Sunday, February 26, 2012

Be Your Own Shepherd (2/26/12)

Be Your Own Shepherd
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 26, 2012
First Sunday in Lent

John 10:1-42 (Scholars' Version)

We are making our way through John’s gospel.   John’s gospel is about Jesus.  But the Jesus depicted here is not the historical person.  John’s Jesus is an imaginative construction.    The events and the dialogue we just read from chapter ten are probably not events and dialogue that took place, that someone (ie. the author we call John) wrote down, but rather, a scene created by some author we call John.   

Now that makes a big difference.    For those who believe that the Bible is inerrant, to say what I just said would be blasphemy.   To say that there is a difference between the historical person of Jesus and theological and literary construction of Jesus really messes with people’s heads.   Some people get angry about such a suggestion.

That was the reaction to the work of the Jesus Seminar in the 80s and 90s when they meticulously went through every saying and deed attributed to Jesus in the canonical gospels and in other gospels to see what could be historically plausible and what was literary or theological creation.    Folks were mad as heck.  

Not only were the folks who didn’t want scholars messing with their Jesus upset, other scholars were upset as well.  It appears that they didn’t like that the Jesus Seminar did this all in public and offered their methods and conclusions in language that non-specialists could actually read.   The Jesus Seminar let the cat out of the bag. 

This type of historical-literary criticism has been used in academic circles for decades, centuries even.    But it was so shrouded in academic language that it seldom left the academy.   We preachers got the message both from seminary and from our congregations that sharing this type of stuff with church folks was unhealthy to one’s career.   Furthermore, we were instructed that offering critical assessments of scripture or theology was damaging to the faith of the sheep. 

The sheep are simple.  The sheep need to be fed.  The sheep need to be led.  The sheep need to be protected against wolves like the Jesus Seminar and against hired hands who don’t care about the sheep, like ministers who share blasphemous ideas like ‘Jesus probably didn’t say most of the stuff the Gospel of John said he said.’   

Won’t somebody think of the sheep?


One of my favorite criticisms over the years has been by other ministers that I am leading my sheep astray.    That would be you.  In this schematic you are the sheep and I am the shepherd.   How is it that ministers made that assumption about themselves?   Who dreamed up this plan?  Even the word “pastor” comes from the pastoral metaphor of a shepherd as pastor of the flock. 

Now granted some ministers are quick to say, “Jesus is the shepherd.  But we are the under-shepherds.”  Yeah, whatever.   There is a reason why those in authority like to think of themselves as shepherds or under-shepherds.  That is to have control over the sheep.   It is loving control of course.  Because the sheep need to be fed.  The sheep need to be led.  The sheep simply cannot handle life at all except that a loving shepherd tells them what to eat, where to sleep, and what to think.   If you are a sheep you don’t need to do a lot of thinking.  Mostly just obeying.  Listen to the voice of the shepherd and follow.

In the Five Gospels, the Jesus Seminar wrote this about the tenth chapter of John:
“…there is no echo here of the authentic voice of Jesus; the Johannine community is attempting to work out its self-definition in terms delivered from the scriptures.”  P. 436.
In other words, John made it up.   

John borrowed images of shepherding from the Hebrew Scriptures in places like Ezekiel and the Psalms and of the story of David as a shepherd boy and applied them to Jesus.     I doubt that the historical Jesus ever thought of himself as a shepherd.    To me Jesus was more like a guy who would say,
“Don’t wait for a shepherd.  Be your own shepherd.”  
His parables and aphorisms were about inspiring people to find their own voice and to use it.  
“The kingdom of God is within you!” 
“You are the light of the world.” 
“You are the salt of the Earth.”
Why then does John turn Jesus into a shepherd?

This is not about Jesus.  It is about John.   He wants sheep.   The theme throughout John is to believe what "we" told you.  “We” being the ones who control and own the story.     Some scholars suggest that the original ending for The Gospel of John was the end of chapter 20.   It is the scene in which Thomas the doubter is scolded by Jesus for not believing the others. 
“’Do you believe because you have seen me?’ asks Jesus.  ‘Those  who can believe without having to see are the ones to be congratulated.’”
 Then the book seems to end with the narrator saying:
“Although Jesus performed many more miracles for his disciples to see than could be written down in this book, these are written down so you will come to believe that Jesus is the Anointed, God’s son—and by believing this have life in his name.”    
Don’t doubt.  Believe.  Be a good sheep.

