Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Heart of the Matter (4/27/14)

The Heart of the Matter
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
April 27th, 2014
What wisdom and beauty his Sermon on the Mount
Displays, what energy and prophetic fire!
Yet one phrase, for which I still cannot account,
Reveals the innocence of the young Messiah.

“Thou shalt not commit adultery!”  We concur
In what was said of old.  Now hear the harder part:
“He who looks on a woman to lust after her,
has committed adultery already in his heart.”

I have often pondered, and I ponder still
That astonishing statement which condemns desire.
Did he think it possible by a mere act of will
To ward off lightning, douse unquenchable fire?

Was it easier for a son of God to smother
Thoughts innate to the rest of humankind?
Or did perhaps, having a virgin mother
Endow him, rather, with a virgin mind?

He was not prurient; he was no puritan;
His mind was generous as the gospel records.
He called himself Son of God, but also Son of Man:
Which of his two natures spoke those daunting words?

Their inhumanity is what makes them odd.
I hold with Blake:  “The nakedness of woman
Is the glory of God!”  I answer the Son of God:
Adultery in the heart proclaims me human.

When she moves in her beauty, the heart responds unbidden.
Too late then to deny involuntary delight.
And surely he knew how things suppressed and hidden
Infect us with dreams to dupe us in the night.

He spoke, some will say, not of rational admiration
But of animal passion.  To take these feelings apart
I offer them Occam’s razor for their operation
Of excluding Love from Adultery in the Heart.

It cannot be done.  Each interfuses the other,
Partakes of the other’s nature as water mingles with wine.
To condemn desire is to deny and smother
The root of love.  But I take a harder line.

Against that phrase, whose sense, I am afraid,
Duly considered borders on the obscene,
I invoke Peter’s dream:  “What God has made
Call not thou common or unclean!”

Matthew 5:27-37
As you know, we once were told, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I tell you, those who leer at a woman with lust have already committed adultery with her in their minds.  And if your right eye gets you into trouble, rip it out and throw it away!  You’d be better off losing a part of your body, than having your whole boy thrown into Gehenna.  And if your right hand gets you into trouble, cut it off and throw it away!  You’d be better off losing a part of your body, than having your whole body wind up in Gehenna.

We once were told, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I tell you, anyone who divorces his wife (expect in the case of immorality) forces her into adultery; and whoever marries a divorce woman commits adultery.

Again, as you know, our ancestors were told, ‘You shall not break an oath,’ and ‘Oaths sworn in the name of God shall be kept.’  But I tell you, don’t swear at all.  Don’t invoke heaven, because it is the throne of God, and don’t invoke earth, because it is God’s footstool, and don’t invoke Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great king.  You shouldn’t swear by your head either, since you aren’t able to turn a single hair either white or black.  Rather, your responses should be simply ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ Anything beyond that is inspired by the evil one.
I was tempted to skip over this section of the Sermon on the Mount.  There is just no way to talk about this text or even just to read the text in worship and not touch nerves.   No matter what I say, someone or several will be annoyed, irritated, hurt, shamed, or angered.  Our familial relationships are primary and primal.   The pain of relationships is something everyone knows.   
Not only that, we also know about fantasies, desires, socially unacceptable feelings and urges, and shame.   Feelings and desires so dark that our hero says will send you Gehenna.   Better to gouge out an eye or cut off a hand.   Heavy stuff.  
Now the section about oaths is a bit odd sounding to modern ears.   Certainly the take away is to be true to your word, but the prohibition on oaths probably has something to do with pre-modern fears of magic.   Oaths, blessings, and curses were believed to have supernatural power.   Perhaps Jesus is sweeping that away or perhaps more likely he wants to distance himself and his disciples from those who practice magical arts.   This brings up a question I often wonder about:  to what extent did Jesus share the superstitions and beliefs of his time and to what extent was he able to challenge them?    And that brings up another question:  was everything that Jesus said golden?     
That is a bit of a challenge for church folks because it has been drilled into most of us that the Bible, and Jesus in particular, are the Word of God.  Jesus just didn’t have an opinion that one could debate.  He was Divine, Absolute, and True.   When you read something on the lips of Jesus in the Bible, and you don’t understand it or are uncomfortable with it, well it is because of your sinfulness.   No matter what he says, he’s right.  He’s Jesus after all. 
I would say that is pretty much how the teachings of Jesus have been delivered over the years.  He said it, you should believe it, and the hierarchy of the church will institutionalize it.   More precisely, the church will be selective in what it chooses to institutionalize.   It has not institutionalized self-inflicted eye-gouging or limb removal.   It has institutionalized policies regarding marriage and divorce.    Do you ever wonder about how it is that church decided to make rules about some things Jesus said and not others?  
Marriage, divorce and re-marriage has been a big deal.   My senior colleagues who were ordained in the 50s and 60s were often asked at the time of their examination whether or not they would officiate at marriages for divorced people.    It was one of those litmus test questions.  The liberals would do it and the conservatives wouldn’t in those days.   It is pretty much a non-issue for Presbyterians today.   I officiate at weddings for people who have been divorced.  I don’t think that the act of remarriage is adultery.   I find it distasteful to moralize about the complexities of people’s lives.   Life is difficult and painful enough without adding layers of shame. 
That said, the question of marriage, divorce, and remarriage is not abstract for anyone.  It is personal and particular.   We all have personal feelings about this and about others.  Brokenness, injustice, hurt, shame, disappointment, as well as liberation, relief, empowerment, peace, all these and much more are feelings associated with the complexity of human relationships.   One rule does not fit all.   
Speaking of one rule not fitting all, the litmus test now is over one’s opinion on marriage equality.   These passages from Jesus about marriage and divorce are used by conservatives to deny same-gender marriage.   Poor Jesus gets blamed for everything. 
It is likely that Jesus had an opinion about divorce and remarriage. Even that is tricky.   We never can be certain that anything Jesus said in the gospels is actually from him.  It could be from him.  It could be something remembered out of context or with various degrees of accuracy.   It could have been made up by the gospel writer or someone else and placed on his lips.    You can make educated guesses but you really can’t be sure.    Not only that, but what do we know about marriage in the mix of first century cultures?   What was Jesus talking about and why? 
This isn’t the only place Jesus is recorded to have spoken about divorce and remarriage.   It does seem to me that it is likely that the historical Jesus did have an opinion.    It probably went something like this:
Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. 
We can say, so the guy had an opinion.   He also as pointed out in the poem by AD Hope had an opinion about a man looking at a woman with desire as committing adultery in the heart.   Notice it wasn’t a woman looking at a man or a woman looking at a woman or a man looking at a man.  Maybe Jesus never considered those possibilities.   I think the poem by AD Hope makes an interesting point.  The fact that he is willing to challenge Jesus makes it more interesting.   I think it is more interesting and more healthy to engage authority rather than be obedient to it.   Authority is earned by the truth it tells.   We can’t ever know if what is said is true until we engage it with heart and mind.
My first point in all of this is that just because Jesus is reported to have said something, that doesn’t mean one should follow it or believe it unconditionally.  He may have been speaking about a particular situation, not making absolute pronouncements of divine will for all time.  He may be exaggerating.  He may have been joking.  He may have been taken out of context.  It may not even have been him.  He may have been wrong.  Think for yourself.
I think the best way to honor or to approach a person is to regard him or her as worthy of an argument.   I argue and make the case that it is not more pious or righteous to be obedient to scripture than to be critical of scripture.  I would say it is more virtuous to engage scripture with all the critical faculties at our disposal.   The Bible or any holy text, Jesus or any spiritual or authoritative figure, may be approached sincerely and respectfully with doubt as with belief.    
I think we dishonored Jesus when we turned him into a god.  We framed him with our needs for divine certainty and in the process stripped him of his humanity.   But that is another sermon.  I simply want to assert that you have the freedom and have always had the freedom to say,
“Jesus said it.  Fine.  I disagree.”  
But before we agree or disagree with Jesus, it would be good to discover his opinion. 
What did the historical Jesus think about divorce and remarriage and why did he think that?  Again, evaluating all the statements reported to have been said by Jesus regarding marriage and divorce, what seems most authentic was this opinion by Jesus in a nutshell:
Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. 
First, notice that he is speaking about a man divorcing his wife, not a woman divorcing her husband.  Whatever marriage, divorce, and remarriage might have meant in that context it likely was enmeshed in patriarchal power relations.    Dominic Crossan points this out in his book, The Historical Jesus, when he quotes John Kloppenborg:
“The opposition here is not just to divorce. To forbid divorce one has only to say that divorce is never legal…. ‘The attack is actually against 'androcentric honour whose debilitating effects went far beyond the situation of divorce. It was also the basis for the dehumanisation of women, children, and non-dominant males.’”  P. 302 
Jesus wasn’t moralizing about divorce, nor was he defending patriarchal marriage.  He was criticizing the notion that adultery was an insult to the man’s honor.  He was turning the tables and defending the woman’s honor over against patriarchal power and arrogance.    He was saying in effect:
You, male with power, cannot exercise power to dehumanize another for your pleasure or convenience.  That is adultery. 
Second, this statement by Jesus didn’t just randomly appear.  There is a context.  When you read the minutes of a board meeting and you come across a bunch of rules and procedures that have been created, there is likely a story behind it.   Someone did something in the past and now a policy is created.   So what is the story behind this statement of Jesus?   Why did he decide to state an opinion? 
I think the story is Herod.  John the Baptist criticized Herod for divorcing his wife and marrying Herodias.   Herod had John the Baptist executed.  This is abuse of power on more than one level.  I think Jesus was taking a stand, a courageous stand, and a dangerous stand.  He was siding with his friend John, over against a king who exercised power, perhaps legally, but in Jesus’ view immorally against his first wife and against John. 
For Jesus, adultery meant abuse of power. 
What about adultery of the heart by looking upon a woman with desire?   This passage has created a great deal of shame for people over natural feelings, as AD Hope articulated in his poem.   Again, it is man desiring a woman, not the other way around.   We are still in the context of patriarchy. 
The Jesus Seminar voted that saying as not from Jesus.   They thought it was Matthew’s repetition of and comment on the commandment in Exodus 20:17:
"You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."
In this patriarchal context the issue is not so much lust in a sexual sense as it is desire for things and people that do not belong to us.   As Matthew frames this sermon, what begins in the heart, eventually expresses itself in action.  It isn’t a criticism of natural desire as much as the desire to abuse power.   Abuse of power and violence begins in the heart.  
I am not really sure what to make of it, actually. 
I want to hear the critique by AD Hope.  I think this passage has caused great shame over something that is the most powerful natural instinct human beings have, that is sexual desire.   If that is what this passage is about, a condemnation of natural feelings, then there is something odd about it.   I would reject it, too. 
On the other hand, if this passage is really about guarding one’s heart so it doesn’t lead to abuse of power and to dehumanizing others, then I think it does invite us to a higher level of self-reflection.   
Rather than simply justifying ourselves because we think we obeyed the letter of the law, the direction here and of the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount is the willingness to go deeper and to examine our motivations and our heart so that we can become our best selves.   
In that line of interpretation, this is Emmett Fox’scommentary on this passage from his book, The Sermon on the Mount:
In this unforgettable paragraph, Jesus stresses the Master Truth, so utterly fundamental, yet so unsuspected by the world at large, that what really matters is thought.  People have always been accustomed to suppose that as long as their deeds conformed to the law, they have done all that can be reasonably expected of them, and that their thoughts and feelings are of little importance, and that in any case these are  their own business exclusively.  But we know now that any outward act is but the sequel to a thought, and that the type of thought which we allow to become habitual will sooner or later find expression on the plane of action.  We understand now, in the light of Scientific Christianity, that thoughts literally are things, and that our choice of conduct really lies in our choice of the kind of thought that we permit to occupy the stage of our mind.  In other words, we have discovered that wrong thought is just as destructive an act as a wrong deed….
Lust, jealousy, vengeance, mentally entertained, carry the soul’s consent; and this soul-consent is the malice of sin, whether the corresponding outer acts be yet materialized or not.  “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.”  Pp. 68-9. 
AD Hope or Emmett Fox?  I’ll let you decide.
And maybe that is the great value of the wisdom of Jesus, he made people think and still does. 


