Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sacred Cosmology (7/26/15)

Sacred Cosmology
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
July 26, 2015
What poems, songs, works of art, novels, short stories, movies, cartoons, etc., from the last 50 to 100 years might/should be included in a bible that would be canonized 400 years from now? Why? Extra points for ones that actually do more than echo familiar portions of the current canon.

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 waters.  
Genesis 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…..And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…  
John 1:1-4, 14a

…the Father’s Empire is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.  
Thomas 113b
Nancy Ellen Abrams, A God That Could Be Real 
The spiritual challenge for us is to accept the scientific picture of the universe and with the real help of a real God figure out how to act accordingly—in every way, not just technologically but sociologically, psychologically, spiritually, educationally, politically, and every other way.  It may not be obvious how to become this coherent, but for the first time it’s possible, and focusing on it as a goal could reenergize our civilization.

We have the opportunity to use our god-capacity for a high purpose—truly a cosmic purpose:  to find ourselves and save the million-year-old, still evolving cosmic clan in which each of us is a living organism….

….Like every star, every galaxy, the cosmos itself, each of us is an event unfolding predictably on some scales and unpredictably on others.  We are our history all the way back, through the evolution of mammals to strange creatures in the sea to the first cells, through the deaths of stars that made our stardust, through the swirling dark matter that made the galaxy in which our sun could ignite.  We humans have traveled a long road together since the Big Bang.

It’s time to acknowledge that….

….Every one of us shares the incredibly rich identity forged over the billions of years it took for us to evolve out of this planet in this universe.  We’re unique loving individuals; we’re on Earth-encircling force; we’re the living ancestors of descendants who may change the galaxy; we’re part of the self-consciousness of the universe; our aspirations are part of God and will be as long into the future as God exists.  This is the real us.  Identity is about daring to define ourselves.

What texts, songs, movies and so forth of our time would make it into a “Bible” of the future?  It is a fun exercise and I will give you a chance to share your list with your neighbors.   We all have favorites.  

In every field there are debates about the canon.   What texts should one read for a twelfth grade English class?   Do we stick with the DWMs the dead white males or include women’s voices and texts from people of color?   We can’t read it all.   

I heard, and I don’t know if it is true as I can’t seem to confirm it.  But I remember hearing that in Shakespeare’s time a well-read person, very well-read, could have read every book that had been written.   I am not sure if that meant every book in English or really every book.    Whatever the case, it certainly isn’t possible today.   

When I was doing some genealogy on my Shuck ancestors I discovered my great great grandfather John Shuck who settled in Indiana in 1837.   I read a history of that community.  One section listed books that would have been found in the homes of those pioneers.   Every home would have a Bible and a hymnbook.   Particular homes had various books.  One had John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and some other books by him.  Another had Jonathan Edwards’ theology, “Edwards on Redemption” and “Edwards on the Will.”  One home had a Bible dictionary and some commentaries.  Yet another a book on English grammar, a book on the life of Rev. William Tennet, and a book on world geography.   My great-great grandfather was called the “chimney-corner lawyer” and thus had a few legal books.   The author wrote that if one collected all the books from all the settlers in the community they would fit in a bushel basket.   

Imagine going to Powell’s downtown and starting on the top floor read every book in every stack.    That doesn’t include singing every song and watching every movie.    If you still have time, go on the internet and read every blog and web page.     

Of course, most of what is written and performed is not particularly noteworthy.   You have to find a way to narrow it all down.  But even then, the sheer volume is overwhelming.    We are flooded with books. 

I took this question as an invitation to think about the Bible and its function.    Why have a Bible at all?  What is it and what does it do?  We might also ask, will it last?  

In my great-great grandfather’s time and place the Bible was the central book.   You learned to read from it and it contained the grand narrative of history.   Not only salvation history but the history of the human race and of the creation of heavens and earth.   It also contained the story of the fate of all nations and the individual.    With a little help, of course, for Presbyterians from John Calvin, the Westminster Confession, and Jonathan Edwards who explained it all.  

The Bible was the grand metanarrative and the human had his or her place in it.   Meaning was made for us.    God created the world in six days.   In the garden Adam and Eve trespassed the forbidden barrier, were cast from the garden into a life of toil, childbirth and mortality.    God makes covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David and finally through Jesus saves humanity and promises a new Eden, a new heaven and earth for those who keep the faith.    What could be simpler?