Elaine Pagels in her book Beyond Belief suggests that the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas (that did not make it into the Bible) represent competing communities.   Whereas John saw Jesus as an object of belief, Thomas saw Jesus as inspiration to discover oneself.    This section in which Jesus addresses the character Thomas, Pagels sees as a dig at the community that centered itself around the Gospel of Thomas.   Don’t be like Thomas.  Don’t be like that group.   They will lead you astray.

Interesting stuff.  Thomas’ Jesus is made up too, although the Jesus Seminar discovered that more of the sayings of the historical Jesus have been preserved in Thomas than in John.  However, Thomas’s Jesus is also a creative theological fiction as is John’s Jesus.  These early communities were competing over not only who Jesus was but who Jesus is.     

Those competing visions of Jesus were competing ways of living.   That competition had to do with authority.    It had to do with boundaries of who is in and out of the community and what was the hierarchy of authority.    One can imagine that it might be easier to build a church around the Gospel of John than around the Gospel of Thomas

I offer this critical assessment for a number of reasons.  The Bible is not always what it seems.  It was created by numerous human authors.  Every one of them had an agenda.   They created these stories and these images for a variety of reasons.  Reasons that we may never know.

Still today these stories in the Bible are used for certain agendas.    People will quote from the Bible and from Jesus as if it or he were the final authority and then claim authority as under-shepherds to interpret it and him for you.  

Now you may say, "John Shuck, why should we believe you?"   My answer is you shouldn’t.  If you disagree with my interpretation of the Bible, good for you.  Be your own shepherd.   I can’t lead you astray if you are not sheep. 

If I succeeded at least in part by encouraging you to look at John’s gospel, and actually the whole Bible, critically, good.  That was my devious plan.   I also want to offer another spin on the shepherd story.  

There is something that is endearing and comforting about the shepherd.   In our busy industrial society, the notion of leaving it all and moving to Kansas to wander around with sheep all day sounds like a pleasant idea.  

There is a reason why the most beloved psalm, the psalm that is most likely to be known by heart is the 23rd Psalm. 
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,
He makes me like down in green pastures,
He leads me beside still waters,
He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil.
For thou art with me.
Thy rod and thy staff
They comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies,
Thou annointest my head with oil.
My cup overflows
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
I remember it in the King James version.

The image of Jesus as The Good Shepherd is a comforting image.   As comforting images go, it is one of the best, at least one of the most popular.    In those times in our lives in which the valley is dark and life is anything but peaceful and pastoral and we are surrounded by enemies and dangers, when we do fear evil, to know that the Lord is my shepherd and that the Lord has a face, perhaps the face of Jesus as we have imagined him or have seen images of him in artwork, is comforting.   We can reach this Jesus through meditation, prayer, scripture, and song.  It restores the soul.  

Even as I advocate critical study of images, I find that image and others to be powerful and comforting.   In part because I grew up with it and it is embedded in my psyche.  But also because there is a longing we humans have for a comfort and an anchor, for a shepherd.  That is why our hymns are filled with that kind of imagery.      

But the image of Jesus or of God as the shepherd or the gate or the anointed one or God’s Son and so forth is an image.  They are all images.   They are the way our brains work to get in touch with the ineffable.   

We can make an idol of any these images.  We can make an idol of our religion as a whole.  We can make an idol of the Bible, our images of God, Jesus even.  Idol-making usually leads to violence.  Think of the craziness in Afghanistan over the Qur'an burning.    Christians can be equally crazy when criticism of creed or the Bible is equated with blasphemy.    The critical study of these images is important because it keeps them from becoming idols.   

Yet we wouldn’t want our critical study of images to keep us from using them.    That is where I part ways with those who want to do away with religion.   I think these symbols and images can help us live meaningful and joyful lives.   

