostles were socialists.

I think there are some cool things in this story. Even as we deconstruct, there are good things to retain. I like the idea of the message being delivered in many different languages. Rather than force people to learn the dominant language, the text speaks of the message of love, liberation, and hope in all languages.

I was wondering what that might look like today. When do we see a message of love, hope, and peace transcending our language barriers and uniting humanity? I celebrate and honor those who work hard to transcend religious, ethnic, and political barriers to find things human beings hold in common.

Whether this work is with peace groups, NGOs, governmental agencies, environmental or religious organizations, it is not easy work. There are powerful forces that work against them.  But they keep at it, working for peace, cooperation, and healing between and beyond borders. There are literally hundreds of thousands of these organizations, millions of them, working for positive change in our communities all around the world.

I love the work of Playing for Change. This organization works to connect people through music. This is from the introduction on their website:
Playing for Change is a multimedia movement created to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music. The idea for this project arose from a common belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people. No matter whether people come from different geographic, political, economic, spiritual or ideological backgrounds, music has the universal power to transcend and unite us as one human race. And with this truth firmly fixed in our minds, we set out to share it with the world.
The second thing I take from this story is the pouring out of Spirit on all people. No barrier here. No channels either. Spirit is unexpected. Young old, women, men, poor, rich. Spirit takes no notice of the color of our skin, our level of education, who we love, what language we speak, how we approach the mysteries of the universe. Like a wind, Spirit disrupts and shakes us and draws out of us what we never knew we had in us.

The most rewarding thing about ministry is being able to watch and participate in people’s lives as they are able to find a voice or a passion or see them connect their voices and passions with others.

This text Acts of the Apostles is called Acts for a reason. They acted. They did stuff. While I think we are all apostles, we show it by acting. We need people to act.
  • Act on behalf of justice and peace.
  • Act on behalf of others.
  • Act on behalf of forgiveness.
  • Act on behalf of reconciliation.
  • Act on behalf of love.
  • Act on behalf of neighbors.
  • Act on behalf of enemies.
  • Act on behalf Earth.
  • Act on behalf of people and creatures we don’t even know.
  • Act up.
I am pleased that our youth are going to act up this week. We are sending them with our blessings to Leslie County, Kentucky with the Appalachia Service Project. They will spend a week in partnership with others making homes safe and dry. They will be making connections with people they don’t know. They will discover things about themselves. They will be overwhelmed with need. They will be blown about by Spirit.

Who knows? They may even prophesy and see visions. The gift of youth is idealism. Youth can see what should and shouldn’t be. Prophesying is telling the truth. It is speaking clearly in the midst of delusion, fabrication, and denial. We should encourage idealism. Life experience can squelch it soon enough. We need those visions of justice.
  • Of lions and lambs together.
  • Of all people living lives of meaning and contentment.
  • Of homes that are dry and safe.
  • Tables filled with good things to eat.
  • Children safe and cared for.
  • A vision of suffering transformed to joy is a truth that needs telling.
Reinhold Niebuhr called this vision "sublime madness.” The madness of Spirit. A madness that humanity needs. He called the illusion of perfect justice a valuable illusion. He concluded his book Moral Man, Immoral Society with these words:
“…justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and “spiritual wickedness in high places.”
He goes on to say:
“The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done.”
There will be plenty of people who will squelch your sublime madness with reason. That’s guaranteed. But those who have always given us hope have been tinged with sublime madness.

They are the prophets who see visions of justice.
They are the ones possessed by Spirit.
They are the ones who dream and who act on those dreams.

Matthew Fox reminds that the “they” is “us”.
We are all called to be prophets.
That calling is to interfere with injustice.
That is the baptism of fire and Holy Spirit.

Where is Spirit calling you?

Act up.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Make It Better (6/5/11 More Light Sunday)

Make It Better
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 5, 2011
More Light Sunday

Gospel of Jesus 19:1-10
Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2009), p. 79.

Then they come to Jericho. As he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting alongside the road. When he learned that it was Jesus the Nazarene, he began to shout: “You son of David, Jesus, have mercy on me!”

And many kept yelling at him to shut up, but he shouted all the louder,
“You son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus paused and said, “Tell him to come over here!”

They called to the blind man, “Be brave, get up, he’s calling you!”

So he threw off his cloak, and jumped to his feet, and went over to Jesus. In response Jesus said,
“What do you want me to do for you?”

The blind man said to him, “Rabbi, I want to see again!”
And Jesus said to him, Be on your way, your trust has cured you.” And right away he regained his sight, and he started following him on the road.

“Be on your way, your trust has cured you.”

And with that affirmation, Jesus thus declared the demise of brokered religion.

