Sunday, July 20, 2014

In Dry Season (7/20/14)

In Dry Season
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

July 20, 2014

The Weariness of the Prophet Elijah
Anna Kamienska

You understand such immense weariness
when one only whispers
release your servant now
deliver me from the scraps of hunger and thirst
called life
I don’t need more than
the shade of a broom-tree to rest my head
a shawl of darkness for my eyes
call back the angel
who hastens with bread and a jar of water
Send me a long purifying sleep
Lift my loneliness above its burden
above every bereavement
You know the weariness of your prophets
You wake them with a jolt of new pain
to place a new desert beneath their feet
to give them a new mouth a new voice
and a new name.

1 Kings 17:16
Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’ The word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘Go from here and turn eastwards, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.’ So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.
 Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.’ As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.’ But she said, ‘As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.’ Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’ She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

During the summer, the worship theme has to do with eating.   We are listening to biblical stories that feature in some form or another, a meal.   Today’s meal provides an introduction to the prophetic tradition and specifically, the figure of Elijah. 

Elijah’s story in the Old Testament is brief, from 1 Kings chapter 17 to 2 Kings chapter 2.   He appears again in the gospels. I will get to that in a minute.    He has a role in the Passover Seder.  The fifth cup is “the cup of Elijah.”   It is a silent cup.  No words are spoken over it.   The children open the door for Elijah to enter and join the seder.  The meaning of Elijah’s cup is open for interpretation.   

Elijah is a legendary figure.  There is no history about him.  All of the stories about him are fanciful stories.    He appears on the scene in chapter 17 of 1 Kings.    The setting is evil King Ahab and his evil wife Jezebel who have set up altars to Baal.   Here is how the text puts it:

Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.

The Lord does not like Baal.  Too much competition.   What does the Lord do when there are evil kings running amok worshiping Baal?   You raise up a prophet to set them straight.   Thus Elijah symbolizes the entire prophetic tradition over against the royal tradition.  If you have a king, you need someone to speak the word of the Lord to the king.   

One of the important roles of religious communities is to be a voice of conscience to governing authorities.  Think of Martin Luther King vs. Bull Connor.    Think of Bishop Desmond Tutu speaking against oppression and apartheid and still doing it.     Think of the people, the prophets, who have raised our consciousness, calling us in the words of Martin Luther King, to “live out the meaning of our creed.”

It is serious work.  It is important work.  It is often unpopular work.   Prophets are not only from religious institutions.  In fact, they often arise outside of the guild.  We can think of secular prophets, singers, poets, activists who while not religious still have that prophetic role of calling us to hear truth.    One of my favorites was folk singer Phil Ochs.    Here is a verse from his song, “When I’m Gone”:

And I won't be laughing at the lies when I'm gone
And I can't question how or when or why when I'm gone
Can't live proud enough to die when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

The prophet laughs at the lies, anything to wake us up.  That is his or her job.   Somebody has to do it.  In the midst of well-funded propaganda machines that try to convince us that endless war and torture are moral, tell the truth.   Tell the truth.  Expose the lies.   

Religion?  Prophets do not give religion a pass.  The prophet speaks against religious institutions and its clerics for being sniveling sycophants and for misusing authority by forcing oppressive doctrines and foisting superstition on to people.    

That is who Jesus was.  That is who Mohammad was.  They were prophets of social justice.   Both got their mojo, their prophetic spirit, from Elijah.  

The irony is that the stories about Elijah are fantastic, cartoonish really.    They are obviously fictional tales and comical as well.   We need to take them in that spirit of a superhero story or a Harry Potter tale.    

We have evil King Ahab and his evil Queen Jezebel.    In one sentence we are introduced to Elijah who says to Ahab: 

‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’

Prophets can control the weather.  Remember in the gospels when Jesus calmed the storm?    Many of those fictional stories about Jesus are retellings of the fictional stories about Elijah and Elisha, the prophet who followed Elijah.   You’ll notice a few more as we go ahead.   So you know we are in the world of fantasy and fable.  

Immediately, Elijah has to get out of town.  Ahab is not going to like that news of drought.  So the Lord tells Elijah to go east of the Jordan River in the desert near a stream.   Elijah is fed there by ravens.  The ravens brought him bread and meat.  There is our famous meal.    You know that has to be tasty, eating what ravens might find for you.   Google search what ravens eat.  Here is a little bit of badger carcass.  A road kill omelet.  

