Sunday, September 28, 2014

Crossing Seas in the Dark (9/28/14)

Crossing Seas in the Dark
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 28, 2014

Exodus 14:19-30
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.

For the past several years I have been organizing worship services around the four- fold path as articulated by Matthew Fox in his book, Original Blessing.   These are four paths that spiral eternally through one’s life.    Matthew Fox uses Latin phrases to describe these paths.   The word for path in Latin is via.    The four paths or ways or vias are positive, negative, creative, transformative.   

Via positiva—the path of light, awe and wonder
Via negativa—the path of darkness, silence, letting go
Via creativa  – the path of creativity
Via transformativa –the path of transformation or justice-making.

I have found these four paths to be helpful in putting a framework to my own life experiences.   I can look back and see how I have been on all four paths.  I may be on more than one path at the same time.   These are not necessarily religious paths or spiritual paths, even though I am discussing them in church.  They are life paths.  We travel them individually and culturally.  

You might ask, “Where do these paths lead?”   Depending upon your philosophy or theology, they might lead to a variety of places.    They may help you articulate what you value, what you want or need.  Perhaps they will take you to a deeper sense of purpose or meaning or noble reflection or constructive action.   Or maybe the paths are like these words of the poem by Galway Kinnell,

“…our tracks wobble across the snow their long scratch.   Everything that happens here is really little more, if even that, than a scratch, too.”  

I tend to turn and walk away from those who tell me that their path is the correct path or the real path or the God path.  I tend to think, “It may be for you, I’ll find my own, thanks.”   And yet, these paths may lead us if we are comfortable using the language of God, to a recognition of God’s presence.

I have found these paths to be helpful in structuring worship.   I plan my services and sermons one season or one path at a time.    Via positiva with its energy and sunshine is summer.   Via transformativa with life breaking out is spring.  Via creativa is the work of winter.     It doesn’t really matter what season of the year corresponds with what path.   You could make connections between the paths and the seasons in many ways. 

During the season of Fall
with the trees letting go of their leaves,
with the sun leaving us earlier each day and arriving later each morning,
offering us less of its warmth and light as the season progresses to the winter solstice, the longest night,
this season is appropriate for the via negativa, the path of letting go and letting be.

The via negativa is not a path either celebrated or often acknowledged in our culture or in western Christianity.    Fox points out that we lack a via negativa in the West.  We either ignore it or avoid it or we turn it into asceticism and toxic religion.   We call that which is of the dark or night, bad, evil or sinful and something to control or master.   

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, calls our predicament, a sunny spirituality.   We want light 24/7.   No room for doubt or silence or pain.

When we think of darkness, we have connotations that are distasteful.    Evil lurks in the darkness.  The dark lord.  The dark ages.  The dark side.  Darkness is something to fear.  We turn on the lights.  

The darkness we are talking about can be physical darkness.  It can also be metaphorical darkness.  I have found in walking this path that it is not easy to sort out exactly what the via negativa is.    I want to talk about pain as a path.  Yet I don’t want to glorify pain.   I want to talk about sadness as a path.  But I don’t want to wallow there.  I want to talk about doubt as a path, but I am not sure I want doubt to be my final destination. 

There is a care in walking the via negativa, in much the same way we carefully walk through a room in the dark, one step at a time, feeling our way, senses heightened when sight is limited.   The via negativa as a spiritual path also requires care.  There are things that can trip us up.   Not evil things.  Just things you don’t see. 

I invite you this Fall, to explore this path, to learn to walk in the dark with me.   I am going to be a bit intentional about it.  In addition to the sermons and worship services, I encourage you to purchase a book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor.   

It is a beautiful book.  She spoke with me on my radio program.  I like her.

I am also going to organize a few small groups for those who might like to meet some others and discuss this path.    I invite everyone and I especially encourage those who are new to our community to participate.  

The via negativa, the path of walking in the dark, so to speak, is a sacred journey.  This is 13th century mystic, Meister Eckhart.

