Sunday, November 24, 2013

Following the unKing--A Sermon (11/24/13)

Following the unKing
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 24, 2013
Jesus and His Kingdom of Nobodies Sunday

Selections from the Gospel of Thomas

Jesus saw some babies nursing. He said to his disciples,
"These nursing babies are like those who enter the Father's kingdom."

They said to him,
"Then shall we enter the Father's kingdom as babies?"

Jesus said to them,
"When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter the kingdom."  (22)

A woman in the crowd said to him,
"Lucky is the womb that bore you and the breasts that fed you."

He said to her,
"Lucky are those who have heard the word of the Father and have truly kept it. For there will be days when you will say, 'Lucky are the womb that has not conceived and the breasts that have not given milk.'" (79)

The disciples said to him,
"Your brothers and your mother are standing outside."

He said to them,
"Those here who do what my Father wants are my brothers and my mother. They are the ones who will enter my Father's kingdom."  (99)

Jesus said,
"Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters, and carry the cross as I do, will not be worthy of me."  (55)

Jesus said,
"Whoever does not hate father and mother as I do cannot be my disciple, and whoever does not love father and mother as I do cannot be my disciple. For my mother birthed my body, but my true Mother gave me life."  (101)

Jesus said,
"I shall choose you, one from a thousand and two from ten thousand, and they will stand as a single one."  (23)

Jesus said,
"From Adam to John the Baptist, among those born of women, no one is so much greater than John the Baptist that his eyes should not be averted.      But I have said that whoever among you becomes a child will recognize the Father's kingdom and will become greater than John."  (46)

Jesus said,
"If they say to you, 'Where have you come from?' say to them, 'We have come from the light, from the place where the light came into being by itself, established itself, and appeared in their image.'

If they say to you,
'Is it you?' say, 'We are its children, and we are the chosen of the living Father.'

If they ask you,
'What is the evidence of your Father in you?' say to them, 'It is motion and rest.'" (50)

Mary said to Jesus,
"What are your disciples like?"

He said,
"They are like little children living in a field that is not theirs. When the owners of the field come, they will say, 'Give us back our field.' They take off their clothes in front of them in order to give it back to them, and they return their field to them.  For this reason I say, if the owners of a house know that a thief is coming, they will be on guard before the thief arrives and will not let the thief break into their house their domain and steal their possessions.  As for you, then, be on guard against the world. Prepare yourselves with great strength, so the robbers can't find a way to get to you, for the trouble you expect will come.    Let there be among you a person who understands.  When the crop ripened, he came quickly carrying a sickle and harvested it. Anyone here with two good ears had better listen!"  (21)

The end is here.

Next week the lectionary text features John the Baptist with his long hippie hair and sandals announcing that the kingdom of God is at hand.   The end is near.    That will be the First Sunday of Advent, which is the beginning of the church year. 

Today is the last day on the church calendar.  The kingdom of God has arrived. The end is here.   That means that the beginning is also here.    Once you get to the end you go to the beginning.      Clever huh?

This Sunday has been traditionally called Christ the King Sunday.  Liberals swooped in and decided that kings were politically incorrect.  They changed it to Reign of Christ Sunday.     I am neither a liberal or a traditionalist.  In these matters I am more of a deconstructionist.    I think the word king should be retained.   In the time of Jesus it was all about kings.    Kings and subjects.   Kings and power.  Kings and armies.  Kings and violence.    This is, to use a word by scholar Dominic Crossan, the “matrix” of Jesus.    You can’t read Jesus or the New Testament without knowing about empires, kings, and violence.    As Crossan has said, it would be like trying to understand Martin Luther King Jr. without acknowledging slavery, lynchings, and racism.

How did Christ get to be a king?  Here is where my deconstruction comes in. Christ might have been a king.  Jesus wasn’t.    

Christ comes from the Greek, christos, which means “anointed”  or “messiah.”   There were many messiahs, christs, and anointed ones who thought they had been chosen to overthrow Roman rule, restore Israel and bring in the Hebrew God’s kingdom of justice.   They all ended up dead.    Add Jesus to that number.