That is the role of the prophet.  You are compelled to tell the truth.  Those who do not want to hear it will try to silence you.   There are many creative ways to do that, mock you, smear you, discredit you, threaten you, and when all fails, kill you.   Thus your life will not be pleasant.  But, provision will be made for you, even if it is raven food. You must listen, be patient, and trust.   Nobody wants to do that.   But, that is the way it works.  

The stream dries up.  Elijah is told to go to Sidon to meet a widow.   The Lord tells Elijah that the widow will feed him.    The prophet can have no pride.  He has to live by the kindness of strangers, even impoverished widows.    He finds the widow and she and her son are down to their last meal.   Elijah tells her to fix up a little something for him first.   Really?  The point of the tale is that hospitality and trust will be rewarded.  He tells her that the jar of meal and jug of oil will not empty.   

She does it and Elijah was right.  The meal and oil did not run out.   In the Gospel of Luke, there is a legend about Jesus preaching on this story.   For Luke, the point is that the prophet Elijah was sent to the foreigner.  Of course Luke’s larger task is to showcase Jesus as one whose mission was to the outsiders.  The prophet is not welcome in his home town.      

The widow’s son dies.  She complains to Elijah.  Elijah complains to the Lord.  He stretches himself over the child’s body and the Lord raises the child from the dead.  We know that story from the gospels.  Jesus raises a widow’s son from the dead in Luke chapter 7.   That isn’t the only time.  He raises the Roman soldier’s daughter and in John, he raises Lazarus.    Jesus is like Elijah.  

After the drought has gone on for three years, The Lord tells Elijah to tell Ahab that the drought will end and to bring all the prophets of Baal out for a contest.   The contest will decide which god is the real thing.   They set up two altars and whatever god can bring down fire from heaven is the winner.  The prophets of Baal can’t do it.   Elijah laughs at them.   “Is Baal taking a nap?  Is he relieving himself?  Out for lunch?”  Then Elijah sets up his altar and drenches it with water.  He asks the Lord to send down fire and fire consumes everything and everyone is amazed that the Lord really is the god.    While folks are a bit stunned, Elijah has the 450 prophets of Baal rounded up and Elijah personally executes all of them.  

So what is the spiritual value of this story?      Sometimes Bible stories offend our sensibilities.  We are not wrong for being offended.  That is a bad story.  It has fostered millennia of “my god is better than your god” nonsense.   What I find amusing is when theologians and pious biblical scholars try to justify this story in some way.    1 Kings is written from the standpoint of a theocracy.   A theocracy is a bad idea.   It is a relic of a superstitious past that we would do well to replace.

While there are aspects of the stories of Elijah that I like, such as the prophet speaking truth to power, there are equally bad stories in which that prophetic spirit is warped, superstitious, and dangerous.  You hear this from the religious zealots of our time, using a text like this to justify discrimination against people who don’t believe in their god.  

Then again, it is just a silly story.   Perhaps it is best read as such.

After this, Elijah tells Ahab, “Hey, rain’s coming!”   Ahab gets in his chariot and heads to Jezreel to beat the rain.  Elijah lifts up his robe and outruns the chariot.  Elijah is the man. 

Meanwhile, Ahab tells Jezebel that Elijah killed all of her prophets.  So she says that she will kill Elijah.  Elijah flees for his life.   He goes into the wilderness, lays under a broom tree and falls asleep.  An angel of the Lord wakes him up three different times and feeds him.    With the strength of this food he journeys through the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights back to the mountain where Moses received the ten commandments.    From this we have the story of Jesus in the wilderness 40 days and nights. 

Elijah is depressed.  He says to the Lord:

‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’

While Elijah is on the mountain the word of the Lord comes to him not in the earthquake, wind, or fire, but in a sheer silence.   The voice tells him to go down and to anoint some new kings and to put his prophetic mantle on Elisha.     He finds Elisha who is plowing the field.  He tells Elisha to follow him, and Elisha balks saying he needs to take care of his father and mother first, but Elijah is not amused.    We find versions of that story in the gospels where Jesus is reported to have said to those who have to take care of business first, “Let the dead bury the dead.”  

