Sunday, March 30, 2014

Agents of Heaven (3/30/14)

The Agents of Heaven
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 30, 2014
Fourth Sunday of Lent

Matthew 5:1-16 (Scholars’ Version)
Seeing the crowds, he climbed up the mountain, and when he had sat down, his disciples came to him.  He then began to speak, and this is what he would teach them:

Congratulations to the poor in spirit!
The empire of Heaven belongs to them.
Congratulations to those who grieve!
            They will be consoled.
Congratulations to the gentle!
They will inherit the earth.
Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for justice!
They will have a feast.
Congratulations to the merciful!
They will receive mercy.
Congratulations to those whose motives are pure!
They will see God.
Congratulations to those who work for peace!
They will be called God’s children.
Congratulations to those who have suffered persecution for the sake of justice!
The empire of Heaven belongs to them.

Congratulations to you when they denounce you and persecute you and spread malicious gossip about you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad!  In heaven you’ll be more than rewarded.  Remember, that is how they persecuted the prophets who preceded you.

You are the salt of the earth.  But if salt loses its zing, how will it be made salty?  It’s then good for nothing, except to be thrown out and stomped on.  You are the light of the world.  A city sitting on top of a mountain can’t be concealed.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket, but instead on a lampstand, where it sheds light for everyone in the house.  That’s how your light should shine in public, so others can see your good deeds and praise your Father in the heavens.
-- Robert Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels Fourth Edition

During the season of Spring we honor the spiritual path or the life path of justice and compassion or the via transformativa.   This Latin phrase is taken from theologian Matthew Fox.  His definitive text on Creation Spirituality is called Original Blessing.  In it, he outlined four paths.   I will offer the Latin phrase and a translation in English:

The via positiva or the way of awe and wonder
The via negativa or the way of letting go and letting be
The via creativa or the way of creativity and imagination, and
The via transformativa or the way of justice making and compassion

For the past several years I have structured worship services around these four paths.   One path corresponds to each season.   During summer we emphasize the via positiva with its vibrancy, Fall and the falling leaves remind us of the via negativa, Winter as the days grow longer call to mind the via creativa that works underground, hidden, and Spring as life bursts forth gives expression to the via transformativa to the transforming possibilities of new life, new creation.   

We are now into Spring.   The way of justice-making and compassion.   Questions for us are

1)   how are we being transformed and
2)   how are we agents of transformation?   

The invitation through this series of sermons and through this season is to personally reflect on those two questions.   How am I being transformed and how am I an agent of transformation?   

This isn’t an intellectual exercise or a watching from a distance exercise.  This is participatory.   To get the most out of this, I suggest doing the brave thing and ask of the text and of the experience of worship, “What is being said to me?”    Another way to put it is, “How is my affliction being comforted and how is my comfort being afflicted?”   Being transformed by the Divine Presence is both affliction and comfort.   We need both at one time or another.    The thing we must be careful about is that we never know what someone else needs.    We trust that others get what they need not what we want them to get.   In general, we know that we all need challenge and comfort.    A steady diet of one or the other does not lead to transformation.

A symbol for this season of transformation is the realm of God.   This has been translated as kingdom of God or empire of God or God’s domain, or in Matthew’s gospel, the empire, kingdom or domain of heaven.    Matthew uses the word “heaven” instead of “God” out of respect for not uttering the word “God” but it refers to the same thing.

Jesus used the phrase (basileia tou theou)  empire of God more than any other.   The empire of God was the content of his preaching and the focus of his action.     What is it?  It was something that was present even though hidden and also coming.    What is the empire of God?  I don’t want to say too much.  When Jesus was asked a question like that, he would answer,

·      It is a mustard seed that grows into a shrub and birds nest in it.   
·      It is a woman concealing leaven into fifty pounds of flour until it is all leavened.  
·      It is the prodigal son coming home and the invitation to the favored son to come to terms with that. 
·      It is your enemy who helps you when you are in the ditch. 
·      It is a shepherd who risks leaving 99 sheep in search of one. 

You get the idea.   It is metaphor taken from life about life that is infused with divine possibility and promise.   We can play with the metaphor, by comparing it to the empire of Rome, or to the kingdom of Herod.    It is as if Jesus is saying, “You know all too well what the empire of Rome and the kingdom of Herod are like.  You know who runs the show and who gets run over.”  In the empire of God, it is all upside down or right side up.  

I would say that the empire of God is more than a critique of political, economic, and social realities.   But it isn’t less than that.     If we wish to speak meaningfully about the realm of God, the meaning of life, and of spiritual matters we must take seriously these earthly matters.   The metaphor itself, empire of God, is a political one, and Jesus spent a great deal of his time teaching about earthly things and enacting his earthly vision.    That said, one could certainly affirm that the empire of God points to transcendence.    It won’t do to restrict or reduce the metaphor.  Let it be as expansive and open-ended as parable.

In light of the spiritual path of the via transformativa, the way of justice-making and compassion, the empire of God is also about transformation of mind and heart.   There is no text in the Western literary canon that speaks to that possibility more than the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.  This text even impressed  Ghandi.  He said:

 "The message of Jesus as I understand it is contained in the Sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole... If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, 'Oh, yes, I am a Christian.' But negatively I can tell you that in my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount... I am speaking of the Christian belief, of Christianity as it is understood in the west."

We are going to spend some time with the Sermon on the Mount.   With the exception of Palm Sunday, Easter, and Pentecost, the sermons for the next three months will be on this text.   

First some preliminaries.  The sermon takes up three chapters in Matthew’s gospel, chapters five, six, and seven.   It is the first big collection of the teachings of Jesus in Matthew.    Directly before the sermon, Jesus was baptized by John and tempted in the wilderness.  As soon as the temptation ends, he learns that his friend, John the Baptist has been imprisoned.   Jesus, then according to Matthew, begins to proclaim,

“Change your ways, the empire of heaven is closing in.”   

He gathers Peter, Andrew, James, and John as disciples.    He begins a tour of Galilee teaching about the empire of God and healing as the text says, “every disease and every ailment the people had.”   People come to him from all over for healing.  

Then he goes up the mountain, sits down, and his disciples come to him.  He opens his mouth and speaks.   He gives what has been called the Sermon on the Mount.    Is this what happened historically?  Probably not.  This is a literary construction created by Matthew at least fifty years after the fact.    It is drawn from remembrance of oral tradition and reflection on this remembrance.    

How do we know that?  Some of this sermon has a parallel in the Gospel of Luke and some of the sayings are echoed in the Gospel of Thomas.  Scholars believe there is a previous source from which Luke and Matthew borrowed.   It is called Q, which is the first letter of the German word, Quelle, which means “source.”   

In Luke it is called the Sermon on the Plain and it is much shorter than Matthew's sermon.   There are things in common in both sermons.   Some of blessings are in common as well as the teachings on

loving enemies,
judging others,
trees and their fruits,
and the parable of the builders are all found found in both gospels.   

Those teachings would have belonged to an earlier part of the Jesus sayings tradition.     With that in mind, how much of today’s text, Matthew 5:1-16 goes back to Q?   Did Matthew change any of it? 

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus said:

Congratulations, you poor!  God’s empire belongs to you.
Congratulations, you who weep now!  You will laugh.
Congratulations, you hungry!  You will have a feast.  

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus said:
Congratulations to the poor in spirit!  The empire of Heaven belongs to them.
Congratulations to those who grieve!  They will be consoled.

Congratulations to the those who hunger and thirst for justice!  They will have a feast.

Notice the difference.  Luke has Jesus speak directly, second person plural:  “Congratulations, you poor, you who weep, you hungry.”

Matthew, on the other hand makes it the third person.  Congratulations to the poor, then adds, “in spirit.”    For Matthew, Jesus doesn’t address actual hungry people, but those who hunger and thirst for justice.    For Matthew Jesus is talking about  qualities of character.     

It is likely that Luke retains the earlier version, the version that resembles the historical Jesus.  Jesus was addressing the poor, the hungry, and those who mourned loss due to injustice, that is the oppressed.     Matthew takes those sayings and changes them. 

Matthew also adds congratulations to the gentle, the merciful, those whose motives are pure, and those who work for peace.    Again, those are all qualities of character.

Luke adds, “woes” or as the Jesus Seminar translates it “damn” as in:

Damn you rich!  You already have your consolation.
Damn you who are well-fed now!  You will know hunger.
Damn you who laugh now!  You will learn to weep and grieve.
Damn you when everybody speaks well of you!  Bear in mind that their ancestors treated the phony prophets in the same way.