Christopher Columbus was completely absorbed by this story.    He took it as would any learned person of his time at face value.   His Bible was a little bigger than what would be the Protestant Bible after his contemporary Luther whittled away at it.  For Columbus, a book called Second Esdras was considered authoritative.   It contained a verse that told him that Earth was six parts land and one part water.  Columbus thought it would be an easy journey by sea to China.    Columbus calculated the beginning of creation and the end and felt time was ticking.  He had a purpose to get gold from China to fund a crusade to take back Jerusalem from the Muslims so that Christ would return and consummate the kingdom.  

The only people who think along those lines now are Ken Ham types.   They are fundamentalists and their views are rightly disregarded.   Yet they have a huge influence in popular Christianity.  Christian radio and television promotes a view of the Bible as if we have learned nothing from science and as if there are no other books except the Bible.    

People in our own denomination, many of them, still speak of the authority of the Bible as if it is still the metanarrative for what the universe is and what it means to be a human being.  

Of course there is no single Bible.   There are Protestant and Catholic Bibles and Orthodox Bibles.   There is the TaNaK, the Jewish Bible with Torah, Nebiim, and Ketubim, the Law, Prophets, and Writings.  No need for Jesus but still a metanarrative with the hope of a renewed Jerusalem.   Let’s go up to Zion.  Next year in Jerusalem.

Of course, there is the Qur’an also a fully contained book on the meaning of life and hope with a final judgment.    The Book of Mormon should be added to the mix I suppose especially as that form of faith continues to spread.  

What all these Bibles have in common is that they are pre-modern.   The Book of Mormon is an odd exception.  But it is pre-modern in content.   These Bibles were created and compiled long before the Enlightenment and the advance of science.   This is of course true for the non-Western forms of religion and philosophy as well.   Hinduism and Buddhism and its variants do not have a Bible as the Western religions do.   But their philosophy was forged in a pre-scientific world.  

Modern science has changed the game.   

We haven’t figured out how to come to terms with that.    

When my great-great grandfather in 1837 read his Bible, I suspect he would have accepted that it told the story as it was with perhaps some exceptions.   It could be that he was more of a skeptic.  I really don’t know.   Still by 1837, the overall mood would have been acceptance of the Bible as a metanarrative for natural and human history and its end.   Yet cracks had been appearing from some time.    The Enlightenment had begun and the solid rock was starting to crumble.  

Within 50 years, Darwin’s Origin of Species changes everything.  Historical Criticism of the Bible and the emergence of the modern university open up a whole new world.     In order to defend scripture, the modern fundamentalist movement is born.   The Pope becomes infallible for Catholics as the Bible does for Protestants.  It is billed as a war between science and religion.    

Many thoughtful Christian people such as Karl Barth did a retreat.  They retreated into the world of theology.   For Barth and for Barthians, science and historical criticism is accepted but largely ignored.   The Bible is its own strange new world as Barth called it.    In Protestant seminary we were taught to use the lectionary to create a spiritual world.   Define the worship experience and your life from Advent to Christ the King.   We act as though nothing has changed.  

Yet we know differently.  The Bible does not define the world.  The Bible does not contain the story of the universe and the story of humankind.    Critical scholar after critical scholar show that the characters once thought to be historical persons (Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and yes, Jesus), are more likely to be composite characters in fictionalized accounts of old myths and legends reframed and retold.   

Now, in place of the Bible we have Powell’s books and more.   Everyone has his own canon.  Everyone has her own loose-leaf Bible.  

Yet we have lost something. 

We lost a cosmos.  For centuries the Christian West knew its place.  Earth was the center of the universe and humans were the apple of the Creator’s eye.  Advent to Christ the King was a real thing telling the story of a real hope.   The Bible gave us a place and a purpose.  Life is a vale of tears but heaven is at the end in a new world, in a new world beyond this world.  Soldier on.  Believe and do good works.   Your reward awaits.  It is not a bad philosophy.  My great-great grandparents forged a life on the frontier with it.  

Now if we dare, we know better.    We know more, perhaps not better.   We know more and we cannot turn back the clock to what we pretend was a simpler time. 