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Belief in the Resurrection (Easter 4/20/14)

Belief in the Resurrection
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 20, 2014
Easter Sunday

Matthew 28:16-20
The eleven disciples went to the mountain in Galilee where Jesus had told them to go.  And when they saw him, they paid him homage; but some were dubious.  And Jesus approached them and spoke these words: 

“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.  You shall go and make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the son and the holy spirit.  Teach them to observe everything I commanded you.  I’ll be with you day in and day out, as you’ll see, until the culmination of the age.”

John 12:24
[Jesus said]:  Let me tell you this:  unless the kernel of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single seed, but if it dies, it produces a great harvest.

Peter Rollins
Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

Other Early Christian Voices
[Mary] said,
“I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to him, ‘Lord, I saw you today in a vision.’
He answered and said to me,
‘Blessed are you that you did not waver at seeing me.  For where the mind is, there is the treasure.’”
Gospel of Mary

Jesus said:
“If those who lead you proclaim to you:  ‘The realm is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will enter before you.  If they proclaim to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will enter before you.  Rather, the realm is within you and outside of you.”
Gospel of Thomas

I am the mind and the rest
I am the learning from my search
And the discovery of those seeking me
The Thunder Perfect Mind

Judas said,
“Tell me, Master, what is the beginning of the way?”
He said,
“Love and goodness.  For if one of these had been among the archons, wickedness would have never come to be.”
Dialogue of the Savior

Let us be clear at the outset.  I believe in the resurrection.   Lest there happen to be any lingering doubts as to what I believe, let me assure you, I believe in the resurrection.  

Not only do I believe in the resurrection, I put my faith in the resurrection.  I trust in the resurrection.  I hope in the resurrection.   I proclaim the resurrection.   I am ashamed to admit that I cannot say that I always live the resurrection.  In fact, more often than I care to admit, I, like Peter Rollins, deny the resurrection.    To quote Peter:

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

Nonetheless, I do believe in the resurrection.   Even as I don’t always live it, I do believe it and am drawn back to it.   Even as I find it hard to hope at times, even as the gray shades of despair surround me, even as the grief and sorrow of loss is heavy, I do believe in life after brokenness.   I hope, trust, and try to live for it.  I believe in the resurrection.  Help my unbelief.

Bart Ehrman, religion scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has just published his latest book, How Jesus Became God.  I had a chance to interview him on Religion For Life.   You can hear that interview today on WETS at two p.m.     It will be on podcast next Thursday. 

Ehrman concludes that it was belief in the resurrection that propelled the Christian faith from its earliest days.   People believed in the resurrection of Jesus and that sustained the movement.   

In what exactly did they believe and why? 

To answer that question, I want to mention another book, Bernard Brandon Scott’s, The Trouble with Resurrection.    Brandon Scott visited our church a couple of years ago for a Jesus Seminar on the Road.  In his book, The Trouble With Resurrection, Scott traces the history and development of resurrection and belief in resurrection within the texts of the New Testament itself.  

Bottom line:  what was meant by resurrection was different for different people before, during and after the time of Jesus.    Not only that, but the meaning of resurrection and belief in resurrection has evolved in the 2000 years since the time of Jesus.    

The minister up the street from us today who is preaching at this very moment may have similar beliefs to mine about resurrection and some very different ones.  Those sitting in this room today may have both similar and different ideas surrounding belief in the resurrection.  

The resurrection is a powerful and living expression of faith.    It is a symbol that invites exploration and conversation.    One of the ways the church in its many expressions, unfortunately, in my view, has dealt with this diversity, is to make boundaries of acceptable definition.    The resurrection is defined in a certain way and those who do not believe in this certain way are not of the true church.   We hear in so many words:

You are not really a Christian. 
You do not really believe in the resurrection.   
If you want to be in the club, you need to believe this way. 

When I grew up listening to sermons in church, Easter was about the preacher telling us about the fact that Jesus rose from the tomb, bodily, “up from the grave he arose,” and if we didn’t believe that obvious, historical fact, we were not going to heaven.    I was and still am, skeptical.   

Those stories of the empty tomb that are found in the four gospels are late, that is they didn’t appear until at least 40 years after the death of Jesus and they differ significantly from one another.  For example, who was at the tomb first?  How many angels were there, or were they angels?   Did the women tell what they had seen or not?  

While those preachers of my childhood believed in the resurrection by attempting to believe literally in some harmonized version of the empty tomb narratives, I find all of that incredible and less than interesting.    To quote Brandon Scott:

The trouble with resurrection is that we have literalized it, narrowed and constricted it, turned it into a creedal belief and in the process have forfeited is great claim and hope.   P. 243

Bart Ehrman agrees that the empty tomb narratives are late.  What then was an earlier belief in the resurrection?   If it wasn’t an empty tomb, what did the early followers of Jesus experience?   Ehrman says that the earliest followers of Jesus after his death experienced visions of Jesus.  

He has a chapter to show that these types of visions are not uncommon.  Ehrman discusses a study conducted in 1991 of over 18,000 people.  Thirteen percent had claimed to have experienced a vivid vision.     Some who have lost loved ones will have visions of their loved one appearing to them.    Others will have visions of religious figures appearing to them.    Those visions are believed to be true.   They are believed by those who have them to be real.  Jesus, a revered religious figure who met an untimely death would likely be the source of visions of those who loved him.

For Ehrman’s point whether these visions pointed to an actual appearance by Jesus or whether the visions were self-generated because of the combination of grief and religious expectation, is not critical.  Those who had visions of Jesus appearing to them believed it.   That belief carried the Christian faith.    The point is belief in the resurrection.  

