Sunday, October 30, 2011

Life, Love, and Loot (10/30/11)

Life, Love, and Loot
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 30, 2011

Genesis 12:10-20

Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife”; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.’ When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.

But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, ‘What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, “She is my sister”, so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and be gone.’ And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.

Those of you who have watched the Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series may have seen the advertisements for Captain Morgan Rum. The character is a swash-buckling 17th century pirate. He is suave and cool. When an enemy ship approaches, and begins shooting, he strips down, walks to the end of the ship’s plank and does a forward somersault dive. The enemy captain is amused and instead of fighting they all party and drink rum. Captain Morgan, the icon of the advertisement, is a lovable, cool, hip, non-violent pirate. To life, love, and loot.

The real Captain Morgan, Sir Henry Morgan, was a privateer. He was empowered by England to hassle and plunder Spanish ships. His pay was what he could loot. To do that kind of work you have to be a ruthless guy.

The title of my sermon, Life, Love, and Loot, came from the advertisement for Captain Morgan as I was reflecting on Captain Abram in our biblical story. In the midst of a famine, Abram and Sarai go to Egypt. They go there to survive, to live.


While there Abram is afraid that when the Egyptians see Sarai, they will kill him and take her because she is so beautiful. So instead, he has her say that she is his sister.

We have no idea what is going through Sarai’s mind. We don’t know what is going through Abram’s mind either. But she does it. To spare Abraham she apparently says she is his sister and she becomes a mistress or wife or something for Pharoah.


Since this is a myth of patriarchy, in which women always belong to some guy, fathers, brothers, or husbands, Abram gives her away to Pharoah in trade for sheep, oxen, male and female slaves, donkeys, and camels.


The Lord doesn’t like this arrangement so he sends plagues on Pharoah. Somehow Pharoah knows that these plagues, whatever they are, are connected to Sarai and he learns the truth, that Sarai is Abram’s wife. Pharoah sends Abram home with his wife and his loot.

Did Abram and Sarai do well with this deal?
What is this story about?

Abram and Sarai together create the biblical icon for the married couple. Yet from our point of view, to say that they are opaque and distant is an understatement. We are given little dialogue between them and even less internal dialogue. The author of Genesis is not John Updike or Virginia Woolf.

This icon of marriage is a patriarchal icon. Human beings can be traded for sheep and donkeys. We don’t know what these characters were thinking. Sarai is Abram’s wife in a possessive sense. We don’t know if beyond patriarchy and the roles it prescribes for them if there is a relationship of love. The faithfulness of Sarai seems to be measured by her obedience to Abram. She follows him and his God.

These characters are like inkblots. We have the barest of narrative. There is no character description or development. It is up to us to give these characters voices and self-awareness.   There is no right or wrong in doing that. It is an activity of creative expression on our part. The only limits might be the words in the text, but upon that bare skeleton we can put flesh, our flesh, on these icons, father Abram and mother Sarai.

Two books that I am reading as I am working through this series of sermons on the myths of Genesis are Peter Pitzele’s, Our Father’s Wells: A Personal Encounter with the Myths of Genesis and Carol Delaney, Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth.

Pitzele uses psychodrama or what he calls bibliodrama to enter into the text. In his groups, he invites participants to take over the characters and be them in the first person. Instead of asking in the abstract what was Abram or Sarai thinking, he invites participants, you and me, to be Abram and Sarai and then say what are you thinking and feeling.

Pitzele says this:
But here a voice inside me asks, Why make up anything at all? We have what we have of the story. It is highly condensed, highly charged, but it is all we have. By what right and license do you fill in blanks and intrude your contemporary experience into these ancient figures who were wrought by the imagination of a distant, different age? These mute characters cannot step from the frieze of the old book and speak our words or borrow our voices that they might tell us more of their stories. This is, after all, the Bible.
He goes on…
Precisely these questions face me each time I pass from merely repeating the biblical stories to re-creating them. I must deal with the guardians of the text, those internalized deacons who warn me against toying with Holy Writ. Yet through my years of psychodramatic explorations I have come to recognize the immense vitality of these characters, and the silence of the text has become not a barrier but an invitation for acts of imaginative projection that seem at once to reflect ourselves and to reveal the biblical drama at a deeper and more human level. p. 98
I remember in seminary that my professors would criticize my papers for "psychologizing" the texts. They were trying to teach us disinterested, scientific exegesis. It was good to learn. But it was refreshing after seminary had ended to find Pitzele who breaks the rules and invites psychologizing. It is the opposite approach. Rather than remove yourself, instead insert yourself.

The other book, Carol Delaney’s Abraham on Trial is a critique of the patriarchal myths and their influence today. She shows us that patriarchy is not the natural human condition, but a particular social condition. One that we can reject. But we have to know its assumptions. She writes:
Religious myth has social implications….We can never recapture the living quality of the culture of the biblical writers, but we can investigate their vision of the world and its legacy. We can ask about the role of the Abraham story in that vision. And we can ask if this vision is one we wish to perpetuate. P. 11
Her book is specifically about the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. We will get to that story in a couple of weeks. She is asking why Abraham’s willingness to kill his child is a model of faith and what that means for us who have inherited this story. What are the assumptions behind this story? Why is the story of sacrificing children a story of faithfulness as opposed to a story of saving children for example?