Now we can trace our natural history on Earth back to 4. 5 billion years and our cosmic history back 13.8 billion years.   It is an amazing story.  Give four forces 13.8 billion years and you get trees, oceans, elephants, bacteria, consciousness, sex, Hamlet, Bibles, and all the gods.   We human beings are made of the stuff of exploding stars.    

The Bible gave us a cosmology and a history.  For it I am grateful.  It provided inspiration for the search.   Now we have to create a new Bible.   It won’t be one book as such, but we are in the process of creating a unifying story of origins, identity, and future hope.   We need our artists, musicians, and storytellers, to help in this great work.    This new Bible, so to speak, will contain all of the other Bibles, all mythology, all religion, all philosophy, and psychology, in short, all human cultural evolution.   

This new Bible will look back and contain the stories of our ancestors, I am thinking of Richard Dawkins’ book, The Ancestors’ Tale.    These are our evolutionary ancestors all the way back to earliest forms of life that we know.    The new Bible will take us further back to tell the story of Earth’s origins, and the origin of the solar system, to the formation of our galaxy and the formation of the universe itself.   It is our creation story, so to speak.    

This is the story that unites all of us, beyond particular religious or cultural traditions.   This is our new Bible.   Human beings are not insignificant worms in this story.  We are the self-consciousness of this universe.   It is possible that there is intelligent life somewhere else.   But whether there is or not, we human beings are the self-consciousness of Earth and the Solar System for sure.   We are here and able to tell this incredible story.    Before human beings there were no stories of the universe.  There were no stories of gods, stories of love, stories of sacrifice, stories of sadness.   Self-consciousness emerged from evolution and all of our aspirations and hopes have emerged from our interactions, from our storytelling, from our small Bibles to a larger ever-emerging Bible that is our ongoing life story.    

The form that this great story takes we can’t know.  What technologies develop and what technologies fall away will determine that.    

It took 13.8 billion years to make you.  You are beautifully and wonderfully made.   Our great story inspires us never to take life for granted.   I think we do have a purpose.   That purpose is to do what we have done for millions of years, that is survive and to tell the story of the universe.   All of our previous stories such as the Christian story are not lost but are gathered up.  We will draw from the best of our wisdom traditions to encourage one another to be brave, to be curious, to care, to sacrifice, to hope, and to dream.      

The hope?  The hope is that we will live on in the lives of our descendants who could be here for another billion years.  In fact, they could be the consciousness of the galaxy.    There is no other species that we know of that has the capabilities we possess.   We have been given an incredible gift and responsibility.   We are a rarity in the universe.   It did take this long for us to arrive on the scene.   Let’s make a decision not to throw it away in short-term decisions.      Let’s think for the long-term.   How will our decisions impact seven generations after us?  How will our decisions impact 100 generations after us? 

There is a hope in this great story.  The hope is that we will become in the words of Nancy Ellen Abrams, esteemed ancestors.    What we do now in the next 20 years could determine what kind of future our descendants will inherit.    It is too important to be cynical or to give up.   In every sphere, political, religious, educational, we need to think big.  What would an esteemed ancestor do?  

We need to trust as well.  Trust that we have what is in us to survive and to be creative.   We are the descendants of survivors.    We won’t live to see what will happen.  We won’t see what our descendants will do.   We won’t know if we will be esteemed ancestors or despised ancestors.  We need to live as if we will be esteemed.   We need to trust in the hope we cannot see.  As it says in Hebrews 11:1 

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

I will leave the task of specific books, music, films, and so forth for you to decide what will go into a future Bible.   I want to suggest that whatever they are, they will be those things that provide for us a unifying great story and inspire us to be esteemed ancestors.  

I will close with a quote.  This is from Reinhold Niebuhr and I hope there will be space for it in the Bible of the future:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.  
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.  
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.  
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”    

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Belief-Less (7/19/15)

John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon
So, you’ve been quoted as referring to a belief-less Christianity.  What does that mean? And since the Presbyterian faith is grounded in numerous “beliefs”, How is it that you’re Presbyterian?