In traditions that use icons for prayer, the instruction is not to pray to the icon, but through the icon.   The icon or image is a vehicle.   The image of Jesus as Good Shepherd is, for me, a vehicle, not an end.  As I have come to see it now, the feelings of comfort, of belonging, of care, of peacefulness of purposefulness, are the real thing.    Jesus is the vehicle, but at the end of the day, you are your own shepherd. 

You are your own shepherd. 

Those feelings of love, comfort, belonging, care, and purposefulness are not dependent on something or someone outside giving them to you.  They are yours.   You can activate them within by many means, including by the use of these beautiful images.   

So go ahead, sing the songs, pray the prayers alone or with others, and embrace the tradition with awareness.  Yes you walk the lonesome valley.  But you do so with the awareness that the kingdom of God, the lamp of truth, and the love that holds the universe is within you.  


Sunday, February 19, 2012

From Blindness to Sight 2/19/12)

From Blindness to Sight
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 19, 2012
John 9:1-41 (Scholars' Version)

This is my favorite story from the Gospel of John. It is filled with irony and snark. There may have been an event in the life of the historical Jesus that is the basis for this story. The Jesus Seminar concluded by a narrow majority that the historical Jesus might have cured one blind person by the use of spittle. Not that the spittle was medicinal but that Jesus fit the profile of a charismatic healer and the healing was of blindness due to psychosomatic therapy.

The story became part of the lore about Jesus. In Mark 8:22 ff., Jesus cures a blind man with spittle. In Mark 10:46 ff., he cures Bartimaeus of his blindness.   Both may be narrative elaborations of one common event. Thus this story in John chapter 9 may be a further elaboration in which the author of John’s gospel places the healing in the context of another struggle altogether.

That is the struggle in John’s time between these two infant sibling religions that arose after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. These two siblings became Judaism and Christianity. The common parent for these two religions was Biblical Israel. The Gospel of John is one side of the squabble between these siblings. Jesus never had a conflict with “the Jews”. He was a Jew. That is John’s conflict. He creates these stories to present Jesus on his side.

Ancient religion was about the sacrifice of animals. You go to the Temple or to a holy shrine whether it is the Temple of Zeus or the Temple of YHWH and you sacrifice animals. That is worship. It appears that a couple of things are happening. The Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed. That makes animal sacrifice a logistical problem. Also a consciousness has been arising of thinking of worship without animal sacrifice. This sacrificial practice is slowly becoming symbolic or commemorative.

At least two paths develop, one centering on Jesus as sacrifice represented by the Lord’s supper and another on Torah, circumcision, and Sabbath. Neither requires animal sacrifice. One path becomes centered in the church and the other in the synagogue. John’s gospel reflects this early division from the perspective of what would become church. When characters in John’s gospel are kicked out the synagogue that reflects the situation in the author of John’s time, not in the time of the historical Jesus.

So John takes this story in the lore of Jesus of healing a blind person probably psychosomatically and elaborates making it a teaching moment. There is nothing psychosomatic in John’s telling of it. Jesus has been exaggerated to become God incarnate. He barely touches the ground. He speaks in exalted terms about himself. “I am the Light of the World!” Just to show that this healing was no parlor trick, John has the blind person be born blind.

This gives the disciples an opportunity to ask a theological question. Whose sin caused him to be born blind? If you have a just God who runs the place, you can’t have people suffer for no reason. You have to blame someone, either the man who sinned (either in the womb or in a previous life) or his parents. John sets up a classic question of theodicy. 

By the way, a side note. Since I mentioned theodicy, it might be fun to go there for a minute. Theodicy is the attempt to explain the injustice of God. If you have an all-powerful and all-good God, why is there suffering and evil? Much thought, energy, and time have been spent on that question. You can tie yourself in knots over this. We ask this question in many different ways, whenever there is suffering in our own lives or in the lives of others, we ask what is God doing?

If you have found an answer that works for you of why an all-good and all-powerful God can allow for suffering and evil, then I say go with it. If you have an answer that works I don’t want to take it away from you.

Personally, I take the easy road. I think an all-good and all-powerful God on one hand co-existing with suffering and evil on the other is a logical impossibility. I find that any explanation for someone’s suffering by implying that God could fix it if God wanted to is cold and cruel.

