Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Community Without Answers (9/13/15)

A Community Without Answers
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
September 13, 2015

  • As a Progressive Christian I do not believe in a Supernatural Deity. Therefore there is no reason to think that the man Jesus was the Son of this Deity.  So he was bound by all the natural laws that bind us.  i.e. No miracles, no Resurrection, no Second Coming, and no dying for my sins either.  Now Jesus seen in the proper context of his times was a wise man who talked about a very different approach to life.  A way that deserves consideration and implementation.  Many other wise men and women of history and the present have done likewise.  We should take wisdom from where ever we find it.  So here is my question, given all this, how does the Christian Church not just become another civic club doing good works?  Or is that where it is headed?
  • What do you see our church becoming?  Are there changes you would make in the direction we are going?  The issues upon which we focus? Less biblical? Would you speed up the timeline? Does what you want for us always include room for those less inclined to jump in?
  • As a congregation we wrestle with some of the seemingly negative aspects of traditional and progressive Christianity.  At the same time we teach our kids about the Bible and faith in Sunday school.  How can we present the discoveries and clarifications given by Borg, Crossan, Spong, et al, to our children as part of that teaching?

 It is essential to distinguish between faith and beliefs. Faith is an attitude of trust and should never be identified with adherence to a set of beliefs. Beliefs change in the course of one’s lifetime and hopefully mature. Beliefs change even more over the centuries, so that many of the beliefs of yesterday become the superstitions of today, or as W. Cantwell Smith put it in his excellent book, