Sunday, January 29, 2012

Living, Life-Giving Water (1/29/12)

Living, Life-Giving Water
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 29th, 2012

We are making our way through the Gospel of John during Winter. Episcopal Bishop and biblical scholar, John Shelby Spong, wrote this about the Gospel of John in his latest book, Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World:
If I had to give my readers one clue and one clue only that would unlock the Fourth Gospel and allow its honesty and wonder to flow forth, it would be that the author is constantly poking fun at anyone who would take his message literally, misunderstand his use of symbols or attempt to literalize the words he has attributed to Jesus. P. 387
Spong goes on to say:
Time after time, the author of the Fourth Gospel asserts that this book is an interpretive book, not a literal one. It is a symbolic book, not a historical book or a biographical story. To read the Fourth Gospel with literal eyes is to miss the essence of its message. Yet throughout Christian history, this book has been read with literal eyes and this literal misreading has been used to buttress the case for orthodoxy, binding creeds and the rationally incomprehensible ecclesiastical doctrines that stand at the heart of what people assume is essential Christianity. P. 389-390.
I don’t know about you, but I agree with him. A literal, supernaturalistic reading of John’s gospel has kept the church mired in superstition. We are supposed to read Jesus as if he really did all these things and said all these things. Then we are supposed to believe it is all true. To the degree that we can believe and not doubt, we supposedly have faith. I don’t think that is faith. I think those mental gymnastics serve to make people credulous and obedient. Or they dismiss the whole thing as silly.

What might we gain from reading the Gospel of John critically? The interesting thing about reading John, is not Jesus, the symbolic character, but the author. Why did the author present Jesus in this way? Why did he have Jesus say and do all of these things?

One of the realities that the Gospel of John reflects is a late first century conflict between two siblings. This past week I spoke with Rabbi Rob Cabelli on my radio program. It will be broadcast sometime in the next couple of months. He is a rabbi at a Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville. I asked him what he would like Christians to know about Judaism. What do Christians get wrong and what would he like them to get right?

He said that people often confuse biblical Israel with contemporary Judaism. He said that Judaism and Christianity are not parent-child but sister-brother. They both arose at the same time from a common parent which was biblical Israel.

When we read the Gospel of John, we are reading one side of a bitter sibling conflict. Jesus is being used by the author as a mouthpiece for the movement that would become Christianity. Last week, we looked at the conversation with Jesus and Nicodemus. In the text itself, Jesus addresses Nicodemus as a plural. Listen to the text.
"You are a teacher of Israel, and you don’t understand this? Let me tell y’all this: we tell what we know, and we give evidence about what we’ve seen, but none of y’all accepts our evidence.”
This isn’t the historical Jesus. This is the author using the character Jesus to say what the author wants to say. This is obvious. It is a plural. It is as though the author is telling all readers, 
“Look how obvious I am being. I am making this up!”
Through the character Jesus and his conversations with opponents, the author is replaying the argument between these two siblings. One sibling will find a home in the synagogue and the other will find a home in the church. Two thousand years later, we know that one sibling became more powerful and numerous and we have a legacy of anti-semitism that has been fueled by the gospels and a misunderstanding of who Jesus was and who killed him.

In chapter four, Jesus meets this woman at Jacob's well. A Samaritan woman. This one is a third party. Samaritans did not make animal sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem. They had another holy place to make sacrifices.  She asks who worships on the right mountain, the Samaritans or the Jews? Jesus, representing the author John, says in effect, “Neither.”
“But the time is coming—in fact, it’s already here—for true worshipers to worship the Father as he truly is, without regard to place.” (Scholars' Version)
The place is important. By the time John’s gospel is being written, the temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Romans. That is the crisis event that started these new religions, what has become modern Judaism and Christianity.

In this first century literature we see these movements trying to figure out where they are going and what they are about. Jesus is the symbolic figure who represents this new movement, a movement without a place. There is no Temple, no place for animal sacrifice, and that is true for the Jews and the Christians. They both have to figure out who they are without a place. What is worship if you don’t sacrifice animals? That is what ancient religion is.  They have to figure out who they are and what they do now.

The answer from John’s gospel is that the mystical presence of Jesus is the place and the focus of worship. He is the living water, he is the bread from heaven. Just to make sure you don’t get too literal about that, John invents these conversations between Jesus and these other characters in which the characters don’t get it.