What was it about Jesus that caused people not only to have these visions, but for this faith in the resurrection of Jesus to catch fire?   There was belief in this time period and in this Jewish culture of a great revealing, an apocalypse, when God would make things right.  Those martyrs who had died while faithful to God, would be raised bodily and joined in a new kingdom of God.    This new kingdom of God would be a kingdom of justice and peace, and an honoring of the oppressed.   All other kings, such as Caesar, would be overthrown.

According to Bart Ehrman, and going back to Albert Schweitzer at the beginning of the 20th century, historical Jesus scholars think that Jesus believed this and believed that he himself was part of this apocalypse.   He thought he would have a role to play in this new kingdom of God that would come in a supernatural fashion.   

If Jesus is preaching this then dies at the hands of the Roman Empire, it is no wonder that his followers who believed in him and in his vision would have visions of this resurrection taking place.  

The writings of the Apostle Paul are filled with this apocalyptic imagery.     He saw Jesus as the first fruits of this apocalyptic resurrection that he thought would be completed in Paul’s own lifetime.     

The dominant view of historical Jesus studies today is this:  Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who was believed to have been raised from the dead as a sign of God’s kingdom coming in power on this Earth.     It was believed that all the martyrs would be raised, too, as well as the faithful living at the time.   The historical Jesus believed this message.  He preached it.  When he died, the message was applied to him, and preached by those who had visions of him alive.  

As time wore on, this belief had to evolve because the end did not come.   The kingdom of God did not break in.   Resurrection hope modified and was placed out and beyond.   The resurrection was changed from God’s justice fully realized on Earth to life after death in Heaven. 

Here we are in 2014.   We are light years away from a first century world.   We no longer conceive of a flat earth created a few thousand years ago with the planets, sun and stars circling us.   We no longer think of things and people as supernaturally charged, that is, a world filled with angels and demons who inflict diseases and bring rains and natural disasters and put kings in power and remove others.     
We live in a very different time and place.   Yet here I am, having said all of this, still saying, “I believe in the resurrection.”   What do I mean?  No I do not affirm first century apocalyptic thinking, or in a supernaturally charged universe, or that anyone ever, including Jesus, has risen literally from the dead.   Yet I do believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

Other scholars, such as Dominic Crossan and Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, who while a minority voice among historical Jesus scholars, offer a compelling vision.  They are not as convinced that Jesus was as apocalyptic as all that.   The apocalyptic message was before him and after him, but not his.  They suggest that he was a wisdom teacher and that his parables offer a glimpse of his vision.  They think Jesus believed that the kingdom of God was not coming violently, suddenly, or supernaturally, but gradually as we participate in it.   

The kingdom of God was peace through justice, not through violence.  As we care for neighbor, love enemies, work for economic justice, resist violence with love, tell the truth, side with the oppressed, then we participate in human flourishing.    We participate and embody what Jesus called the kingdom of God.   We practice resurrection.  There is no easy fix.   God will not fix it for us.  The kingdom of God is within and among you.    Be it.

At the end of the day, I cannot say with certainty if the historical Jesus was apocalyptic or not.     I do believe that the notion that God is going to come and fix things, especially destroy our enemies, is an unhealthy notion, and unfortunately, it is a popular one among many religious people today, particularly among the monotheistic religions.    It seems that many of these believers would like to help God, particularly with with the part about destroying enemies. 

My faith, my trust, my belief, and my hope in Jesus and in the resurrection of Jesus, is not in visions of him being alive as a person.  Nor is it a belief in some kind of apocalyptic end.   Nor is it in heaven after I die, although I am game for that should it be in the cards.

My belief in the resurrection is a bit more earthy but at the same time more ambitious than those visions.    I believe in the ongoing life of the vision that Jesus had, not in a vision about Jesus. 

What was Jesus’ vision?   I think it is found in his teachings.   His vision was a vision of enemies finding a common humanity and compassion for one another.  As Jesus said:

“Love your enemies.  Pray for them.”

It was a vision of Earth and its bounty being shared.  As Jesus said:

“Give the shirt off your back.”
“Give to everyone who begs from you.”

It was a vision of forgiveness and reconciliation.  As the Father in Jesus’ parable told the older brother:

“My child, you are always at my side.  Everything that’s mine is yours.  But we just had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and now is found.”  

It was a vision of peace by being the first to lay down arms.  As Jesus said:

“Turn the other cheek.”
“Do not resist evil with evil.” 

It was a vision that he enacted by consorting with those called sinners, by practicing an open table, by welcoming children into his midst. 

It was a vision of celebration as expressed in his parables of the woman who found her lost coin then spent it on having a party with the neighbors, or the shepherd who found the lost sheep and invited the countryside to join him in his joy, and it was seen in the accusation by the pious against Jesus that he was “a glutton and a drunkard” for his willingness to eat and drink and to do so with anyone.

I believe in the resurrection.   I believe that his vision survived his death and lives today.

I believe in the healing of Jesus.    I believe that while the stories of Jesus’ miracles are not literally factual, they do serve to remember his legacy of healing and compassion toward those whose lives were broken in mind, body, and spirit.    Whose life is not broken in some way?   

Not only do the words and deeds of Jesus make me a believer in resurrection, I see the resurrection happening around me when I dare to open my eyes.     

I see it everyday in every new color, smell, and sneeze of Spring.    Nature’s renewal, its yearly death and rebirth is the resurrection.  

I see it in the courageous call for justice and equality for sexual and gender minorities.   I wear this rainbow stole today as a sign of resurrection.  I will wear it in anticipation of this summer’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church when the church will have the opportunity to affirm the resurrection by recognizing the loving relationships of our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender sisters, brothers, daughters, and sons and take concrete steps toward equality.

I see it in the advocacy of so many people everyday for the cause of justice and human flourishing and for the care of our Earth home.   I see it in resistance to economic and political forces that operate from greed, fear and injustice.   I see it in the courageous actions of love.   

I see the resurrection in the actions of people individually and collectively in this congregation.   Think of the various passions and visions that people have for a just world, for a sustainable relationship between humans and Earth, for peace, for an end to hunger and thirst, for an end to violence in the home and in between nations.

I see and I believe in resurrection. 

