Sunday, November 23, 2014

Creating in the Dark (11/23/14)

Creating in the Dark
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 23, 2014

Genesis 1:1-5
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Qur’an 17:1
Glory to Him Who carried His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Furthest Mosque, whose precincts We have blessed, to show him of Our wonders!  He it is Who is All-Hearing, All-Seeing!

There are a number of themes flirting and dancing this morning.    I usually plan more services than I deliver as schedules can change.   I am combining two themes, creation in the dark and Mohammad’s night journey in which, legend has it, God transported him to the seventh heaven.  If you are keeping track of the Christian calendar, today is Christ the King Sunday.   It is the final day of the Christian calendar, a day to honor the reign of Christ.  Legend and creed have it that Jesus ascended to heaven and sits at the Father’s right hand.    Then of course, we are coming up on Thanksgiving.  We have plenty to talk about.    
Let’s talk about Mohammad first.   I feel it is somehow important to honor Mohammad on Christ the King Sunday.   Jesus and Mohammad.  Wouldn’t it be fun to imagine them meeting?  I wonder if they would behave like so many of their followers.  Put them in a ring and have them duke it out.  See which one is toughest, loudest, and most willing to despise and kill the other one.

I was disturbed this past week by the flare up in the local paper.   A minister at one of the churches had a meeting that attracted media attention.  He didn’t like what he found in a seventh grade social studies textbook.  The discussion was supposedly about common core standards.  There was mix up about what are common core standards and what is curriculum decided by school boards.  Regardless of all that, the minister was on a holy roll.    The social studies textbook had a section on Islam.   From a social studies perspective, Islam and Christianity have been shaping influences in the world and we should learn about these movements.  Nonetheless, he felt threatened that his children were being indoctrinated and that Islam was being favored over Christianity.  

As it is in this internet age, the debate continued in the comment section.     I often hear the advice, “Never read the comments.”  I disagree.  The comments represent that seething cauldron of our collective Id.  Anonymous comments shared globally bring to the surface the fears and passions that drive us.    The individual commenters are not the focus for me.  What is the fear that drives them?    One commenter articulated the fear quite clearly.   The commenter wrote: 
“I do not want my grand daughter being taught anything about the muslims.  All she needs to know is that they are EVIL and will kill you if you do not convert to muslim.”  
The point is not the commenter. What gives rise to this level of passion?    What are the economic and political forces that create such fear?   George Orwell’s book, 1984 was about a dystopian society in which the controlling powers ruled people by manipulating their emotions.    Each day would begin with “two minutes of hate” in which children and adults would be instructed to hate the enemy.    Sometimes the enemy would change based of the whims of the powers.   The particular enemy was less important than the ability to manipulate fear and hatred.  Today, some media outlets broadcast hate and fear 24/7.   Religious groups translate it into a holy hate.

Information is never free.  It is never free of cost or free of value.  Anything we learn about the world, we learn for a reason.   A good rule of thumb is to follow the money.   Those who provide information provide it to shape attitudes, opinions, and of course, to ignite passions.  Who pays for this information to be disseminated and what do they get for their buck?    The audience, we, both consumers and product, whoever “we” are, overhear the propaganda from the other side as reported from “our” side, and so our fears are heightened further.   “Hear them!  See them!  They hate us,” we conclude.   “They will kill us.”   

To release the grip of manipulation, we should think critically.  We should always ask, “Who wants us to learn and feel this and why?”   When the American people learn to fear and hate Muslims, who gains?   The answer to that question is complex, but that should not stop us from asking it.

The enemy is not the Muslim next door or the Muslim across the planet.  The enemy is made up of the unseen forces that divide human beings into us and them and drive all of us to fear and to target others based on these divisions.   When I say unseen forces I am speaking of institutionalized forms of power larger than any individual or even group of individuals.    Biblical scholar, Walter Wink, calls them simply, the Powers.   It is effective. It works.   The technology is not the issue.   Any technology can be used to manipulate fear.    The good news is that the “powers” are not omnipotent.  Powerful yes.  But not all-powerful.  