That is likely not original to Jesus.  Luke has Jesus speak of the reversal of fortunes throughout his gospel.   Luke has Mary, Jesus’s mother, say that the poor will be lifted up and the powerful thrown from their thrones as en example.   The woes or the “Damn yous” are an invention by Luke.

Then both Luke and Matthew have Jesus congratulate “you” second person plural when people persecute you.   That goes back to Q and perhaps to Jesus himself or at least to the early followers of Jesus. 

I take time to do this Bible study to make the point that each gospel writer shapes Jesus.   It takes work and debate to distinguish the historical Jesus from the various interpretations of Jesus within the New Testament itself.    That doesn’t mean that we only care about what we think is the historical person.   It is good to know that this is complex and ongoing.  The message of Jesus is fluid.  It is able to be shaped by others to fit their context. 

Take for example Martin Luther King, Jr.  He spoke in the 1950s to African-Americans as his primary audience who were suffering under segregation in the Deep South.   That was his historical context.   Now nearly 60 years later, we have a national holiday for him.   He symbolizes more today than he did in his own time.  He is a symbol, among other things, for non-violent resistance and liberation for a variety of social causes that might not have been on his radar screen.    His dream can apply to those who were not his original audience.  His message is shaped and transformed by contemporary needs.   That isn’t a bad thing.  It means his message is alive.   We would be careful to take it too far.  We always want to keep in mind his original setting so we don’t utilize his message in a way that becomes a blatant distortion. 

Similarly, Matthew’s gospel was written 50 years or more after Jesus lived and died.   The community would have expanded beyond those whom Jesus knew, likely the poor and dispossessed.    In Matthew’s community, there are people who are not poor or hungry as well as those who are.    Matthew remembers and reshapes the message of Jesus so that can challenge and influence a wider audience.    Mark, Luke, John, Thomas and other texts even those long lost to us would have done the same thing.  The Nicene Creed and the various ways Jesus is used today demonstrate that his symbol is alive.   Again, we do well to go back to the source, to the original context as best as we can to understand the historical person so we don’t distort him too much, or at least if we do distort him, we do so consciously. 

Matthew, whoever that was, the name Matthew was attached more than a century after the fact, shaped Jesus to fit his contemporary situation.   You could call this the work of Spirit, that is making the message present.  Matthew created, by shaping remembered words of Jesus and adding others, a profound ethical text.  

“Congratulations!”  That is pronouncement language.   “Congratulations, Mr. President for toppling your enemy!  You, Mr. Emperor, are the ruler of the free world!”  We know that.  We give them medals and build libraries in their honor. 

Except in Matthew’s case the favored ones in God’s empire are not those who hunger for power and whose ambition is dominance, they are those who hunger for justice.   They recognize their poverty of spirit rather than gloat in their hubris. 

In God’s empire, the gentle or non-violent lead the charge. 

In God’s empire, the merciful and compassionate direct public policy. 

In God’s empire, the pure in heart, those whose motivations are not corrupted by the largesse of the wealthy, direct the vision.  

In God’s empire the peacemakers, those who have learned war no more, and don’t give the latest military conflict justification and excuse, are called the sons and daughters, the flesh and blood, the kin of God.    The peacemakers are those who work tirelessly for alternatives to violence, who stand in front of bulldozers, who speak for and who work for justice for all people, not just the privileged.

In God’s empire, those who are mocked, ridiculed, and hassled for speaking these truths need to recognize that as a badge of honor.  Congratulations!  Do it again.   When the powerful call you names and try to silence you and discredit you for calling them out, you are on the right track.   That is what has happened throughout history.  

As you are transformed by the vision of God’s empire for all people to live in peace with justice, to have access to healthcare, to have a home to live in, to have food on the table, to have freedom to speak, to have control over their own bodies, to have the right marry whom they love, to live sustainably with the abundance of Earth’s bounty, to share the land, the holy land of Earth, then Dear Beloveds, as you are transformed by that vision, as you take it to heart, then be the salt of transformation to the world.   

Speak your truth.   This world needs a salting.    It needs light to shine in the darkest corners of cynicism.   Put it on a lampstand.  

Jesus wasn’t speaking to great orators, authors, or politicians.  According to Matthew, Jesus was speaking to fishermen.   He spoke to laborers.   He told them, “You are salt and light.”  