It has been nearly a year and ten months since we lost Zach.  For me, I see resurrection in the possibility, at times it is only a glimpse, but it is a glimpse and as such faith that our lives will rebuild and that we will find a way to honor and remember and integrate Zach’s memory and spirit in a way that enhances our flourishing and that of others.   

Resurrection isn’t loud, brash, and absolute.  It is more like a bud just turning on the tree.  It is a whisper of warm southern air on a cold day.    It is nonetheless real.  It is the possibility, a little more real than at this time even last year, that that shattered stained glass window of my life might be rebuilt.    No rush.  No insistence.   But a possibility that resurrection and God’s kingdom is present.    

Resurrection is the hope that our brokenness and our woundedness, all of us are all that, is not the last word about us.   In pain’s midst, resurrection is a gentle but firm response.  Its sign is joy, a surprising joy that reflects the depth of life, that comes at times in spite of ourselves, and is coming.    It is a deep breath in which we say,

It is well with my soul.  

That I believe.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Practicing the Preaching (Passion/Palm 4/13/14)

Practicing the Preaching
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 13, 2014

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus  21:1-12

Led by one of Jesus’ disciples, the police show up at the place Jesus and the rest of his followers were gathered.  Because Jesus had often gone to the place, Jesus’ followers knew the place too.  And the police seized Jesus and held him fast.  And the disciples all deserted Jesus and ran away.

They brought Jesus before the high priest.

The ranking priests bound Jesus and turned him over to Pilate, the Roman governor.  Then Pilate had Jesus flogged and turned him over to be crucified.

And the Roman soldiers bring him to the place Golgotha (which means “Place of the skull”).  And the soldiers crucify him.

Now some women were observing this from a distance, among whom were Mary of Magdala, and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome.  These women had regularly followed and assisted him when he was in Galilee, along with many other women who had come up to Jerusalem in his company.

Then Jesus breathed his last.

Those few paragraphs are from Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar’s The Gospel of Jesus.   The Gospel of Jesus is a bare bones account of the life and death of Jesus based on the deliberations and eventual voting of the seminar to determine what material is more or less likely than other material to go back to the historical Jesus.     

Even though the passion narratives, the stories about his arrest, trial, and execution, take up a third or more of the material in each of the four gospels, they are creative narratives, that is, not history in our modern understanding of history.   They were early attempts to make meaning out of his life and in particular his death.    

Mark was the first and Matthew and Luke base their narratives on Mark.  You might go home today and compare the first gospel Mark chapter 15 with Psalm 22.   Read them side by side and see how the author of Mark drew from that Psalm and created a narrative of the death of Jesus.    Mark was struggling with the question of what did it mean for Jesus to die the way he did.    For Mark, Jesus is the vindicated suffering hero, while seemingly forsaken on the cross, whose cry is heard, and who trusts in the promise that God’s justice will reign.  

Luke, Matthew, John, the Apostle Paul, other writers whose works made it into the New Testament and those whose works did not make it, all attempted to write about his death in meaningful ways.   This process has continued throughout history.     Several theological theories have developed and have had their day.

These theories have all been supernaturally based.   That is that people have looked to supernatural explanations rather than to natural ones to speak of the significance of his life and death.    

One of these theories is called the Ransom Theory or the Christ Victor Theory.   This was the first dominant theory formulated by Irenaeus of Lyons.  It was the primary theory for the church for a thousand years.  The Ransom Theory was popularized by C.S. Lewis and his children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia.  In this vision, the world is controlled by Satan and the power of sin.   Satan required a ransom to be paid to free the souls of humanity.   God offers Jesus.  Satan has him killed.    The trick is that Satan didn’t realize that Jesus was the Son of God and therefore the soul of Jesus could not be contained and Jesus emerged victorious.   Christ thus defeats the powers of evil.   The resurrection of Jesus and the martyrs is the sign of God’s victory over sin, death, and Satan.   This was the dominant view for a thousand years until the 11th century and Anselm.

In the eleventh century in Europe, Anselm developed the Satisfaction or Penal Theory of Atonement.   In this theory God is conceived as king and judge.  Holy and righteous.    The sinfulness of humankind has offended God’s honor.   It is like a crime against the state.  A judge simply cannot forgive the one who has committed a crime even if he wanted to do so.  He has to exact a punishment.     The punishment for this is death, that is annihilation.    Human beings cannot work it off.  It would require an eternity in debtor’s prison.  They cannot do anything to pay for this sin and have their souls redeemed.   So what does God do?   He can’t forgive it and they can’t pay it.   It would take a God/Man to make things right.  Jesus is the God/Man who because he is God is pure and righteous enough to pay the debt and because he is human he can take the place of those who owe the debt.    Jesus dies on the cross paying the debt we owe to God.   Jesus dies for our sins.   So God looks at us not as sinful but as clothed in the righteousness of Jesus.   The resurrection is the promise of eternal life for those who believe it.    This is a dominant theory today especially among evangelicals.   This is so dominant that people don’t even know there are other options.   

Another theory that has been a minority view yet present since the early church fathers is called the Moral Influence Theory.  It was articulated by another medieval theologian, Peter Abelard.   It was influential among liberal Protestants including Martin Luther King, Jr.   The basic theory is that the death of Jesus demonstrates the love of God for humankind.   That Jesus would willingly die for us such a horrible death makes clear the extent that we are behaving badly and makes clear that God loves us.  Thus as we look upon Jesus on the cross, our hearts are moved and transformation works within.    In many respects the theology that informed Martin Luther King’s non-violent resistance was this redemptive suffering.   When we are confronted by the suffering of the innocent, when those who are abused do not return evil with evil, the eyes of the rest of us, including the abuser, are opened to the injustice of our sinful systems such as racism.   When our eyes are opened our hearts are able to be transformed.    Jesus is then the example to follow.     His way of non-violent resistance to the forces of evil, even to the point of his own death is the model for integrity and salvation.

These three theories have combined and each has subsets, but these basic three theories:  the defeat of the powers, the satisfaction of sin, and the moral influence theories are the three key theories that the church has offered to provide meaning for the death of Jesus.   

We have spent great effort over these past two millennia trying to understand the meaning of his death or trying to make his death meaningful.    I will ask an impertinent question:  Why is his death more meaningful than anyone else’s?   And another impertinent question follows:  Why is his death more meaningful than his life? 

The answer, the obvious answer to my questions is that Jesus is God’s revelation or to put it more bluntly, Jesus is God.    I tend to find that answer less than satisfactory.  It sounds to me like the same answer I hear when I ask how the universe came into being and the answer is given:  God made it.   I want to say, “Can you be more precise?” 

Is Jesus only of interest because of supernaturalism?   If it weren’t for Adam and Eve and original sin, Satan, hell, heaven, and God, would the life of this executed peasant matter at all?   At the risk of sounding cynical, I would say the answer is probably no.  If you took the God out and stripped away all of the mythological trappings, I think we would turn away from Jesus in the same way that we avert our eyes from the homeless man on the corner of Roan and Main in Johnson City.  

If Jesus is not the Son of God who died for our sins I think we would care about him in the same way we care about

·      the Palestinian family whose home is demolished by a bulldozer because they have been branded as terrorists,
·      or the transgender woman beaten to death in Memphis,
·      or the child in Kenya who didn’t survive the hunger season,
·      or the disappeared husband and father in Nicaragua,
·      or the Pakistani girl who is collateral damage of the latest U.S. drone strike,
·      or the rough neck in North Dakota crushed by an oil rig.

Jesus was nobody.  He wasn’t interesting.  Just another poor soul bloodied by the machine.    My theology of the historical Jesus, if you could call it a theology, is in a minor key   I have been told it has no traction.  That is true.   My Jesus does not have universal consciousness.   He does not think God’s thoughts. He does not reside in heaven, nor is he embraced in light.   He didn’t rise from the dead, but I do think many of his teachings survived him and thus inspire me.   I suppose I could call that resurrection.  He is certainly no church growth strategy kind of Jesus.   I am not sure if you can build a church on him.


I don’t really insist.  I am fine with singing the songs and performing the liturgy since that is apparently what it takes to preserve his memory.    The Jesus of history is a tough sell.    He was in the way of empire.  Despite the gospels’ narratives of a trial before Pilate and so forth, it is doubtful that even happened.   He was likely strung up on Rome’s torture device along with thousands of others without a second thought.  

If I am to look at Jesus, to care about Jesus, I am forced to realize that it isn’t about him at all.    The meaning of Jesus is not about Jesus.  The meaning of Jesus is the same as the meaning of human beings, particularly that aspect of humanity rendered meaningless by the abuse of power, violence and greed, in short, sin.     I am also forced to realize that more often than I care to admit, I don’t practice what I preach.   I mostly avert my eyes from the suffering of my neighbor.   I do this perhaps to survive, perhaps of fatigue, perhaps of cowardice.  

Maya Angelou when she spoke at ETSU a few years ago told this story.   She said a woman came up to her and told her that she was a Christian.   Maya Angelou was amused and thought to herself, “Already?”   How easily, how glibly we say we love or follow Jesus and even dare to bear his title, Christian.  Maya Angelou understood that looking at Jesus requires looking not only at humanity but the human being in front of us.   That isn’t easy.  

Historical Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan, in his prologue to his book, Jesus:  A Revolutionary Biography, imagines a conversation with Jesus about his book.   He asks Jesus if he did a good job describing him.  He imagines Jesus responding:

“I’ve read your book, Dominic, and it’s quite good.  So now you’re ready to live by my vision and join me in my program?”
“I don’t think I have the courage, Jesus, but I did describe it quite well, didn’t I, and the method was especially good, wasn’t it?”
“Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suit your own incapacity.  That at least is something.”
“Is it enough, Jesus?”
“No, Dominic, is it not.”

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of the holiest week of the church.  It is a week to reflect on the passion of Jesus and anticipate the hope of resurrection, which symbolizes many things for me, including the opportunity to try again. 

While the passion of Jesus is understood to be about his death and the meaning of his death, I would invite you to light a candle for the passion of Jesus in terms of for what you might think he was passionate.  What was his passion?   

I like to think his passion was to embrace everyone he could, to bear witness to their lives, to say,

“You matter and you count, if even to no one else, but to me.”  

Perhaps this Holy Week, we can embrace that passion and make it ours,
even if imperfectly,
even if haltingly,
but perhaps more courageously than we thought we could;
we can embrace the stranger,
the neighbor,
the enemy,
the other and ourselves as
worthy of love,
worthy of justice,
worthy of dignity,
worthy of remembrance.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Path (4/6/14)

The Path
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 6, 2014
Fifth Sunday of Lent

The Dhammapada
The best of paths is the Eightfold Path;
The best of truths, the Four Noble Truths.
The best of qualities is dispassion;
And the best among gods and humans
Is the one with eyes to see.

The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path
There is suffering.
Suffering has an origin.
Suffering can cease.
There is a path out of suffering.

Right Understanding;
Right Intention;
Right Speech;
Right Action;
Right Livelihood;
Right Effort;
Right Mindfulness; and
Right Concentration.

Matthew 5:17-26
Don’t imagine that I have come to annul the Law or the Prophets.  I have come not to annul but to fulfill.  Let me tell you, before earth and sky pass away, not one iota, not one serif, will disappear from the Law, until it all happens.  Whoever ignores one of the least important of these commandments, and teaches others to do so, will be called least important in the empire of Heaven.  But whoever acts on these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called great in the empire of Heaven.  Let me tell you, unless you live your religion more fully than the scholars and the Pharisees, you won’t set foot in the empire of Heaven.

As you know, our ancestors were told, “You shall not kill” and “Whoever kills will be subject to judgment.”  But I tell you, those who are angry with a companion will be brought before a tribunal.  And those who say to a companion, “you moron,” will be subject to the sentence of the court.  And whoever says, “You idiot,” deserves the fires of Gehenna.  So, even if you happen to be offering your gift on the altar and recall that your friend has some claim against you, leave your gift there on the altar.  First go and be reconciled with your friend, and only then return and offer your gift.  You should settle quickly with your accuser while you re both on the way to court, or else your accuser will turn you over to the judge, and the judge to the bailiff, and you are thrown in jail.  Let me tell you, you’ll never get out of there until you’ve paid the last dime.

Not long after Jesus was crucified and then was believed by his early followers to have been exalted to heaven did questions arise about identity and practice.   You can imagine these questions along these lines:  Are we still Jews?   If so, to what extent did Jesus change our relationship to the law?   And what about non-Jews?  Can they be part of the Jesus movement and not follow Jewish law? 

These questions arose fairly early.   Jesus died around 30.  The book of Acts speaks of events directly following Jesus's crucifixion that address these issues, but Acts is not reliable as history.    Scholars are now putting Acts in the second century nearly 100 years after Jesus.  It is writing an idealized history from that standpoint. 

But Paul is more reliable on this.  He wrote his letters between 50 and 60.   His letters recount events that happened before his letters including his conflicts with other leaders such as Jesus’s own brother, James.   James is most certainly Jewish.   Paul considers himself to be an apostle or an ambassador to non-Jews.    Paul struggles mightily, and it is confusing actually, to understand how he regards the relationship between Jews, non-Jews, and this new “in Christ” movement.

This is an issue that had to be worked out over many decades.   The Jewish War of 66-70 sits between Jesus and the Gospels.    This war leveled Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, the centerpiece of Jewish identity and practice.     It was this event that likely precipitated the writing of the gospels, in particular, Mark’s gospel, around the year 70.   

Mark is our first Jesus story.  If you go to the letters of Paul and try to reconstruct the life of Jesus you won’t find much.    Matthew and Luke write their story based on Mark.    Scholars do think that stories of Jesus circulated prior to Mark and independent of Mark.   "Q" is a reconstruction  based on material common to Luke and Matthew but not in Mark.  This is believed to come from an earlier source that preserved sayings and deeds of Jesus.  "Q," which stands for Quelle, which is the German word for source.  At some point I will do a sermon series on Q.   

Many scholars are interested in reconstructing and dating Q.   It is likely that Q, or the first layers of Q (that is how complicated it is) date around 50.    You have remembered sayings and deeds of Jesus floating about, finally written down by Q twenty years after Jesus.   This document is lost to us.  But Matthew and Luke knew of it and they used it along with Mark and their own special style to tell their story of Jesus. 

None of these authors had any qualms, perhaps any self-consciousness about putting their ideas and values on the lips of Jesus.   Jesus becomes a mouthpiece for these later views.   It is easy to see this in other gospels about Jesus that are not in the New Testament.   It is also true for texts within the New Testament itself.  

So contemporary scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Bart Ehrman try to separate out the historical Jesus from the gospel portraits.   I name in particular Crossan and Ehrman because they are major figures in historical Jesus studies and they have different views as to what goes back to the historical Jesus and what doesn’t.     I say all of that to say that it isn’t easy to know what Jesus really said even if it seems to be written in black and white, or red and white if you happen to have a red letter edition of the Bible in which everything Jesus says is written in red.

When we read the gospels, we are not reading the life of the historical Jesus.   We are reading interpretations, idealized reconstructions, parables, and fictions of Jesus, based in part on selective remembrance.    There are methods that historians use to tell if a saying or event is more or less likely to go back to Jesus.  

If a saying or deed is multiply attested, that is, found in more than one independent source, that is good evidence for an early saying or deed.   

If saying or deed is embarrassing to the early church or dissimilar to a view of Jesus that later emerged, that is evidence that it might go back to Jesus.    For instance, scholars think Jesus really was baptized by John the Baptist because it is multiply attested and it is embarrassing.    Why would Jesus need to be forgiven for sins if he is the son of God?    So the gospels go to great pains to explain this away.  The Gospel of John doesn’t even mention that Jesus is baptized even though he devotes a lot of space to John the Baptist.   

If a saying or deed is anachronistic or does not fit the historical reality of first century Palestine then it is not likely a Jesus saying or deed.   For example to have “the Jews” as a people be a distinct group from Jesus is anachronistic.    To have Jesus speak about things that hadn’t happened yet such as the church or the destruction of the temple, is anachronistic.   To have Jesus sound like other great philosophers or to have miracle stories attached to him that are also attributed to other figures of that time period would be evidence that those stories are fictional.   The birth of Jesus in Matthew follows a pattern like the birth of Moses in Exodus.   Many of the stories about Jesus are what we might call Midrash, or a retelling of ancient hero stories, now applied to Jesus.

What about the Sermon on the Mount?   Does this go back to the historical Jesus or not?  The answer is yes and no.    Some of it likely does and some of it likely doesn’t and scholars might even have differing opinions on some of those decisions.    This isn’t easy.  Not being easy is not a bad thing.

I am going to pause here and try to be pastoral.   During seminary, when I first was confronted with these questions in a serious way, I had a crisis of faith.   I didn’t have just one crisis of faith, I had many.   I am not sure if it is one long crisis of faith with ebbs and flows or a number of different crises of faith, but they didn’t end in seminary.    They continue with me to this very day.    I can safely say that one may experience crises of faith until one is 52.    Maybe after 52 it is all settled.    For me personally, I will have to live on and see.   

In some religious traditions, a crisis of faith is seen as something to avoid or as a sin.  It is not something one wants to admit or celebrate.   Churches think of themselves as faith communities, not crisis of faith communities or communities of doubt.   Wouldn’t that be funny, to drive along and see a church signboard, “Welcome to the First Church of Doubt.”   I might attend.

I offer that a crisis of faith is part of life.  It is the via negativa, the path of doubt and challenge.  It is the path of risk.  It is a path of letting go of what you thought you knew.   It is a stripping away of certainties.  It is a path of facing the darkness and admitting to one’s life as life.   It is experienced as a crisis.  It feels hard.  It is unsettling.  The true crisis is to be bold enough to ask the questions for which there may not be answers.    I do not think that a crisis of faith is the only path.   Nor do I think it is a path that one can stay on for an extended time.   I do think that it opens a way for other paths, such as creativity and transformation.   