This word is a hidden word
and comes in the darkness of the night.
To enter this darkness put away
all voices and sounds
all images and likenesses.
For no image has ever reached into the soul’s foundation
where God herself
with her own being is effective.
Those who know the ways of the night, the walk in the dark, know that there are things found there of great value, that you cannot find when you only walk in the light.    Half of our lives is spent in the dark.   Physically for sure, but metaphorically, emotionally, and spiritually as well.   The via negativa invites us to explore it as opposed to avoiding it.   What is there? 

During this season we will explore some stories from the Bible that happen in the dark:  Jacob wrestles with an angel all night.    Jesus prays for the cup to be taken from him.  Jesus walks on water in the night.   He goes in the darkness to a deserted place to pray.    Jonah has time for introspection in a fish belly in the dark.    

We will look at some other traditions.  Buddha attains enlightenment after a dark night of temptation.  Mohammad is led by God on a sacred night journey.   Creation happens in the dark.  Mary receives her announcement in the dark.  Joseph is guided by dreams in the dark.   Of course, on Christmas Eve, we sing O Holy Night.   Moses climbs the mountain in the dark to receive the Ten Commandments.  

Today’s story also features Moses.  I had forgotten that it was at night when Yahweh split the sea and led the Israelites across.    I haven’t seen the movie in a while.    All of these stories take place in the dark.   I am going to use these stories to spin us off into reflections on the Via Negativa, the way of letting go and of letting be, a walk in the dark.   

The Israelites are at the edge of the sea.  The Egyptian army is after them.   The Israelites cry out:  
"Why did we do this?   Are there no graves in Egypt that we have to be slaughtered out here?  We should have stayed."   
Better slaves than dead.  Right?  Take a chance.  You lose.  You get hurt.  You poke your eye out.   Assert your independence, you get smacked down.   Better to remain safe.  Better safe than sorry.  That is the slogan given to those who would dare venture in the dark to a liberation unknown.

The problem with a revolution, the problem with starting something new, is that there is no new system in place.   You can’t know what you are going to.   You can’t see it.  You can see where you have been, but you can’t see where you are going.   It is scary.  You are not sure if it is worth it.   Even a bad situation, even slavery, seems better.  So how does anyone ever go anywhere?  

You end up going when can’t afford not to go.   

You decide to make a change when you get to the point that you just have to do it.  When the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of change.   Some never even reach that point.   Some learn to tolerate a great deal of pain without ever changing.   We can spend a long time, perhaps even our whole lives avoiding the change that would be good for us because we are afraid of the unknown.  

This is why the via negativa is an important path.   It is a path that teaches us courage.   The fruit of the via negativa is courage.   It is a path that teaches us to be more malleable.  

You also end up going when you learn to walk in the dark. 

The more we learn to walk in the dark, the more we are able to change when we need to change.  The biblical story of exodus and of the wandering in the wilderness is the story of learning to walk in the dark.   The Israelites are resistant. They cry out for help.  When help comes, they want it but they also don’t want it.  It requires a scary walk in the dark.   They have to learn to trust.     The point of the story is that they are not alone.   The cloud, the divine presence, is with them in the darkness.    
“Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah.”  We sing about it.

Of course, this ancient story is filled with mythical language and miracle and divine beings, but the point is true:  you have what it takes to venture into the unknown.    You can call it whatever you want, God, courage, confidence, whatever.  It is in you and with you.   

“…the cloud was there with the darkness.”

These biblical stories that take place at night in the dark, are trust stories.    They teach us to take a step, to feel our way in the dark, and to trust.   

I am sure you can think of a time in your own life in which you needed to take a step in the dark, a step of trust.  It was unknown, uncertain, scary, but you did it.  Recall that time.    Maybe it had to do with a relationship, a loss, a job, a decision, a speech.   Go ahead and think of a time that you needed to cross the sea in the dark, so to speak.   I am going to give you a minute to bring something to mind.


The via negativa, this way of learning to walk in the dark is not something you learn by sitting in a pew, listening to a sermon about it.   You learn to walk in the dark by taking a baby step in the dark.    Right now I invite you to find three other people and tell of a time you crossed the sea in the dark.   Go ahead now and find a group of four and share your crossing the sea in the dark story.   Take turns, introduce yourself and share your story, listen attentively to the others and then when the music starts we will sing our hymn.