The great truth that I think the historical Jesus knew and I think it is the real reason his vision and his symbol made an impact, is that he trusted that it was possible.   The Empire of God is hidden for sure behind all the corruption, injustice, violence, and pain of this world.   But just because it is hidden, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.    I think the historical Jesus believed that everyday people can bring it out of hiding by their actions and words.    The Empire of God is participatory.    We are transformed and are agents of transformation as we participate with each other and with the Divine Mystery that pervades all the universe itself.   

As we speak it and act it, it becomes. 

Salt the world, Beloveds. 

Light it up.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Where Are We Going? (3/23/14)

Where Are We Going?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 23, 2014
Third Sunday of Lent

It Is Enough    
Anne Alexander Bingham

To know that the atoms
of my body
will remain

to think of them rising
through the roots of a great oak
to live in
leaves, branches, twigs

perhaps to feed the
crimson peony
the blue iris
the broccoli

or rest on water
freeze and thaw
with the seasons

some atoms might become a
bit of fluff on the wing
of a chickadee
to feel the breeze
know the support of air

and some might drift
up and up into space
star dust returning from

whence it came
it is enough to know that
as long as there is a universe
I am a part of it.

During the season of winter we have been reflecting on The Great Story.  New Zealand minister and professor of religion, Lloyd Geering calls this story “Our Awe-Inspiring Journey of Evolution.”  

It began 13.75 billion years ago with the Big Bang.   The Big Bang was in the news this week.  MIT physicist, Alan Guth around 1980 created the theory of inflation.  He calls it the bang in the Big Bang.    It begins with a patch 100 billion times smaller than a proton.   This patch made of repulsive gravity material expands exponentially, doubling every 10-37th of a second.    The news this week is that astronomers have been able to measure these early gravity waves and provide evidence for inflation.   I have no idea what this is, but it is cool.  Awe-inspiring. 
Everything that exists started with that patch.   The reason we can talk about this is because of the consistency of natural laws.    That is counter-intuitive because it seems natural to us to think that there is meaning, purpose, design, and will guiding it all or at least behind it all.    But it appears that natural law and randomness are sufficient.   

We tend to think if there is not an agent giving it all meaning then there is no meaning.   But we don’t have to think that way.  We could affirm that there is meaning without an agent.  Or more accurately, we could own up to the joy and responsibility that we are the agents making meaning out of it all.    One could say that we have an important role.  We are the universe reflecting on itself.  

This has been a constant theme of mine throughout this series of sermons.   The joyful responsibility of making life meaningful belongs to us.    At the same time life unfolds in unexpected and surprising ways.    We make meaning on the fly.

So if we came from a patch 100 billion times smaller than a proton, nearly 13.8 billion years ago, where are we going?   Physicist Lawrence Krauss says there are three possibilities for the expanding universe:  open, closed, or flat.  

In a closed universe gravity will halt the expansion and reverse the expansion, bringing the universe back to the patch. This is called the Big Crunch.  

If we live instead in an open universe, we will keep on expanding forever.  

Krauss thinks we live in a flat universe.  In this universe the expansion slows but never comes to a halt.

In the super big picture, one of those places is where we are going in however many tens or hundreds of billions of years that might take.  

That answer might not be particularly satisfying, although I do like the idea expressed in the poem I just read by Ann Alexander Bingham:

it is enough to know that
as long as there is a universe
I am a part of it.

Closer to home, where is Earth going?   

Earth and our solar system were formed around 4.5 billion years ago and scientists think that our sun has reached middle age.  In another 4.5 to 5 billion years, the sun will burn its hydrogen.   Then it will burn its helium.   Then Earth will swell expanding its volume past the orbits of Mercury, Venus, and Earth.   Earth literally will be swallowed by the sun.    But that is a long way off.  We have plenty of time to manage our affairs.

Before the sun burns up its hydrogen, it will continue to get hotter.   Two and half billion years ago, the sun was 85% as hot as it is today.   A billion years from now as the sun heats the oceans will evaporate and the atmosphere will be like a sauna.   The north and south poles will be tropical areas.   That could go on for hundreds of millions of years.  By about two billion years from now, all the moisture will evaporate and Earth will be barren and baked.    But that still leaves plenty of time to accomplish all those things on our bucket lists. 

In about 250 million years the continents drifting at the pace of the growth of your fingernail will eventually run into each other again.  This supercontinent already has a name, Novopangea, and it will extend along the equator.   Getting more acquainted with the neighbors is something to which we can look forward.  Even though neither you are I will be here.