You know what brokered religion is, right? Brokered religion is the entire system of institutionalized access to spiritual goods. If you are seeking love, forgiveness, healing, spirituality, courage, strength, wholeness, meaning, value, wisdom, guidance, God, and all of the good mojo that is available in the universe, brokered religion requires that you go through channels.

Preachers and priests decide for you what all these terms mean and set up authorities such as books, doctrines, and practices providing the means to get them. These authorities claim the power, the “keys to the kingdom” to determine who is righteous enough in their eyes for access.

Each institution does it differently. They all offer variations on the theme. But the theme is that you need to go through channels (that is “right” belief and/or “right” behavior) to get to God.

I don’t want to leave the impression that institutionalized religion is all bad. I am very much involved in institutionalized religion. It has been and is still a great help for many. It is a repository of wisdom, art, philosophy, education, ritual, service and on and on.

But institutions, like individuals, can take themselves a little too seriously. The institution can become a hindrance rather than a path. This was Jesus’ indictment of the religious leaders of his time, that they were blind guides. Institutions are in constant need of reformation.

Those who have been denied access know this all too well. Because this brokerage system has such a hold on spirituality, some have internalized its authority and have equated rejection by the institution with rejection by God. Others, however, have discovered that there is a difference between God and the institution. Some have taken further bold steps into the unknown and discovered God on their own.

One of my favorite quotes regarding this is from Ntozake Shange from her play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. In her play, female dancers dramatize Shange’s poems that recall encounters with all kinds of bullies. These women survive the abuses and recognize each other dressed in the colors of the rainbow. They look to the promise of a better future. At the end of the play they declare in unison:
I found God in myself
And I loved her
I loved her fiercely
I received an email not too long ago. I have permission from the author to share it with you, anonymously. I am going to read parts of it.
Dear Mr. Shuck,

After reading your blogs, sermons and the shuck and jive that you post, I wanted to let you know how much I admire and appreciate the work that you do in “my community”; the GLBT community. My family was very involved in church -and still is. I remember growing up a young girl and knowing that I was “different”…. Although I appreciate and have many fond memories of being in the church, I have always struggled with acceptance and finding my fit...especially in a church/religious atmosphere. Often I shy away from any event that has to do with religion-not because I dislike GOD or dislike church, but because of the “non-acceptance of everyone”…especially the GLBT community. I have been told that GOD doesn’t hear my prayers anyway…

Due to the ridicule and bigotry that I have experienced in the past (and present) with religious affiliations, I have not entered the doors of a church in over 10 years. The few times I have been to a church during my adult hood was to “dart” in and listen to the choir (I attended a few all black churches) and “dart out” so no one would grab me and try to save me from what was written all over me-my lesbianism….

…. During my twenties I remember going to the millennium march on Washington and seeing protestors holding signs that said “GOD hates fags” and “you will burn in hell”…of course all of this was from “good Christian people” all in the name of Jesus. I used to think how in the world could people be so cruel, and hate other people simply for who they are? … how could the GOD I know hate his own children? It has been a struggle for most of my life. Now…I still struggle with acceptance from some family members and the “church community”.

I have always wanted to help people-to offer people the things I have always wanted to have; the gift of unconditional love and laughter….I know what it was like to be a GLBT kid and feel like I was the only one in the world going through this-all I ever wanted was acceptance and for GOD to love me no matter what. People today want the same thing…especially adolescents.

I spent my graduate studies doing research on GLBT youth and the statistics of GLBT suicide is astronomical. Oh how I wish there was a place where adolescents could have the support and acceptance that they crave….my ultimate passion is to work predominately with GLBT youth.-Yet, being in the “bible belt” where being different is an instant ticket straight to hell-our children will continue to feel less than, disowned, hated, ridiculed and even seen as not worthy…

Mr. Shuck, I guess what I am saying is…thank you. Thank you for giving me hope, thank you for supporting my community, thank you for accepting me and most importantly, thank you for letting me know that GOD does love me and that I am O.K.
That was an email I received about a year and a half ago. The good news today is that one of the wishes in that letter is coming true. A new organization has been formed for LGBTQ youth in our area for support and acceptance. You can read information in the bulletin about The Change.

Today is More Light Sunday. Do you know from whence the phrase “more light” comes? It goes back to a sermon delivered by John Robinson in 1620 to the Pilgrims coming to the New World. His sermon was adapted and made into a hymn by George Rawson in the 1800s. Here are the words to the hymn:
We limit not the truth of God
to our poor reach of mind,

By notions of our day and sect,
Crude, partial and confined.

No, let a new and better hope
Within our hearts be stirred:

For God hath yet more light and truth
To break forth from God’s Word!
The truth here is that we (including clergy and their institutions) don’t know everything. We ought to be in a position of acknowledging that “more light” is yet to come. There is more to learn about each other and our diversity, about our universe, about God. It is not good enough to repeat the old doctrines and think that we are somehow being faithful by doing so.  

The church has been in error regarding its doctrines on sexuality and gender. People, including our youth, are suffering for it. I am speaking to adults now. Our youth need advocates. They need advocates in schools, in churches, in neighborhoods, and in homes. They need us, adults, to be aware, to be educated, and to speak up and act on their behalf. There is not one Gay Straight Alliance in any of the schools in the Tri-Cities area. What could be done about that?

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has made a significant change in the last couple of years. Two years ago the General Assembly ruled as having “no further force or effect” the 1978 statement about sexuality that had said among other less than enlightened things, that “all homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian faith and life.” That statement and all the others have “no further force or effect.”

Less than a month ago, the 87th and deciding vote removed the other barrier to ordination, that had required all people who were not in a heterosexual marriage to be “chaste”. That barrier has been lifted.

This is a beginning, not an end.

It is not enough simply to remove negative things. It is time to say and do positive and affirming things. Michael Adee, the executive director of More Light Presbyterians, understands the significance of this vote. After the passage of Amendment A, he was quoted in the media as saying:
"More people will be able to live the truth of their lives, parents will talk more about having gay kids and people will come out in Presbyterian churches."
It is time to build on this decision. It is time to be brave. It is time to make it better.

Like Bartimaeus on the side of the road, we can’t see too well. We may be blind, but we can hear. We can hear Jesus, the son of David, which could be reference to Solomon, David’s son. Solomon was known for his wisdom and his powers for healing. He was also a prolific lover as well! Maybe Bartimaeus was thinking that Jesus, like Solomon, had some mojo for him.

He calls out for compassion.
“Have compassion on me! How about a little justice here?”
But Bartimaeus gets shouted down.
“Shut up, you. You are not worthy. You are just a side of the road freak show. You’re so gay.”
But here is the line that matters.

Bartimaeus “shouted all the louder.”

He didn’t stop when he was told to shut up. Why? Why didn’t he listen to the voice of the crowd and just be quiet? Why didn’t he just forget it?

Maybe he had enough. Maybe he was tired of being bossed and bullied. Maybe he just shouted without even knowing what he was doing. Who knows what it was, but something in him made him shout again:
“You, son of David, have mercy on me!”
This time Jesus hears him. Jesus calls Bartimaeus to come over. Then what happens?

The crowd changes.

It sometimes just takes one voice to change a whole crowd. One person to stand up and say,
“Stop that bullying. Don’t tell her to shut up. Don’t call him names. This person is important.”
The crowd changes its collective mind. They just follow the alpha. They call to the blind man and say,
“Be brave! He’s calling you!”
Be brave. It doesn’t matter what the neighbors think or say. Be brave. It doesn’t matter what they call you in school. They are wrong. They don’t know any better. They are just following the crowd. They think if they pick on you, they won’t get picked on. You be brave. Even though you may not feel brave, you have what you need. Courage is not necessarily feeling brave. It is acting brave when you don’t feel it. You have far more strength of character than you ever imagined you did. Just trust it.

Bartimaeus throws off his cloak. He jumps up. You know he is already healed. He already has everything he needs. He goes to Jesus. Jesus asks him what he wants. Isn’t it obvious? Maybe not.

What do you want? What do you need? What is up there, out there, somewhere over the rainbow for you? What are you waiting for? Who do you think needs to give you permission to breathe the air, to live your life, to be yourself, to be happy, to be whole?

Bartimaeus says,
“Rabbi, I want to see again!”
“I want More Light!”
I can imagine that Jesus laughed with delight.

“You don’t need anything from me, Bartimaeus.”
“Your trust has cured you.”
The story concludes that “right away he regained his sight, and he started following him on the road.”

One thing about Bible legends is that they are open to our interpretation. You are free to interpret it as you wish. I interpret it as someone who finally sees clearly. He sees himself for who he is, a beloved child of God. He throws off his cloak of sadness and fear. He jumps up and in his encounter with Jesus, discovers that he has everything needs within himself.

He trusts it.

I found God in myself
And I loved her
I loved her fiercely
It may be dark. We may have difficulty seeing a life of joy and wholeness from our vantage point. We don’t know how we will get there from here. We don’t need to know how. We just need to trust that we will. If there is one thing that adults can do for our youth, it is to encourage them to keep going. Let them know as you know from experience: Obstacles are not permanent.

Bartimaeus goes on his way, after all, life gets better.