I let go of the idea of an all-powerful God. The answer then is easy. God is not all-powerful. There is no magic fix out there. Life is a mix of good, evil, suffering, and joy, and we make the best of it. But I do believe God is all-good. Not all-powerful but all-good. That to me means Life is worth giving it a go and hanging on for the ride. It also means that part of Life’s purpose is to look for and to find decency, compassion and joy and to make life more decent, compassionate, and joyful for ourselves and others. If you would like to read someone who agrees with me, I recommend Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Here is how the Gospel of John handles the question of theodicy.
As Jesus was leaving he saw a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, was it this man’s sin or his parents’ that caused him to be born blind?”
Jesus responded, “This man did not sin and neither did his parents. [He was born blind] so God could display his work through him. We must carry out the work of the one who sent me while the light lasts. Nighttime is coming and then no one will be able to do any work. So long as I am in the world I am the light of the world.”
This is an interesting answer. What John’s Jesus is saying is that you can spend a lot of time worrying over who to blame for misfortune and suffering. You can blame the victim. You can blame the parents. You can even blame God. Or you can carry out the work of healing while you have the light to do it.

John’s gospel is a symbolic gospel. Nothing is to be taken literally. Jesus is not just about Jesus. The figure Jesus is not a one of a kind supernatural God-Man. I see him as representing the Authentic Human. He is a symbol, an archetype perhaps, of what it means to be an integrated, authentic, and aware human being. When Jesus speaks so exaltedly about himself, we can read it that he is speaking exaltedly about human beings.
Jesus is you when you see yourself as you truly are.
So the answer to the question of why do bad things happen to good people is this: 
So you can do good today. 
So pick up some spit and let’s go heal this guy. Here is the text:
With that he spat on the ground, made mud with his saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Then Jesus said to him, “Go, rinse off in the pool of Siloam” (the name means “Emissary”). So he went over, rinsed off [his eyes], and came back with his sight restored.
That is all done in the first three small paragraphs, the first seven verses. The rest of the narrative, the next couple of pages, the next 34 verses are about the responses to this healing. This is all John’s creation. Remember this is all fiction. John made this whole thing up. Part of this narrative is John’s sniping at his sibling, the synagogue. John writes later in the narrative:
“…the Judeans had already agreed that anyone who acknowledged [Jesus as] the Anointed One would be banned from their congregation.”
That is the historical issue behind John’s gospel. Those are John’s fighting words. His crowd in his time as he sees it has been thrown out of the synagogue. This is reminiscent of church splits.

You know there are dozen (give or take a couple) Presbyterian denominations in the United States. Last month, another one started. It is another splinter off the PC(USA). Apparently, the PC(USA) does not believe in the authority of Scripture. Because if we did we wouldn’t allow gays to be ministers. If we really loved Jesus we wouldn’t allow gays to be elders or deacons either. From our end we say the issue might not be scripture but perhaps a wee bit of prejudice on your side? 

Now imagine either side writing a gospel and putting Jesus in the script. Imagine the snark and sarcasm that would be embedded in the text. I know I could write a doozy. That is John’s gospel. The hurt and the anger jump off the page.

But it isn’t all snark and sarcasm. It does rise above that on occasion. Jesus certainly is a figure used to bolster one side in a sibling squabble. But he also represents the authentic human. In order to read it the second way, we have to allow ourselves to be the opponent of Jesus in the text as well as his ally.

The Pharisees or the Judeans or the leaders of the synagogue represent the folks who cannot see beyond their own traditions. These are those who believe that unless something receives their stamp of approval it cannot be legitimate. Anyone who does work outside the bounds of the authoritative structures is to be mocked and not acknowledged.

They are blind for doing that.

But…is there a sense in which we do the same on occasion? If honest I have to admit my blindness too.

There are forms of religious expression that I find particularly blind, silly, and superstitious even. I am suspicious of faith healers. I don’t like the way some people read the Bible as if it is a supernatural revelation from heaven. I don’t like certain views of Jesus dying for sins and whatever.

I think everyone would benefit from a dose of religious and scientific literacy. But if I cannot open my eyes enough to see that not everyone experiences life, our religious tradition, spirituality, and healing in the same way I do, then I am like the Pharisees who ask smugly,
“We’re not blind are we?”
Well, yeah, kind of, you are.

There are many different ways to live in this world. We all have our blind spots. We have blind spots about ourselves and we have blind spots about others. Sometimes others can point out our blind spots. That can be painful or embarrassing. That should be done sparingly and with love, not fake love, real love. Before we point out the speck in the other’s eye, we could remove the plank in our own as Jesus is reported to have said.

It seems that the gift of insight, the ability to see with the heart, is the gift that recognizes ironically, that we see very dimly. The greater the insight, the less omniscient we become. The greater our horizon of knowledge and wisdom, the larger is the abyss of the unknown. Insight then becomes humility.

That is the insight of John’s story. The blind beggar, the most humble of all has the gift of sight, whereas the scholar, the leader, the person with authority, is blind. The blindness on the part of the leaders in the text is not due to their lack of knowledge or wisdom. The blindness is the unwillingness to see that others can see where they cannot. It is the lack of humility.

Humility as insight is not hiding your truth. It is telling your truth but recognizing that your truth is provisional, meaning it can change. Humility also recognizes that your truth is one truth among many. None of us has a corner on truth.

One of the more rewarding aspects of ministry is being able to be present when people have their eyes opened in such a way to see things about themselves, or others or the significance of their lives. This is different than trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. This is different than the blind leading the blind. The posture of seeing is one of permission-giving and of humility. It is a posture of invitation. It is not forcing one’s truth on another but allowing through the telling of your truth for others to discover theirs. It is the gift of listening so that others may find the space to become whole.

Our story began with the disciples asking Jesus whose sin caused this man to be born blind. Jesus turns the question. He says it is nobody’s sin. It is life. In fact, it is an opportunity.

To the suffering and blindness in the world, you have the opportunity, with your life, with your truth, with your limited sight, to respond with compassion and healing.

Work while you have the light.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Kernels to Cosmos (2/12/12 Evolution Sunday)

Kernels to Cosmos
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 12, 2012
Evolution Sunday

John 12:20-50

Happy Evolution Sunday.

Evolution Sunday, now Evolution Weekend began seven years ago as a project by biologist, Michael Zimmerman. His goal was and is to ensure that public schools don’t get snookered by those who want to pass off Creationism or Intelligent Design as science. He takes on the Creationists regularly at the Huffington Post. He is my guest this week on my radio program.

He managed to find over 12,000 Christian clergy to sign a letter supporting Evolution and stating that Evolution is not in conflict with faith. The reason Professor Zimmerman asked clergy to sign this letter is that he realized that most people if forced to choose between religion and science will choose religion. If religion is pitted against science they will choose to believe their preacher rather than their science teacher.

The comforting truths of faith are preferred to the skepticism of science.

This is not surprising when you think about it. Human beings long to be loved and long to belong. We enjoy being flattered. So we believe it when we are told that we have immortal souls that will live forever and that we are embraced by divine beings. We enjoy the comfort of knowing that everything that happens to us is part of a divine plan as opposed to random occurrence. We like to affirm that we have a book like the Bible that is authoritative and truthful and that we have a figure like Jesus who saves us from all our troubles.

Science offers...
instead of a divine being, impersonal laws,
instead of absolute truth, a method of doubt,
instead of mind over matter, mind as (probably) a product of matter.

Today we celebrate the birth and the accomplishments of Charles Darwin, who showed us that human beings have much more in common with apes than with angels. Everyday the evidence that we gather publicly from using the scientific method affirms that human beings owe more to biology than theology for our existence.

Normally, this kind of talk gets ministers in trouble. Thankfully, I preach in a church that allows for great diversity of belief. Bring your own god or none. I affirm the right of anyone to believe whatever they wish to believe. You have the freedom and are encouraged to take your own journey. You have the freedom to reject part or all of anything I say.

That said, my experience also tells me that given the chance and the permission to question the truths of their inherited religion, people will grow to appreciate the world that the scientific method shows us and they will find a way to integrate this exciting new world with their faith.