Ahab and Jezebel were bad, according to the writer of Kings because they worshiped Baal.   But they are bad also because Ahab with Jezebel’s urging killed a man named Naboth because Ahab wanted his vineyard.   The Lord tells Elijah to pronounce judgment on Ahab and Jezebel, which he does.    This is the tradition of the prophet of social justice.    You find this in the stories of Jesus. 

It is likely that the historical Jesus had a passion for social justice.   The writers of the gospels emphasized that by creating stories about Jesus that came from the Elijah and Elisha tales.   The ancients told stories in this way by showering people with myth and legend to illustrate their character.

At another point Elijah calls down fire from heaven on an enemy king’s captain and his fifty men.  Elijah does this three different times.   Elijah has killed about 600 people by now.   In the gospels, James and John ask Jesus if they can call down fire from heaven and wipe out some bad guys.    Jesus declines.  That theme is from Elijah.   Jesus is the new Elijah.   Unlike Elijah, Jesus is a bit more tempered.

Elijah doesn’t die.  He and Enoch are the only characters in the Bible that do not die.  They are taken up to heaven, Elijah is taken up in a chariot before Elisha’s eyes.  That is where we get the spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”  

In the book of Malachi, which in the Christian re-ordering of the Hebrew Scriptures comes at the very end, we find this sentence:

 Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  Malachi 4:5

Elijah becomes a messianic figure.   The gospels have John the Baptist be this new Elijah.   John the Baptist is also a strange wild character in the desert eating grasshoppers.  The gospel writers creatively mix and match theology and legends associated with Elijah and apply them to John the Baptist and to Jesus.    

There is a story in the gospels where Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John on a mountain.  Appearing with Jesus are Moses and Elijah, the law and prophets.   The gospel writer is telling us that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. 

Elisha, the disciple of Elijah, does miracles too.  He helps a woman have enough oil.  He tells her to find every empty jar she has and they magically fill up with oil.    It reminds us of Jesus turning water to wine. 

Elisha feeds 100 men with a few loaves of barley and grain and there is food left over.  We know that story in the gospels.  Jesus feeds 5000 and has food left over.  Jesus embodies the prophet’s magic and even more so.     All these stories are creative fictions, of course. 

I often wonder how to read the stories of the Bible.  What is the most profitable way to read these stories so that they might inform or even inspire?     I find that many stories of the Bible are weird and not helpful.   I think it is important to be honest about that.   

Many of them are rather silly.  Others are written from a point of view that no rational person who cares about right and wrong would share.   They contain views of God that are primitive and tribal.    Their understanding of the world is pre-scientific and thus limited.   They are the stories of our pre-modern ancestors.  

At the same time, I do see a thread that winds its way through the Hebrew and Christian Bible that is worthy to follow.   There is a thread in the narratives and within the grand narrative that lifts up the outsider, the minority, and the oppressed, over against the insider, the majority, and the powerful.     You find this even in the Elijah and Elisha tales that were inspiration for the Jesus tales. 

What I take from it and from them is not that these guys were so great, they likely didn’t even exist, but their spirit of standing up to the powers is something worthy to emulate.     How do you do that?   How do you stand up and speak your truth when the opposition is so overwhelming?    How do you keep your truth in perspective so you don’t become self-righteous about it?    How do you keep at it for the long haul?

There is a courage in these stories and a trust and a hope that I would like to have more.    I know these stories are all creative fictions, but somebody told them for a reason.  

Elijah speaking clearly the word of the Lord, a word of justice and truth to Ahab and Jezebel, knowing what they will do to him for doing it, eating who knows what delivered by ravens, living in the desert, following day to day the crazy whims of the Lord, calling down fire from heaven, girding up his loins and out running chariots, being carried into the heavens by a chariot, yes, it is all in the realm of myth and legend.   