The woman at the well says:
“Sir, give me some of this water, so I’ll never be thirsty or have to keep coming back here for water.” (SV)
Later his disciples tell him to eat something and Jesus replies that he has food they know nothing about and they say to one another, 
“Has someone already brought him food?”  (SV)
John has Jesus speak in these lofty spiritual metaphors and nobody gets him, including his own disciples. The author is continually looking at us and shouting, 
“Hey, this is a metaphor!”
The Gospel of John is one side of an ancient sibling rivalry that became calcified in canon and creed. A critical reading can loosen that up, but I recognize that it can also take the magic out of it. Nevertheless, I think that faith can become stronger when it dances with doubt. A faith, critically engaged, can develop into something more liberating and lasting. It isn’t always easy at first. I think, speaking personally, that it is worth it.

There is another gospel in which Jesus functions as a character. I should say that Jesus functions as a character in all of the gospels. Perhaps buried in them is an historical figure. But for the most part, Jesus is like the shape of water in Pat Boran’s poem, The Shape of Water:

Even when I cup it in my hands,
Trying to see it for what it is,
It takes my own shape, if temporarily;
It gives my own reflection back to me.

In the Gospel of Thomas, the author has Jesus say:
Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will rule over all. (SV)
I heard a quote the other day that says the same thing in another way. This is from Gloria Steinem. 
“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
Yes, a critical reading of the gospels may be disturbing. But it just might set you free.
  • What happens if we go ahead and read the gospels critically?
  • What happens if we realize that the figure of Jesus is a character the authors (and especially John) use to tell a story particular for their time?
  • What happens when we challenge the voices of loud, red-faced preachers in our heads warning us that if we start thinking for ourselves we are paving our own road to hell?
  • What happens if we allow this story from John not be something we had to believe but instead allowed it to flow through us like “living, life-giving water?”
The truth will set you free.

When I read any other literature, I don’t read it worrying over whether or not I need to believe it. I let it be and allow it to speak freely and I give myself freedom to hear it. I read John’s Jesus now as a story for what it means to live a life that is authentic, free and life-giving, like water.

Jesus said to the woman at Jacob’s well:
“If you knew what God can give you, and who just said to you, “give me a drink,’ you would ask him and he would give you living, life-giving water.”
Mister, you don’t have anything to draw water with,” she says, “and the well is deep; just where will you get this ‘living, life-giving water?’ Can you do better than our patriarch Jacob? He left us this well, which used to quench his thirst and that of his family and his livestock.”

Jesus responded to her, “Whoever drinks this water will get thirsty again; but all who drink the water I’ll provide them with will never get thirsty again; it will be a source of water within them, a fountain of unending life.”

The woman says to him, “Sir, give me some of this water, so I’ll never be thirsty or have to keep coming back here for water.” (SV)
We, the readers, know that as long as she is alive she will still have to drink real water, no matter what living, life-giving water she gets from Jesus. The spiritual life doesn’t replace the physical life. The question the text asks me is what is life like when living, life-giving water is within like a fountain of unending life?

For me, it means first of all that life still happens. I need to eat and drink and do the things of life. I still need to go every day to Jacob’s well. I still live with the contingencies of life, a body that will age and eventually die, grief and loss, change and more change. But, the water within is an awareness that allows me to kiss life as it goes by. It is a fountain of refreshment from which I can draw. It is the living water of authenticity and integrity that is stronger than my fear about the contingencies of life.

It is an ocean of courage to take a risk, to try a new thing, to stand with someone who hurts, to be honest, to open my own self to a larger experience of life. When I feel afraid, anxious, awkward, out of place, or ashamed that I am not all I am “supposed” to be, I can draw from the river, that ocean, that fountain, that well of life-giving authenticity that says speak your truth, live your truth, find joy, and be the master of your thoughts and feelings. You are loved. You belong. The very elements of the universe are in you.

John’s portrait of Jesus is a portrait of a person with a deep center of peace that nothing could disturb. The living, life-giving water flowed so clearly and robustly that others thought he must have been “born from above.” The point of the story as the author tells us again and again is that that water, that living, life-giving, born from above water is within you

Jesus is the reflection of who you are.

Again from Pat Boran’s poem:

Great telescopes and simple mirrors
Water leaves for us everywhere
To show the connections between things,
To show us what we really are.

This coming September will mark my 20th anniversary as an ordained minister. Over the years, I continue to find that folks, including myself, have a thirst for belonging and for being OK. It is a thirst for love. I have also learned that that thirst for love will not be satisfied for waiting for others to give it to us. The greatest gift we can offer another is not to give the living, life-giving water. We cannot do that. The greatest gift is to give others permission and encouragement to lower that bucket, swim in that river, dive in that ocean, dance in that fountain, and open that spigot within.

Because my friends, it is the Holy Spigot.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Born From Above (1/22/12)

Born From Above
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 22, 2012

During Winter, the season we have designated to explore the via creativa, the way of creativity and imagination, I am preaching a series of sermons on the Gospel of John. Theologian Matthew Fox coined the name Creation Spirituality to speak of a way of living that embodies a certain authenticity toward life. Creation Spirituality is Earthy spirituality. It is a friend of science. It is a friend of the body. It is a friend of Earth and all who live on Earth, that is all of life including more than human life. Creation Spirituality affirms that we are from Earth, we are bios or life, and that Earth is home.

Creation Spirituality is not a religion. While its roots are in Christianity, it transcends it. It also isn’t just what I say it is. This certainly isn’t about dogma or having the right beliefs about things. It is about a way of living more than requirements to believe. Creation Spirituality has four paths. The Latin term for path is via. These four paths or vias are:

Via positiva – the path of awe, wonder, and celebration
Via negativa –the path of letting go and acknowledging loss and limits
Via creativa—the path of creativity and imagination
Via transformativa—the path of compassion, justice-making, and transformation

These paths are not a ladder climbed, but a spiral danced. Connecting a path to season of the year is a way of acknowledging Earth’s changing seasons and a way of appreciating Earth’s rhythms. To connect the via positiva with Summer and the via creativa with Winter does not mean we are only creative in the Winter and celebratory in the Summer, any more than as Christians we live resurrection only on Easter. Attaching a path to a season (such as creativity with Winter) is a way of intentionally exploring this path even as in our own life we may experience bursts of creativity throughout the year.

I find it helpful to structure worship around the four seasons and the four paths of Creation Spirituality. Creation Spirituality, as I see it, is a way of living that embodies a certain authenticity toward life and Earth. It is an Earthy spirituality. It is a way of being authentic, of being human. Religion does its job when it encourages, invites, and provides means via ritual, reflection, community, and practice to live lives that matter.

If you are interested in learning more about Creation Spirituality, I recommend Matthew Fox’s book, Original Blessing. Or you can google Creation Spirituality or Matthew Fox. I am no purist or apologist for it. I borrow what I like from it and shape it in a way that makes sense to me. I think in doing so, I am honoring creativity. I make my own theology.

Religious experience for many has not offered that freedom. For the most part, religion is fixed. It is waking each morning and believing six impossible things before breakfast. It includes rules and weirdness and a whole lot of guilt. The idea of making up or creating your own religion or spirituality might seem to be an odd notion. Surely you’ll go to hell for that. Then again, maybe you won’t. Care to take a chance? Or is it safer to follow the rules and believe in a punitive god even though that god is like an abusive spouse?

We inherit our notions of God just by living in the culture. Our culture’s god is a mean old cuss. He is a male, first off. Then he’s tribal. He favors one group over another. He is always starting wars. He is racist. Look at the yokels running for president. They are all about god. Each one is just as holy and pure as mama’s Bible. Their god doesn’t want equality for gay people. Their god doesn’t believe in evolution. Their God doesn’t care about poverty and inequality. Their God’s long-term plan is to destroy the planet to get the fossil fuels as fast as we can by any means necessary. There is no reason to care about future generations because Jesus will be coming back and he’ll make us a new heavenly home. Hallelujah.

It may be an odd notion to create a new religion, but the dominant religion of our culture sure doesn’t seem to be working for us. Care to take a chance?

The via creativa is the spiritual path of exploring and imagining new ways of living in this world. And the creativity comes when we finally give up. We want to run out the door screaming into the darkness. More than one person this week has told me that they have given up on the political process. I wonder if maybe we are getting to a point where something new and unexpected is about happen.

You know what creative moments are like. You have been going through the motions, or stuck in a rut, or have a block, all of those metaphors we use. Suddenly, it seems, we get an insight, something breaks through. That is creativity. You know that you can’t force it. It happens when it is ready. The via creativa is a path of nurturing creativity. It is trusting creativity. You can empty a space for it, but creativity is serendipitous. It is surprising. It is unexpected.

It happens when you allow yourself permission to let go of old ways, the via negativa is letting go, and to be willing to try something new.

A teacher of the law, Nicodemus, comes to Jesus in the night (night is the symbol for the via negativa) and he acknowledges that Jesus is of God. Nicodemus says to Jesus:
“Rabbi, we know that you’ve come as a teacher from God; after all, nobody can perform the signs you do unless God is with him.”

Jesus replied to him, “Let me tell you this: no cone can experience the empire of God without being reborn from above.”
That is the Scholars’ Version, a translation by the Jesus Seminar. 

You may have heard the phrase, 
“You must be born again.” 
There is a certain type of Christianity in which people call themselves “born again” believers. It comes from this text in the Gospel of John. The word translated as “again” is the Greek word, anothen. It also means “above.” Was Jesus telling Nicodemus that he must be born again or that he must be born from above? Nicodemus thinks he means “again” and asks how he can go back into his mother’s womb. Can you be much more of a literalist than that?

It is like the woman at the well later in the gospel. Jesus says I have life-giving water so you will never thirst. She says, “Great! Give me it and I won’t need to keep coming to this well.” No. That isn’t what Jesus means. Another time, Jesus says you must eat my body and drink my blood. They think he really means it.

The Gospel of John is not an account of the historical Jesus. The Gospel of John is the work of a creative author offering a poetic portrait of the authentic life. A life he saw in the historical person of Jesus. Then he wrote a parable about him.

Bishop John Shelby Spong has written a new book, Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. The book is based on his weekly column in which he wrote about the different books of the Bible. It is a great summary of the background of each book of the Bible from a critical perspective. This is what John Shelby Spong writes about John:
“If I had to give my readers one clue and one clue only that would unlock the Fourth Gospel and allow its honesty and wonder to flow forth, it would be that the author is constantly poking fun at anyone who would take his message literally, misunderstand his use of symbols or attempt to literalize the words he has attributed to Jesus.” P. 387
In our story with Nicodemus, the joke is on him. Jesus says, “You must be born from above” or perhaps “reborn from above” as the Scholars’ Version translates it, to get both senses of that word. Nicodemus, the religious teacher, the leader, the smart guy, is as literal as a stump. “You mean I need to go back to my mother’s womb?” The joke is on him. But it is more than that. The joke is on us. We have been literalizing Jesus for centuries.

Every time we read one of these weird stories in John, it should be a clue that this is tongue in cheek. It is a koan, a parable, in which the character Jesus happens to be the protagonist. And it is an invitation at every step to live an authentic life.

What does it mean to live an authentic life, or to use some of John’s metaphors, what does it mean to
Be a branch of the vine,
To drink living water,
To eat Jesus’s flesh,
To hear and follow the shepherd’s voice,
To know the way, the truth, and the life,
To see the light in the darkness,
To rise from the dead,
To be reborn from above?

John just piles on the metaphors and images and the other characters in the story misinterpret them. The joke John says to us is, “Will you miss it, too?”

It is pretty much an historical consensus that the historical Jesus was executed by the Roman Empire. He died not of disease, or old age, or accident, but by a deliberate act of torture and spectacle by the most powerful empire in the known world. His execution according to Roman law was legal and legitimate.

The Roman Empire wasn’t a bad empire. To use a phrase by religious scholars, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, Rome represented the “normalcy of civilization.” To keep the peace and to keep order sometimes you have to crucify people. Jesus and thousands of others like him were collateral damage.

The author of John’s Gospel and the authors of the other gospels each in their own way, saw something in this. They saw that this “normalcy of civilization” is dehumanizing. Jesus represented a human being and what it means to be human in a dehumanizing world. John wanted to tell a story of the powers of this world, this normalcy of civilization, exposed for what they are and for what it is. He found in the story of Jesus a way to tell it.

This part is still true today. When we are told
that war is inevitable,
that destroying our planet for non-renewable resources is essential to life,
that infinite economic growth is possible or desirable,
that corporations are people,
then we live in a very similar world to the one John’s Gospel exposed as the power of darkness,
“the world”.

What does it mean to be a human being in “the world”? That is what I think John’s invitation is.

Jesus tells Nicodemus, “
You must be reborn from above.”
In 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told Americans the same thing. A nation that enslaved people for 244 years and said it was normal, even God-ordained, then today goes to endless war all over the globe and makes war an economic essential, exploits the poor, consigns our children to environmental catastrophe, and fills our every moment with white noise from the media, that nation needs to reborn from above.

King said, “America, you must be born again!”

He was right. 

It isn’t just America. It is everyone.

The author of John’s gospel by creating this exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus was saying to his readers, 
"It is time to raise your consciousness. It is time to be reborn from above."
The way we are going is not sustainable. But it is not hopeless.

Now is the via creativa.

The human brain is more complex than the galaxy. We have more neurons in each of our brains then there are stars in the galaxy. They are connected in ways the stars are not. Life is incredible. 

The possibilities for imagining and creating a new way of living with one another and with Earth in sustainable ways are out there and in here. Being born from above means to raise our consciousness and to become more aware of who we are and what life is and what it can be. Given the chance, we can share and create and cooperate and collaborate. We can survive and thrive for many, many more generations. Life as the Domination System has structured it is not inevitable.

Yeah, the world knows how to make crosses.

But the Gospel of John ends with resurrection, rebirth, and a new start. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

No Greater Love (1/15/12 MLK)

No Greater Love
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 15, 2012
Martin Luther King

John 15:1-26

Today we honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the struggle for equality.  We do so in the context of worship because we know the sacred nature of this struggle. 
The marches across the south were holy marches.
The sit-ins at lunch counters were divine epiphanies.
The willingness to walk rather than to ride segregated buses was to follow the cloud by day and the fire by night through the wilderness.

Those who participated in the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s knew they were involved in something much larger than what they could see or hear.    It was a movement for dignity.    A movement for dignity is a movement of Spirit.      The struggle for equality was cradled in the language of faith.  King was a preacher who used the stories and teachings of Christianity for inspiration and for clarity.  

It can be dangerous to do that even as it is necessary.  We know the dangers of fanaticism when people claim that their cause is God’s cause.   That assuredness that “God is on my side” has caused pain and suffering as well as healing and hope.     Those in positions of leadership and influence have to take care when they invoke Spirit, the Holy, and the Sacred in their cause.    When someone speaks with certainty that their cause is God’s cause, it is a good time to watch your wallet and to watch your back. 

Even so as Reinhold Niebuhr said, ‘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.’  Moral Man, Immoral Society, p. 277.

It took a “madness in the soul” to resist entrenched and institutionalized racism.   How could freedom rides ever translate into real freedom?  Weren’t those who suffered these injustices each and every hour of every day too small, weak, and poor?   Weren’t the powers of the economy, culture, and government too large, strong, and rich?     Yes, they were.   The “world” to use the Gospel of John’s term, hated them.  They needed an identity and a purpose that was not of this world.  

The world as John uses the term refers to  the unequal and unjust powers of racism, economic inequality, political oppression, and misuse of natural and human resources on behalf of a few over the many.   It is all sanctioned by the dominant religion.  That is the world.  Another phrase for it is the Domination System or even Civilization.   

It is no surprise then what started as a civil rights movement grew in King’s mind to be connected with the war in Vietnam and the cause of the poor everywhere.   It is all connected.     We know today that the connections are even larger and include the struggle for dignity and equality for all people regardless of gender and sexual orientation, and now for Earth and the systems that sustain life itself.  

We know that these assaults on people and on Earth are the result of entrenched and institutionalized injustice that is pervasive and consuming.    Are we not too small, too weak, and too poor?  Are not the powers of this world—namely, the global corporations to whom our elected leaders bow down and worship—too large, too strong, and too rich?     Yes, we are and they are.  

We need an identity and a purpose that is not of this world to do battle with this “malignant power and spiritual wickedness.”   Perhaps, dare I say it?  We need Jesus.   

We need Jesus the truth teller.

Part of the malignant power of spiritual wickedness is spin.   That is the ability of the powerful, rich, and connected to get you to deny what you see with your own eyes.   These representatives of the world wear nice suits, are clean shaven, and speak in complete sentences.     They are so skilled at deception that they can convince us that destroying the top of a mountain that has been there for 500 million years is a good thing.    So skilled are they that they have done this trick 500 times.   In Appalachia, 500 mountains have been flattened.  

So skilled are they, that they can convince us that clear-cutting all the forest, literally blowing 500 feet of elevation off a mountain and dumping rock and dirt into the valleys and thus poisoning streams is perfectly normal.   To do so, they say very calmly as they gently pat your hand, is a necessary thing.    That destroying human and animal habitats not just for today but for millions of years in the future is the only thing that is rational.    It has to be done.  It is the only way.

That, is to use Niebuhr’s phrase, “the malignant power of spiritual wickedness in high places.”   

Segregation in King’s time and before was normal.  It is just the way it was.   Smooth talking people who wore nice suits, were clean-shaven and spoke in complete sentences, told the rest of us how normal and good and important it was for society to be segregated, separate, and they assured us, “but equal.”    It took a long time for that to change.    That change didn’t come by sitting down calmly with the powers and negotiating.  That was tried to be sure.  Again and again and again.   Change only happened when the small, weak, and poor realized that the large, strong, and rich were never going to change.   

They realized that if change was going to happen, it would have to be done by force.    Pressure would have to be placed on the powerful from every angle and at every opportunity.   That pressure and force would need to come from the outside.   They found ways to expose the truth.   Thanks to television, people around the country and around the world could see the violence of institutionalized racism in their living rooms.   Peaceful marchers attacked by dogs and fire hoses led people to ask, “Is this America?”  

Yes it is.  That is the truth.  Now, is this the America you want?   For you who are in church, is a segregated Jesus the Jesus you worship?    They were forced to wrestle with the very core of their identity.  Who are we?   The country was exposed to the truth and it needed to make a decision.    Jesus as truth-teller was a model for resistance.  We need a little Jesus.

