Sunday, May 31, 2015

We Are All Prophets (5/31/15)

We Are All Prophets
John Shuck

May 31, 2015

Prayer for Peace
 Hoang Minh Nhan, Vietnam 

 I would like to say some simple things, 
Simple as a field of rice or sweet potatoes, 
Or a silent early morning. 
Please let me breathe again the air of yesterday. 
Let children frolic in the sun 
 With kites over bamboo bridges. 
 Just a narrow little space will be enough 
Four rows of bamboo trees around it; 
And leave a little space, for an entrance, 
A place for a girl and boy to tell the story of the moon, 
For old women with babies to gather and chatter. 
Please give me back these things I’ve mentioned— 
A story as simple 
As a bird’s unbroken song, 
As a mother, as a baby 
As the life of long ago the poets used to tell… 

Luke 4:16-30
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ 

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 

He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

We are nearing the end of the season of Spring.    During Spring we reflect on the Creation Spirituality path of the via transformativa, the way of justice-making and compassion.   This is the dream of the world transformed.  It is the season of our aspirations.  

The New Creation is the mythological symbol.    A new heaven and a new earth.  In the final verses of the book of Revelation, we read:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.   Rev. 21:1-2

In this new city all tears are wiped away and all the saints reign forever in the light of the Lamb.  

We are dreamers.  The one speech of Martin Luther King that everyone knows is “I Have A Dream.”  He delivered a lot of speeches, many filled with detailed analysis of the world’s injustices and strategies to overcome them, but it was the dream speech that captured the nation’s heart. 

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Perhaps the most interesting and important feature of the human species is the drive to articulate dreams and aspirations.    Our dreams and our hopes are what give us meaning and purpose.    

We all have dreams and have had them.  We have dreams for ourselves, for successful careers, to fall in love, to have a home, to raise happy, good-looking kids who are above average.    

Of course we adjust our dreams as we add on the years.  I no longer dream of playing second base for the New York Mets.   But who knows, my nephew might.  I can dream for him.     

Of course, while we were dreaming, life happens.     Our dreams may need to be adjusted.  For a time, they may disappear.  Our former dreams may be taunting reminders of what can never be.    Those are walking in the dark times.  

In time, dreams return.  We dare to dream again.  Dreaming is risky because the flames of disappointment scorch and no one is eager to be exposed to that again.  But nonetheless, we dream because we are human and we have no choice.    When dreams stop we enter the fog of non-existence. 

The people for whom we build monuments and name libraries and streets were usually, not in all cases, but often, big dreamers.   Their dreams moved beyond their personal welfare or the welfare of their immediate kin.   They dreamed about a transformed world.    A good exercise is to make a list of those dreamers and their dreams and ask why they come to mind for you.  

Some of these dreamers were not honored in their lifetime.    

I personally light candles for the heretics, who were hounded and defamed, even executed for articulating dreams that afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted.  From Galileo to Darwin to Susan B. Anthony to Rachel Carson, we owe a great debt to those who told the truth as they saw it when the truth they were telling wasn’t popular. 

Of course, the biggest heretic of all is the one for whom our religion is founded.   I think we should shudder every day at the irony that the heretic extraordinaire, Jesus of Nazareth, was named as the founder of an institution that hounded heretics.  

Ironic also, that the one we turned into a god had sad in so many words, don’t turn people into gods.     Mark 10:17-18:

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

The historical Jesus consistently refused the pedestal.    

We aren’t really sure what to do with dreamers, prophets, and poets.    Two choices it seems:  we kill them or turn them into gods.  Often both.  Kill them, then divinize them.   Dead gods make no trouble.  It is the live humans that are the problem.  

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement was starting to hear rumblings of her praises.   She said, “Don’t you dare call me a saint.  You won’t get rid of me that easily.”   Despite her protests, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to canonize her anyway.   Once your dead, you can’t complain. 

Prophets and poets are problematic because they dream.   They dream of the end of poverty, homelessness, war, and inequality.   We all dream those things, right?  Sure, or we should.  But the prophets and poets put a fine point on it.   They tend to name names and point to causes of these ills and make us feel a little uncomfortable, well a lot uncomfortable, because these causes can hit close to home.   

Speaking of home, that is where Jesus preached his first sermon according to Luke.   This sermon is likely an exaggeration by Luke.   The whole scene appears fabricated.  The Jesus Seminar voted it all black, except for the one phrase that may have gone back to him,  

“The truth is, no prophet is welcome on his home turf.”

The story is not history for a number of reasons.  Jesus, as a member of the peasant class, likely would not have been able to read or write.   

The supernatural element of Jesus being divinely protected from being thrown from a cliff show us that we are in the realm of storytelling.  

Most importantly, the story fits the theological pattern of Luke-Acts.   That theme is Jews rejecting Jesus and the Gentiles receiving him.   That is an unfortunate pattern throughout Luke-Acts. 

In this particular story, Luke creates a scene of Jesus returning home from doing his wonderworking and healing and he preaches in the local synagogue.   The folks like him at first, then turn against him when he says the good stuff is not going to happen for them but for the outsiders.    

There is truth to this story even though the truth is not historical.  One truth is that prophets are not welcome, especially in their home towns.   Another truth is that prophets are not welcome most anywhere.  That has nothing to do with Jew or Gentile or Luke’s supersessionist  theology, the fancy word for replacement theology, that Christianity replaced Judaism as God’s favorite religion.  

Prophets are rejected because they tell painful truths.   Luke was right about that regarding Jesus.   Jesus was a Jew from birth to death.   He had no intention of starting a new religion.   He spoke of a transformed world.   His metaphor of choice was kingdom of God.  He spoke as prophets and poets before and after him did, of justice for the poor and of love for enemy.   It was very much in line with the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and the Hebrew wisdom sages.  

Luke was right to put on Jesus’s lips those profound, poetic, prophetic, powerful words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ 

I am certain that the historical Jesus knew those words, because he lived them.  

I also think Jesus dreamed that the world would be transformed non-violently.   
Violent uprisings were not going to get people where they needed to go.   If we were going to get to a world that lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, lived in peace with neighbor, we weren’t going to get there with violence.    

In the year 2015, following a century of war, we ought to know that by now.   

Historical Jesus scholar Dominic Crossan says we are addicted to violence like a drug and we need a twelve-step program to beat it.   

Not only do we need to listen to poets, prophets, and dreamers, we need to be poets, prophets, and dreamers.    You see the dreamer and poet and the prophet is always mocked and put down as silly and impractical.   They are called “dreamers” right?    This is the real world, so we are told.  

In the real world you need guns.  
In the real world security trumps freedom.  
In the real world you need to extract the oil and gas faster and faster and green energy is for, well, dreamers.   
In the real world you get peace through domination and power.  
In the real world you pull yourself up by your bootstraps and those who don’t have deserved it.    

But the poets and prophets know that is wrong.    What we confuse with reality is nothing more than fear trying to gain power.  The real power is in the truth.   The real power is found in the words of poets and prophets who didn’t allow the bullies to silence them.    

They said in spite of threats and bluster, “This is what I see.  Can you see it, too?”   

It is the poets and the prophets who turn the world around and who show us possibility, who ignite our dreams.  When our dreams are ignited, they join with the dreams of others.    Out of that, possibility arises that no individual can see or calculate or even understand.   

Dreams inspire dreams.   They grow and build and are a life of their own.   

That my friends, is the Spirit of God,    

We are an aspiring species.   We can do better than to follow the wisdom of the so-called realists who can’t see beyond the next voting cycle.     

We are so much more important than that.   We, that is human beings, are the consciousness, the language, the poetry, the music, the meaning, the dream of the universe.     

It took 13.8 billion years for you to get here.  It took all of that time and all of those reactions and all of that evolution for you to be here.  All of this complexity is incredible.    It isn’t over!   These dreams, hopes, and aspirations for humanity’s flourishing are real.  It is the really real.  

We don’t need to destroy what we have received with guns and selfishness and short-sightedness.    We don’t need to calculate the future.  We only need to be open to it.   And we need to articulate what we see.  And trust it.

We need to accept the assignment, the calling that each of us is a poet, each of us is a prophet, each of us is a dreamer.    

I know it is painful.  It is hard to dream when we grieve.  It is hard to dream when we are afraid.   But it is    during these times, in this time, that we have no other choice but to dream.   Because that is what it means to be given the gift of humanity.     This life is a gift and we can never, ever forget that.    It is a gift to use.

If you are alive, this is your moment.  

This is your time to participate in the Spirit.    
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ 


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pentecost's Miracle (5/24/15)

Pentecost’s Miracle
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
May 24, 2015

Dhananjaya Bhat 
If you get rid of your ego and become like a hollow reed flute, then the Lord will come to you, pick you up, put his lips and breathe through you and out of the hollowness of your heart, the captivating melody will emerge for all creations to enjoy.                     

                                                            Acts 2:43-47    
The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, cultivation of unity, their meal, and their prayers.  Awe overtook everyone.  The apostles became the agents of numerous portents and miracles.  All the believers remained together and shared everything.  They would sell their goods and property and distribute the proceeds to everyone on the basis of need.  Every day they met together in the temple and ate in homes, taking their food with happy and sincere hearts that were filled with praise to God.  Everyone approved of them, and the Lord increased daily the number of those who were being saved together.

“…And the Lord increased daily the number of those who were being saved together.”

Are you saved?   

I would see that question on church signboards while driving through the lush, green hills of East Tennessee.   I knew exactly what that question was asking.  It was the question the preachers would ask when I grew up in church.     