The Abraham story is central to Christianity. It is the model for the Christian myth of the Father sending his only begotten son to death on a cross for the sins of humanity. The myth says that humanity is saved by this. Why that myth? There could be other myths. A Divine Father killing the Divine Son to save the world is not a universal human myth. It is not eternally written in the heavens. It is a patriarchal myth. It arises from a particular social location. In this social set up, that is not universal, children are the property of fathers and women are tradable assets like sheep and donkeys. The Father’s honor is paramount and is maintained by violence. These assumptions continue to have effects in the way we regard children, issues of gender, and social roles.

These stories are fictions. But why these fictions? Why have these fictions become holy scripture? What are the implications and assumptions these stories have in our lives today? How do these stories inform what it means to be a good wife for instance or a good father?

October is domestic violence awareness month. The case is easily made that the assumptions behind the myths of Genesis still exist today in a culture that continues to look the other way in regards to violence in the home. Well, she is his wife. Those are his kids. The good, faithful wife forgives and follows her husband and whatever schemes he dreams up.

Here are the points I am trying to make:
  1. These stories are not quaint and harmless. They have a legacy and influence today on society.
  2. They are not stories of the universal human condition. They are not divinely ordained. They are human stories that have arisen out of a particular culture that is shaped by patriarchal assumptions.
  3. We who read these stories today and even call them scripture have the freedom and the obligation to deconstruct them and challenge their assumptions.
  4. Entering these stories with awareness may help us uncover these assumptions in the stories, in our own personal lives, and in the lives of our culture.
  5. We can then make choices about how we interpret these stories and how we might treat them.
With those points, that Carol Delaney helps me understand, I want to move toward the the Pitzele approach. I want to jump in and be the characters, take them over, and give these statues voice. The Delaney approach is to analyze behind the text and uncover their assumptions. I am trying to use both approaches in this series of sermons.

I invite you to enter the story. It would be best in a small group in which we could speak to each other and hear each other. In this setting I will lead you in a guided way and you will enter it yourself. Perhaps you can continue it with others later.

You are Sarai.

Both men and women can do this. I invite you to close your eyes if you wish. Enter into the character. I will ask a series of questions. They are not loaded. There is no right or wrong answer. There is no text we can go to look it up. I am just going to give the text, elaborate a little bit, and ask some questions. These are your responses. Don't respond how you might think the real Sarai would have responded, put yourself there. You have the freedom to be yourself in her. What would you do in her position? What do you think? What do you feel?

There is a famine. There is no food. You and Abram have nothing. You need to leave and live as aliens, as immigrants in a strange land. You go to survive. Just before you cross the border, Abram speaks:
‘I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife”; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.’
Is Abram asking you or telling you?
Do you agree with him?
Do you talk to him about it?
Does Abram have your interests in mind as well as his?
Is there another option?
Do you take ownership of this decision?
Is it yours and his together or is it his decision and you do what he wants?

As it turns out Abram was right about the men thinking you are beautiful. You catch the eye of the Pharaoh and he takes you into his house. We are given no details. We are not told how much time has passed. You have to fill in those details.

You are Sarai.
How are you feeling?
Do you manage to put the Pharaoh off?
How creative can you be?
Maybe you cannot?
How did you cope?
How do you retain your dignity?
Do you worry about Abram?

You are Abram.
What do you think is happening to Sarai?
How do you feel?
The Pharaoh gives you sheep, goats and loot.
What do you feel about that?
Would you rather have been killed?
Do you plan a daring rescue?
How do you sleep at night?

“But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai.”
Pharaoh releases Sarai and Abram and sends them home with all the loot.

You are Abram.
Do you ask what happened?

You are Sarai.
Will you ever tell Abram?

You are both.
Will your marriage ever be the same again?
Is forgiveness possible for the two of you?

This is a painful story. As I enter this story, I have a renewed sense of compassion for these characters. The suffering upon both Sarai and Abram is intense. What relationship can survive this? And yet they do.

Abram is no Captain Morgan. The loot, to me, is a distraction. If these characters are nothing more than patriarchal tropes, then there is no humanity here at all. But if there is any humanity in these characters, this story is pure anguish. And yet, and yet…they come through. We get no dialogue. We get no internal monologue. We have to make that up with our own stories of our own relationships.

I have to allow Abram to be a human being in love. I have to allow Sarai to be a human being in love. I have to have this choice be a choice they both make. I have to have them both be strong. I have to have them both be survivors. I have to have them both experience the pain. I have to have them both do anything for each other. I have to have them both find a way to forgive and be forgiven.

Amidst the greatest pain, amongst the most anguishing choices, they survive. Together.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Myth of the Call (10/16/11)

The Myth of the Call
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 16, 2011

Genesis 12:1-9
Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages towards the Negeb.

The myths in the first eleven chapters of Genesis cover huge swaths of time. It is almost as though they are outside of time. Creation, the garden, the expulsion of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Cain's exile, Noah’s flood, his nakedness and curse, and the tower of Babel are broad stories, and from the point of view of the ancient world, cosmic. The stories were as large as creation was thought to be.

Elohim and Adonai are the two names for God in these early chapters. Peter Pitzele in his book, Our Father’s Wells: A Personal Encounter with the Myths of Genesis, calls these first stories, “Tales of a Lonely God.”