(story sharing)


Sunday, September 14, 2014

The First Fast Food (9/14/14)

The First Fast Food
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 14th, 2014

Exodus 12:1-13

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

This is the last in this summer series of sermons on famous and not-so-famous meals of the Bible.   Here is a recap of the menu.  

·      Abraham and Sarah prepared a feast to entertain angels.  
·      Elijah was fed by ravens and then ate the widow’s last meal. 
·      Jesus ate with sinners and then fed 5,000.   
·      We cringed at Herod’s feast where the head of John the Baptist was served on a platter.  
·      There was an interrupted meal that ended in anger because of Saul’s disapproval over the relationship between Jonathan and David.  
·      A fatted calf for a skinny brother introduced us to the story of the man who had two sons and to the invitation to forgiveness. 

Today’s meal is famous.  It is the most important meal of the Hebrew scriptures.  It is the first fast food.   With sandals on their feet, staffs in hand and no time for bread to rise, the Israelites are instructed to eat it and beat it.  

Fast food is nothing new for us.  We are a fast food society.  We eat in the car, on the sidewalk, at our desk, and where ever we can pull out a bag of what ever mystery meal the local Taco Bell provides.    We are a society obsessively in a hurry often with little time preparing, let alone enjoying, a healthy meal.     Honesty check.  Have you ever like me, complained that the microwave was too slow?     

Those are first world problems.    

This text is not from the first world.  It is not from the culture of fast food.  Yet it does speak of an urgency.   I want to explore with you what that urgency was and is. 

This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 

This text from Exodus is not a journalistic report.  It is not an account of what happened.   If there was an event at all, it is lost to us.    We are given liturgical memory.    This text was instruction for the ancient Hebrews to remember who they are.   As we hear this text today, we ask who we are.

Who are we?   What is our relationship to Pharaoh and to empire?  What is our relationship to the Divine Presence?  What is the defining Divine act?   How do we participate in it?    What is our posture toward this act?

In his book, “Wounded Healer”, Henri Nouwen recounts a parable.   The question is this:  how will you know when the messiah has come?  How can you identify the messiah?   How do you pick out the messiah from a crowd?  You spot the messiah by  watching how she redresses her wounds.   Most of the wounded redress their wounds by taking off all of their bandages and then putting new ones on again.  The messiah dresses her wounds one at a time so that she will always be ready when needed.   

That is the posture of this text.   We as healers, wounded healers, but healers, are called to be ready.   We as agents of liberation are to be ready with sandals on our feet, staff in hand, loins girded!  


Change can happen quickly.  The status quo can carry on for a long time and the power of inertia and oppression can seem intransigent.  Then a critical point is reached.  An action is taken that doesn’t seem big in and of itself but it triggers a series of events.    Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat.   That proves to be the catalyst for the civil rights movement.    The people were ready to mobilize and organize, and with sandals, shoes and workboots on their feet, they found a way to bypass a segregated bus system for over a year and integrated the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama.  

Change can happen quickly.  We have to be ready to move.  

I was told that the prohibition against ordination would not change in the PCUSA.  It would never pass the presbyteries I heard.   I was told this as recently as 2010.   That very summer the General Assembly again sent change to the presbyteries.  By 2011, the prohibition was removed.  

Marriage equality would never pass I heard.  Well, things can happen quickly, surprisingly quickly.   Being ready with sandals on your feet, and staff in hand means never giving up hope no matter how hopeless it looks.   

That is the posture of this text.  Be ready.  Do not give up hope on the promise of liberation.   Dress your wounds one at a time because you never know when you might be needed. 

As I mentioned, this text is not a report of a one time historical event.  This text is liturgical instruction for the ongoing work of creating liberating memory.    It is instruction for worship.    Worship is rehearsal for liberation.    We need to tell again and again that foundational story of bondage and liberation because we are always still needing to take that journey from bondage in Pharaoh’s empire to the holy mountain.    Bondage can take many insidious forms.    The good news is that divine liberation also takes form in surprising and creative ways. 