Just maybe these wild tales are intended to inspire you and me. 
Perhaps it is inspiration not to take ourselves too seriously and to be
maybe a bit more brave than we care to be,
a bit more trusting in the mystery of things than we usually are,
a bit more willing to be hopeful that our dry deserts will receive the rain they need in due time,
and to trust
that as much as the universe doesn’t work toward our liking,
nevertheless it is pretty amazing to be alive
and while we can’t singlehandedly solve the world’s problems,
we can speak our small truth that comes to us in the sheer silence,
and we can with compassion care for the widows and their sons.
And for the few days we have on planet Earth,
maybe even we can work a miracle once in a while.

With the words of Phil Ochs, I’ll close:

Won't see the golden of the sun when I'm gone
And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I'm gone
Can't be singing louder than the guns when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Second Chances (7/13/14)

Second Chances
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

July 13, 2014

Luke 15:11-32
Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Meals of the Bible is the theme for summer. 

The meal featured today is one of the more famous in the Christian tradition.    It is the meal that is prepared by the father for the younger son who returns.   This parable and the parable of the Samaritan are two parables most attested in Christian artwork.   If anyone knows any parable of Jesus, it is likely to be either "The Good Samaritan" or "The Prodigal Son."    

Bernard Brandon Scott, who was with us a few years ago with the Jesus Seminar, has an insightful analysis of this parable, in his book Re-Imagine the World:  An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus.  I am using some of his insights in this sermon.

This parable provides the narrative for the theology of repentance.   The individual comes back from the far country into the warm embrace of the father.

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
calling for you and for me. 
See, on the portals he’s waiting and watching,
watching for you and for me. 
“Come home, come home!  You who are weary, come home.”
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling,
“O sinner, come home.”

That 19th century hymn was inspired by the imagery of the father watching for the prodigal son to return home.    In this theology, the most important thing is the relationship between the sinner, that is you and me, and the father or God.   

But that is only half the parable.   There is another son.   The man had two sons.  The parable is not so much about the father’s relationship with the son as it is about the relationship between the sons. 

Luke sets this parable in the context of Jesus welcoming tax collectors and sinners.   He is criticized for that by the Pharisees.  This the third of three parables in that context.  The parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and then this third parable.   This parable is read in light of the other two as one in which a lost son, like the coin and sheep, are found.   This justifies why Jesus spent time with the so-called “lost.”

This parable is from the sibling rivalry tradition.  Every culture has them.   There are other stories of sibling rivalry throughout the biblical tradition.  It begins with Cain and Abel.   Ishmael and Isaac.  Esau and Jacob.  Leah and Rachel.   Judah and his brothers and Joseph.  

In all the above cases, the favored one, the apple of the eye is the younger.    That is a problem.   In terms of sons and fathers and inheritance, the vast portion of the inheritance went to the older son while the remaining sons divided up the rest.   By that time, it wasn’t much.   It was the older son who kept the estate and the family intact.    The younger sons needed to fend for themselves.   Of course, the daughters needed to rely on marriage.   

There is a legal tradition that favors the firstborn son.  There is a subversive storytelling tradition that sides with the younger son.  

There is also a wisdom tradition in regards to patriarchs.  In the book of Sirach in the Old Testament apocrypha, this advice is given to fathers:

To son or wife, to brother or friend,
   do not give power over yourself, as long as you live;
and do not give your property to another,
   in case you change your mind and must ask for it.
While you are still alive and have breath in you,
   do not let anyone take your place.
For it is better that your children should ask from you
   than that you should look to the hand of your children.
Excel in all that you do;
   bring no stain upon your honour.
At the time when you end the days of your life,
   in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance.

Don’t give your money to your kids before you are dead.   It is a matter of honor.  Everybody knows that.   When the younger son asks for his share, he is dishonoring his father.  It is as though he is wishing him dead.

The father dishonors himself and the family even further by granting the request.   Something is wrong right from the start.   The father is foolish.    He lets the younger son have the share and the son leaves and spends it wastefully.    One of the reasons this parable is popular is because it resonates.  We all know this kind of story.  

He loses his money and tough times hit.  Famine.   He will likely die.  There is no safety net.   This is Paul Ryan’s Holy Land.     The younger son further shows his lack of honor or self-respect by living with pigs.    You can’t get lower than that.    When he finally realizes that he cannot even eat what the pigs eat, the text says:

“…he came to himself.”