Elohim is lonely. He does nothing for eternity but brood over the deep. Creation appears to be an act of longing. He is bored. Finally he speaks and light becomes. Both creation stories regard the human as special even created in the divine image.

But God doesn’t seem to really know what to do or how to relate to this new creation of human beings. There is a longing on the part of God for a relationship. There is a desire to relate but there is a fear on the part of God.

In the garden scene Elohim is concerned that the human will become like God by eating from the tree of life. In the tower of babel, Adonai sees that human beings have one language and will. Adonai sounds paranoid. He is afraid of these humans. He is concerned for his territory:
“This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible from them.”
He confuses their language and scatters them around the earth. He creates. He destroys. He scatters. Still he is a lonely God.

Finally, he calls.
“Now Adonai said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’”
Adonai chooses and calls one human being. With Abram’s story we shift to the ancestral tales. Time narrows to one life span. Through Abram, Adonai announces a destiny.
“To your offspring I will give this land.”
This is from Peter Pitzele:

From a certain point of view Genesis must be seen as propaganda. Like myth-theology the world over, it propagates the idea of a national destiny divinely favored that will in time rule the world. Signs of this agenda are scattered throughout Genesis and the Bible; it is the agenda of men, the fathers of the tribe, the priesthood, and later of the church. The fathers pass it on to the inheriting sons, those men called and chosen by God and by one another to carry on this dream of a divine destiny. P. 10
A Pitzele points out, patriarchal spirituality is about hearing, obeying, and following the call, the divine summons. I struggle with this. I struggle with it in my relationships, my sense of vocation, the meaning I seek to discover and create for my life. This partriarchal spirituality is in my bones. As we look further into the Abraham saga we are going to be confronted with the shadow, even the terror of this spirituality.
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
I cringe when I hear that. I also cringe when read these opening verses in the saga of Abraham. I wanted to leave out verses 6 and 7 of chapter 12:
“Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’”
The Canaanites were collateral damage on the way to fulfilling Abram’s destiny. Growing up in Montana, the Big Sky Country, gave me perspective on the people who lived there long before Europeans arrived. They had their own gods and myths. Now these native peoples are sequestered on six reservations around the state, placed there by those who followed the God of Abram. For them, the dream of Abram’s destiny has been a nightmare.

I want to make sure that I don’t judge and dismiss this spirituality before we look into it. I don’t want to judge it prematurely for two reasons.

The first is that if I judge it as bad and seek to dismiss it, I won’t be honest. Abraham lives deeply in the marrow of the bones of our civilization, in the lives of women and men alike. If I say that I will refuse Abraham and substitute the name of a goddess for him, or a native shaman, I may discover I have really changed little. I will have given Abraham a woman’s name or a shaman’s name, but he is the same guy. The project, the destiny, the myth is the same. So I don’t want to judge patriarchy prematurely because I don’t want to deceive myself that I have moved beyond it when I haven’t.

The second reason I want to hold off judgment is that there is much that is appealing to patriarchal spirituality. The great people whom we admire and seek to emulate are rooted in it. Think of Martin Luther King. His sermons, his speeches, his demonstrations and marches were filled with patriarchal images. King himself followed a voice calling him to dream and to build the beloved community. King’s spirituality was driven by the myth of patriarchy: by call, sacrifice, and destiny.

The protesters occupying Wall Street and those standing and marching and dreaming in solidarity with them around the country are following a call. This call is vague. It isn’t clear. It lacks specifics. But that is exactly what a call is.
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Novelist, Barbara Kingsolver, who lives just up the road in Meadowview, Virginia, was at the demonstration in Johnson City yesterday. She was quoted in the Johnson City Press:
“It is a movement in its early stages that’s getting on its feet,” she said. “If you look at the signs here everyone agrees on certain principles of mercy for people, principles about distributing the wealth of this country more fairly and principles of humanitarian kindness.”
I am not sure if Barbara Kingsolver would agree that she is following the myth of the patriarchal imagination. But she did describe it well. I want to point out that the myth of patriarchy, the spirituality of Abram, is not self-absorbed. He is not about finding personal peace or going to find a home on a little hideaway on an island. Abram is called for a purpose, for service, for vocation.

Nor does he follow this call to build a dynasty for himself. He isn’t called to build skyscrapers and have “Abraham Incorporated” emblazoned on his business cards. He isn’t called to use people for his own corporate greed.

That would be Odysseus. Pitzele compares Odysseus with Abram. While Homer’s Odysseus has many adventures and does many heroic deeds, he does not do it to become a blessing, nor does he become a blessing. It is all about him. His story ends when he comes back home. He has been successful, defeated the enemies, and now he will enjoy his own kingdom.

The spirituality of building a dynasty or the spirituality of finding oneself (a spiritual narcissism) is not Abram’s. Abram’s story does not end with the end of his life. It does not end with the building of his own dynasty or kingdom. His dream is the beloved community, if you will, that is passed on to his offspring. They also must hear and follow the call.

That call is also kind of crazy.

The Voice speaks:
Leave everything of value and go. I’ll tell you where you are going when you get there.
Would you do it? Do you follow that voice? Why not? You have one life. Follow the call and be a blessing. Be crazy. Be a holy fool.

Occupy Wall Street? Really? That is kind of crazy isn’t it? The opposition is powerful and ruthless. They control everything. But, Barbara Kingsolver is quoted in the paper today:
“I think it’s a very exciting moment in political history. I think this is going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
She is talking about this broad movement for economic and social justice and its particular expression in these demonstrations. It is a movement to be a blessing. The call of Abram.

In the 1930s Reinhold Niebuhr wrote Moral Man, Immoral Society. This is the last paragraph.  
We can no longer buy the highest satisfactions of the individual life at the expense of social injustice.
He wrote that in the 1930s. Is it even more true in 2011?
We cannot build our individual ladders to heaven and leave the total human enterprise unredeemed of its excesses and corruptions.
That is the call we are hearing today. Niebuhr continues:
In the task of that redemption the most effective agents will be men who have substituted some new illusions for the abandoned ones. The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justice.
Abram operates under the illusion that he will be a blessing to the world. This is the illusion of the demonstrators, that they will change this world. One sign yesterday read: “Corporate Greed” and had a slash through it. Can we end corporate greed? Can we really build a beloved community that values education over prison, people over profits, and that protects Earth from our savage exploitation? Yes, it is an illusion, but listen to Niebuhr:
It is a very valuable illusion for the moment; for 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.’ 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. P. 277

That is how Niebuhr concludes his book, Moral Man, Immoral Society. It is hard for me to imagine a more relevant work for today.

His book is a commentary not only on the events of today, on the sublime madness that is being expressed by those who are answering a call to social justice. His book is also an illustration of the myth of the call itself, the call of Abram, the call of a spirituality that is not afraid to go into uncharted areas, to boldly speak to the powers for a new order, to be a blessing.

There is madness. There is fanaticism. There are delusions of grandeur. There is carelessness. There is a dark shadow on patriarchy’s project. While Niebuhr says this illusion needs to be tempered by reason, I think it might need to be tempered and embraced by the feminine as well as the masculine.

Abram doesn’t have to hear this call alone. Our movements for justice need to incorporate the spirituality of companionship, relationship, diversity, partnership, mutuality, equality, compassion, and wisdom. We need the spirituality of the feminine or the matristic equal to that of the masculine and the patristic.

Here is what to take home:

The myth of the call is rooted in patriarchal spirituality. The figure is Abraham. He gets the divine summons to leave what is familiar, to leave his comfort zone, and to be a blessing. The call to be a blessing is a source of power that we can tap into in our contemporary movements for justice and peace, such as the movement taking place around the country. That call to go out and demonstrate, to dream of change, and to act is a powerful and necessary thing.

The shadow of the call is fanaticism. Abram’s call involved a displacement of the Canaanites and the willingness to kill his own son for this vision. There is delusion, fanaticism, carelessness, and ruthlessness associated with this call. Abram needs a partner. He needs a strong Sarai. Before going off to sacrifice their son, he might ask her opinion first.

If there is a call, it is to all of us. It is a call to be as well as to do. The values of relationship, companionship, diversity, wisdom, partnership, nurturing, and compassion will make our movement for social and economic justice stronger, more sustainable, and will enlarge that circle of blessing.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Noah's Legacy (10/9/11)

Noah’s Legacy
John Shuck

(Part of the Fall Sermon Series on the Myths of Genesis)

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 9, 2011

Genesis 9:18-29

The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.

Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backwards and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

‘Cursed be Canaan;
lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’
He also said,
‘Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.
May God make space for Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.’

After the flood Noah lived for three hundred and fifty years. All the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died.

And thus ends a nice story to tell the children at bedtime.
“It is with justice, we believe, that the condition of slavery is the result of sin. And this is why we do not find the word ‘slave’ in any part of Scripture until righteous Noah branded the sin of his son with this name. It is a name, therefore, introduced by sin and not by nature.” [Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality, p. 19]
That was Augustine in his book The City of God.

Robert Lewis Dabney, a Presbyterian minister from 1865 to 1892 wrote:
“In Genesis ix. 25-27, Ham the son of Noah, is guilty of an unfilial crime. His posterity are condemned with him and share the penalty to this day.” [Rogers, 24]
Dabney believed that people of African descent were a degraded race and should not be intermingled with the pure white race. He believed that Ham’s “sin” was somehow sexual in nature, “the indecent and unnatural sin of Ham” was the reason for the enslavement of his offspring.

Up through the 19th century (and in many circles still today) folks read the history of the Bible as the history of the world. As the descendants of the three sons of Noah populated the earth, the descendants of Ham were believed to be the dark-skinned people.

The Bible mixed with pseudo-science allowed Dabney to write:
“But while we believe that ‘God made of one blood all nations of men to dwell under the whole heavens.’ We know that the African has become, according to a well-known law of natural history, by the manifold influences of the ages, a different, fixed species of the race, separated from the white man by traits, bodily , mental and moral almost as rigid and permanent as those of genus.” [Rogers, 22-23]
Lest we think these are the rantings of a marginalized fool, know that Dabney was a Presbyterian clergyman and professor at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He was one of the most educated and respected men of his time.

I remember when in seminary, I decided to write a paper on this passage about Noah’s curse. I found in the basement of the library at Princeton, book after book of sermons before the Civil War and shortly after in which Noah’s curse was used to defend slavery and later to deny ordination to the ministry of African Americans.

Abolitionists had an uphill battle. The Bible was against them. James Henley Thornwell, a theologian at Columbia Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian seminary near Atlanta, argued that the Scriptures clearly did not condemn slavery. He wrote:
“Slavery is no new thing….It has not only existed for ages in the world, but it has existed, under every dispensation of the covenant of grace, in the Church of God.” [Rogers, 21]
I use this example when I get invited to speak to classes at ETSU. I get invited because I am a minister and I am on the board of PFLAG. I speak to classes in the social work department or human services and where ever I am invited. The Bible is usually mentioned. I get asked something along these lines:
“Doesn’t the Bible clearly condemn homosexuality?”
I say that the Bible says a lot of things about many different topics and often many different things about the same topic. I tell the class about Noah’s curse and how this text was used to support slavery and after the War Between the States to deny rights and equality to African Americans and to justify racial superiority and segregation.

I say that no one today argues that we need to bring back slavery. Yet it was so clear that that was what the Bible said just a few generations ago. The texts of the Bible haven’t changed, but how we read them has changed. From the time of Augustine through the 19th century, slavery was seen as a part of God’s plan. Slavery was the result of sin, to be sure, but sin on the part of the ancestors of the enslaved not the sin of the slave masters.

While those who want to use the Bible to fortify their own prejudices and deny equality to LGBT people may have a loud and popular voice, it is a voice that is becoming increasingly shrill and hysterical. We are learning to read old texts with new eyes.

Just because someone quotes the Bible, it doesn’t mean they own it. It certainly doesn’t mean they know the “clear meaning” of the text. I suggest that the Bible does not belong to religious people or to believers or to the church. The Bible is a product of Western Culture and secular people have as much right to it as anyone.

I advocate taking the Bible off of its holy pedestal. Call it no longer “Word of God”. Remove it from its shrine on the coffee table or the brass stand. Then do something radical. Read it. Read it with understanding. Read it critically. Read it aware of the influence it has had over our culture over the centuries, indeed, the world. Read it with rage at the injustices done in its name. Read it with admiration at the genius, compassion and courage it has inspired. It is a mixed legacy.

Biblical scholar and peace activist, Walter Wink, made the best quote I have read yet about the Bible. He understands the reality that the Bible is a mixed bag. He wrote:
"I listen intently to the Book. But I do not acquiesce in it. I rail at it. I make accusations. I censure it for endorsing patriarchalism, violence, anti-Judaism, homophobia, and slavery. It rails back at me, accusing me of greed, presumption, narcissism, and cowardice. We wrestle. We roll on the ground, neither of us capitulating, until it wounds my thigh with “new-ancient” words. And the Holy Spirit is right there the whole time, strengthening us both."
The Bible is the centerpiece of Western Culture. What you don’t know can and will be used against you. The Bible has been and continues to be a powerful tool, even a weapon. It is a good idea to know how to defend against those who do use it against you. It is also good to know it for what it says about those of us (and if you speak English that is all of us) who are products of its stories.

We have been shaped by the Bible just by living. When we become conscious of the impact these myths and stories have on us, we can make choices about whether or not we want to continue living them. We can make choices about how we want to interpret them rather than hand their interpretation over to the Pat Robertsons and the Creationists and the homophobians and the Tea Partiers. The Book is too powerful and too important simply to give it away.

I am going to say a little about Noah and his myth, but I want to say a couple of things about the Bible first. Last week I said that we can think of God in three ways,
  • First, as a symbol for our personal sacred experience, the God to whom we may pray, for instance.
  • Second, as theory or theology. This is the God we try to explain.
  • Third, as a character in a sacred text. This is the God we find in the Bible or the Qur'an.
This may sound radical, but it isn’t. This third God is created. As Shakespeare created Hamlet, as the author of Epic of Gilgamesh created Ishtar and Anu, so the biblical authors created Elohim and Adonai. This is the interesting question, I think.

What kind of people create Elohim and Adonai?

The Bible is a human book. What else could it be? So is the Qur’an. So is the Book of Mormon. So is the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada and any other book you can name. None of them, probably, are of supernatural origin.

That view, I think, values humanity highly. We often hear or have said ourselves, “Well, I am only human” or we repeat the famous phrase, “To err is human, to forgive, divine” or “little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.” Or we notice something in ourselves or others and say, “That is so good, wonderful, amazing, that it couldn’t be human; it has to be God.” I say wait a second. Human beings created all of these stories, including the stories of the gods and of God.

19th century philosopher, Ludwig Feurbach, knew this. He said we project all of our virtues onto a supernatural being. Goodness, mercy, compassion, justice—we give it away. We project these virtues onto a big screen. OK. But don’t leave them there. Take them back, Feurbach said. They are yours. You are compassionate, just, and good.

Jesus tried to give it back. He said to those who had ears to listen,
“You are the light of the world….You are the salt of the earth.”
What did we do? We couldn’t handle the responsibility and we made a god out of him. We said in effect,

“We would rather call you good and worship you than take the responsibility to be good ourselves.”
We create God in our image then we forgot we did so, and imagined that God created us in his image.