Within fifty million years it is likely that we will have been hit by an asteroid of the size that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.  That would do us in for sure.   Almost every year we get hit by a rock about 25 feet in diameter.    The atmosphere breaks it up.    But about every 1,000 years a 100 footer hits us.  In 1908 one hit in Russia and leveled a swath of forest.    Stones a half-mile in diameter hit about once every half-million years and three-mile diameter stones hit once every ten million years.   The stone that knocked out the dinosaurs was about six miles across.

Carl Sagan of Cosmos fame, was concerned with asteroids.  He said that is enough reason for international action.    This might include dedicating telescopes to plotting the paths of these asteroids.   If we were to spot a big one targeting Earth, we could, if ready, alter its path with a rocket or well-placed nuclear explosion.   

Sagan also argued that for our long-term survival, we will have to explore space.  The choice as he put it is spaceflight or extinction.   It might seem crazy or unattainable, but as Robert Hazen wrote in his book The Story of Earth, a one-way trip to Mars is something to consider.   He wrote:

Were we to send an expedition with years of supplies instead of fuel, with sturdy shelter and a greenhouse, with seeds, with a lot of oxygen and water, and with tools to extract more life-giving resources from the red planet, then an expedition just might make it. …If NASA posted a sign-up sheet for the chance at a one-way trip to Mars, thousands of scientists would volunteer in a heartbeat.  Pp. 266-7.

In the next hundred thousand years we could expect an eruption from a megavolcano.  Throughout the history of Earth, as Hazen points out, megavolcanos

“have darkened the world’s skies for years and altered the landscape over millions of square miles, not thousands.  The most recent megavolcano explosion, Taupo on the North Island of New Zealand 26,500 years ago, may have produced more than 200 cubic miles of lava and ash.” 

Within the next 50,000 years we can expect sea levels to rise and fall.  The polar ice caps could grow and the sea level could drop 200 feet or more.    In the next 1000 years, due to the current warming of the planet, the sea level could increase by a hundred feet or more.           

Even in the next 100 years, and this is where humans have influence, sea levels could rise two to three feet.   The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum or PETM is the most rapid well-documented temperature shift in Earth’s history.   It is the cause of mass extinctions 56 million years ago.   This is what Robert Hazen says about it:

“Global changes in atmospheric composition and average temperature that took more than a thousand years during the PETM extinction scenario have been surpassed in just the last hundred years, as humans have burned immense quantities of carbon-rich fuels.”  P. 280

Between asteroids, megavolcanos and global warming, it is amazing that we are here at all.   I haven’t even mentioned the other threats we bring upon ourselves.  What of human beings?    Where are we going?  None of those cataclysmic events will extinguish life.   Life will go on and evolve whether human beings are around or not.   If we are concerned with saving anything, we could hold up a sign that says, “Save the Humans.”    How do we even do that? 

I don’t pretend to know, but I will share with you one of my favorite scriptures that helps me get perspective.    Most of the time we mull over the events of the day.  On our minds may be a recent diagnosis, the prospect of a new romance, a conversation with a relative, grief over a loss, where to go for lunch, a troublesome financial obligation, an unresolved conflict, you know, the daily stuff of life.   There is nothing wrong with that.  It is where we live.  To paraphrase poet, Mary Oliver,

“Hey I spent the day watching a grasshopper.  What else should I have done?”

Here is that scripture.  It is not in the Bible.  It is a Zen story.   I have told this story so many times, you will probably roll your eyes.  “Oh, that one again.”  It is a tale that I find both unsettling and encouraging.    I first heard it  when I was a Freshman in college.   I took a Bible as Literature course at Montana State University.   The professor’s name was Michael Sexson.  And he told this story in class.    I have kept it and told it throughout my ministry and I tell it to you now again.

A man is running.   He is running as fast as he can.  He is running for his life because he is being chased by a tiger.   The tiger is getting closer and closer.   Suddenly, the man comes to the edge of the cliff.    He has no time to think as the tiger is on him.  He jumps.  Amazingly, a branch is growing outside of bush on the side of the cliff and he grabs it on his way down.   He hangs on.    Above him is the tiger just a few feet away.  Below is a drop of a hundred feet or more to jagged rocks and certain death.   He looks back to the branch that is coming out from the cliff and notices two mice, one white and one black, chewing on the branch.  Tiger, mice, rocks.   He looks to the end of the branch.  There hanging from it, is a huge, red, luscious strawberry.    While hanging on to the branch with one hand he reaches out with the other and takes the strawberry.  He feels it and smells it and tastes it.   And he says, “How delicious!”