He came to his senses.   Some might say he repented.  OK.   He decides to survive.  He calculates a speech to deliver to his father and he sets off for home.    Before he even arrives at home, his father, watching from the “portals” runs to him, a shameful act to be sure for a patriarch, and greets him with according to the Greek text, repeated kisses.    The father doesn’t even let his son finish his rehearsed speech.  He gives him the robe, the ring, sandals, and instructs the servant to prepare the fatted calf. 

He won’t be a hired hand.  He will be a son.  The whole village will feast.  A fatted calf is a lot of meat and you need to eat it all before it spoils.   

All without even a scolding.

You know what?  The younger son got away with it.  He got his inheritance and his fatted calf, too.   How many times has the younger brother done this?  How often has he gotten away with dishonoring his father and the family and manages to get in his foolish father’s good graces?     I know that parents and grandparents and especially siblings know this story.   It is the child who never grows up and who gets away with anything and everything because the parents can’t and won’t let them go. 

If you don’t think something is wrong with this picture of the father foolishly being suckered once again by the younger son, just ask the elder brother, working in the field as he has been all his life.    In this setting, the elder son might be a generation older.  He might even be the son of a different mother.    We might expect him to be middle aged by now and the one who runs the estate. 

He is in the field while the celebration is happening.  He asks a servant about it.  The servant tells him:

“Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.”

Isn’t that great news!!  

Hmmmph.  The elder brother, the word for elder is presbuteros, where we get the word Presbyterian by the way, is not amused.  The Presbyterian has been there all along, doing the work, being loyal, waiting patiently.  

“Party for that one, eh?  I’ll just stay outside.”

I don’t know how long he waited, but long enough to build up a good head of steam.    The father doesn’t ignore him.   He is “watching and waiting on the portals” for this son, too.  Instead of doing the fatherly thing of commanding this older son who is now the one dishonoring his father, the foolish father goes out to him and doesn’t command but pleads with the older brother.     

Then the father gets an earful.  It is the longest speech by any character in the whole parable:

“Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
There it is.   Notice the distancing of the relationship.  “This son of yours” as opposed to “my brother.”    The detail of the prostitutes is interesting.  Was the older brother spying or just guessing?    Of course, the feeling of being unloved.  

“…you’ve never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends…”

That is a good speech.   The storyteller, whether it was the historical Jesus or the author Luke, or someone else, captured the anger.  You can hear a lifetime of bitterness in those few lines.   Children of all ages know about fairness and unfairness, at least how they perceive it.  The other sibling gets better treatment than I do.

The younger son is partying inside, with his ring, robe, and sandals, perhaps thinking he got away with something.   The older brother outside, angry, knowing he got away with something.   Then the father, who knows the truth.   He tells the older brother:

“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Again, the father uses terms of endearment as opposed to command and control.   The father tells him that all he has is already his son’s.   His son has all the wealth and the power.  Yet he is angry, thinking it is unfair.  Whatever the younger son may think he has, he doesn’t have any wealth or power.    Whatever inheritance he had, he squandered.   One day he will be at the mercy of the older brother.   He is still a son, but the stuff belongs to the older brother.   

The father reminds his older son who they are:  “this brother of yours.”   That is perhaps the only command the father makes to either of his sons.   “This brother of yours.”   You are brothers.   Don’t forget that.  You need to rejoice

“…because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

This parable in my view is not really about Jesus welcoming the prodigal sinner such as you and I home even though evangelical piety has portrayed it as such.    The parable is the tireless work of wisdom and reconciliation working on behalf of relationships between siblings.     It is about getting us to acknowledge this brother, this sister of ours.    It is about the truth that each of us is our sister’s and our brother’s keeper, whether that sister or brother is of blood or not.  

Bernard Brandon Scott concludes his commentary on this parable by writing:

So what happens next?  The audience is perhaps asked to imagine a third act.  Soon the father will die. Then what?  If the sons continue on with their established scripts, they are headed for a collision.  One will kill the other.  Or they can follow the father’s script and surrender their male honor and keep on welcoming, accepting, and being with the other.

They have a choice between being lost or found, dead or alive.  Pp. 82-3.

It is fitting that the father’s last speech is to the older brother.  It is the older brother who has the means, power and wealth to make peace.   He is by those standards not the victim.  He hasn’t been treated unfairly.   He has all of the wealth of the father.  As soon as his father dies, the fate of his younger brother will be his to decide.   Yet he thinks of himself as a victim.