So I am arguing that it is time for some of us to start being courageous.  We must leave behind both cultural and ecclesiastical Christianity, admit our emptiness, and struggle for a new beginning.  My constructive proposal is that we should learn to see our belieflessness not as a state of being derelict and damned, but as a clean sheet and a challenge to be creative.
--Don Cupitt 

Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief               
This act of choice—which the term heresy originally meant—leads us back to the problem that orthodoxy was invented to solve:  How can we tell truth from lies?  What is genuine, and thus connects us with one another and with reality, and what is shallow, self-serving, or evil?  Anyone who has seen foolishness, sentimentality, delusion, and murderous rage disguised as God’s truth knows that there is no easy answer to the problem that the ancients called discernment of spirits.  Orthodoxy tends to distrust our capacity to make such discriminations and insists on making them for us.  Given the notorious human capacity for self-deception, we can, to an extent, thank the church for this.  Many of us, wishing to be spared hard work, gladly accept what tradition teaches.

But the fact that we have no simple answer does not mean that we can evade the question.  We have also seen the hazards—even terrible harm—that sometimes result from unquestioning acceptance of religious authority.  Most of us, sooner or later, find that, at critical points in our lives, we must strike out on our own to make a path where none exists.  What I have come to love in the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions—and the communities that sustain them—is that they offer the testimony of innumerable people to spiritual discovery.  Thus they encourage those who endeavor, in Jesus’ words, to “seek and you shall find.” 

                              Gospel of Thomas 2 
Jesus said, "Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all. [And after they have reigned they will rest.]       

Do you believe in God?  

How do you answer that question?  

You could answer it yes, no, or I don’t know.     You might return the question with a question and ask, “Could you define the terms?”   

Because some of these terms do require some definition.  What do we mean by God, for instance.  What is the “God” we are asked to believe in and what do we mean by “believe?”  But before we go there, we have to address something else. 

There is another level to all of this.  It is an emotional level, a deeper than rational level of awareness that is being probed with the question, “Do you believe in God?”     Answering that question in the negative just doesn’t feel right.  There is something untoward about it.    There is an ancient taboo that is being breached.   We are literally entering the sacred, holy shrine that no mortal shall enter upon pain of death.  It doesn’t matter how you define God or how you define belief.  Just say yes.   Figure out a way to say yes to the question and let’s move on to something less scary. 

Those who ask questions about God and belief in God are playing with fire.  They will get burned.  Or to use another metaphor:  they are standing too close to the edge of a tall cliff and peering over.  We don’t like watching them do that.  Come down from there!    You can be intellectual all you want but at the end of the day, find a way to say yes.   Because there is trouble if you don’t.   

That is why atheists in poll after poll are one of the least trusted groups of people.   Believe in something!  Believe in belief!  

Our ancient ancestors didn’t worship and offer sacrifices and engage in all kinds of what we call superstitious religious practices because they were interested in finding themselves or having mystical and spiritual experiences.  They did it because they were scared.  They believed that these gods and spirits were real and controlled things and if they didn’t do their duty there would be trouble.  

It is terrifying when we don’t know how things work.   Weather, crops, attacks by enemies.  The less we know the more we attribute the unknown to some unseen agent.   The more magic and hocus pocus and taboo surrounding access to this agent the better.    You don’t just let go of all of that cultural evolution with reason alone.  It isn’t enough to read a book by Richard Dawkins and then decide that the gods don’t haunt us.    

It takes work.  It takes courage.  

It is no wonder they burned heretics.  These belief-less ingrates who challenged the holy practices were dangerous.  They threatened the social order because they risked angering God.   We laugh with disdain at the television evangelists who blame natural disasters on various supposed sinners.     But they are performing the role  of ancient shamans and magicians.   They are ridiculous to many (but not all!) of us now because we know about weather patterns but these television preachers still know what works to inspire their base.   That feeling of breaking a taboo and angering God is not that far below the surface for most of us.  

We saw this in the reaction to Salman Rushdie in the late 80s to his book Satanic Verses which was about Muhammad and historical criticism of the Qur’an but it poked for many the taboo surrounding revelation.    The same fear and panic has been the response to the Jesus Seminar and their predecessors in examining biblical texts with the tools of reason.     When Presbyterian ministers write articles for “The Friendly Atheist” those fears rise to the surface.  

I argue that taboos are made to be broken or at least to be examined.  I think that doing so is good for the individual, for the religion, and for society.   Those aspects of religion that cannot stand up to critical scrutiny deserve to fade away.   For Christianity those aspects that are on the table for examination are what we call beliefs.   