Those who knew they were saved would affirm it enthusiastically.  They could tell the story of their salvation with date and time.   You could tell who really was saved, that is who was in and who was out, based on how enthusiastically they answered that question.   Those who hedged or who said things like, “Well it depends what you mean by ‘saved’” were suspect.   

True believers knew that “saved” meant that you accepted the fact that Jesus died for your sins and you accepted Jesus personally as your Lord and Savior.  By doing this you were saved from hell and had thus made a reservation for heaven.      

What could be more clear?

The more I learn about the scriptures the more complex and the less clear it becomes regarding these matters.    Different gospel writers use the word translated into English as saved or salvation differently.     

In Mark’s gospel, the woman with a hemorrhage touches Jesus’s robe in a crowd and the text says that Jesus feels healing power go out of him.   He asks who touched him and she is frightened and falls at his feet and tells him the truth.    Jesus says to her, “Your faith has saved you.  Go in peace.”   Sometimes the English word is cured you.  Some translations say, “made you well.”   The word is the Greek word elsewhere translated as saved.    

The word saved or salvation can mean wellness, wholeness, cured.  That isn’t quite the same as being saved from hell.   In fact, it has nothing to do with it.  

Marcus Borg in his excellent book, Speaking Christian, offers chapter long definitions for Christian words.  The subtitle of his book is Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power and How They Can Be Restored.  

One of these words is salvation.  He devotes 20 pages to that word.    He has some interesting statistics.  He writes:

Salvation and its siblings appear almost 500 times in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bilbe….Salvation occurs 127 times; save, saved, saves, and saving, about 300 times; savior, about 40 times.  Roughly two-thirds are in the Old Testament and the rest in the New Testament.    pp. 38-9.

He goes on to say, 

Salvation in the Bible is seldom about an afterlife.  p. 39.

The bulk of this sermon is taken from Borg's chapter on salvation.  Salvation in the Bible can mean 

Liberation from bondage.  For example, the exodus from slavery in Egypt.    Exodus 14:50, “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians.”   What might it mean for you and me to saved, that is liberated from various forms of bondage, and to participate in the liberation of others?  Salvation can mean…

Return from exile.   This the return from Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE.  Isaiah writes about it as salvation.  Isaiah 45:17:  “Israel is saved by the Lord with everlasting salvation.”  What does it mean to go home, to make home for ourselves and others?  Salvation can mean…

Rescue from peril.   The peril can be enemies, danger, illness, sometimes for an individual, sometimes for the nation.  Sometimes saved from death or the Pit, which is mortal illness or from enemies who desire one’s death.    The Psalms are filled with this.   7:1:  “Save me from all my pursuers and deliver me.”    In what ways is this understanding of salvation true for you?   How have we been rescued and how do we rescue? 

Salvation is deliverance and transformation in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.   Salvation is seen in personal and political ways.  In the Gospelas salvation is shown through the stories of Jesus.  Salvation is…

Blindness to sight.   Many stories are attributed to Jesus of helping the blinded see.  Whether or not there is an historical basis for these stories they serve as a metaphor for transformation.   It is really about insight.   The hymn “Amazing Grace” captures it, “I was blind but now I see.”  Salvation is also…

Death to life.   In this case, Jesus raises people from the dead such as Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus.   Again, this is metaphor and legend not history.   The point is that there are sighted people who are blind.  There are living people who are dead.    Salvation is transformation.  Live with full insight. Paul also speaks of salvation as dying and rising with Christ.  This is what happens in this biological life.  This is metaphorical language, of course, about transformation in this life.    John’s gospel calls it being “born again.”   Salvation is also…

Sickness to health.   This is the story I referenced earlier of the woman with the hemorrhage becoming cured.  These healing stories are more than literal.  Salvation as healing is moving from sickness, illness, woundedness to wholeness.  This is not about miracle cures.   We have medical science with the recognition that we are all terminal.    Again, the healing stories are metaphorical stories to tell us that there are healthy people who are sick.    We can move from woundedness whether that woundedness be grief or sadness to wholeness regardless of what our bodies are doing.  Salvation is also…

Fear to trust.    A common phrase used by Jesus is “Do not fear, only trust.”   Or he will say, “Your trust has saved you.”    This is a transformation in how we approach life and how we approach others.   How do we live lives of trust and acceptance as opposed to anxiety and a need to control?  

But salvation is not just for individuals.  Marcus Borg would often ask, “Who is your political Lord and Savior?”     That question leads us to reflect, uncomfortably perhaps, on what we trust to save us, to make us whole, to keep us from peril, as a people, as a nation, as global citizens.   