It is also true that we project qualities that might not be so virtuous onto God. I am getting closer to the Noah story. Elohim and Adonai are both revealed in that story. That is because in the Noah story, the two names for God, Elohim and Adonai, come from two traditions that are blended. Blended is not quite the right world. Spliced is better. An editor took two or perhaps even more traditions and spliced them together.

We can see the seams when we read the Noah story. For example how many animals did Noah take aboard? Two of each kind, right? Well, that is according to one tradition. Another tradition has him take seven pairs of the “clean” animals and seven pairs of the birds.

The Noah story lives in our imagination. In this imagination is a rainbow and a dove with an olive branch, and gentle old Noah and his floating zoo. There is a children’s song about Noah putting the animals twosy twosy in the arky arky.

But underneath is a terrifying story. I was aware of this even as a child. It is a story of destruction and of death. It is a story of judgment and rage.
“I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” [Genesis 6:7]
This is the raging father, knocking dishes off the table, throwing things around the house. This is the dictator who wants a pure race and the religious zealot who wishes to destroy the infidels or create a pure church and clean out its leaven.

Human beings created this violent Adonai and Elohim—this creator who is also destroyer. He is the product of the apocalyptic imagination. He is the wrath within projected out. We may be familiar with this wrath. We may know that feeling when things don’t go our way that those evil others are the fault. Destroy them. Get rid of them and it will be better. We are going to defeat terrorism and destroy evil.

If you destroy everything you don’t have a story, so Noah is selected to carry on.

This story, of course, is older than the Bible. The oldest written story is the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is a great story. I recommend the translation by Stephen Mitchell. It is filled with sex and violence and fun.

Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, in, yes Iraq, searches for immortality. At the end of the story he finally runs into Utnapishtim who is the only mortal to achieve immortality. The god Ea grants it to Utnapishtim, because he outsmarts the gods and saves creation. When the great gods want to destroy humanity with a flood, Utnapishtim gets wind of the plan by another god, Ea.

Ea tells Utnapishtim to build a boat. He does and he gathers his family and the animals and he survives. It rains and floods. Finally, after the rain stops, he sends out a raven and a dove to find signs of dry land. When he lands he burns a sacrifice and the gods smell the odor of it. 

Gilgamesh never does achieve immortality. At one point, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that there is a plant under water that will be the source of eternal youth. Gilgamesh fetches it, but on his return home he leaves it on the shore when he swims in the lake and a snake eats it and it sheds its skin. Thus the snake stole immortality from Gilgamesh.

Many of the images and accounts in Gilgamesh were borrowed by the storytellers who created the myths of Genesis. One of the best cures for biblical literalism is to read Gilgamesh and see that the stories in the Bible are not original, but borrowed from earlier traditions and then shaped over time.

Unlike his counterpart Utnapishtim, Noah does not gain immortality. Noah makes a sacrifice and Adonai enjoys the pleasing odor. Adonai says,
“I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” [Genesis 8:21]
The he puts the rainbow in the sky to remind himself not to wipe out humanity.

So, why did God do it in the first place? What did it solve? The people are evil before and evil after. God in this story reflects our own reality. We go to war to destroy evil and find out that all we ended up doing was destroying.

After that, Noah needs a drink. He learns the art of cultivating vineyards and he makes wine. Now we know the rest of the story. It is possible that this story, especially the cursing of Canaan, was a justification for the forced labor of the indigenous people, the Canaanites, who Solomon conscripted. The story may have been edited to for that purpose.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, this story was used to justify slavery of African Americans in this country. It has had a gruesome legacy. There is hardly anything redeemable in it.

Noah curses his son (or his grandson) because he felt his honor was tarnished. This is kind of like certain interpretations of the Christian god whose honor is tarnished by human sin and so needs to kill everyone. Instead he curses and kills his son, Jesus, as a scapegoat. That is the legacy of patriarchy. At all costs, preserve the honor of the father. In the words of George Bush, Jr., “Saddam tried to kill my dad.” We are still there.

Way back in seminary when I worked on this story of Noah, I heard of another interpretation. It was from a woman who had an alcoholic father who would go into rages. She found in Ham and in Canaan, her own story. Everyone in the family had a role in dealing with the father’s alcoholism.

In the biblical story, Shem and Japheth covered their father. This was a symbol for covering over the problem, keeping the family secrets, preserving Daddy’s honor and ultimately enabling him in his alcoholism. In this reading, Ham is the whistleblower, the one who told the truth. He was the one who said, “Dad is naked and drunk. We ought to deal with this.” For his truth-telling, he received the father’s curse. He was the bad kid. And so it is in many dysfunctional families. So is the legacy of patriarchy.

Preaching on bad texts is a challenge. I want to inspire and give you something to take home. A cursing hungover Noah who starts slavery is hardly that. My point today isn’t about Noah as much as how we approach and read the Bible. I find it liberating to read the Bible free of the constraint of dogma. Letting the Bible be a human book, a collection of stories told by a particular people, a book that contains both warts and wisdom, allows us freedom to enter into these stories in ways we couldn’t when told how we were supposed to read them.

When we allow it to be a human book we may find that we connect with it more than when it is the church’s book of holy writ. When we remove its halo we may find that it has less power to do damage and can instead be a resource we can use to discover our humanity.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (10/2/11)

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 2, 2011
World Communion Sunday

Genesis 4:1-16

Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’ Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’ 

Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

So, Adam and Eve are the first humans.They are sent away from the garden. They have children, Cain and Abel. So far we have four people. Cain kills his brother and is sent away. Now we have three people, Cain and his parents, Adam and Eve. Then we read in verse, 4:17:

“Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch.”
Who was Cain’s wife?