The stories of siblings in the Bible are presented as stories of unfair or unbalanced circumstances.   In the first story of sibling rivalry, The Lord shows favor on Abel’s offering rather than Cain’s.   Cain is upset.  The Lord speaks to Cain and tells him that there is a lion crouching at the door.  Don’t let it master you.  In other words, yeah, life is unfair.   Don’t let anger over that rule your life.    We know the rest of the story.  Cain is not able to master it and he kills his brother.   

Life is based on unfairness and imbalance.   It is not fair that just because you are born first that you get all the stuff.  It isn’t fair that just because you didn’t choose to be born first that you have undue responsibility.  It isn’t fair that Rebecca favored Jacob and helped him steal Esau’s birthright.    I always thought of that story that Esau was the bigger man at the end.    He was the one who hugged Jacob’s neck. 

One of the things I have noticed about the biblical stories is that they are not fair and they don’t even try to be fair.  They just are what they are and the characters have to decide how to live with that.    Some of them carry that unfairness with them their entire lives.  They live with a perpetual victimhood.

In the news today, the modern nation-state of Israel is bombing Gaza.  Israel thinks of itself as a victim even as it has the some of the most powerful and sophisticated weaponry on planet Earth.    When the oppressed out of sheer hopelessness fire worthless rockets, the propaganda machine kicks into full gear.  Israel still thinks of itself as David against Goliath.   It has the capability to end the occupation and to make peace.   Time will tell what its choice will be. 

How often are our choices and attitudes based on a self-perception of victimhood.  We think the world is against us.  How easy it is to fall into that trap.   We may tell ourselves, “I wasn’t loved like I needed to be or wanted to be.”   True enough.  So who pays for that?   Do we pass that debt on to another generation?
  • Or is there a way to call for a Jubilee? 
  •  Is there a way to cancel those debts? 
  •  Is there a way to stop the cycle of victimhood and the resulting violence against self and others?  
  •  Is there a way for those two brothers to recognize that both have a case? 
  • Is there a way to let the case go and find each other?
What did the younger brother think of himself?   The younger brother, surviving the way he knows how acts out and shirks responsibility.    The older brother, unforgiving, knows the feeling of favoritism shown to the younger.   He folds his arms.  Resentful.

Everyone has his or her stuff.  

Nations have it.  Families have it.  Churches have it.   Perpetual victimhood.  It just isn’t fair.  Someone is getting more than me.   I know of congregations so divided they broke into factions over hymnbooks.     They couldn't decide and so they kept two hymnbooks.  Each side counted the number of hymns chosen from one hymnbook over another to be sung on any given Sunday, just to confirm for the record who was being treated as the favorite.

Meanwhile the father plays the fool. 

Running out to each sibling to demonstrate what is truly important.   To each he shows that each is his son whom he loves.   He hopes that his love for them will somehow carry over into love for each other.   Hoping that somehow by some miracle, each will lose his narrative of victimhood.   Hoping they will find a way to see each other as the father sees them both.   Hoping they will each give the other a second chance.

“This brother of yours,” he says.   

This brother of yours.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Absurdity of Hope (7/6/14)

The Absurdity of Hope
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

July 6, 2014

Genesis 17:1-2, 15-19a, 18:1-15
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous….’

God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’ Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘O that Ishmael might live in your sight!’ God said, ‘No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him….

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’

“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”  --Albert Einstein

The theme for the summer is famous and not so famous meals of the Bible.   I don’t know how many stories in the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible are connected in some way with a meal.  Hundreds I suppose.    Someone could make an entire three-year lectionary cycle on meal stories.   The stories I chose are top of mind selections from both the Old and New Testaments.

Most of the stories I chose are more famous than not famous.   Some are fairly significant stories in the overall drama of the biblical narrative.     I will preach a sermon on the Last Supper for example.  That is a big one.   The Passover meal as well is on the summer menu.   There are some popular ones that did not make my summer list.   For example, I didn’t include the very first meal of fruit that Adam and Eve ate together.    I am sure that you will be aware of other meal stories that were not included. 