The reason Jesus didn’t stay dead is because of Paul.  Paul took the term Christ and ran with it.    Paul didn’t care about the person Jesus.  He cared about the enfleshed cosmic Christ, who existed from the beginning, who came down, was crucified in the flesh and raised to a newly embodied spirit being, the first fruits of a new creation of beings who would rule the cosmos in a new heavenly age to come.    Those who participate “in Christ” through baptism and communion, will be and are becoming this new creation.  

Paul’s letters are the earliest documents in the New Testament.   He was so influential that the gospels, that is the stories about Jesus beginning with Mark, are heavily influenced by Paul’s theology.    

For instance, communion.    In Mark, Jesus supposedly says the cup is his blood and the bread his body.    You need to eat and drink his body and blood to participate in him.    That is Paul’s theology.    It is more likely that the Gospel writers put those words on the lips of Jesus rather than that Paul got them from Jesus. 

There were alternative ways of understanding communion.   We will use an alternative text today, from a first or second century document called the Didache.  The cup and broken bread symbolize the teachings of Jesus and the unity of the community.    

Paul didn’t care about the human Jesus.  He cared about the Lord, the King Christ.   He looked toward the new kingdom that King Christ would inaugurate on his return in the sky at any moment.   A kingdom that never came.     

As the years rolled by, the immediacy of the return of King Christ was downplayed and the church geared itself for the long haul.   Someday, supposedly, King Christ will return.    In the meantime King Christ is still on his throne in heaven if not on Earth at least in any obvious sense.    Of course, on Earth, King Christ has his viceroys, for the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope, and for Protestants, the institutional structures that surround the interpretation of the Bible and its enforcement.  

As the church developed its liturgy and theology and its seasons of the church year and its lectionary readings and its hymnody it structured it all around the mythology of King Christ.     From Birth to Death to Resurrection to Ascension to Rule to Promised Return, it is all about King Christ.    Our lovely new hymnal is filled with hymns celebrating King Christ.       

Today we bring it all home on King Christ Sunday.

Now we are in an era of deconstruction.   People in many quarters are asking questions about this and challenging the story.  Is King Christ the best or the only myth available to us?   Might there be other ways of interpreting Jesus?    Were there other ways of interpreting Jesus in the decades following his death?   Might there be value for us in reevaluating our myths and making some new choices?  

I have serious issues with King Christ and his legacy.   It is otherworldly and many of the aspects of it that are this-worldly often ally themselves with hierarchical power structures.    To be sure, there have been those who have found King Christ to be a source of resistance to domination systems, but I wonder if King Christ has done more to reinforce domination systems than to subvert them.   I don’t have a definitive answer to that.  I invite you to explore that question yourself. 

Obviously, you can’t just turn off the switch on 2000 years of King Christ.    The whole apparatus is built on King Christ.  I am not sure I want to turn off the switch if I could.  I like a lot of it.    To say I like it is strange.  Do I like my parents or do I like speaking English?  It is in me.    It is in all of us.  Even if we are not participants in the church, we are influenced by King Christ mythology because of our history. King Christ mythology even as it is being deconstructed is with us for some time.   We can however subvert it.

One of the ways I think we can subvert King Christ is through the human Jesus.    We do this by asking questions like:
Who was this guy really?
What did he do? 
What did he say? 
What was he up against?
How did this human being become a myth? 

Asking those questions doesn’t mean we will get the answers.   I am less sure about Jesus than I have ever been.    I don’t know the contours of his vision.   I don’t know if he knew.   I don’t know if he even had a plan.  From what I know about him, he was caught up in some movement of resistance to the violence of the Roman Empire.    He was executed, brutally and publicly, as part of a systemic effort to control the populace.   He was in the way.   He was tortured and killed by Kings.   

In my mind, to turn Jesus into a king is an insult.     If we look through history at the brutality and oppression enacted in the name of King Christ, you’ll see what I mean.    Holy wars, heresy hunting, and inquisitions are the work of Christ the King.    It still goes on today.  