The great ones such as Jesus and Buddha remind us that life is impermanent.   If we learn anything from The Great Story, it should be that everything changes. Nothing stays the same.  Even the sun will die one day.  Even the solid ground beneath our feet is in motion.    All the species of life we see and don’t see, plant, animal, and insect represent only 1% of all the species that have ever existed.   99% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct.   You will be too.  This too shall pass.   The disciples are oohing and ahhing at the great temple that Herod built.   Jesus tells them that one day all will be rubble, not one stone upon another.  This too shall pass.

The great masters tell us that only when we get that, when we truly understand that, not only with our heads but with our hearts will we attain any sense of peace with our existence.    Only when we stop clinging to that which is impermanent and cease our desire for that which is not real will we be able to be present to what is real. 

Because all is impermanent, that is, no thing, that does not mean that all is not meaningful.   The meaning is in the strawberry.  More precisely, the meaning is in the tasting of the strawberry.    That is real.

This Zen story tells me to taste the strawberry.    I can’t do anything about the mice, the tiger, or the jagged rocks.  I can do something about the strawberry.  How do we do that?   How do we say in the midst of it all, “How delicious!?”

You have to decide that yourself of course.  There are, however, others who have tasted the strawberry and have told us what it tasted like to them. 

Since it is the season of Lent, think of Jesus.   He tasted the strawberry by giving himself rather than preserving himself.   He lived with radical integrity.   Those who have followed in his example have done courageous things and have lived courageous lives.    They have been able to move beyond the boundaries and the restrictions of their tribes and have named and followed their truth.    Because they have done that, they have opened up possibilities for humanity. 

The great ones have never followed the herd.   They found that life was delicious when they found their voice and the courage to stand for truth and love as best as they saw it.  They found it worth it, even if it meant that at times they had to walk that lonesome valley.  

Others have tasted the strawberry by showing us the wonder of life.   Our scientists, poets, and artists tingle our senses with vibrancy.   Theologian Matthew Fox reminds us that each of us is an artist.    Each of us is a bard. Each of us has a loveliness to express.    How delicious!

In all of these cases we can be thwarted and stymied by the illusion of permanence.   We can worry over what we have or don’t have and we can miss life in the process.   That is the point of ritual and religion, to bring us back to the present, to what is real.   Taste it.

We really don’t know what is ahead for us even for the rest of the day, let alone the rest of our lives, or the collective lives of human beings.  

The Julia Roberts character in the film, August:  Osage County, says at one point:
"Thank God we can't read the future — we'd never get out of bed.”

The Great Mystery is that we don’t know where we are going.   And we won’t know.   If evolution teaches us anything, it is that possibility happens.   I know a little bit about the lives of my ancestors.  None of them know about me.  I never knew either of my grandfathers yet they live in me.  Their lives influenced and shaped mine as mine will shape those who come after me, yet I will never know.   I can only trust that my small actions can effect huge changes.   I must therefore live as honestly as I can today, not to try to control the future, but to be true to my present.

There is always possibility for beauty.  

We will be surprised.

I found this quote from Reinhold Niebuhr to be true:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.

With that, I will end this series of sermons.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Who Are We? (3/16/14)

Who Are We?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 16, 2014
Second Sunday of Lent

Geering and the Psalmist

When I look up to the heavens,
the work of your fingers—
the moon and the stars
that you set in their place,
I ask, “What is humankind?
Why should you remember it?
Why should you care for mortal humans?”
For you have made them little less than gods.
With glory and honour you have crowned them.
Psalm 8

This feeling of awe, once experienced by our spiritual forbears with respect to the supposed Creator God in the heavens, has not vanished with the ‘death of God’; it has simply been transferred to the self-organising cosmos itself, for that is what has brought us forth.  We see the same universe they did, but through a very different cultural lens.  Ancient talk of the gods and later talk of God reflected the way our ancestors personalized the forces of nature by projecting their own subjective attributes onto the world around them.  What most amazes us about the self-organising universe is perhaps its propensity to bring forth ever-more complex wholes…Jan Smuts called this creative power of the universe holism and explained that this universe is not a static and changeless thing, but rather a self-creative and evolving process.  The process of evolution is itself the supreme miracle—by which I mean it is a phenomenon that leaves us in wonderment.
Lloyd Geering, From the Big Bang to God, p. 155.

It has only been in the last 150 years or so that humankind has been able to discover, comprehend and articulate the Great Story.   That is the Great Story of the Universe and of Humankind’s place in it.   

Previous stories including the Christian story have had great influence in our self-understanding but all have them have been eclipsed by the emerging story.   As wise as our religious and spiritual traditions have been and still are, nonetheless, each of them is from a pre-modern era.   We have a passed a threshold of understanding due to our insatiable curiosity and a method of uncovering knowledge that is trans-cultural and global.    It matters not what language we speak or what religion we may have practiced or still practice or with what ethnic traditions have shaped our identities, we are now children of science.    

That doesn’t mean that science is the final word or the final method of discovery.  It is, however, the method that across all disciplines of learning that has achieved the best results.    Our universities around the globe are not based on revelation or traditional religious teaching.  They are based on reason.    Even religious colleges despite a veneer of piety must base their curricula on science if they are going to accomplish anything.

I graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary.  It is a block away from Princeton University.  If the seminary wishes to communicate with the university, and it does, it must do so through the language of reason and science.    To try to make any case on any authority whether it be a bible, a creed, or some form of apostolic succession is nothing more than special pleading.   It will be dismissed as quaint and irrelevant.

Obviously there is great resistance to the advent of reason.  Those who still wish to define the story of the universe and of humankind through the Bible, for instance, either have to resist science outright or incorporate science within the overarching narrative of the Bible.  The results are awkward at best.       

My great, great grandfather, John Shuck, a Presbyterian, born in 1800 would have understood the universe and humankind within the narrative of the Bible.   He would have had no reason to question the first chapters of Genesis, or any of the Bible for that matter, at face value.    He likely would have affirmed that a loving, yet just judge and creator with a command created earth and the heavens and all of life in five days around six thousand years ago.    He would have affirmed that human beings were formed from clay on the sixth day as the apex of creation, the image of God.  He would have affirmed that these humans were yet tarnished beyond recognition by sin requiring the god/man Jesus Christ to die for the sins of humanity and thus restore not only lost humanity but the creation itself.  The promise of a new heaven and a new Earth would come at any moment.  Eternal life would be granted to those predestined to receive it and eternal damnation for all others according to God’s righteous love and sovereign mystery.

His son, my great grandfather, also named John Shuck, also a Presbyterian, probably would have affirmed similar things, except that he was educated after the Civil War.  He would have had to wrestle with the observations of Charles Darwin and the science of the 19th century.    He would have somehow incorporated that into the narrative of the Bible.   Perhaps he would have lengthened the days of creation or regarded some passages metaphorically. 

His son and my grandfather Gordon Shuck, graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1906 with a degree in electrical engineering.   He, from what I know of him, would have respected his religious upbringing and accepted its moral teaching.   He was even a member of the University Congregational Church in Seattle, Washington.  He taught electrical engineering at the university and he likely would have dismissed quietly theological affirmations.  He was clearly a person of science.  He would have accepted as did science at that time that the universe was the Milky Way galaxy.   The Bible had little if anything to say about it.

My father, also Gordon Shuck, also a man of science, was less polite about the Bible and about Christian teaching.   He embraced no religion and regards it for the most part as superstition.    “False” is his word for it all.  He looks to reason and science for answers to our questions.   I don’t think he finds science to be particularly comforting, however.  He does attend church for the social interaction and because they let him play his clarinet.     

Then there’s me.

I trace these generations to show through my male Shuck ancestors the shift that has happened within a relatively short period of time.    It is a shift in the Christian west from the Bible containing the story and meaning of the universe to the universe containing the story of the Bible and the Christian religion as one cultural product among many.    

Not only has this shift happened generationally, for many of us it has happened within our own lifetimes.  I grew up in the church.  My mother taught me about the Bible and to love Jesus.  I still do.    My adult life has been a struggle, a wrestling with God, so to speak, regarding faith and reason.  

When the Bible and Christian creed defined us, we had a place and a purpose.  We also had a divine father to bless us.   Now the magnificent Great Story of our 13.7 billion year journey may leave us with a sense of cosmic loneliness.    I don’t think the answer to that cosmic loneliness is to reject or to ignore the Great Story.    I think we have to live with that loneliness.   It may take time before this Great Story can be emotionally and spiritually satisfying.     