I think there is a similarity between mountain top desecration in 2012 and segregation in 1950.   The similarity is that it both were hidden.   Neither injustice was hidden to the people who suffered of course, but their suffering was hidden from the rest.  I wasn’t aware of mountain top desecration until a few years ago.   The spin to the wider world was that everything is OK.  No problem here.    Public relations is one of the most lucrative careers you can get into these days.   Good spin doctors are in high demand, especially when there is a lot to keep hidden.    

But truth from the mouths of the small, weak, and poor can conquer the spin of the large, strong, and powerful. 

Truth from the mouths of the small, weak, and poor can conquer the spin of the large, strong, and powerful. 

You have to believe that.

Martin Luther King didn’t just lead one march and call it quits.    He didn’t think that he just needed to preach one sermon, offer one eloquent speech, go to jail one time, and people would get it.   He had to do the same darn thing again and again and again.   Remember, he was dealing with the world, “the malignant power of spiritual wickedness in high places.”   You don’t just do that as a weekend hobby.   It is a life commitment.   If you get discouraged, well duh, you are dealing with “the malignant power of spiritual wickedness in high places.”  

You can’t do this alone.  You need others and you need a strong spiritual core.  You need a center, a rock, a fire, a baptism of spirit.  You need to know who you are.   That no matter what happens on the outside, you are still and undisturbed at the center. 

The Jordan River is chilly and cold.
It chills the body but not the soul.

Those spirituals are all about this.   They are all about knowing who you are.    I don’t tell others the way they need to find that spiritual core.  For me, though, it is through my man, Jesus.      The Gospel of John’s Jesus is not literal or historical, I don’t think, anyway.  It is a portrait, and a valuable portrait of who Jesus was on the inside.   

“I am from above,” he would say.  As if to say, “You can’t touch this.”

That is not a cocksureness or an arrogance.  It is a statement of identity.    I know who I am and who I am is not defined by the values of this world.   Thus John’s Jesus is the invitation to discover yourself.   Who are you?  What do you live for?  What matters?   

The world says you are a consumer.   You live to consume stuff.  The more the better.  What matters is that you don’t question that and you just keep on buying useless crap as fast as you can.    The world says to us:

“We, your caretakers, your providers, your gods, “the malignant powers of spiritual wickedness in high places” will provide you with these shiny things in exchange for keeping your mouth shut. 

“Don’t talk about the mountains or streams.  Don’t talk about the factory farms.  Don’t talk about climate change.   Don’t talk about the people that need to be displaced because they are in the way of the stuff.  If you don’t let us do what we want, you won’t get the shiny things.”     

We say, “Well…if you put it that way, OK.”

No, we don’t say that.  We say, “No!” 

We say, “It is not worth it.  We don’t want what you are selling.  We are not consumers.  We are human beings.  We are Earthlings.  This is home.  We will not allow you to destroy it.  We will fight for it.  We will fight for our children’s future.   We will tell the truth about it.  We won’t stop.”

And… “We are willing to sacrifice for it.”

In Montgomery, throughout 1956, for over a year, African-Americans stopped taking the bus.   The bus was their lifeblood.  It was their transportation.  They had to find ways to get people to and from work and to and from the grocery and to and from church and to and from wherever they needed to go.    

It required of them sacrifice.  
It required of them creativity, organizing, and sharing.   
They did it.  
They built community. 
They found their strength in nightly meetings.   
They endured the KKK and bombs and daily indignities. 
The sacrifice didn’t kill them. 
It made them stronger.      
They knew that there was no greater reason to exist,
no greater love,
then to give up their lives for their friends.
They knew who they were.
They knew what mattered.
They knew what life was about.

Change requires speaking the truth, finding our spiritual center, endurance, and it requires of us the willingness to sacrifice and to change our patterns—to give up the trinkets.  The world, “the malignant powers of spiritual wickedness in high places” are betting that we won’t do that.    That is their ace in the hole.   They think all we can do is a talk a good game, but when it comes down to it, we will always come crawling back to them for our treats. 

That is where we need to prove them wrong. 
We prove them wrong by knowing who we are, what we live for, and what matters.

It begins with a decision. 
It is a decision to be a human being rather than a consumer.