A tiny example this past week was the trial against Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist minister, found guilty for officiating at the marriage of his gay son and son-in-law.    Rev. Schaefer could lose his ministry credentials because he is not going to stop.   He has two other gay kids to marry.   He is tired of the bullying church.  That inquisition is King Christ in action.   When Jesus became King Christ, the values of his enemies became his values.   

If Jesus knew what became of his memory he would turn over in his grave.

Jesus the human being was no king.  He had no standing army.   He had no subjects.   Those who tagged along after him made their living by begging.   Jesus had no weapons.   Jesus owned no land or ships or castles.  He didn’t even own a stick.

The only thing that Jesus had at his disposal was poetry.

“Study the wild lilies.  They neither work nor spin; yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his splendor was not robed like one of these.”  Matthew 6:28-9.

We can’t even be sure what poetry went back to Jesus and what was later credited to him, but we can be sure that he did tell parables and aphorisms and in his way he subverted the power of kings.      The power of kings is known throughout history regardless of a government’s polity.   The power of kings is displayed through weaponry and spectacle and fear and most importantly the rhetoric of morality.  

“We are on the side of goodness.  
God blesses us.
Nuclear weapons are a force for good when we use them.  
Drones bring peace. 
We start our wars with prayer to Christ the King in the National Cathedral.”

If Jesus were here and alive today I don’t think you would find him in church worshiping Christ the King.  Oh, he would go.  He’d sit in the back.   Or maybe just to be ornery, the front.  He would observe.  He probably would weep.    Then he would say something witty and outrageous:

Don’t react violently to one who is evil…
Love your enemies…

You know, crazy, subversive, and impractical stuff like that.    

Stuff that may be the only solution to humanity’s self-destructive madness.  

In an attempt to be subversive, I call today, Jesus and Kingdom of Nobodies Sunday.  It should be Jesus and his unKingdom of Nobodies.   What might it look like to be a disciple and to follow this unKing?  

Here is the Gospel of Thomas understood it:

Mary said to Jesus,
"What are your disciples like?"

He said,
"They are like little children living in a field that is not theirs. When the owners of the field come, they will say, 'Give us back our field.' They take off their clothes in front of them in order to give it back to them, and they return their field to them.  For this reason I say, if the owners of a house know that a thief is coming, they will be on guard before the thief arrives and will not let the thief break into their house their domain and steal their possessions.  As for you, then, be on guard against the world. Prepare yourselves with great strength, so the robbers can't find a way to get to you, for the trouble you expect will come.    Let there be among you a person who understands.  When the crop ripened, he came quickly carrying a sickle and harvested it. Anyone here with two good ears had better listen!"  (21)

The Gospel of Thomas is not in the Bible.   The Jesus of Thomas is no king.   I am not sure if Jesus said this.  He is remembered to have said this or something like it.    But what is he saying?   I see him as offering wisdom in a world of violence.  How do we resist?  How do we keep our “soul” our integrity, our sanity? 

The wisdom here is the wisdom of all subversive poetry.   That wisdom is this:

You are not what others say you are.  
The values of the domination system do not have to be yours.
The clothes of empire are not yours.   They don’t fit anyway.  Take them off.  
You are a human being. 
Don’t let the world take that from you.  
Guard your integrity.
Be patient and trust.  When the time is right, you will produce a harvest. 

Following Jesus in this sense is not about following another set of rules or blindly obeying one authority figure in place of another.    It is finding yourself.   It  is making your own meaning.   

Christ the King tells people what to do.   His mythology is alive and well.  He provides meaning for you whether you like it or not and if you don’t like it he sends you to hell.   If you obey he promises a spot in heaven.

Jesus the unKing isn’t alive anymore.   He died around the year 30.   He lived then he died.  I think he lived with integrity.   He resisted violence with his words and with his body.   He won’t send you to heaven or hell.  He won’t answer your prayers.   Nonetheless his legacy lives on in the wisdom that he left us.  

We have the freedom to take it or leave it.  

I find that inspiring.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Who Are You? (11/17/13)

Who Are You?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 17, 2013

Gospel of Thomas 3
Jesus said,
“If your leaders say to you, ‘Look the Father’s kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you.  If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you.  Rather, the Father’s kingdom is within you and it is outside you.

When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father.  But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.

Who are you? 

The Gospel of Thomas is all about that question.   Thomas is not interested in God.  There is no interest in covenants with God, or practices to please God. There are no stories about God and no theologies about God.   

There is something Thomas calls the Father.  Thomas does mention the Father’s kingdom.    In saying three we hear the phrase, “children of the living Father.”  There is that.

Even so, the discussion is not about the Father.   No praise or apologies are expected on the Father’s behalf.   There are no grand narratives of the Father creating and conquering and forgiving and whatever else divine Fathers might do.   

The only point for Thomas in mentioning the Father at all is to get to the question of who you are.  

Who are you?

Thomas does give an answer, sort of, in saying three. 

“When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father.”

That is about as close to an answer as we get in Thomas.  Even that is rather vague.    If you want to know who you are, you do have to have some discussion about your parents.
In saying 101, Jesus says,

“My mother birthed my body, but my true mother gave me life.” 

With Thomas we have mothers and fathers. 

Then there is that odd saying 105:

“Whoever knows the Father and the Mother will be called the child of a whore.”

The commentators I have read aren’t sure what to make of that.  Some suggest that Thomas is refuting claims about rumors surrounding the illegitimacy of Jesus.  Another translator says that the word translated as “whore” could also be translated as “son of man” or “human being.”  

I think the word is supposed to be “whore.”  The idea is that the world will reject you, call you names when you discover who you are because they don’t get it.   They don’t get you.     That theme of rejection by the world is also seen in saying 66:

“Show me the stone that the builders rejected:  that is the keystone.”

When you know who you are you will be rejected.  When you discover who you are you will have found the keystone.   That is what the builders or the world rejects.    They will reject you, call you a child of a whore, say other evil things.    

Why all this meanness?  It because for Thomas, most people don’t do the work.  Most don’t do the work to know themselves.  They go through life drunk.     There are a series of three sayings 73-75 that spell this out:

Jesus said:
The crop is huge but the workers are few, so beg the harvest boss to dispatch workers to the fields.

The point is that the task is before us, but few do it.  Saying 74 reads:

Someone said,
“Lord, there are many standing at the drinking trough, but there is nothing in the well.”  

That can also be translated as…

Lord, there are many standing at the drinking trough, but there is nobody in the well.”

In both cases, the majority of people are standing around useless.    There is either nothing in the well or there is no one willing to go into the well to get the water.

Then the third saying of this triplet:

Jesus said,
“There are many standing at the door, but those who are alone will enter the bridal suite.”

Thomas talks about single, solitary, alone, or one.   We’ll get to that theme next week, of “the two becoming one.”    Being alone is not about being lonely, I think it means being fully integrated, beyond dualism.    When you become one you get it.  You are it.  You realize who you are.    These three sayings show that while there are many who could get it, few do.   

Thomas could be considered an elitist text.   The few, the proud, the Thomas followers.    Many religious groups are like that.   The club of true believers is a small one.  

There is no salvation outside the church.  
We are the only ones who really believe the right thing.  

Narrow is the path and straight is the gate. 
Many are called, but few are chosen…
 as Jesus is purported to have said elsewhere.   

If that is all Thomas is saying,
“We’re special, the rest of you not so much,”

…then well, whatever, Thomas.     He is just another street corner lunatic or a pompous boob that no one wants to be around anyway. 

How do you improve yourself without the side effect of looking askance at others?

Are you really going to eat that double cheeseburger and fries?
Are you still smoking? 
Haven’t seen you in worship for a while.
You mean you don’t recycle your number 6 plastics?

How do we engage in self-improvement without being a snob?    Maybe you can’t. Perhaps the shadow side of self-improvement is judgmentalism.  

If you know yourselves you are children of the living Father, but if you don’t you are the poverty.    

I like to think that the people I really admire, those who know themselves, those children of the living Father and living Mother, people like Ghandi or Dorothy Day, or you fill in your favorite, are also magnanimous toward the rest of us ne’er-do-wells…us cheeseburger eaters.