We find in both testaments that salvation has to do with how we live in the world.  Salvation is moving from…

Violence to peace.   In Luke’s gospel the angels announce to the shepherds:  “Today in the city of David, a Savior was born to you.”  What kind of savior?   Caesar was announced as savior, too.  His birthday was celebrated as the birth of the savior.   His salvation was through violence and economic exploitation.   The salvation of Jesus was peace through justice.     What is our salvation?  The United States is the leading exporter of weaponry.    Where do we really put our trust?  Salvation in the Bible is from…

Injustice to justice.   Economic justice is the primary justice issue in the Bible.    The story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who has defrauded the people is converted after being confronted by Jesus.  Jesus says “Salvation has come to this house today.”  What did he mean?  Did he mean that Zacchaeus is going to heaven?  No.  It meant that Zacchaeus was transformed from greed and fear to generosity and trust.    For the gospel of Luke and Acts, salvation is the transformation from economic inequality to economic justice.    We heard it in Mary’s song last week. 

He has shown the strength of his arm, 
He has put the arrogant to rout, along with their private schemes;
He has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, 
And sent the rich away empty.  

Salvation is one of the most important concepts in the Bible.  Yet in popular religion it has been reduced to superstition and nonsense stories of heaven and hell.    It is long past time to speak honestly about our Christian tradition and to reclaim these words and concepts that have been misused.

Today is a good day to talk about this since it is Pentecost Sunday.  

Pentecost has often been thought of as the birthday of the church.    It is a celebration of Spirit imagined with tongues of fire and wind.     We think also of the miracle as the apostles all speaking in different languages.    The whole world is imagined in this story.   The point is not a literal miracle.   That is the language of metaphor and legend like the virgin birth or the resurrection of the body or walking on water or turning water to wine.  

The miracle of Pentecost, the miracle of salvation comes at the end of the second chapter of Acts.    It is the passage mostly skipped over at Pentecost, because we focus on the tongues of fire and so forth.    Here is the real miracle:

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, cultivation of unity, their meal, and their prayers.  Awe overtook everyone.  The apostles became the agents of numerous portents and miracles.  All the believers remained together and shared everything.  They would sell their goods and property and distribute the proceeds to everyone on the basis of need.  Every day they met together in the temple and ate in homes, taking their food with happy and sincere hearts that were filled with praise to God.  Everyone approved of them, and the Lord increased daily the number of those who were being saved together.

I am not sure how historical that was either.   We know from history that the miracle of sharing whether it happened or not, didn’t last.   Much like the Jubilee year in the Hebrew Scriptures where every 50 years all debts were forgiven and land went back to original owners to level the playing field.    We don’t know if it ever really happened.   

That of course, is why it is always an ideal.   Luke understands salvation as a radical revision of economics.    For Luke, salvation is a whole new way of running our house.  

“They would sell their goods and property and distribute the proceeds to everyone on the basis of need.”

What did that lead to?

“…and the Lord increased daily the number of those who were being saved together.”

The more we share the more we save and are saved.    

It is Mary’s song coming to fruition.  “He has filled the hungry with good things.” 

That is Luke’s understanding of salvation.  

The point of this Bible study sermon was to show that the word salvation and its siblings, saved, savior, and so forth is a great deal more broad than often understood both by people within the church and by those who now call themselves, “nones” or unaffiliated with religion.   

This old-sounding religious revival word, salvation, is more interesting than Dr. Love’s Traveling Salvation Road Show.    It is much different than miracle cures and going to heaven to avoid hell and what all.   It is not about being saved with a date and time stamp.   

Marcus Borg was asked by a mainline clergyperson in his 40s,

“If Christianity’s not about an afterlife, then what’s our product?” p. 54.

Marcus wondered how people could get through a mainline seminary without encountering a more biblical understanding of salvation.  But he answered the question seriously.    If Christianity isn’t about an afterlife, what is the “product?”

Marcus answered:  

“…the product is salvation  as the twofold transformation of ourselves and the world.”  p. 54.

That is something we all long for, whether we are “religious” or not.    One of the reasons some people might call themselves spiritual but not religious or who shun religion altogether is because Christianity has focused on life after death in a very narrow way as opposed to life before death which is what the Bible is really about.  

Salvation is about what we long for.  What I long for personally, to be a person of integrity, to be my best, true self, to be happy, helpful, to make a difference, and to participate in the transformation of the world, that is our human world, the only world that we can actually affect.   Of course, our actions have effects on the more than human world as well.    It is still this world, this Earth, our home.  

There may be many ways of how to get there of how we can be a beloved community, of how we can share the bounty of Earth sustainably with concern for future generations.    

But that we participate in the world’s salvation is what it means to be a community of faith, to follow in the spirit of Jesus.  It is what I think even more broadly of what it means to be a human being.    

Are you saved? 

For me, I can honestly say, yes and not yet. 


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hail Mary, The Revolutionary (5/17/15)

Hail Mary, The Revolutionary
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

Amos 5:21-24
I hate, I despise your festivals,
   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
   I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
   I will not look upon. 
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 
But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Luke 1:46-53 
And Mary said,
‘My soul extols the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my savior,
for he has taken notice of the low status of his slave girl.
So behold, from now on every generation will congratulate me.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name,
and his mercy will come to generation after generation 
of those who fear him.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has routed the arrogant, along with their private schemes;
he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones,
and exalted the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.’