The heroic are those that can rise above some of the manipulation at least and see a little more clearly.    They speak about what they see.   They inspire us to keep hope.   Martin Luther wrote about the Prince of Darkness in his 16th century hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”    Luther had his own prejudices and short-sightedness, but this hymn spoke to the hope of engaging the powers.      I am thinking of this couplet in particular:     
For lo! his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
Luther is speaking of the power of truth to shatter the illusion of fear, ignorance and hatred.   It doesn’t take a propaganda machine.  It doesn’t take a media empire to counteract the effects of the media empires.    Sometimes it takes one, articulate, heartfelt letter to the editor.    Sometimes it takes swallowing hard and speaking up in front of a group.  

We can never match the Powers dollar for dollar.  You have to use jujutsu, using the opponent’s energy against him.   Use the system to disrupt the system.  It takes creativity.    In the void, in the darkness, a holy wind swept over the deep and God said, “Let there be light.”    

Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark that what we call darkness is usually not completely dark.   You often make your way, in part, by using the light that is there.   The light of creativity is present, if hidden, in the dark.   
In the bulb there is a flower; In the seed, and apple tree…There’s a dawn in every darkness,Bringing hope to you and me.
Over the past several months I have been reflecting on my nine years with you.   I have learned so much from you.   This congregation and the various collections of people and movements that swirl around us and with whom we have affinities have inspired me.    I know that the positions and viewpoints that many have here are not majority positions.   Although, because of you, because of your courage, because of your willingness to be vulnerable, you have created space for many.    You have been able to articulate a critique of the powers.   

I realize that I have been honored to participate in a conversation that started long before me and will continue long after me.   I have added a word or two, but as it is with these things, I have received far more than I have given.    What I want to say is that creativity is bigger than us.  We are fortunate to participate in it.    

One of the things I appreciate about serving here is the trust you gave me to be creative and to try new things such as reading the Qur’an in worship and preaching from it.   That was a fun and challenging experiment in 2009.   It sparked my curiosity about the Mohammad and the Qur’an.    A book I highly recommend about Mohammad is by Leslie Hazleton.  It is called The First Muslim:  The Story of Muhammad.    She writes about the isra, or the night journey of Mohammad.  

Mohammad’s night journey happens during a period in his life of discouragement and criticism.   His revelations are questions and he is thrown out of the city of Taif.  One of the citizens said to him,
“Could God send only a nobody like you?”    
He awakes in the middle of the night and goes to the Kaaba to pray.  He falls asleep and is awakened by the angel Gabriel.  Gabriel takes him on a winged white horse to Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is a holy city.  The Jewish temple is built on the rock where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son.    Abraham is the founding monotheist who is called a Muslim in Islam, one who submits to God.  

Mohammad is going to meet Abraham.  While is he on the rock of the temple, now the Dome of the Rock, he is met by hordes of angels and is offered three goblets.   One contains wine, the second, milk, and the third water.  He chooses the milk as a middle way between asceticism and indulgence and Gabriel praises him. 
“You have been rightly guided, Muhammad, and so will your people be.”     
 A ladder is brought to him and he climbs it and ascends through the seven heavens presided by Adam, Jesus and John, Joseph, Enoch, Aaron, Moses, and finally at the seventh and highest circle, Abraham.  

This parable about Mohammad is a parable for his journey into God.  He discovers his confidence as a leader after this, his sense of purpose and meaning.    We could and should learn a lot from Mohammad.  He was an amazing person.    Leslie Hazletton and Karen Armstrong both have important introductions to his life.

Rumi, who I quoted in the bulletin today speaks of Mohammad’s night journey by turning it toward us:
“And you, when will you begin that long journey into yourself?” 
Of course, that is what these religious and spiritual stories are about.  Whether they are about Jesus or Mohammad, Abraham or Buddha, they are parables that invite us to reflect upon our own lives, and not just reflect, to invite.    What now, friend?  Who are you?  What are you made of?   Where is your journey taking you?

The Isra, or the Night Journey, is a beautiful story.   I have to admire my Muslim friends who are inspired by that story and celebrate it the way I might the story of the resurrection for example.   Because don’t these stories, these parables, all invite us to do something similar, seek a depth of life below the surface?   In Mohammad’s case, choose a goblet, drink from it, and climb the ladder.   

There will be those who will use religion as a weapon or as way to divide “us” from “them” and to manipulate our fears.  But there will also always be people, like you my friends, who hear in these religious stories from a variety of traditions, an invitation to be something better, to look beneath the surface of things, to seek what we hold in common, to build a world of peace, and to never, never, never give up.


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