Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Coming Out of the Female Christ (8/18/13)

The Coming Out of the Female Christ
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 18, 2013

The Thunder: Perfect Mind 1:1-2:10
I was sent out from power
I came to those pondering me
And I was found among those seeking me
Look at me, all you who contemplate me
Audience, hear me
Those expecting me, receive me
Don’t chase me from your sight
Don’t let your voice or your hearing hate me
Don’t ignore me any place, any time
Be careful.  Do not ignore me
I am the first and the last
   I am she who is honored and she who is mocked
I am the whore and holy woman
I am the wife and the virgin
I am he the mother and the daughter
I am the limbs of my mother
I am a sterile woman and she has many children
I am she whose wedding is extravagant
And I didn’t have a husband
I am the midwife and she who hasn’t given birth
I am the comfort of my labor pains
I am the bride and the bridegroom
And it is my husband who gave birth to me
I am my father’s mother,
My husband’s sister, and he is my child
I am the slave woman of him who served me
I am she, the lord
of my child
But it is he who gave birth to me at the wrong time
And he is my child born at the right time
And my power is from within him
I am the staff of his youthful power
And he is the baton of my old womanhood
Whatever he wants happens to me
I am the silence never found
And the idea infinitely recalled
I am the voice with countless sounds
And the thousand guises of the word
I am the speaking of my name
You who loathe me why do you love me
and loathe the ones who love me?
You who deny me, confess me
You who confess me, deny me
You who speak the truth about me,
lie about me
You who know me, ignore me
You who ignore me, know me
I am both awareness and obliviousness
I am humiliation and pride
I am without shame
I am ashamed
I am security and I am fear
I am war and peace
Pay attention to me
I am she who is disgraced
And she who is important.

  The Thunder: Perfect Mind   4:1-8
Bring me in shame, to yourselves,
     out of shame
With or without shame
Blame the parts of me within yourselves
Come toward me, you who know me
And you who know the parts of me
Assemble the great among the small
     and earliest creatures
Advance toward childhood
Do not hate it because it is small
     and insignificant
Don’t reject the small parts of greatness
     because they are small
Since smallness is recognized from
     within greatness
Why do you curse me and revere me?
You wounded me and you relented
Don’t separate me from the first ones
Throw away no one
Turn away no one

In 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt a young boy named Muhammad Ali while looking for dung for fuel discovered clay jars.   They contained ancient manuscripts written in Coptic.  Muhammad and his brother thought they would be able to sell them individually.  Their mother burned a few of them worried over their contents. The texts were traded through various antiquities dealers eventually finding their way to the Coptic Museum in Cairo.  It wasn’t until 1977 that they were published in English by James Robinson.     It wasn’t until the 1980s and 90s and into this century thanks to the internet that people have become aware of these texts.   

These texts found at Nag Hammadi that been buried there for over 1600 years were texts of a spiritual nature that had not been previously read.   They includedThe Gospel of Thomas that consists of sayings of Jesus, some similar to the gospels in the New Testament, some quite different.  Many of these texts were Christian but they weren’t in the Bible.  Why?  

The people who found these texts meaningful 1600 years ago and more did not win the day.  It is possible that they were sealed and hidden in clay jars to preserve them from being destroyed by what became Christian orthodoxy in the fourth century.    After Christianity became focused and organized with a fixed canon and creed, other writings were deemed heretical and often sought out and destroyed.  With the Nag Hammadi collection we have a glimpse into the diversity of early Christianity.      

Hal Taussig of Union Theological Seminary has been introducing these texts in lectures and workshops for the last 15-20 years and realized that they had interest beyond simply intellectual interest to scholars.   People asked Hal why these texts weren’t in their Bibles.    Thus began the project of A New New Testament.   Rather than simply ask, “Why not?”, Hal thought “Why not do something?”  

There are many other texts in addition to the Nag Hammadi collection that are ancient Christian writings.  Some we have known about for some time while others had been discovered only in the last 150 years or so.   So Hal went through a process of selecting a council of spiritual leaders and scholars and through this council selected ten texts to add to the canon of the New Testament.   You can read the Gospel of Thomas alongside the Gospel of Matthew, Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and The Thunder Perfect Mind.   Instead of 27 books there are 37 books.   This is not “the” but “a” New New Testament.    You could make your own.   Here is one such collection of spiritual writings for 21st century Christians, A New New Testament

Is A New New Testament endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church, Holston Presbytery, or your local Free Will Baptist congregation?  No.  The very act of making A New New Testament invites perhaps even compels us to look at notions such as authority of scripture, canon, Word of God, creeds and beliefs, the person of Jesus, the Christ of faith, and what counts as “Christian” or church.     We are in the midst of a great “breaking open” or as religious scholar Phyllis Tickle says, a “great emergence” where old authorities and power structures are shifting.  

The response to this can either be one of excitement and openness to interesting possibilities or one rejection and a closing in to keep out so-called “heretical” ideas.    I am in the first camp.  I think it is exciting and that it is why I am introducing these texts in sermons and calling them scripture.  

One of these texts discovered at Nag Hammadi is a poem called The Thunder: Perfect Mind.  It is written in the first person.  The character speaking is female. But who is she and what is she?   She sounds somewhat like the personification of wisdom.  The Greek word for wisdom is Sophia.  This is from Proverbs 8:17.  Here Wisdom or Sophia is speaking as a female personification:  

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise
her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand.
Beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
“To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
O simple ones, learn prudence;
acquire intelligence, you who lack it. 
Hear, for I will speak noble things,
and from my lips will come what is right…

I love those who love me,
and those who seek me
diligently find me.   Proverbs 8:1-6; 17

In Thunder:  Perfect Mind, this personification of wisdom also speaks to an audience.   She wants to communicate something important about herself and about the nature of the universe and the individual. 