This weekend I was invited to speak at the Holston Presbytery high school retreat. The theme was “Behind the Mask”.   Find and embrace the you behind the masks that we make to protect ourselves or to fit in and so forth.    My approach came from a different angle.  I noted that the words mask and person come from the same word prosopon, a term from the ancient Greek theater.   The actors would use masks or prosopa to show emotion or character.  

Drawing from Greek theater, early theologians wrote about God.  That word,prosopon, was used for the persons of the Trinity:   Father, Son, Spirit.    Father, Son, Spirit, are really, literally, masks of God.   These theologians were suggesting that God is really hidden from us, but self-reveals to us through these masks.   Masks reveal as they hide.   I told the youth if mask-making is good enough for God, it is good enough for us.

The title of my talk was “The Drama of Re-inventing Ourselves.”  Life is not about stripping away our masks to find the real us, but to create, modify and integrate our various identities or masks.   Life is a series of trying things out. 

This doesn’t end at adolescence.  Throughout our lives we have to redefine ourselves.  We are thrust into roles:   son, daughter, sister, brother, husband, wife, career, and so forth. We look to role models and try to imitate those we like until we make these identities our own.   We have to try on identities, prosopa, and see what works and what doesn’t.  We accept, reject, and modify.   

The unifying aspect of this is to integrate our various roles to promote flourishing, that is the flourishing of ourselves and of others.   Life is the ongoing drama of recreating or reinventing ourselves to respond to the various roles in which we are thrust and to do our best to live whole and integrated lives.   

We have to recognize what our masks do for us.   If we create a mask, that is a personality, that helps hide our pain, or shame, or helps us fit in, that’s OK, that is sometimes necessary for survival.  But as we realize that, and we realize that masks both reveal and hide, what are we needing to sacrifice and to hide in order to be loved or accepted or appear strong or whatever the mask does for us?  What is really being loved and accepted?  Is it us or is it only this part of us? 

Our flourishing might require us to take a risk, to dare courageously, and to allow that hidden part a place on the stage.   I shared with the youth some examples of my own attempts at this mask-making, and the integrating of these masks, a task that is ongoing.    Of course when you reveal what is hidden, that requires vulnerability.   That takes heart or courage.   Even though this can be frightening, risky, and possibly painful, the payoff is human flourishing.   

I closed with this quote from Teddy Roosevelt.    I learned of this quote from author, Brene Brown, who was on my radio program and wrote an important book calledDaring Greatly.  The title of her book comes from this quote that Roosevelt delivered in a speech from 1910: 

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

That was my talk with the youth.  What does that mean for this sermon?  
We, too, need to dare greatly.    We have been thrust onto a cosmic stage.   

Who are we?  We are the product of chance and natural law.  We are connected biologically with all of life.  We are connected through chemistry with all that is.  We are stardust.  We arrived 13.7 billion years after the universe sparked and 4.5 billion years after our sun and earth was formed.   One planet among hundreds of billions in our galaxy.  One galaxy among hundreds of billions of galaxies. 

Everything we are is the result of natural selection.    We are made of Earth.  We come from Earth and to Earth we shall return.    We arrived very late on the scene and when we leave the stage that is both individually and as a human race, Earth will continue to spin and the universe will continue its dance. 

What a stage! 

The masks that we have inherited from our religious traditions while helpful may yet be incomplete for the task.   They must be greatly modified at least.  We must re-invent ourselves.    

Who are we?  We human beings are the universe becoming conscious of itself. One of our tasks is to tell the truth of what we see and hear without flinching.  As part of that, as an inheritor of a religious tradition, I think we need to speak of God and to try on words and explore images and create spaces and rituals that help us express the Holiness or the Sacredness of life. 

Who are we?  We are the aspirations to great virtue.   Look around and notice the courage and the love and the sacrifice and the tenderness and the care.  We do that.   We are the creators of music.  We told every tale of every god.    We know the suffering and anguish and disappointment of life.    None of it is lost.    All is gathered gently as we tell our truths.

Who are we?  We are hopelessly possible.   Hopeless romantics.  Hopeless hopers.   Daring to smile, daring to say there is a chance this might work out.    We are those who try again.  We are poetry, art, parable, and dream. 

Who are we?  We are members of God’s body, that is Earth.   It is home.    Ours to protect.  Ours to love.   Ours to cherish for as long as we have the stage.  

For that, for all that is, we dare greatly.