I personally think that is an important task.

This is true not only for biology or cosmology but also with biblical or theological studies. While the churches as a whole cannot seem (as of yet) to get beyond the Christ of creed, biblical scholars show us the historical person of Jesus. They also show us that the authors of biblical texts were human beings in specific historical contexts. These studies show us the origin of the creeds, and that those origins are far more natural than supernatural.

This is the seventh Evolution Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton. I am in the midst of my seventh year as minister at this church. What I have been doing for these past nearly seven years through liturgy, sermon, poetry, and so forth, is to give expression to the sacred quality of life. 

That is a religion. 
That is faith.

I believe our sacred story, that is our 13.7 billion year cosmic story, is holy and beautiful. It is the one creation myth (and I say myth in the best sense of that word) that is universal. It is far more interesting than Genesis 1. It isn’t that Genesis 1 is wrong, it is that it was a product of its time and times have changed.

I believe that our sacred story of the evolution of life on Earth through natural selection is to use a phrase by biologist Richard Dawkins, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Tracing back our ancestors to the very beginning of life is a Divine work.

This is not just dry science. This is not materialism. This does not lack spiritual depth. This, I argue, is the very depth of the spiritual.

I also believe that it is sacred work to understand the cultural accomplishments of human beings, which include of course, religion. Human beings created the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Qur’an, and every piece of literature, artwork, sacred story, and song. Human beings invented meditation and prayer. The angels and the gods are the products of human creativity.  

To say that is in my view an elevation of the human, not a demotion.

What I am talking about today is religion not science. I am talking about faith.  I think we have reached a point in which the sources of religion and faith are no longer those artifacts of human culture such as the Bible or the Qur’an. The sources of faith and meaning are now our common origin stories that we are learning through public knowledge. The source of faith is the universe as we are observing it. Included in that is the broad spectrum of human culture that includes the Bible, the Qur'an and every sacred text from every religion..

In our text from John’s gospel, Jesus is reported to have said, 
“Unless a kernel falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
By including this I think the author of John’s gospel was suggesting that creativity cannot happen if we don’t allow the old way to die. This is true for everything from kernels of grain to the cosmos. Unless a star dies, new planets cannot form. Unless human beings die, new human beings cannot live. Unless there is death, there cannot be life. This is true for biological life as well as cultural life.

Old ideas need to die so new ones can be born.

An old idea that is dying is religion based on cultural artifacts as if those artifacts are absolute truth. 

I realize that saying this will sound controversial, but I invite you think about it before you dismiss it. Unless Christianity, based on Bible and creed dies, a new faith based on what we know of the universe cannot be born. This is true for Islam as well and for all the major religions.

Thanks to science we now have a common cosmic story and a story of life on Earth. What we don’t have yet is a way to celebrate that story religiously. We have not yet found the myths, rituals, and symbols to make that story sing. I think that Evolution Sunday is a start in that direction.

There is another part to this.

One of the tasks to a life that matters is to develop a sense of personal meaning. It is to address the question, “Why am I here?” with some answer, however provisional.  
“What is my purpose? Why am I here? What gives me meaning?”
Earlier I said that I affirm the right of anyone to believe whatever they wish to believe. I do. I also think there may be a better answer. While it is good to be free to develop our own sense of meaning it it is also good to work toward a shared meaning. We can believe whatever we want on our own, but what if we at least could find some things in common in which to believe?

I want to offer a couple of commitments that we might share regarding this new religion, this religion of this life, this religion whose source is the unfolding universe as we discover it.

We are at a very interesting point in history. Within the last couple of decades we have been able to see through telescopes to the earliest galaxies of the universe as they were forming. That should blow us out of our pews. Within the last several decades we have been able to trace the biological evolution of species including the human species. We can look back at our earliest ancestors.

We are learning more and more faster and faster.

But, we have also reached a point of limits regarding the Earth’s capacity to sustain human life. We are there on the edge, seven billion people and growing. Earth will spin for hundreds of millions of years. Humans may not make it through the next century.