In Thunder, this wisdom woman goes farther than the Wisdom Woman of Proverbs.     She uses paradox and challenges dualistic notions of good and bad.  
I am she who is honored and she who is mocked
I am the whore and holy woman
I am the wife and the virgin
I am he the mother and the daughter

She says I had a wedding but no husband.  Then she says my husband gave birth to me and I am my father’s mother.    She sounds a little bit like the Logos in theGospel of John.    We read this text at Christmas in which John the Baptist says: “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”

In Thunder, she floods us with one image after another of what she is and its opposite. 

I am both awareness and obliviousness
I am humiliation and pride
I am without shame
I am ashamed
I am security and I am fear
I am war and peace
Pay attention to me
I am she who is disgraced
And she who is important.

This is a Christian text and she is a Christ figure.   We can tell this by the language she uses to describe herself such as “I am the first and the last.”   She speaks of her humiliation, shame, disgrace, rejection as Christ was rejected.     She is obviously not the historical Jesus.   Neither of course is Jesus as depicted in theGospel of John the historical Jesus nor the Jesus depicted in much of the canonical gospel material.   In Thunder, she is to use the phrase by Marcus Borg, the “post-Easter Jesus,” or the Christ of faith.  She is a product of the community’s projection and imagination as is the Christ of orthodox creed.     

She is very different than the Christ of orthodox creed.  She challenges all notions of wisdom that lead to arrogance or pretension.    She is not about believing in things.  She doesn’t save anyone.   There is no heaven or hell in this.   This is not easy doctrine to believe.  This is complex, paradoxical, and it requires reflection.   Check this out:

I am the coming together and the falling apart
I am the enduring and the disintegration
I am down in the dirt and they come up to me
I am judgment and acquittal
I myself am without sin, and the root of sin is from within me
I appear to be lust but inside is self-control
I am what anyone can hear but no one can say
I am a mute that does not speak and my words are endless
Hear me in tenderness, learn from me in roughness
I am she who shouts out and I am thrown down on the ground
I am the one who prepares the bread and my mind within
I am the knowledge of my name

When I read this my reaction is What?  Wow!  What?

She won’t let you get it and then let you go.   Once you think you have it, she comes back at you with another riddle, another image, another disturbance, and another gem.

One of my favorite gems is this imperative from chapter four verse five:

Advance toward childhood.

Right after that she says:

Do not hate it because it is small and insignificant
Don’t reject the small parts of greatness because they are small
Since smallness is recognized from within greatness

This parallels the canonical gospels in which Jesus welcomes the children.   He asks who is the greatest and points to the child and says unless you become as a child, you shall not enter the kingdom.    There is a need to unlearn to advance toward the beginner’s mind.   I want to assert that Thunder is not over against the canonical gospels.   She actually helps us draw out things in the canonical gospels we might not have seen. 

You have a parallel with the canonical gospels, but Thunder is even more explicit.  All of those things that we despise, that we reject, that we ignore, she is that.   If she is that, the divine is that, wisdom is that, the universe is that, Life is that, and you and I are that.  

That is why artists, novelists, and musicians are attracted to Thunder.   The text is rich with the complexity and the paradox of life itself.    We are a contradiction.  We are

She who is timid
And…safe in a comfortable place.

We are compassionate and cruel and hated and loved in every place.

We are all of these contradictions and so is everyone else.  So is Life.   When I read Thunder and allow Christ-Sophia or whatever her name is (and she doesn’t want to tell us), to speak to me, I have to allow myself to go to a place of questioning all that I think is good and bad and right and wrong and see the Sacred in all of it.   Even in my own despair and shame.

She says:
Wherever you hide yourselves, I myself will appear…
Receive me with understanding and heartache…

This week I did a radio interview with Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird who put together a book from the writings of Henri Nouwen.   This book is calledDiscernment:  Reading the Signs of Daily Life.   Henri Nouwen died in 1996 but this book is a compilation of his thoughts on discernment.   I have appreciated Henri Nouwen because of his raw humanity.  He holds little back about himself and his life and his struggles with God and faith.   

I found something in this book that jumped off the page and I see it here inThunder.   Henri Nouwen talked about Jesus’ life as depicted in the gospels.  In the first half of each the gospels, Jesus acts.  He heals; he casts out evil spirits; he teaches; he tells parables; he debates; he overturns tables in the temple.  Then he is handed over by Judas and for the rest of the story he is acted upon.   That is the meaning of the passion.   He is arrested.  He is tried.  He is beaten.  He is executed.  He is passive.   

Nouwen’s point is that the gospels are telling us that his passion is as sacred as his action.    The divine presence, the Christ-Sophia, the sacredness of Life, whatever name we have, is as real and present in Christ’s passion as in his action.  Of course, this is the same for us.   

Of course we value the action.  We value the accomplishment.  We value the movement.  We even evaluate ourselves in those terms.  How useful are we? What have we done?   When we cannot act; when we age;  when we become ill; when we suffer loss, we feel disgraced, abandoned, not useful, or worthwhile.  We judge ourselves and others.    

The point of the gospels as Nouwen helped me see and what I see in the Thunder: Perfect Mind is that the Sacred is in the being acted upon just as much as the action.   We are of divine worth in both postures equally.  The presence of God or the Sacred is there in the heartache and in the hiddenness.    The Sacred is there.  We are invited to see it and to allow ourselves to be open to it.  We are embraced and understood through it all.   Our passion is our teacher.

In life when we are acting and when we are being acted upon, we can hear the wisdom of Christ-Sophia:

Wherever you hide yourselves, I myself will appear…
Receive me with understanding and heartache…


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