I went to Catholic High School, Butte Central in Butte, Montana.  The teachers consisted of laypeople, and sisters, and brothers.  Most classes began with prayer.  Not all of them, but most.   I didn’t notice it at the time, but when I reflected back on it, I remembered with a few exceptions that the brothers would lead us in the Our Father and the sisters would lead us in Hail Mary.

Hail Mary,
Full of Grace,
The Lord is with Thee.
Blessed art Thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God
Pray for us sinners, 
Now, and at the hour of our death.

Praying to Mary was sort of a religious rebellion for me.  My Southern Baptist church did not pray to Mary.    Even the Our Father was a sort of heresy for Southern Baptists.  We didn’t say “rote prayers.”   We prayed from the heart, so we thought.  Funny isn’t it, how religious ideas and practices get so entrenched?    

Nancy Ellen Abrams, author of a new book, A God that Could Be Real, writes:

When we look at the wars that have been fought over religion, it’s clear that there is nothing we humans resist more passionately than changing our ideas of God.

I was interested in Mary, although not then as a high school boy.  Later during seminary, looking back on it, I reflected on Mary as a feminine face of God.   Mary was kinder, more forgiving, full of grace.   The old Irish joke goes like this:

One day, Jesus is upset.  Heaven is getting filled up with sinners.  Jesus goes to Peter who is guarding the gate.  He says, “Peter, what is with all these sinners!  Why are you letting them in!”

Peter says, “No Lord, I tell them, ‘you are a sinner; you can’t come in.’  What do they do?  They go around to the back door, and your mother, she lets them in!”

Through the middle ages, as Jesus the Son, God the Father, and God the Holy Ghost, became a testosterone filled Trinity, there was a need for a feminine face, a mother, someone to soften the harshness of king and judge-oriented atonement theories.     A theology of Mary, Mariology, developed.   Mary was the one to whom you prayed when you were in big trouble.    

Mary became a model for women, a dubious one, being both mother and virgin.   The patriarchal church wanted to push this:  Mary, demure, obedient, and virginal, and yet a mother.   All women should be mothers without having sex.   

Yet at the same time, she became somewhat of a release for feminine energy within the patriarchal godhead.  She earned some theological clout and was even  named a co-redemptrix with Jesus.  Yet it was all still under this patriarchal control.  Mary in heaven and real women on earth had to gain independence, autonomy and power  through letting in sinners through the back door, so to speak.   

Mary, more than Jesus, is a figure for the people.  She is the one who really had the interests of the poor in her heart.  She has also become a figure of liberation for women especially regarding issues of justice and peace.    While the Father and Son are inspiring holy wars, Mary is binding up wounds and caring for the victims.    

Mary is an important figure for Muslims as well.  There is more written about her in the Qur’an than in the New Testament.   In the Qur’an she gives birth by herself under a palm tree.  God’s spirit, a messenger makes a stream to flow below her feet and tells her to shake the tree and dates “soft and ripe” fall for her.  It is a very tender story.   

But her big moment is the speech attributed to her in the Gospel of Luke.    At Christmas we hear it sung.  We call it the Magnificat.  It is majestic sounding and in Latin, that holy, mumbling language that no one can understand.   It is a good thing it is in Latin.   If we listened to her words we would be shocked.    Mary is a precocious socialist at best.   This is what she thinks about the work of God:

He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has routed the arrogant, along with their private schemes;
he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones,
and exalted the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.’

Those are fightin’ words. 

Now we might wonder if Mary is a bit naïve and engaging in wishful thinking.  The arrogant and their schemes seem to be doing quite well in the world.   The mighty are still on their thrones and the hungry are more often sent away than the rich.    

That said, we know where her heart is.  We know where her commitment lies.   We know how she understands the work of what she calls God.   God for her is not some abstraction, the uncaused cause, or the ground of being, or most importantly, a legitimation of the status quo.    

God is a verb.   This verb routs, pulls, exalts, fills and sends.    For Mary at least in this song in Luke’s gospel, God is action on behalf of justice for the lowly.   God takes sides.

“He has taken notice of the low status of his slave girl.”

God is our aspiration for justice.  In the words of poet Pablo Neruda, 

“For now I ask no more than the justice of eating.” 

That is God.    Mary lives that God.

The Bible is filled with all kinds of strange things.  Not all of it is particularly inspiring.   And yet, there is a subplot that winds its way through that is particularly arresting.   The violent parts of the Bible are often loud and domineering.   At times we can focus on those and use them to justify exclusive religion or discrimination or other lower aspects of our nature.    But there is also music in scripture that when it is heard, can humble and inspire.    