Those who are in recovery know the importance of telling their story and hearing the stories of others.  What we were like.  What happened.  What life is like now.    It is said for those in recovery from alcohol addiction that if you can’t remember your last drink, it may not have been your last drink.    That is the urgency.    This is life and death.    The bondage of addiction is nothing to take lightly.   If we do not remember and rehearse liberation the power of bondage can trap us again. 

The point of the liturgical memory is to bring this sense of urgency to the present.  
While this Passover celebration is a practice of our Jewish sisters and brothers, Christians can with intention, humility, and respect, enter this holy ground, this sacred text and let it speak to us in the present.    

When we participate in communion as we will on World Communion Sunday, the first Sunday in October, this sacrament can also be for us rehearsal for liberation.    The metaphors are rich.  We die to an old way of being. We are raised to a new way of being.   We eat the bread and drink from cup and we participate and proclaim the great feast of justice and peace for all people and all of Earth.   Communion like Passover can be a subversive act of liberation.

The central defining narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures is the departure or the exodus from bondage in Egypt.    This text answers for us important questions.  What is God’s character?  What does God want?   The text tells us that God is a liberator.  God desires liberation from bondage.   God is a God of the oppressed.  God invites us to participate in liberation for ourselves and others.   It isn’t just a one time thing.  It is an ongoing journey that we live and relive from Pharaoh’s empire to the holy mountain. 

This liberation can be costly.   The powers, the “gods” in this text are ruthless and intransigent.  The cost is heavy.  It is the plague of the death of the first born.   In the Jesus narrative we see that the cost is the cross.   The blood on the doorpost and the cross are the symbols of faith that remind us that this is serious business.    Liberation requires of us courage, trust, and risk.   Dying to an old way of being and being raised to a new way of being leaves scars.

If we take this ancient text seriously and listen for its truth, we will be invited to think of forms of bondage in our lives.     Already I have referred to the bondage of segregation, heterosexism, and addiction.    All of those oppressions dehumanize and trap us in unhealthy patterns of living.  These are forms of bondage that keep us or others from human flourishing.   There are others. 

We can be in bondage to unhealthy belief systems.  Religion can be a form of bondage.    You know what I mean:

The Bible says it.  I believe it.  That settles it.  

That type of rigid unbending belief is often presented as faith.  But it is faith in the need to be certain rather than faith as trust when answers are not clear.   

One role of a community of faith is to provide space and permission for people to deconstruct an unhealthy belief system so that there is space to grow.    I am grateful for ministers in my life and for scholars of religion who have challenged my belief systems and caused me to enter that uncomfortable wilderness of uncertainty.   That is the journey we take from bondage to the holy mountain.

14th century mystic Meister Eckhart said:

“God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction.”

We may need to let go of God, to let go of all of our concepts of God in order to fall into the depths of God.  

Bondage can take the form of unhealthy relationships.   Sometimes exodus or departure is needed for the sake of one’s health.   This first step is coming out to self and others with your truth.  Coming out to family is a courageous and dangerous act.    

A few years ago our PFLAG group hosted A Coming Out Day event at the Presbyterian Campus House at ETSU.   There were between 30 and 40 college students present.  It was one of the most moving and wrenching and joyful evenings I have experienced.   Students told their coming out stories.   Some were incredibly painful.   Name-calling, spiritual abuse, even exclusion from the family were the consequences for coming out.   One young man was asked to leave his church.    On the other hand, some had families that were understanding and loved them unconditionally.   One person cried because this event was being held in the Presbyterian campus house and it was the first time that any church had ever shown her any form of welcome.   

Bondage can be the bondage of secrecy.  The bondage of being forced to deny an aspect of your very being is spirit-breaking.   Coming out is liberation.  When I say, “Coming out” I am not only referring to gay and lesbian people coming out.   There are many reasons and ways to come out and be who God made you to be.    That is because there are many ways in which others hold control.  

“We will love you as long as you are not this or don’t do that or only if you do this.” 

That is not love.  It is control.   It is bondage.     

