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….


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