Marcus Borg writing in the last book he published before he died, Convictions:  How I Learned What Matters Most, wrote that when he was in college he was 

“…the president of the Young Republican Club and conservative columnist for the college newspaper.”   He said that he

“…advocated for Eisenhower while a classmate advocated for Adlai Stevenson.  She was from a union family.  I had never known somebody from a union family.  And my family didn’t like unions.”

He writes:

“Then I read the book of Amos.  It was a revelation.  Stunning….. Amos led me to realize that the Bible had a dimension that I had never seen before.  Amos was about God’s passion, God’s desire, God’s dream, God’s yearning, for thetransformation of this world to a world of greater economic justice.”  P. 32-33.

That experience changed him.  He went on to graduate work in religion and his dissertation was on Jesus and the politics of his day.  

Amos is filled with a lot of angry rhetoric and curses on one nation after another.  But then there is this statement that is as bold and surprising as the appearance of Mount Hood on a clear day:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
   I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
   I will not look upon. 
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 
But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

That is religion.  Right there.  That is spirituality.  There is the word of God.   Without justice and righteousness, without the justice of eating, without the exalting of the lowly, all of our beliefs, and rituals, and beautiful words, theories, doctrines and songs are noise.  

I am not a very good Christian.     Johnny Cash said he was C minus Christian.   That is about right for me, on a good day.    I don’t give myself a low grade because of my so-called heretical beliefs.    I am not sure if I can even name the essential tenets of Reformed Theology let alone believe them.   I never seem to manage to put together a Presbyterian Book of Order correct worship service.    That is not why I am C minus.   Who cares about all that?

I am a C minus Christian because of this justice thing.    I know the justice thing is the message of the Bible, Jesus, Mary, and the angels.    And yet I often don’t do it.   Routing the arrogant, pulling down the mighty, exalting the lowly, filling the hungry, sending the rich away empty…. which I think means balancing power…

I don’t do a very good job with that.   I am mostly afraid.   Afraid of what I will lose.  Afraid that if I do justice, I’ll be the one sent away empty.   Afraid to preach justice because I don’t want to offend the people who pay my salary.      C minus.

You know when the Bible talks about God doing stuff it isn’t about some supernatural being doing stuff.  It is about us.  We personify our aspirations into stories.   What we call God is the emergence of all of those dreams and aspirations.    Not just our dreams, but the dreams of our ancestors of all religious traditions and of those who have none.     

These dreams and aspirations take on a life of their own.    These dreams and aspirations for the justice of eating, for the exalting of the downtrodden, for the peace between nations, for the end of exploitation and arrogant schemes, for sustainability with Earth and all Earthlings, these are real.  They become real, heaven on earth, as we participate in them.  That is as good a definition of God as I can up with.  

I am a C minus living that reality.  Not an A.  Not an F.  C minus.  Perhaps with other underachievers working together, we can turn some things around.    One day, we are going to be ancestors, too.    Future descendants will look back and evaluate us.   What did we do when we had our moment?   What did we contribute to God?

In a few moments we will ordain and install elders and deacons.  They will be asked to affirm some questions.    We can think small about these questions.   We can think they are about affirming rigid beliefs in speculative matters.   I do not see them that way.  I answer them in the affirmative, yet I never took any vow to deny science, or curiosity.  I never took a vow to leave my brain at the door.   I never took a vow to read the Bible literally.   I never took a vow to throw people of other religions under the bus and claim my way is superior to theirs.

To me at least, these questions are asking me if I can commit my heart to the aspirations of my ancestors who saw God in their work to lift up the lowly, love with risk, and live with hope for a renewed Earth.    I see them as questions inviting me to honor our tradition and to use my energy, intelligence, imagination, and love to add my small C minus voice to the emerging dream that is God.  

None of those questions say anything about Mary.  That’s too bad, because that would be a good one:  

Will you be a partner with Mary to lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and balance the power between rich and poor?    

I will, with God’s help.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

To Know God (5/10/25)

To Know God
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

May 10, 2015

Jeremiah 22:16
     He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
            then it was well.
     Is not this to know me?
            says the Lord.
Elie Wiesel
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

                                                                         Walter Wink  
  “When anyone steps out of the system and tells the truth, lives the truth, that person enables everyone else to peer behind the curtain too. That person has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth, despite the repercussions.”

Luke 18:1-5 (Scholars’ Version)
 Once there was a judge in this town who neither feared God nor had any respect for people.  In that same town was a widow who kept coming to him and demanding, “Give me a ruling against my opponent.”   

     For a while he refused; but eventually he said to himself: “I don’t fear God and I have no respect for people, but this widow keeps pestering me.  So I’m going to rule in her favor, or else she’ll keep coming back until she wears me down.”

This season is the via transformativa, the way of transformation, the spiritual path of justice and compassion.   This is the sacred path of action.  In the language of God, we are doing divinity.  God in this path is a verb.    

The way to do divinity is to do justice.   This text from Jeremiah sings the praises of King Josiah and laments that the sons who followed him were not like him.  Why was Josiah a good king?  Why did he deserve praise?  Why should leaders be like him?  Here is the answer:

He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is this not to know me?
says the Lord.