One of the reasons the church has created its seasons is to create space for crises of faith.  The season of Lent, for instance, is an opportunity to go deeper.   It is a safe space in that it is bracketed by Easter, in fact, it is interspersed with little Easter Sundays all along.   Lent is a managed theological crisis.   The seasons are ways to liturgically frame life experience.   The four paths or vias articulated by Matthew Fox are the same thing.  

My crisis of faith regarding Jesus in seminary had to do with “which Jesus?”   When I was confronted with all of these views of Jesus, Mark’s Jesus, Q’s Jesus, Matthew’s Jesus, Luke’s Jesus, John’s Jesus, Thomas’s Jesus (who was a new one altogether), Paul's Christ Jesus, as well as the Jesus of the Apostle’s Creed, the crisis became for me, who is my Jesus?    Who is the Jesus of my heart, which was the whole point of this, I thought.   Who is the Jesus of salvation, wholeness, meaning, the Jesus I was being called as a minister to follow, to preach about, to minister in his name?   Which Jesus do I pray to when I tuck my children in bed at night?    Who was this Jesus for whom I drug my family across the country to attend seminary and to devote a life career?    I am not really sure and I already paid the deposit. 

I talked to my New Testament professor after class one day and I told him about my anxieties regarding this.  I have an image in my mind of talking to him; I can see him, but I can’t remember what he said.   I remember him saying nothing.  I am sure that isn’t what happened, that he just stood there and said nothing.    He was approachable.  He was a student-friendly person.   He liked me.   As I reconstruct that memory now, I imagine that his “silence” was to bring the question back to me.   It is as if he was saying, “That is what you are here to do.   Live in the crisis.”   

Seminary is about creating the opportunity for crises of faith.   It isn’t to artificially build up faith and turn people into robotic apologists for doctrine.  It is to present information and ideas that are hard and that in themselves create crises.    The experience of seminary is the experience of crisis.   I found myself angry on occasion at seminary.   It shouldn’t be like this.   I wasn’t sure with whom to be angry, the professors, the seminary, other students, the church, God.  

We students went there thinking it was to learn skills and Bible stories and to bask in theological transcendence but it was really about being stripped bare and facing the void.   To put it in Christian theological terms, it is the crisis of the cross.    The meaning of seminary was that you won’t be able to minister to anyone and walk with anyone if you yourself are unwilling to walk that lonesome valley. 

A crisis of faith is similar to psychological anxiety.   If you have experienced anxiety you know the bodily feelings, the tightening, the feeling of being trapped, the feeling of hopelessness, even of panic.    Excuse my language but anxiety is a bitch.    A crisis of faith is spiritual anxiety.   You think there is no way to the other side.    With both the path is not to hide, or to run, or to ignore, but to step into it and to face it.   

While it is like a lonesome valley, it is nonetheless a shared journey.   You walk it alone but you know that others walk it as well and have walked it before you and will walk it after you.    No one can walk it for you, the crisis is a gift for you, but you get through it by sharing the experience with others.     That is the role of the community we call the church.  

The crisis of faith is not something only ordained clergy experience.   It is if you will allow me to reframe it this way, a gift for the whole church.    As I look back on it, I am grateful that my professors didn’t make it easy.   I am glad they didn’t shield me from the skeptics or only show me the stuff that would supposedly strengthen my faith.  I am glad they made me challenge my views about the Bible, Jesus, and God.   At the time, it felt like the ground was shifting under me.    But I found a way to live through it.    Now I am not threatened by the various Jesuses but I move back and forth between them and find them to be unique facets of a larger mystery.   

A crisis of faith today for me and possibly for you and likely for Western Culture and for Christianity in general relates to the symbol, God.   What does faith in God mean in a scientific age, in a pluralistic age, in an age beset with anxiety about our future as a species, in a world in which God has become an excuse for exceptionalism and even violence.     There are many responses to this crisis.   Letting go of the term is one response.  Reframing it is another.  Holding fast to what is comfortable is another. 

I realize that as I name that crisis that that can create anxiety or a crisis of faith for others.    I understand that.     My hope is that we can name it.   Name any anxiety that comes with naming it.   And I would hope to name the possibility.   As a minister, I am available and willing to talk individually with anyone or as a group to walk through this with you.    If it is a crisis of faith, I want to reframe it as a gift, an opportunity, a possibility.

Well, now, where are we?

My sermon is nearly complete and I have not talked about the passage.   My preaching professors would roll their eyes.   This passage, in my opinion, is Matthew’s Jesus.   Scholars date Matthew around 85.    That is 55 years after Jesus.  25 years after Paul.  30 years after Q.   15 years after the Jewish War.     Who are we?  Who are we in relation to our ancestry?  What is our practice?   It was a crisis of faith.

Matthew’s community evidently felt that in order to be a follower of Jesus you needed to follow the Jewish law.  Not only follow it, but to follow it better than your Jewish brothers and sisters who did not follow Jesus.    Not only should you not kill, but you shouldn’t act in anger toward a companion.   Don’t call people names.  Be reconciled with others.   If you have disagreements, settle out of court.  The Jesus Seminar thought that section regarding court did sound like the historical Jesus.   

Now of course Jesus being a Jew would have regarded following Jewish law as a given.   What was happening in Matthew’s time were groups (like Paul) who were saying that the law was no longer binding.   Matthew has Jesus lift up the law.

What I take from this section and why I am glad it is in the scriptures, is that it reminds me that faith is not easy.  Reconciling with others and talking it out with others, even when it is uncomfortable, and not resorting to dismissing others, is the path.

Faith is not about believing the supposed right stuff and then calling it a day.  It is a path, a life path that sometimes calls us to reexamine everything we thought we knew, to take seriously the spirit behind the law, to open our minds and our hearts to what is there even if it takes us to uncomfortable places.    Buddha called it the eightfold path.  Jesus called it the law and the prophets.

I am not saying their paths are the same as if any of ours are the same.   But they are authentic paths.  They are paths that cut through the brush of crisis.   They are paths that know the sufferings and anxieties of life.   Because they know the suffering and grief of life, they are worth hearing.