And the promise of this text is that God hears that cry and says, “It is time to hurry up.  Liberation is at hand!”

This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 

This summer I was a commissioner at the General Assembly.   It is a once-in-a-lifetime honor.   It is a trip to Mecca.   My hajj to Detroit.   I was proud to cast my ballot in favor of marriage equality.   Equality for sexual and gender minorities has been a long exodus, a long journey, and it isn’t over yet.   It will happen, in the words of the African-American spiritual, soon and very soon.    

I was impressed with the YAADs, the Young Adult Advisory Delegates.   I took very seriously their advisory votes.   I was moved by their prophetic idealism.   At one point they were lined up eight or nine deep or more at their microphones, eager, with flip flops on their feet and voting paddles in their hands to speak on behalf of Earth and the liberation of our beautiful blue ball from our unsustainable misuse of Earth’s resources.     

Divesting from fossil fuel industries was the issue that they cared about more than any other.   The youth recognized that we are on an unsustainable course and the powers that be are intransigent.  It is as though we are caught on a hamster’s wheel and we have no idea how to get off. 

The late Thomas Berry summarized our situation in his book, The Great Work.   He said this about our fossil fuel addicted consumer society:

The ideal is to take the greatest possible amount of natural resources, process these resources, put them through the consumer economy as quickly as possible, then on to the waste heap. This we consider as progress—even though the immense accumulation of junk is overwhelming the landscape, saturating the skies, and filling the oceans. (p. 76)

Climate change is the grim reaper, the angel of death, whom we have unleashed.      Extracting non-renewable resources and putting their waste products into the atmosphere and into our oceans is not a plan for the future.   Yet our economy is based on it.  All the powers, all the gods of industry and finance, spend all they have to keep this consumer economy functioning.   The problem is so immense, so intransigent, that we have no idea how to free ourselves from this destructive pattern.  

Yet here are these young adults demanding another way.    You know, I believe them.    I think they are taking this biblical text more seriously than I have taken it.     

This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 

They know of the urgency.  They know that we need an exodus from a lifestyle of extraction, consumption, and waste.   They actually believe that we can be liberated from this and move toward a holy mountain of renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and balance for Earth and all earthlings.    I have no idea how this liberation is going to happen.  I have no idea who the catalyst will be that will move us toward this change or where the tipping point will occur.  

Maybe the catalyst will be someone like Sister Paula Gonzales.    She is not a young adult.  She is 81 years young.  She is a Sister of Charity in Cincinnati.  She and her community of sisters transformed a huge chicken barn into a solar home and she has earned the title, the Solar Nun.    She says the solution to our problems comes up once every morning.   With ingenuity and political will, we could harness the energy of the Sun far more than we do now.   Sister Paula, who is a smart nun, with a Ph. D. in biology thinks that we can do this. 

She thinks we can put our energy, intelligence, imagination, and love toward a new way of being on Earth and with Earth.    We can reduce, reuse, recycle, and remake our lives in ways that enhance human flourishing and the flourishing of our more than human friends.    I believe her.

There is an urgency.   The longer we live in denial, the longer we allow the gods of intransigence to control our narrative, the more wounded our beautiful blue ball becomes.   
That said, the thing we dare not do is lose hope.    We are after all, a hope full people. 

The Divine Presence is all around us!

We have seen the captives freed in our own lives and throughout history.  
We stand on the shoulders of courageous people with huge hearts. 
We live in the midst of flourishing creativity.   
God is present.  

There is no need to wait for a hero or a savior.

June Jordan in her Poem for South African Women finishes this powerful poem of liberation with this stanza:

And who will join this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
if necessary
even under the sea

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Each of us is the messiah as we approach life with a posture of anticipation and urgency.  

Each of us is the messiah as we listen for wisdom, speak our truth, engage in our tasks, open our ears to the cries of the oppressed and to the music of freedom. 

Each of us is the messiah as we redress our wounds one at a time so we are always ready. 

Each of us is the messiah as we receive sustenance for the journey from community, in worship, and by recounting our sacred stories so we never forget who and whose we are.   

This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 

We are ready.

Our liberation is at hand.