One of the threads that winds its way throughout the Hebrew scriptures and the through the teachings of the historical Jesus, through Paul, and the gospel writers is justice.    Again, from Jeremiah 22:3:
Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.
This justice is more than retributive justice, that is the punishment fitting the crime, the justice of a criminal court.   What we find emphasized instead is distributive justice, that is fairness in regards to distribution of resources.   

You find in story after story throughout the scriptures that there is not justice in the land.  The wealthy exploit the poor and the most at risk.   This thread of distributive justice calls out a preferential option for the poor, especially for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 

God, whether as a character in the narratives or the divine agent whose words are spoken through the mouths of the prophets, takes sides.   God sides with those who are exploited.   

The central text of the Hebrew scriptures is the exodus from Egypt.  God hears the cry of the enslaved and responds.   That is what the Bible is about.   If you need a Cliff Notes version of the Bible, the Bible is ten seconds, the Bible in two sentences it would be this from Jeremiah 22:6:

He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is this not to know me?
says the Lord.

If you want to know God… 
If you want a spiritual experience… 
If  you are curious about God’s plan for your life…
If you want God to answer your prayers…

Then…judge the cause of the poor and needy.   

This is such a clear message of scripture that it was necessary for the powerful and the wealthy to create elaborate theological loopholes.    Judging the cause of the poor and needy can’t be the answer.   There must be more to life than that.  Let’s invent instead some belief systems and rituals and ordained offices and the divine right of kings and multisyllabic philosophies and then when the poor come seeking justice we can tell them that it is so much more complicated. 

There are invisible hands that guide our economic theories and proper etiquette and degrees from Harvard and banks in big pink buildings that are too big to fail.   We must be concerned about them first.  Then justice will trickle down.  Justice for the poor?  Well charity is appropriate and it makes for a nice tax deduction.   But as a matter of policy?  No, no.  Too simplistic.   

That leads us to our parable. 
Luke 18:1-5 (Scholars’ Version)Once there was a judge in this town who neither feared God nor had any respect for people.  In that same town was a widow who kept coming to him and demanding, “Give me a ruling against my opponent.”
     For a while he refused; but eventually he said to himself: “I don’t fear God and I have no respect for people, but this widow keeps pestering me.  So I’m going to rule in her favor, or else she’ll keep coming back until she wears me down.”
A rule of thumb about parables.   If a parable features a king or a landowner or a judge, don’t think of that character as God.   I tend to think that many of the parables of Jesus were not spiritual expressions of the kingdom of God.  They were instead social critiques of oppression by the ruling class.    A great book about parables along these lines is William Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech.  

Jesus was very attuned to that thread throughout the Hebrew scriptures of distributive justice:  “judge the cause of the poor and needy.”     

We don’t know, of course, the original contexts in which Jesus told his parables.  We have settings for them in the gospels.  It is interesting how the gospel writers trip over themselves trying to provide a meaning for the parable.  

In this one, Luke reads the judge as a God figure and then has to explain it away by turning it into a moral about prayer.   Luke introduces the parable in this way:

“He told them a parable about the need to pray at all times and never to lose heart.”  

Then when the parable is finished, Luke comes on stage again to explain it:
And the Master said, ‘Don’t you hear what this corrupt judge is saying? Do you really think God’ won’t hand out justice to his chosen ones—those who call on him day and night?  Do you really think he’ll put them off?  I’m telling you, he’ll give them justice and give it quickly.  Still, when the Human One comes, will he find any trust on earth?”
All of that may be a good message.  Pray and don’t lose heart.  God will grant justice quickly.   But this parable isn’t about that.    It is a very bad parable to use for that message.  If you want a parable about how God grants justice quickly and hears prayers, you wouldn’t choose this parable to drive that point home. 

I think this parable did go back to the historical Jesus.   But I don’t think it was about praying or about God granting justice to those who pray and wait.    This parable is a social critique of the domination system and how to survive it.   

The audience after hearing Jesus’s description of the corrupt judge would get it immediately.  They would know exactly what it is like to have the deck stacked against them.  

A book that would be an important contemporary commentary on this parable is Matt Taibi’s, The Divide:  American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.    He chronicles story after story of white collar criminals too big to jail and the poor who spend years in jail for petty crimes.     Taibi writes:
“It has become a cliché by now, but since 2008, no high-ranking executive from any financial institution has gone to jail, not one, for any of the systemic crimes that wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth.” P. xix.
He writes that we have…
“learned to accept the implicit idea that some people have simply more rights than others.  Some people go to jail, and others just don’t.  And we all get it.”  P. xix
The original audience for this parable would also get it.  They would know who pays for judges and whose interests they serve and who gets justice and who doesn’t.   This parable would not be heard as being about an unusual corrupt, rogue judge, but justice as usual or injustice as usual.  As soon as they heard Jesus utter the first line, 

Once there was a judge in this town who neither feared God nor had any respect for people,”

they would know what Jesus is saying.    They knew what justice is supposed to be like and what it was really like for them.   This parable set in Palestine in the year 30 might be more relevant than ever to America in the year 2015. 