I suggest we might share the following beliefs:

First, that human beings are important and valuable and worth keeping. We are as far as we know the only living things that can contemplate the universe. We are the universe conscious of itself. It took 13.7 billion years for the universe to "create" us. We ought to be thinking that we can flourish for millions of years into the future.

Second, the choices we make today will influence whether or not human beings will live through the challenges of the next century. We have already made a number of choices that have affected our planet that are already irreversible.

The invitation is to think about the choices we make not just for next few months or years or decades or even the next seven generations but the next 1,000 generations.

This is faith. This is religion.

It is a religion that is based on a belief that human beings matter and that Earth is home and life’s meaning and sacred worth is to be found here. 

The greatest act of faith is 
to act on behalf of and 
to trust in 
an existence that none of us will ever see.

Twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
On this Evolution Sunday, I put myself out there for you. Here are my beliefs:

I believe in this beautiful ball of water, this gorgeous Earth.
I believe in human beings and that we have sacred worth.
I believe that we will find a way to live sustainably with Earth for a long, long time.
I believe that courageous people sharing this faith today can make it happen.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Bread of Life (2/5/12)

Bread of Life
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 5, 2012
John 6:1-71

The Gospel of John is a weird book.
“If you don’t eat the Human One’s flesh and drink his blood, you won’t have life in you. Everyone who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has unending life, and I will raise them on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood real drink.”
It is no wonder that
“When the disciples heard this, many responded, “This sort of talk is hard to take. Who can take it seriously?”
That is the challenge of the Gospel of John. How do you take it seriously?

One way is to make a ritual out of it. Call it Holy Communion and once a week have people eat a piece of bread and drink some wine, tell them they are eating Christ’s body, the bread from heaven, and you got yourself a religion.

That is not so bad, if we know what we are doing.

How do you take this seriously?

The only way I can imagine that we might take it seriously is to treat it like a Zen koan. Such as,
“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
What does that mean? The Zen teacher would say, go wrestle with it and figure it out yourself. Koans are striking, puzzling statements. They are not riddles. The teacher who offers a koan is not looking for a right answer, but the state of mind of the student. A koan is a device used to help students become aware of who they are and what is real.

The Zen tradition didn’t begin until about six centuries after Jesus. I am not making an historical correspondence. I am not saying Jesus or the author of John was a secret Zen teacher. I am simply suggesting that the way to take Jesus seriously may be not to take him seriously. Maybe the author of John’s gospel is playing with our heads.

In the story, Jesus recognizes that the disciples are puzzled and so he offers a clue:
“So, does this shock you? What if you were to see the Human One going back to where he was to begin with?”
In other words what if you were to see reality? What if you were to see my true nature? He goes on:
“The spirit is life-giving; flesh is good for nothing. The words I have used are spirit and life.”
It could be something like this this: Jesus is saying,
“Since the flesh is nothing, telling you to eat my flesh is like saying, if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him. Because the Buddha you see is not really the Buddha. Buddha is in you. Similarly, the flesh you eat is not really me. Those who 'eat my flesh' get that.”
In this reading, eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood is a way of shattering an illusion and discovering one’s true self.

The question that I have when I read John’s gospel is how to understand the figure of Jesus. Is John portraying him as a supernatural being who became a human being, did stuff, and then scooted back up to heaven? If that is the case, I am not so interested. Those myths are a dime a dozen. If that is the case, I am like the followers who say,
“Who can take this seriously?”
But, if Jesus is John’s way of saying this is what it means to be a human being, then maybe I will hang around for a little bit.

One clue that Jesus represents the myth of the authentic human is that throughout John, Jesus is certainly sure of himself. He has no doubt about who is, where he comes from, and where he is going.

Because this story is written in the first century, there is heaven up above where the gods live just above the fixed stars. Earth is the center of the universe. Above us is the moon, the sun, the planets all orbiting around Earth. Way out there are the fixed stars also traveling around Earth. Above all of that is heaven, the abode of the gods where Jesus is from and where he is going.