I chose these as a sample of some stories that I think are important to the overall narrative.   I also thought these stories would help us focus our spyglass on some larger issues and themes.

The setting for today’s story is the meal that Sarah and Abraham prepare for the Lord.    

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.

Isn’t that a wonderful sentence?  Can’t you just picture that?   Old Abraham sits in the hot desert in front of his tent.  Perhaps he is reminiscing on the strange twists and turns his life has taken from that first time he answered the call to pack up his family and leave his country and kinfolk to follow the Lord to God knows where.    Now at the age of 99, one would think the poor old guy could get a rest.   But no, the Lord has more demands to make of him.

I don’t care if you believe that these stories are the Word of God, or literally true, or inspired by the Holy Ghost.  These are the stories that vibrate in the marrow of our bones.    They are the founding myths of Western Culture.   For good and ill these are the stories that have shaped our notions of patriarchy, chosenness, destiny, exceptionalism, divine purpose, and hope.    

Abraham is considered the father of three distinctive, self-assured, competing, often aggressive, and world-defining religions:  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.    What do you make of yourself when you read this text in the context of worship, in which the Lord speaks:

No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.  I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.  And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.  Gen. 17:5-8

According to Genesis, Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac.  Ishmael’s mother was Hagar.  Isaac’s mother was Sarah.    According to Genesis, the Lord’s covenant is with Isaac.

1500 years ago, Mohammad appropriated this text.  According to the Qur’an, the real covenant is with Ishmael.   Abraham was a Muslim. 

2000 years ago, Christians appropriated this text.  Not Isaac.  Not Ishmael.   The heirs of the covenant, the new covenant, are those who accept Jesus, who according to the Gospel of John was the son of God before Abraham.  

Each religion has a favored son.  Each religion looks at the other with a mix of acknowledgment, suspicion, and sibling rivalry.   Each says to other:

“Yes, God loves you.  But I’m his favorite.”    

Mix ancient myth, contemporary ethnic and religious identity, centuries of relationships that oscillate from peaceful co-existence to horrific violence, empire building, the Holocaust, the modern state of Israel, the Nakba, the occupation of Palestine, the military industrial complex, the United States and Christian Zionism and you get the Middle East.  

God loves you.  But I’m his favorite.

As a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, I was assigned to a committee.  I was on the ecumenical and inter-faith relations committee.  One of the overtures we were asked to consider was to ask the denomination provide educational resources and worship resources for Presbyterians to distinguish biblical Israel from the modern state of Israel.   

For example, when we sing at Advent,

“O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel”

to what extent does that hymn have contemporary resonance?    How does a Palestinian Christian sing that hymn when from their experience, the modern state of Israel is not captive, but oppressor? 

Is this covenant that God made with Abraham through his son Isaac, and through his son, Jacob who is named by God, Israel, still in place?   Specifically, a covenant in which God, according to Genesis 17:

“…gives to you and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding…” Gen. 17:8.

One question for Presbyterians was whether or not we believe that the biblical deal God made with Abraham is in effect with the modern state of Israel.  Is God still cutting deals with Netanyahu and the settlers?   

We know in our heads that biblical Israel and the modern state of Israel are not the same thing.     Even though the PCUSA has advocated for a two-state solution, for an end to the occupation and to settlement building, and an end to violence on all sides for a long time, the language problem remains.

It took a long time, but we are finally learning that language matters.  When we use exclusively male images for God or for humans even though we know in our heads that God or “the human” is not male, we are reinforcing gender inequities in the present.   Similarly, the resolution argued, that language in worship about Israel reinforces inequities in the present between the modern state of Israel and Palestinians both within Israel and in the occupied territories. 

The committee as a whole punted on the resolution.  It voted against providing resources but added the comment that language was important and needed to be taken seriously.   The major issue facing this General Assembly regarding Israel-Palestine was divestment.   This language issue was put to the side to face that larger question.  

If you haven’t read the news, the PCUSA did vote to divest its funds from three American corporations that are engaged in non-peaceful activities inconsistent with the church’s socially responsible investment policy:
  • Caterpillar provides bulldozers used in the destruction of Palestinian homes and for clearing land of fruit and olive tree groves.
  • Hewlett Packard provides electronic systems at checkpoints, logistics and communications systems to support the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, as well as business relationships with illegal settlements in the West Bank.
  • Motorola Solutions provides military communications and surveillance systems in illegal Israeli settlements.