When I talk about a belief-less Christianity I am not talking about having no beliefs.  I am talking about moving away from defining ourselves by belief.   I am also talking about removing the ceiling of belief in our inquiry.   Academics in Christian settings run into this ceiling when they publish books or articles that challenge the beliefs of the church.    

For instance the Apostle’s Creed begins:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary…

Was Jesus born of the Virgin Mary?   When I put on my critical thinking hat, that sounds like a legend.   We sing about it at Christmas but fewer and fewer Presbyterians believe it any longer.    That is if they come clean about it.  

That brings me to the main point.  Why can’t they come clean about it?  I advocate a Christianity in which you can come clean about what you believe or don’t believe.  A belief-less Christianity is not centered on believing in doctrines but about drawing from our tradition to make meaning in the present.    

There is another part of religion that is of great value.  There is the taboo part that I spoke about earlier, that part that is based on fear of the gods.  But there is also an aspect of religion that is the collective human effort to find our place in the cosmos, to make meaning, to establish what is good and ethical, to build relationships, to celebrate life, and to mourn loss.    Our wisdom traditions, our stories, songs, dreams, and hopes are a treasury from which to draw in order to do this in the present.    That I propose is the function of our tradition.  Not to believe the stuff but to use the stuff.  

Former moderator of the General Assembly and professor at Fuller and San Francisco seminaries, Jack Rogers, said this in regards to the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church.  I am saying this from  memory so I am paraphrasing.  I remember him saying that we can regard the confessions as either a birdcage or a bird bath.   A bird cage imprisons us in our beliefs.  We can fly around within the cage.  But a bird bath is a source of refreshment.  We can come to the bath, be refreshed, and then fly.    We can honor and learn from and be refreshed by the wisdom of our ancestors but we are not imprisoned by their beliefs.   

That is what I mean by a belief-less Christianity.  We are not beholden to the beliefs of the past, but draw from the wisdom of the past as we make meaning in the present.    I think it is very Presbyterian.    I don’t insist.  I am a Presbyterian minister because others have allowed me to be one.  I suppose I could cross the line and get kicked off the team.   If that happens I will go drive a bus or something.  

But I think the reason I am still on the team so far is that many Presbyterians are on a similar path.   In fact I think we have been moving away fro some time from belief to trust.   Notice the Brief Statement of Faith in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions.  This was the confession made in response to the reunion of the southern and northern branches that happened in 1983.  In 1989 we approved this Brief Statement of Faith.  It says nothing about belief.   The word belief never occurs.  At the very end a line reads:  “With believers in every time and place we rejoice that nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  That is the only time any form of the word belief occurs.  Instead the word that is chosen is trust.   “We trust in God the Holy Spirit” for instance.  

The point is that there is already a movement away from belief as in affirm a fact or have an opinion toward trust or relationship.   The confession itself is metaphorical and story-based as opposed to doctrinally based.     It is almost like a poem more than a creed. 

We are talking about faith not as belief but as trust.   Trust in what?  Speaking for myself, I trust in the overall narrative that runs through the scriptural tradition and into the church’s story to the present day.   I trust, love and am committed to what these symbols of faith invite me to be in this world.    I wrote about that in the statement of faith that was in the brochure when I was introduced to you and that the presbytery approved.     

Faith is what you are committed to do and to be.    That can still be there when we no longer see the symbols in a pre-modern way.    We are always in the process of reinterpreting our symbols of faith, including saving and discarding so that we have what we need for today’s task.   When you move you can’t take everything.  Religion scholar, Phyllis Tickle, said that every 500 years the church has a huge rummage sale.    It is a time for a sale now.  We are in the process of deciding what we will take with us and what we will let go.   

It may be the big ticket items that need to be examined:  God, Bible, Jesus.   What do these symbols and artifacts mean for us today?   More than that, how can they be understood, interpreted, and utilized for our task at hand?     Our task is daunting.   It will take a lot more than simply parroting old beliefs.   

The reason I asked the congregation to read Nancy Ellen Abrams book, A God That Could Be Real is because of her energy and hope.   I have no particular investment in terms of whether or not she is convincing to you.   But I would like us to admire and perhaps catch hold of her passion of wanting to be an esteemed ancestor.    How creative to write a book on God.   We should all do it.   We need that creativity.   We need the creativity to engage our traditions and to strike out on new paths, perhaps uncharted.    Many of these paths will be dead ends.  But like evolution itself, it is the mutation that may lead to survival.  It will be a mutation we just don’t know beforehand which one.  