All of those images such as “from above” have to be reimagined in our time. So what might this look like in our universe with a naturalistic world-view? I think those images such as “from above”, “eternal life”, “bread from heaven”, all refer to that center of identity. 
  • Who am I? 
  • What is my value? 
  • What am I doing here? 
  • What is my purpose? 
  • What do I want to make of my life?
Those are the kinds of questions we aren’t sure if we want to ask all of the time, because it is sometimes a bit easier allowing others to define our lives for us. It is easier not to pay attention to this amazing life that we share, that is existence. It might be easier to let others tell us who we are. And others will. We are a market share or a voting block or taxable commodity or potential cannon fodder. We are what the powers that be want us to be to the extent that we have value to them.

So Jesus comes along. It is the same world. There are different symbols and a different guy is in power, but it is the same dehumanizing world. Jesus says to that, 
“Eat me.
“Eat my flesh, drink my blood.
That is what I think of that.
I am not the flesh of this world.
I am the spirit of life.
I will not be defined by your categories.”
A couple of weeks ago, a new member of our community, Presbyterian minister, Rev. Don Steele, talked to the youth group. At our Wednesday night program, we were learning about Martin Luther King. I asked Don to come and speak because Don was in Memphis going to college in 1968. That was during the sanitation workers’ strike. Martin Luther King went there as you recall. Don marched with King on behalf of the sanitation workers. King was assassinated there in Memphis.

The sanitation workers were striking in part of because of wages, but also because of the way they were treated. They were not treated with dignity. There was not a place to even clean up before they went home. They had to ride on the bus smelling like garbage. One event in particular triggered the strike. Two men were accidentally crushed by a garbage truck and the city provided no compensation to the family members.

These sanitation workers marched in the streets of Memphis. It wasn’t just about money. It was about human dignity. They marched with signs that read, “I am a man.”
I am a man.”
That is for what they were marching. Their humanity. They weren’t asking permission for it. They were declaring it. 
"I am a man."
It is as though they were declaring that they were from above. They were not identified with the worldly categories of garbage worker. They were human beings who happened to do this service for the community and they expected to be treated with respect.

That is what it takes sometimes.

When the powers that be do not serve the people but serve instead their own profits, they need to be shaken down. They need to be called out and called down. It is not wrong for a business to make a profit. A profit allows the business to survive in order that it can continue to serve. But when the profit becomes not the means but the end then it becomes, to use an ancient spiritual word, demonic.

That is what we have in our world today. We have demonic corporations masquerading as human beings and not serving the people, but serving their own profits. I am not saying that every business is that way, of course, but many are. We have politicians, not all by any means, but many, who instead of serving the people have sold out to the money these corporations foist upon them in order to stay in office and get elected.

We need people to stand up and say, 
“I am a man. I am a woman. I am a human being.”
When our mountains are destroyed, our water polluted for the sake of corporate profits and at the expense of the lives of human beings, we need to say,
“I am a man. I am a woman. I am a human being. This is Earth. This is home. This is not your commodity.”
Sometimes speaking on behalf of real human beings instead of corporations who masquerade as human beings can be risky. But it is what human beings do. These are the final words of the last speech of Martin Luther King in Memphis in 1968. He had received threats to his life. He talked about that.
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I'm happy, tonight.
I'm not worried about anything.
I'm not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
That was King’s last speech.

This speech shows that King had a glimpse of who he really was and what mattered.

The Gospel of John is a weird gospel. 

But it is only weird when we take it literally. It is actually a powerful story of resistance to the powers that be when they become corrupt and dehumanizing. The Gospel of John provides a key and a clue in the person of Jesus who declares that he is the Human One, the Bread of Life, and so can we be.

These struggles that we have been witnessing around the world, the Arab spring, the occupy movement, and struggles for equality and civil rights for LGBT people in this country, the struggle for women’s value in many African countries, the struggle of the poor everywhere, is about human dignity, not just bread. It is not just bread, but as the song whose lyrics are in the bulletin, we march for bread and roses.

Bread, yes, but also roses.

Bread and dignity. The Bread of Life.

When we come later this morning and partake of bread and cup, for me, it is about a community of human beings gathering and uniting in a ritual that affirms life and dignity. It is reminding and being reminded of who we are and what we are here to do.

We are partaking together in the Bread of Life.