The PCUSA has been in conversations with these corporations for ten years and seeing no change, divested from them as a last resort.  

Back to the Bible.

How do we interpret this marvelous story of Abraham and Sarah that doesn’t reinforce ethnic and religious exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and all of that?   

First of all, we should take the Bible seriously, but not literally.   That means we need to understand these texts in their historical and cultural context and location.   These stories were written long before we developed notions such as democracy or human rights.  They were written from the standpoint of patriarchy.  They were pre-scientific and many of their ideas were based on what we would call superstition today.  

Second, some texts and concepts are better read as parable and symbol.  For example, what is Canaan?  What is the Promised Land?  Is it a strip of land with a longitude and a latitude?  Or is it a metaphor for home and freedom for all people all over Earth?   What is Israel?  Is it perhaps a symbol, too, for God's choice for the oppressed, the alien, and the outcast?

Third, we should listen for the transformative music of the Bible.    I did an interview this week with biblical scholar, Marcus Borg.  His latest book is called Convictions:  How I Learned What Matters Most.   He wrote about a conversion he had in college.  He was a member of the Young Republicans.  Then he read the book of Amos and he had a political conversion.    In our interview, he wanted to be clear that we wasn’t talking about partisan politics, but speaking of the transformation the prophet Amos had in his life.    Amos is about speaking truth to political power on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.    Borg realized that to take his faith seriously, he had to take seriously, economic justice.    Amos, the biblical text and the biblical prophet, transforms lives today.

We hear this beautiful music throughout the Bible.  Often it is muffled by other sounds in the Bible that reinforce the domination system, patriarchy, exceptionalism, superstition, and so forth.   That means we have the difficult and joyful task to discern what is lasting, and true, and transformative.     

We need to read Abraham and Sarah in the light of Amos.   

Let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  5:24

We need to read Christian texts that are exclusionary and self-serving in the light of texts that call us to the highest ethic of peacebuilding and humility.   None of us has any exceptionalist privilege and all human beings are recipients of grace.   Rabbi Brant Rosen told me in an interview that as a Jew the most Jewish thing he can do is to stand in solidarity with Palestinians who are oppressed.   

I read the story of Abraham and Sarah and the divine visitation as a story of promise for all who are without a place.  Abraham and Sarah are aliens without a home.   The Lord visits them and eats the meal they provide and gives them an absurd promise, At the ages of 90 and 99, respectively, they will have another child.

Yesterday, I was speaking on the phone with my parents.   My mother is 90 and my father is 96.  They are seriously biblical.   I am pretty certain there will be no more children in their future.    I don’t think I am going to get a little sister or brother for Christmas.

That is why this story is so funny. 

Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

Yes, laugh, Sarah, it is crazy.   That promise is a parable of course.   This story is a parable.  Because the parable is about something that is even more absurd, more unlikely, in fact, more impossible.  The promise of this story is that the alien will have a home. 

The promise and hope is that one day all people will live with peace and justice on this sacred Earth, this Divine Canaan.   As another prophet, Micah, is recorded to have said:

Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken. Micah 4:4

We will learn to share the land, Jew, Christian, Muslim, and all nations, all creeds, all humankind.   We will live sustainably on this beautiful blue ball, give back as we take, and learn from the heart and teach to our children, the ways of peace.  

Like Sarah, we might laugh to ourselves.   That is just nuts.    Then we hear the Lord offended that we aren’t taking the promise seriously.  Why do you laugh, God asks?

“Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

Albert Einstein said:

“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” 

Can you imagine running every energy system we need for housing, food, transportation, on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind?   Never throwing anything away, but reusing and recycling everything?

If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.

Can you imagine making a collective global decision to end war and violence and to channel the resources and money we spend on militaristic adventures to education, healthcare, and an end to poverty?

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

What can you imagine?   

How absurd can you go?   

Can you laugh at the impossibility? 

Can your laughter be transformed from a laughter of cynicism to the laughter giddy with joy?  

Yes, we owe to ourselves and to our children to articulate with laughter that very absurdity.

Never, never, never give up hope.