A human being like Jesus was. 
Like Martin Luther King. 
Like Rosa Parks. 
Like the tens and hundreds of thousands of people who history will never remember but who make up that cloud of witnesses,
who resisted,
who spoke their truth, again and again and again,
and who demonstrated the greatest love,
to give up their lives for their friends.
And who through it all, changed the world.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Baptized With Spirit (1/8/12)

Baptized With Spirit
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 8th, 2012

 “Let me tell you this:  you’ll see the sky split open and God’s messengers 
ascending and descending on the Human One.”  
John 1:51 Scholars' Version

During the season of Winter we are going to explore the Gospel of John.     When the Jesus Seminar combed through the gospels to determine what sayings and deeds might have gone back to the historical person of Jesus and what were later traditions created by the gospel writers, they found virtually nothing in the Gospel of John that went back to the historical Jesus.    That can be deceptive.  That does not mean that John is not important.  It does not mean that John’s gospel did not capture the impulse or the spirit of the historical Jesus.  I think the gospel did do that in its own way.

In the synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus speaks in parable and aphorism.  In John’s gospel Jesus speaks in long discourses.  In the synoptics, Jesus speaks about the “kingdom of God.”  In John, Jesus's favorite topic seems to be himself.   But that can be deceptive too.  It isn’t Jesus for the sake of Jesus, but as a human being that we all can become.

Jesus has a mystical quality in John.  He floats through reality.   It is as though he is saying to followers and opponents alike,

“You can’t touch this.”  
“You don’t crucify me.  I lay down my own life and take it up again.” 
“You are from below.  I am from above.” 
“I and the Father are one.” 
“Before Abraham was, I am.” 

 And, he promises his followers that they will soon see that,

“I am in the Father, and that you are in me and that I am in you.”

I think John is a fascinating and important gospel and with the assistance of biblical scholar Walter Wink, and particularly his book, The Human Being:  Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man, we are going to explore what this gospel might say to us about what it means to be human.

The passage I read today concludes with a strange image:

“Let me tell you this:  you’ll see the sky split open and God’s messengers ascending and descending on the Human One.” 

Part of our exploration of John will be what the phrase translated here as the Human One means.   A more literal translation of the phrase in Greek is the awkward, “the son of the man.”  That is Jesus’ favorite title for himself.  Not messiah or christ, not son of god, not second person of the trinity, but “the son of the man.”   The human being.

That is the phrase that Wink discusses at length in his fascinating and important book, The Human Being:  Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man.   Wink was a participant in the Jesus Seminar, although his conclusions directed him on a different path than that of the majority of the Fellows.   Wink writes in his book that the quest for the historical Jesus is more than an academic, historical study.  It was he says the search for the human Jesus.  That is for a Jesus who matters.   It is a search for a Jesus we can believe in.   The search is for the myth of the human.    

Wink sees in the phrase that Jesus used for himself more than any other, “the son of the man”, the archetypal human being.   That is the human being that we are invited and empowered to be.   Wink writes:

Lo, I tell you a mystery:
God is Human,
and we are to become,
like God.    P. 257

The Gospel of John is fiction.  The character Jesus in John is a product of the imagination of the author.   It is not made up of whole cloth, of course.    Somewhere in there was a real person who did and said things.   John’s Jesus is an interpretation, a parable, a presentation, or a symbolic representation.   

If what I just said sounds scandalous and heretical it is only because we have been bullied by the church and its dogmas, creeds, and theological sophistry.     Jesus is not the property of the church.   He is both a figure of history and a product of imaginative creation.     

The author of the Gospel of John wanted to show us something.  He saw in the person of Jesus something empowering.    He told a story of Jesus that made sense to him and that empowered him to embrace life and not be afraid of the powers of this world.  

Another important word for John is world or cosmos.    Depending on the context, it can mean earthly existence, life, or more often than not, it is a word for what Wink calls the “domination system.”    Jesus says, “I am not of this world.”  What does he mean?   I do not think he is saying that he is from another planet or from another place like heaven, or that he is of another spiritual incarnation or some spooky notion like that.   It means that he does not conform to the values of the dominant system.     What is this dominant system, this world?

Here is an illustration.  The late Thomas Berry, described the values of the domination system, what the Gospel of John calls world in two sentences.  

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

I can’t think of a more succinct expression of “the world” than that.  Thomas Berry encapsulated the death and insanity of industrial civilization and its handmaiden, infinite economic growth, with those two sentences.  It is so true, I’ll read it again:

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

You wonder why “the world” is blowing the tops off of mountains?   Over 500 in Appalachia so far and the Cumberlands in Tennessee are next.   If that isn’t enough, we will simply mine Canada and “process“ its tar sands.   It is a foreign country.  Nobody lives in Alberta.    Or we’ll frack the gas.   Don’t worry about what it might do to the water.   Gas is more important than water anyway, right?   If that isn’t enough to live up to our ideals, we can start a skirmish with another middle eastern country in hopes that that will somehow keep the oil flowing.  