Who were those people living in Nod and elsewhere that Cain feared would kill him? Where did they come from? 
The fancy literary phrase for that is, “Oops, it’s a hole in the plot.” 

A gaping hole. Few editors would let that pass today. There you have it, a literary problem right there in the Word o’ God. 

Problems like this were noticed early by careful readers and answers were provided. Enter midrash, a form of storytelling that provided comment on the biblical text and filled in the holes. A famous form of midrash on this particular question is found in the Book of Jubilees. The Jubilees are Hebrew commentaries on the Torah. 15 scrolls were found at Qumran with the Dead Sea Scrolls collection. Scholars date them to 100 BCE or perhaps earlier. 

Here is how Jubilees solves the problem of Cain’s wife. After Adam and Eve have Cain and Abel, we have the story of the murder, then the banishment of Cain, and stories of Cain’s descendants. Then Genesis tells us that Adam knew his wife and they had a third son, Seth.Jubilees tells us that in between the birth of Abel and Seth and before the murder of Abel by Cain,

"Eve gave birth to her daughter Awan."
Awan is not in Genesis or the Bible, but she is in Jubilees. You know what’s coming. 

Jubilees tells us that

"Cain took his sister, Awan, and she bare him Enoch."
Keeping it in the family. It still doesn’t answer who those people were who wanted to kill Cain. 

There is another hole. The legacy of Cain is civilization: cities, agriculture, tools, and music. From Seth’s line you finally get to Noah. Then everyone gets wiped out. So does all of that civilization get lost? Yet from the point of view of the account of Cain’s descendants, all of this isn’t lost. We read in 4:20-21:

“Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.”
The point of the story is that when you look around and see people using bronze tools and playing pipes and lyres that this is from whence they come. Cain. The plot hole is that they all are destroyed in the flood. The editors were stringing together re-tellings of ancient myths that they had inherited. We have a collection of “how it all came to be stories” linked together with less than careful editing.

These stories provide insight into the tellers’ understanding of what it means to be human, why we kill, why we feel loss, but the narrative string is nonsensical. It is like listening to opera--beautiful music with silly plots.
 The wise reader allows liberties with these tellers of tales. Before I get to Cain and Abel, I want to say something about God. God functions in at least three ways. 

The first way
 is that God is a literary character. God speaks and God acts all within the context of a story. God’s character develops. A great book I recommend is by Jack Miles, God: A Biography. Miles’ book shows how the character, God, develops and changes through the course of reading the Hebrew Scriptures. This is the same for Jesus when we get to the Gospels. Jesus is a literary character. 

In the story of Cain and Abel, God is a character in the story. He speaks to Cain, gives him warnings, asks him questions, puts a mark on him, and sends him away. By the time we get to the Joseph saga in the last part of 
Genesis, God is offstage, working perhaps behind the scenes through hints in dreams. God is someone the characters talk about, but he doesn’t appear directly in the story. The first way that God functions is as a literary character in a text. 

second way we speak about God is through theological and philosophical discussion. Theologians have written systematic theologies explaining the attributes of God. While this God might be based upon the God of literary text and story, the theologian’s God is not the same. The theologian’s God may be embarrassed by the God of text and story. This second way of thinking about God involves intellectual explanation of how people might conceive of God today. 

third way we speak about God is as a symbol or name for the experience of the sacred. This is the God to whom we might pray or experience in our lives. This is the God of personal faith. 

The God we find in hymns and liturgy is a bridge between these three ways of speaking of God, God as character in text, God as subject in theological reflection, God as personal experience of the sacred.
 When we use God language we sometimes find ourselves speaking to each other unsure of which of the three ways we are speaking. Are we talking about my personal experience of the sacred, or theological theory, or the character God in the Bible? 

For the sake of these sermons on the myths of 
Genesis, I am going to speak about God as a character in the text. I am not talking about the God of the philosophers or theologians or the God of your personal experience, just the God of the text. The hymns and liturgy might speak to these other aspects of God. But I am going to try to stick to the character "God" in the story.   

That said, I am also concerned with why the authors of these stories conceived of God and created the literary character, God, in this way. Some of this will be a critique. This is the God of Western culture and of patriarchal myth. This God invites and deserves criticism. This God is not the only way to be human or to conceive of ultimate truths or ethics. 
These myths of patriarchy are dominant stories in our culture and they have pushed out other stories.

They are, nonetheless, our stories. We should know them. We ought to be consciously familiar with them, not just blindly to acquiesce to them, but to gain insights as to why those of us who are products of western culture and patriarchy do what we do. 
I find myself haunted by these stories and by the God of these stories.

This is the God of competition, of favoritism, of free choice that isn’t really free. This is the God of obedience and punishment. If you haven’t heard many preachers speak like this, it is because this is a God who does not tolerate heresy, questioning, or critique. Yet, on the other hand, this is a God who admires the wrestler and will grudgingly bless after wounding. This is a male God created by males. 

Pat Willard is doing a great study on the women of Genesis. It isn’t a long study. There aren’t many women:

Sarah’s slave, Hagar,
Rebekah’s slave, Deborah,
and their slaves, Zilpah and Bilhah,
Tamar the prostitute,
Potiphar’s wife who tries to seduce Joseph,
and Joseph’s wife, Asenath.

Cain’s wife, Awan, does not get a mention. You have to go to Jubilees for her. 

Feminists, such as Phyllis Trible and her book 
Texts of Terror, have done important work in criticizing these myths and the absolute claims these myths attempt to hold over everyone, women and men alike. But it isn’t all criticism for me. I am not sure I equate patriarchy with evil. I don’t know if it is all of one cloth, that you take it or leave it, let go of this God altogether or embrace him wholeheartedly. Before we issue judgment, let’s enter the story.
"Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have created a man with the help of the Lord.”
Cain is the firstborn. He does not come from his father’s rib, but from the womb of the feminine, the creative force of life.
"Next she bore Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground."
Two sons. Two brothers. The first family. We hear nothing of their childhood. We hear nothing except what they do for a living. That is how they are identified and that is how men will be identified through the patriarchal myths. Who are you? When men talk to each other, it doesn’t take long until the conversation leads to the question,
“What kind of work do you do?”
That is your value. That is how the God of patriarchy values you, or devalues you. Women are bearers of children and men are tillers and shepherds.
“What do you do for a living?” we ask, checking out the competition. 

There is competition in these ways of earning a living. We compete for resources. Don’t tell me our wars are about freedom or democracy. They are about stuff. They always have been. We see this creatively pointed out in Rudyard Kipling’s poem that we heard earlier in the service. 
Yet the competition for stuff, for resources, money, and power may also be a competition for something more, something deeper. It is competition for honor and for value.

If the myth is true that when the eyes of Eve and Adam were opened they saw that they were naked, they were seeing their shame. This is the shame of not measuring up, of not being valued, of not being OK. Are we born with this shame? Do we spend our lives in an attempt to cover it with success, with love, with what? 
Adam and Eve attempt to cover their shame with their creativity. They sew fig leaves. God clothes them with animal skins. God provides the cover for our shame, says the myth.

Cain, the tiller of the soil, knows where he must go to cover his shame, to be valued, to be honored. Cain wants to please this God. 

In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 
Cain is the first to bring an offering to God. Why? Perhaps he wants to honored and valued. He wants to be OK.
Do you love me now?!
Abel sees what older brother is doing and he catches on quickly.

…and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.
There is a new book out that was featured this past week in Time Magazine. The author is Jeffrey Kluger. His book is The Sibling Effect. The thesis of the book is that, yes, parents do have favorites, even though they don’t admit it. This favoritism does have effects on siblings. 

I remember hearing the story of Cain and Abel in Sunday school. I remember thinking this was terribly unfair of God. I remember telling my mother about it. The rule in Sunday school is that you always have to defend God no matter what God, the character, does. God slaughters the Amalekites. They deserved it. They were bad. She brushed my concern away by trying to tell me that Abel’s offering was better. Cain should have been a shepherd like his brother. 

I always wish I could fix things like my brother. My brother can fix anything and he always knows the right gift to give. He makes my parents happy. I don’t fix things. I preach sermons.

What is it you do for a living again?
Cain should have been a shepherd like his brother. If he couldn’t be, he should suck it up knowing that he’ll always be second best.

So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
We know that look, don’t we? I see it on the faces of angry mobs. I see it the strut of the guy who wore his guns when President Obama came to speak. I see it drivers on the freeway. This anger is just under the surface.

The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Cain could not. Can any of us? If we admit it, we know Cain. But we don’t admit it. We put on the mask of niceness. We pretend that we would not give in. We would not open that door and give ourselves over to what lurks there.

This is peacemaking Sunday. We all know about making peace and being nice.

But if we admit it, we know the taste of revenge. It is sweet before it goes sour. 

It isn’t just that life is unfair. In a world of chance, that happens. I can live with that. The myth of patriarchy says that God makes it so. God chooses Abel over Cain, not fate, not chance, God. That is harder to take.

We know the rest of the story. Cain kills his brother. The Lord returns and asks Cain where his brother has gone.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Great question. The answer is yes. It has to be yes, no matter what. Regardless of favoritism, regardless of a fickle and unfair God, you must master your rage. The line has to be drawn somewhere. If we have any hope for peace in this world, we have to say yes to that.

God sends Cain away but puts a mark on him, a mark of protection. Cain will not find honor from God, so he creates. The legacy of Cain is civilization.

Cain knew is his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city.
That is what patriarchy does with its rage. It builds civilization. All these great buildings and great fortunes were built and made by people who didn’t feel loved. Find the successful man or woman and underneath you uncover someone who is still trying to please mom and dad, or God. From Cain’s rage comes agriculture, civilization, bronze and iron tools, and music.

I wonder as we celebrate peacemaking Sunday, what we might learn from Cain. He couldn’t squelch his rage. He didn’t know how to master it, to hold it down, to put a lid on it. But if the stories of his descendants shed any insight, he could create with it. 

Maybe peacemaking is not about being nice or pretending that we don’t have the rage of Cain within us or that if we do, we can silence it. Maybe peacemaking is admitting the rage within and using its energy to build something new.