Faith communities, including Presbyterian faith communities can be places where this creativity is nurtured and not feared.     

I started the sermon with the question:  Do you believe in God?   

My answer is yes, no, I don’t know, and can you define the terms?

But I won’t leave you with that.  It does sound evasive.  

If God is as Nancy Ellen Abrams suggests a reality that has emerged and is emerging from humanity’s aspirations, or as Don Cupitt suggests is a “spiritual ideal of freedom, clarity, and spiritual perfection” or is as others have suggested the hope and possibility of humanity’s dreams then yes I trust in God.    

And I trust in the particular Christian stories and symbols that point to a way of living and being, a way that I associate with the wisdom teacher and rabble rouser Jesus.    

And I trust in other wisdom traditions as well and in their symbols and hopes.  We will need all of us, working together, sharing our wisdom, building something new and trusting that a path will emerge that is at once unpredictable and life-giving.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Executed God (7/12/15)

The Executed God
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church

•          The whole thing about sacrifice in the Bible.  Animals sacrificed in the Old Testament & Jesus sacrificed.  I don’t see why God just can’t forgive without a sacrifice.
•          If Jesus was not born of a virgin (that being a myth) then he is not God's begotten son, and could not be expected to die for the sins of the world. Furthermore, if God said he didn't require sacrifice but justice, and he saved Abraham's son at the last minute, he would never require Jesus to be a human sacrifice. In fact, a God who requires any human sacrifice is repugnant to most of us. So how are we to see Jesus' death on the cross? Not as propitiation for my sin? I'd like to hear some discussion of this.

1 Corinthians 1:20-31
Where does that leave the expert?  Where does that leave the scholar?  Where does that leave the pundit of this age?  Has not God shown the world's wisdom to be foolish?  Since in the larger scheme of God's wisdom the world did not come to acknowledge God through its own wisdom, God decided to save those who embrace God's world-transforming news through the "nonsense" that we preach.  At a time when Jews expect a miracle and Greeks seek enlightenment, we speak about God's Anointed crucified!  This is an offense to Jews, nonsense to the nations;  but to those who have heard God's call, both Jews and Greeks, the Anointed represents God's power and God's wisdom; because the folly of God is wiser than humans are and the weakness of God is stronger than humans are.   

Consider your own situations when you were called, my friends.  Not many of you were considered wise in the eyes of the world, not many of you were people of power and influence, not many of you were descendants of the nobility; but God has chosen people the world regards as fools to expose the pretensions of those who think they know it all, and God has chosen people the world regards as weak to expose the pretensions of those who are in power.  God has chosen people who have no status in the world and even those who are held in contempt, people who count for nothing, in order to bring to nothing those who are thought to be really something, so that no human beings might befall of themselves in the presence of God.  It is God's doing that you belong to the people of the Anointed Jesus.  God has made him our wisdom and the source of our goodness and integrity and liberation.  So, as scripture says, "If you have to take pride in something, take pride in what God has done."           

Mark Lewis Taylor 
The executed Jesus of Nazareth is not in himself some executed God, as readers might first think from this book’s title.   No, the God who is executed, suffering imperial, state-sanctioned crucifixion, is presented in this book as a whole life force, a greater power, if you will, that is made up of three dynamics that were crucial to Jesus’ way of the cross:  (1) being politically adversarial to religiously backed imperial power, (2) performing creative and dramatic instances of resistance to imperial power, and (3) organizing movements that can continue resistance and flourish even after imperial executioners do their worst.  The executed God is a force of life that is greater than all imperial powers and thus can foment the resistance and hope that all suffering peoples need.      
Hosea 6:6
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
   the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.

In her book, Nickel and Dimed:  On Not Getting By In America, Barbara Ehrenreich recounts an episode of visiting a tent revival.  She watches the preacher ranting on about the death of Jesus and the blood of Jesus and how Jesus died for sins and the importance of believing in him to avoid hell and go to heaven. It is default revivalist Christianity.   The audience is mostly made of the working poor.   Ehrenreich offers this summary critique:

“But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.”

She is describing what I call default Christianity.   It is based on substitutionary atonement or the satisfaction theory of atonement.   When I lived in Tennessee a fun game was to read the church signboards.   They were everywhere.   During the summer you would find something like:  

“Think it is hot now?  Hell’s hotter.”  

Some would have arithmetic lessons:

“1 cross plus 3 nails equals 4-giveness.”

This theology was and is everywhere.   The plot goes like this:

Adam and Eve sinned in the garden.  Not only did they sin, but their sinfulness was passed on to all their descendants.  The human seed is tarnished. Every human is affected by this original sin.  God the righteous judge is offended.  The punishment for this sin is everlasting death or hell.  God can’t simply forgive the sin even if he wants to anymore than a compassionate judge can forgive a criminal.  The sinner has to pay.   But the sinner cannot pay.  The debt is too great.    Only God has the ability to pay it, but humans must pay it.  So God sends a God-Man, born of a virgin so as not tainted by the damaged seed of humanity to suffer and die in place of humans.   By believing in Jesus, Christ crucified, people are justified through faith and thus saved from hell.  

What many don’t know is that this theory was invented in the middle ages by a guy named Anselm.    Because it is so pervasive and dominant it has been read back into the texts of the Bible.    

To be sure there are many metaphors and phrases in the biblical texts that seem to echo or foreshadow this theory but it is because of that theory that we read the texts in that way.    For example Christ Crucified, as Barbara Ehrenreich used it, can be a shorthand for the entire scenario.    

This scenario makes less and less sense to many, as we can see by the questions presented this morning.    One of the reasons, if not the central reason, creationists assert that the biblical account of creation is scientifically accurate is because they need to preserve Adam and Eve as real people.    If Adam and Eve are a myth, then original sin is a myth, and thus no need for Jesus the God-Man to die for non-existent sin.   

This theory is logically non-sensical.   It takes five minutes of thought to expose it.  And yet it is still pervasive.  Why is that?    Human beings have fragile egos.  We have a tendency to think of ourselves as bad and shameful.  We think we need forgiveness.  We feel a temporary relief when we feel forgiven.  It didn’t take long for religious systems to be set up to satisfy that longing.    That is why people continue to flock to tent revivals and faith healers and other charlatans.   These characters are magicians who pretend to offer salvation for our consciences and forgiveness for our sins.

Here’s the game.  You don’t need it.   There is nothing inherently wrong with you.    We are the descendants of survivors.   Millions of years of evolution have shaped who we are.    Now a little therapy might help.   Having our awareness raised would be good too.  

And it would do us good to try to make things right with those we have hurt.   But there is no shortcut for that.  There is no ‘make it right with Jesus so I don’t have to make it right with my neighbor.’   Consistent with the stories of Jesus is that he put human relationships first before the religious apparatus.     

Turning the death of Jesus into a supernatural forgiveness trick to appease God has led to all forms of chicanery and spiritual abuse.   As Barabara Ehrenreich pointed out:

“…the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.”

The Jesus of history is far more interesting.   So what about the death of Jesus?   As was asked in the question for this sermon:

How are we to see Jesus’ death on the cross?

Jesus was executed.  Not only was Jesus executed but thousands fell victim to Rome’s imperial bullying.  Jesus didn’t die of old age.  He didn’t get run over by a horse.  He didn’t die of disease.  He was executed in a public spectacle of humiliation.    He was a criminal, a blasphemer, a brigand, a traitor, and a threat to Rome’s peace.     From Rome’s perspective he needed to be done away with and made into an example.    

What do you do when peasants get above their raisin’?  You raise them up on a cross and let them die a slow, tortuous death at the gate of the city.    That is what the death of Jesus means.

Here are some facts.  This is from the Center for American Progress from 2012:

While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. The prison population grew by 700 percent from 1970 to 2005, a rate that is outpacing crime and population rates. The incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men.

How to explain this?  White men must be less sinful.  Perhaps because they have accepted Jesus into their hearts.    Or maybe it is because first century Rome and 21st century America may not be so different.   In fact Pax Romana and Pax Americana may be more similar than we like or hope to think.   

Our systems of justice and our systems of economics are a matrix of racism and exploitation that automatically favor the privileged at the expense of the poor and people of color.  

More facts from Amnesty USA.  Again from 2012:

Over two-thirds of the countries of the world—141 have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice.  In 2010 the overwhelming majority of all known executions took place in five countries—China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, and the United States. 

Since 1977 the overwhelming majority of death row defendants (77%) have been executed for killing white victims even though African-Americans make up about half of all homicide victims.  

What does the death of Jesus mean?   

Meaning is in the eye of the beholder.  It is up to us to make meaning and positive action out of it.    I think we can be aided in that project by doing our best to see his death and the response to it in historical context.    Then the second step is to ask how this symbol can be put into service of resistance, liberation, and justice today.  

In its time, crucifixion was the method of spectacle and power the Roman Empire used to control populations.   Like lynchings in the American South throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, these brutal and tortuous spectacles served primarily to send a message:  “Do not move outside of expectations or you will pay.”  

(A noose and cross hover in the background of this painting of Ida B. Wells Barnett by Sean Qualls. In 1892 Wells published a pamphlet titled "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.")

Jesus, like many others, was one of those victims.   If so many were executed why do we remember Jesus and make meaning of his death?   I don’t know the answer to that.  Those early layers are lost to us.  But you don’t have to leap to supernaturalism to answer it.    Why Emmett Till? Why Medgar Evers?   Many were killed like they were.  Why Rosa Parks?  Many didn’t give up a seat before her.   There comes a time in which it is time and a figure coalesces a movement around her or him.  

The name Jesus or Yeshua has a theological meaning.  It means “God saves.”   They needed a Jesus whether or not there was a Jesus. Whether Jesus started out as mythical or he was an historical figure mythologized, he was shaped into theology and mythology by several figures including Paul.   A symbol was needed to inspire a movement to resist Rome’s brutality.  Paul found Christ crucified, the messiah executed, as that symbol.   Paul saw this message as liberating.    He saw Christ crucified as God’s wisdom and power, more powerful than the power and wisdom of the nations and of this age.    We should read “the nations and this age” as Rome’s power and wisdom.    The Pax Romana.  

The most powerful empire in the world, Rome, certainly is wise and powerful.   Caesar the son of god has certainly earned that title.   He has brought peace to Rome and quiet to the provinces.    Much like our justice system brings peace to the suburbs and quiet to the cities and our military industry brings peace to the nation and quiet around the world.   

The wisdom of this world as the late Thomas Berry wrote is progress.   It was the wisdom of Pax Romana and Pax Americana.    Berry wrote in The Great Work:

“Progress is being used as an excuse for imposing awesome destruction on the planet for the purpose of monetary profit.”  

As he put it tersely:

“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.”

The Apostle Paul, ever the subversive, says no, the real movement toward peace, a just peace, is in the symbol of Rome’s victim, the crucified Christ, the crucified son of God, the executed God.      If you want to see God it is not in the emperor who orders the execution it is in the executed tortured and dying.  The question becomes quite clear and quite provocative:  on whose side are you?

This executed God became a movement.  The executed God is not Jesus.  It is as Mark Lewis Taylor calls it “a whole life force…that is greater than all imperial powers and thus can foment the resistance and hope that all suffering peoples need.”    We saw this executed God embodied in early communities in which there was according to Galatians 3:28, “no male or female, no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, but all one in Christ Jesus,” all one in the symbol of the executed one, whose vision is with them as they continue their resistance.  

For decades, centuries, actually, there was an uneasy tension between followers of the way, the followers of Jesus, the crucified Christ, and the empire that crucified him.   There were many theological attempts to ease that tension, such as put the blame on the execution of Jesus on the Jews or turn the execution and subsequent resurrection of Jesus into some kind of literal event that paves the way to heaven for the true believers and so forth and so on.    Then as the Roman Empire becomes the Christian Roman Empire, the execution of Jesus is lost and the cross is romanticized and we wear it as jewelry around our necks and think of it as a symbol for forgiveness of sins because God willed it, engineered it even.    

But that isn’t always the way it was nor is it the way it needs to be.  Despite default Christianity, despite cooption of Jesus for the interests of the powerful, there has always been a movement for resistance that Christ crucified or the executed God, if you will, inspires.    

Jesus, to the best that we can reconstruct him, was about this life on Earth.   The scriptures on the whole, follow a thread of resistance to oppression and exploitation.    To follow the executed God today is to follow the lead of those who are suffering most.    

I do wear this cross around my neck.  I wear it as a reminder of whose side I need to be on.  

That is how I understand the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross.

What does it mean to you?