The "world" has to live its ideal.  In the "world", you are not a human being.  You are a consumer.  You role is to consume everything in sight until Earth is a wasteland.    That is normal.  That is progress.  That is the domination system.  That is what the author of John’s gospel calls “the world”.    Obviously, in John’s time and in Jesus’s time, they weren’t talking about modern industrial civilization, but they were talking about the unsustainable dominant civilization of its time, one whose mode of operation was to divide, destroy, conquer and grow.  

Lest there be any doubt, when I care about Jesus or about the Gospel of John it is not because I care about heaven or hell or reincarnation or resurrected corpses or supernaturalism or any of that stuff.  I think all of that is a distortion of the original impulse of Jesus and of those who caught what he was saying and doing.   We have literalized first century symbolism and thus distorted it.

The historical Jesus and the imaginative creation by John’s Gospel  is an invitation and an exhortation to respond to the "world" by becoming a human being.     I don’t want to be anything less or more than a human being.    Being a human being means that we expose the values of “this world” for what they are—death values.     

I respect everyone's freedom to explore their religion.  My personal religion is Earth-based.  I am an Earthling.   I am a human being.   From Earth I was born and to Earth I shall return.  If by chance, I am completely wrong and the whole point of this exercise of life was to get to heaven or to be reincarnated, then at my death, I will say to whatever supernatural magician who offers these prizes the following:

“No thank you.  I have lived my life.  There is nothing more I need.   You can have your afterlife. I don’t want it.   Instead, if you have the power, provide for my children and their children and the creatures of Earth.  Give them a chance to live on Earth.   Can you make it so the waters will be pure, and the mountains covered with trees?”   

To me, religion is about being a human being.  It is about living a life that matters.    

We are going to be ordaining elders and deacons later in the service.  We will ask of them to say, “Yes” to a number of questions.    Those questions for me, at least, need to be interpreted.    I see them as the willingness to honor and to wrestle with the tradition and to serve with integrity.    One of the questions I don’t have to reinterpret in my mind when I say, “Yes” that I can regard at face value is this one:

“Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”

Where do I wish to put my energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?  Is it for an afterlife?  Do I want to live for that?  Not me.   I would argue that neither Jesus nor the gospel writers were about that either.     No, my energy, intelligence, imagination, and love needs to be at the service of life on Earth as it is and for our children that they may have the opportunity to breathe clean air, grow and eat healthy food, and drink clean water.   

Part of saying “Yes” to our descendants and saying “Yes” to Earth is to say “No” to “the world” and its values of domination.   The issue I have with much contemporary spirituality is that it allows us to escape into spiritualism rather than to be baptized by Spirit.     

John the Baptist says that Jesus is the one to baptize by Spirit.   He is the one who shows us what it means to be a human being.    Being a human being requires us to stand up and to resist the powers.    The promise of John’s gospel is that we can do it.    

Jesus says to Nathaniel, you think the parlor trick, the little psychic trick of me seeing you under the tree was interesting?  You ain’t seen nothing yet.       

“Let me tell you this:  you’ll see the sky split open and God’s messengers ascending and descending on the Human One.”

That is symbolic language of course.  It has to do with the dignity of humanity.   Human beings are not slaves, or cogs on an assembly line, or consumers, or cannon fodder.     

And you stop being those things when you start being a human being now.   

When we wake up and when we stand up and when we speak up for the dignity of life we become transcendent.    The angels ascend and descend upon us.

To recap and conclude with something to take home:

The Gospel of John’s Jesus is a human being.  He is the archetype of Human Being.  He is the Human One.   The Human One is who we really are as opposed to what “the world” or the domination system says we are.   This is not spiritually spooky stuff nor is it elitist.  It is for anyone.   We can all be human in our own contexts.    It requires the choice on our end to decide to live a life that matters.    

A life that matters is not big, or is it the same as someone else.   A life that matters is saying,

I matter. 
I don’t matter more than anyone else or any less.  
I count. 
I am not a consumer. 
I am not a cog on the industrial gear. 
I am not collateral damage. 
I am not a problem to be solved. 
I am not who “the world” says I am.
I am a human being.  
I am creative. 
I can live with intention and with integrity.  
I choose to be compassionate. 
I choose to be happy.
I choose to be hopeful.
I can find a way to bring compassion, joy, and hope, into my life and into the lives of others.  
I can care about something. 
I want Earth to be here for my descendants.
I can fight for it. 
I can expose the lies of the powers and speak my truth. 
I am baptized by Spirit.
I am a human being.
We human beings can start a revolution.
We human beings can change this world.