I was listening to NPR the other day. The broadcaster was talking about first lady Michelle Obama’s effort to increase enrollment in college.   She was reportedly talking to students and said that she grew up in the south side of Chicago and attended Yale and Harvard and so can you.   

My first thought was that I was glad she was inspiring students to reach for a college education, for self-improvement.  My second thought right on the first thought’s heels was that she wasn’t telling the whole truth.   

The vast, vast majority won’t be going to Yale or Harvard no matter what they do.   The vast majority of valedictorians across America of this year’s high school graduating class won’t go to Yale or Harvard.    Yale and Harvard pride themselves on the huge number of highly qualified people they reject.    Of course there are other schools.   These valedictorians might have to attend Brown or ETSU.  That is what Michelle Obama is talking about.    If you apply yourself, you can gosomewhere.    But that isn’t really what she said.   “I went to Harvard, so can you.”    The reason we even care what she says is because she is the First Lady.

Michelle Obama like her husband, by measure of any standard we might call successful, has arrived.   In light of the metaphor in saying 75, she has entered the bridal suite.  We are standing at the door.    

Is that the spirituality of Thomas?  That there is only room at the top of this pyramid for the few, the elite, the Harvard educated?    Despite her protest of humble beginnings, she had a spark she could ignite.     Simply put, there is not room at the top for everyone.  Not everyone has the spark.

My struggle is whether or not Thomas is elitist.   I like Thomas.   I like finding my own path without having to believe a bunch of outdated doctrines about God and whatever.    I like puzzling little riddles.   I like questions that aren’t answered by a catechism.    If I were King of the Presbyterian Church USA my first act would be to dispense with all creeds.    

But most people do want to believe in God and they do want to know that their prayers will be answered or at least that a divine being hears them.   They want beliefs and answers and are impatient with questions like, “Who are you?”   

The first question in the PCUSA Catechism for Children is, “Who are you?”  The answer is, “I am a child of God.”    That is good enough for most folks who might then say, “Now just tell me what to do or give me a message of comfort.”  

Is Thomas putting down a more concrete form of spirituality based on beliefs?  

“If your leaders say to you, ‘Look the Father’s kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you.  If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. 

I think so.    Thomas represents a group of people who rejected the answers given to them by the religious institutions and their leaders.    They prefer to find their own answers.    

The shadow side to the Thomas community is a snobbery toward simple answers and those who embrace them.  The shadow side to what becomes orthodoxy or an answer-based church is that wrong answers and those who hold them need to be excluded or silenced.   

This congregation is likely more of a Thomas church.   You can tell that by our mission statement with its emphasis on searching and learning.   

Who are you? 
Discover your path. 
Go for it. 
Bring your own God if you have one. 
If you don’t that’s fine, too.   

That’s us.   

And yet, not everyone is there.   Some get disturbed when they discover that my views about God are not at all orthodox.   

Bigger than all of that, is that none of us is either fully in one camp or the other.  We have this tension within ourselves of

answers vs. questions, of
wanting the freedom to explore vs. wanting the assurance of comfort, of
wanting change vs. wanting stability, of
wanting to strive to improve vs. wanting acceptance for who we are now.

“Who are you?” could also be “Where are you now?”    Where are you with that tension?    A question for us as a community is how are we doing with that tension?   Part of the reason for this sermon is simply to name it.     The sermon is for me as much as anyone, to invite each of us to take ourselves lightly in all of this.    

The great psychologist Carl Jung invited us to know our shadow.  The shadow is not a bad thing.   The shadow is the result of light shining on a good thing.     Every good thing leaves a shadow.  It is good to be aware of it.   It is good to embrace it not judge it.  It is also good to recognize that we may see others in our shadow.   We may not have a clear picture of what we see in others.   

I wasn’t planning on going here with this sermon.  It took off on its own.    To wrap it up, I do want to say that I am grateful.

I am grateful, I am in a mood of gratitude as we dedicate our pledges today for the support of this congregation this coming year.  
I am grateful for the mix in this community.  
I am grateful for the work done here and for the courageous stands taken here.  
I am grateful for the freedom to find our own paths. 
I am also grateful for the tradition that shows
that there are good places to go on the paths
that have been cleared by others,
and that what we think might be a new path
may have been taken by many before us.      

So who are you?

Well, whoever you are,
whether you are a child of God or
a child of the Living Father and Mother, or whether
you know yourself, or not.  Whether you are
a spiritual being having a material experience, or
a material being just happy to be here, or
a product of natural selection, or
a spark of divine light…

whoever you are,

I love you and I am glad you are here….


Sunday, November 10, 2013

What Is Mine (11/10/13)

What Is Mine
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 10, 2013
They showed Jesus a gold coin and said to him, "The Roman emperor's people demand taxes from us."
He said to them, "Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give God what belongs to God, and give me what is mine."
Gospel of Thomas 100

Today is stewardship Sunday.  For the past four weeks we have had minutes for mission on the topic of stewardship.  There have been articles in the White Spire and announcements in the bulletin.  Everyone by now should have received in the mail a pledge card.  If not, there is one for your convenience in this morning’s bulletin. 

Next Sunday during worship we will have a time to dedicate our pledges.  After church today, everyone is invited to attend our annual Gratitude Dinner.  During this dinner we will take time to celebrate our community.   There is a great deal to celebrate.

Today’s sermon, liturgy and hymns are about stewardship and giving.  The theme for this year is “Giving as Spiritual Growth.”   Giving is good for us.  Giving is what makes us human beings.   Giving is a path toward self-discovery.  Giving helps us detach from our attachments.   Giving allows us to do collectively what we cannot do individually.  Giving brings happiness to ourselves and to others.   If you wish to be happy, give.  Giving people are happy people.  

Of course, I am not saying anything new.  This is ancient wisdom.   These truths are made evident in the lives of those who have sought to live them. 

Albert Schweitzer wrote  The Quest for the Historical Jesus in 1906 and following that practiced medicine as a medical missionary in Africa.  He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work in 1953.  He once told a graduating class of students:

“I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
I believe he was right. I have worked in the church for over twenty years now.  The reason I was attracted to it is because of the church’s emphasis on giving and service.   The church invites us to be our best selves.

I know it is cool to be cynical about the church.   The church is accused of being greedy, small-minded, backward, superstitious, and hypocritical.   Well, sure. What institution or individual at times isn’t?   Cynicism ultimately is a shallow path.    If cynicism is used as an excuse not to give or to serve then that is its fruit. It is another excuse.   Another wise person once said, “If you don’t want to do something, one excuse is as good as another.” I don’t spend too much time worrying over the cynics. 

The reason is that I have seen people give and serve.    I have seen givers and servers and I have been honored to work alongside them in my years of ministry.  

I have seen people give up Saturday after Saturday to build homes for Habitat for Humanity. 

I have seen people bring meals and comfort to those who are sick. 

I have seen people volunteer in the nursery and teach Sunday School to children and to work with our youth without knowing the impact this giving and serving has and will have in encouraging minds and hearts.     

I have seen people give of their time to sing in church choirs, clean up after church dinners, share what they have learned with others, weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh, week in week out, day in day out, givers and servers in small things and large.   

The value of that, if we are not careful, can be overlooked.  It is no small thing to give and to serve.  It is what makes us human beings. 

I have seen people discover and find their passion within the life of faith communities and give themselves to it. 

I know for me it was in the context of church that I discovered the movement for equality for LGBT people. 

It was in the context of church that I found my voice to speak on behalf of peace.

It was the context of church that the word stewardship expanded to be about care for Earth.  

It was in the context of church that I was encouraged to learn about ways to make life meaningful.  

I have seen this be true for others, perhaps you as well.

I know many in this congregation who have found information, wisdom, encouragement, and inspiration to advocate on issues of importance for our local community and for the world at large.   Whether it is peacemaking, or domestic violence, or the environment, or science literacy or hunger, I cannot name them all.  I would offer a friendly challenge to anyone to make an exhaustive list of things in which this congregation has been involved.   You can make a list and then someone will look at it and say, “You forgot this,” and another will say, “And you forgot that.”

It is important regularly to take stock of what we have and who we are as a congregation.  To give thanks.  To say, “Let’s keep this going.  This is important.”

It was in the context of church that I learned about giving.  I saw people give not only of their time and their skills and their passion but also of their hard earned money to something larger than their individual lives.  It was from the example of people in church, that I learned the discipline of giving,

whether by tithing,
or by making a pledge and filling it throughout the year,
or by making a commitment to give a percentage of each paycheck. 

Whatever the method, I learned disciplined giving by watching others do it in church.  The person from whom I learned this first was my own mother.  She just celebrated her 90th birthday.  To this day, she is most certainly a saint who gives and serves.  

“I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

When I recall all of these givers that I have known in my life I feel gratitude and pride.   I am thankful and proud to have known them and to have served with them. They have inspired me to discover my better self.  I also realize that I am but a novice and I have a long way to go and much to learn about giving and serving.  

Giving and serving isn’t easy.  Church isn’t easy.  Being a member of a faith community is not about consuming church goods.  Being in community is a challenge.  It is a challenge to each of us to be our better selves.  It is a challenge to receive and to offer forgiveness, to work collaboratively with others, to make decisions, to negotiate differences, to respect different styles, to understand various viewpoints, to honor our differences, to draw from these differences to create something unified and beautiful.  To make it work, each of us must seek and find a way to give and to serve.  

Of my many teachers, I have found those in Alcoholics Anonymous to be especially wise.   Following the recital of the twelve steps, the text in the Big Book reads:

“Many of us exclaimed, "What an order! I can't go through with it." Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is that we were willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.”

That is wise advice for faith communities.  It is sage advice for those who wish to become givers and servers.  Disciplined giving is a tall order.   But the point isn’t to compare ourselves with others or to judge ourselves or to praise ourselves.   The point is not to think we have arrived or to despair that we will never arrive.  The point is the journey.  The point is progress not perfection. 

One of the reasons I enjoy the Gospel of Thomas is because I find it to be an especially helpful resource for the journey.   There are many ways to read this gospel and I read it as wisdom for the road.   Jesus even says in Thomas to “Be passersby.”  

This life journey to discover our core, our joy, our rest, our meaning is an adventure and best travelled lightly and without too many attachments to those things that keep us anxious over what we will eat, where we will sleep, what we will wear and so forth.  

The discipline of giving and the life devoted to serving helps us to loosen those attachments.   When we are less attached to our own needs and desires we are able to be present to life as it is.   We are able to be present to ourselves as we are.   We are not defined by our attachments but by something far more beautiful and important. This is a possible meaning of this exchange between Jesus and his disciples:

They showed Jesus a gold coin and said to him, "The Roman emperor's people demand taxes from us."
He said to them, "Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give God what belongs to God, and give me what is mine."
Gospel of Thomas 100

Versions of this exchange are found in the synoptic gospels.  The last line, “give to me what is mine” is unique to Thomas.   What does that mean?  

At the beginning of Thomas, the promise is made that those who discover the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.   “Discover the meaning of life” in other words.   What is that truth?   What is that meaning?   Hints are given throughout.   It is stated explicitly I think in saying 108:

Jesus said, "Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him."

When Jesus speaks of himself in Thomas I interpret him to be speaking of the authentic human.   That human is also you and me, beyond the trappings of ego.  Jesus in Thomas is your real self.   Give to that. 
“Give to me what is mine” could mean, “Give your life to authenticity.”  Beyond our duty as citizens, beyond our concepts even of God, give them their due, but give to what is life-giving.     That is not defined explicitly.   That is for you to discover.  

I think this particular community is a Thomas community in that regard.   Each of us is on our own journey, our own sacred path.  We aren’t here to interfere with that or to control that.   We aren’t here to tell you how to get to heaven or to avoid hell if there are such places in the first place.     We are here to share our wisdom and to hear the wisdom of the ancients and to test it to see if it works for us.  

That freedom is a precious and valuable gift.   If faith communities have their own personalities and gifts, that freedom to discover and follow your path may be a gift of this community.    

That is a rare and precious gift.   

It is worthy of our gifts.