Jesus continues the parable and introduces a widow.   Widows were some of the most vulnerable people in patriarchal cultures.   Whose property are they?  Not the property and responsibility of the father, not now of the husband.  Whose are they? Thus there was much special care taken regarding justice for widows in the law because of their vulnerability.  

In this parable, it is likely that she is fighting for her husband’s estate and that the estate is significant enough to have competition perhaps from her husband’s family.   

She is demanding to be heard.   The judge keeps putting her off.   Why?   It could be a number of reasons.    Perhaps he is being bribed.  Perhaps he is in the same class with her opponent.    Who knows?  Jesus is clear to say that the judge is corrupt and that the law established in the scriptures to judge the case of the poor and needy is not happening.    

How do you survive in this situation?  How do you survive when the odds are not in your favor?   How do you survive the uphill battle?    The widow is her own hero.   She keeps coming and demanding.    The judge eventually gives in not because he has a change of heart but because she’s worn him down.    The verb for “wearing down” is a boxing term that means to give one a black eye.   

Because she pesters him relentlessly and publicly, eventually he will give in, not because he cares about her or about justice, but because she is more trouble than her opponents are worth.   

William Herzog in his book Parables as Subversive Speech, writes that the widow is “blowing the cover off the operation.  She refuses to remain silent but breaks the silence surrounding the covert machinations.”  P. 229.   Herzog quotes Walter Wink:
“When anyone steps out of the system and tells the truth, lives the truth, that person enables everyone else to peer behind the curtain too. That person has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth, despite the repercussions.” (Engaging the Powers, p. 98) 
The widow is the example.  The widow is the figure who represents the kingdom of God.   This parable isn’t about prayer or waiting for a divine being to do something.   Her persistence is the divine act.  

Jesus’s parables were not about grandiose things.   He didn’t say the kingdom of God is like the mighty cedar of Lebanon.  No, he said it is a mustard weed that takes over a field.  It is leaven that corrupts a whole loaf.  It is not a wise judge on his throne.  It is a persistent widow who pesters judges for justice.     

These parables were quickly tamed and distorted to serve other interests, even within the New Testament itself.   The writer of Luke misses the whole point of this one.   He turns an active story about a widow giving a corrupt judge a black eye to a morality play about passive piety in the face of injustice.  Just pray about it.   

This parable says do something.   And don’t stop doing something.  Yes, the system is stacked.   Those who stack it will continue to do so.   The sin is to give up.  The sin is to become cynical.  The sin is to resign yourself.   The sin is to say that it is human nature.  No, it is injustice.  It is carefully constructed.  It can be deconstructed.  Learn from the widow.   Speak truth to power until you give power a black eye. 

Which leads me now to Mother’s Day. 

When I was a kid in church on Mother’s Day, the church would award flowers to the oldest mother, the youngest mother, and the mother with the most children.  My mother never got one.    She wasn’t the youngest.  She didn’t have the most children and wasn’t likely to have more.   The only hope was that the older mothers would eventually go to their heavenly reward and she would be left.  Actually, I think she is the oldest mother in her church now.  

Then after the flowers were awarded we would hear a rousing sermon on conservative family values and the evils of feminism.    That was pretty much Mother’s Day.    

I thought in the spirit of the persistent widow and Mother’s Day, I would read the original Mother’s Day proclamation from Julia Ward Howe.   

Julia Ward Howe  was famous for writing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  She used that fame to do important things.  She founded the New England Suffrage Association and tirelessly wrote, spoke, and campaigned about women’s equality. 

She was a strong advocate for peace.   She gave this speech in Boston in September of 1870 in response to the horrors of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War.  It was called an “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World” and then later known as “Mother’s Day Proclamation.”   

Julia Ward Howe.

Again, in the sight of the Christian world, have the skill and power of two great nations exhausted themselves in mutual murder. Again have the sacred questions of international justice been committed to the fatal mediation of military weapons. In this day of progress, in this century of light, the ambition of rulers has been allowed to barter the dear interests of domestic life for the bloody exchanges of the battle field. Thus men have done. Thus men will do. But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror. Despite the assumptions of physical force, the mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering. That word should now be heard, and answered to as never before.

Arise, then, Christian women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly : We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women, without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient, and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

She did have her congress and a Mother’s Day for Peace was observed for several years.   Anna Jarvis picked up the torch for Mother’s Day.  It was established as a national holiday 100 years ago this month in 1915 by President Wilson.  

The emphasis on peace was lost. 

Perhaps if we are as persistent as a widow, that original Mother’s Day message of Julia Ward Howe can be spoken and heard again and again.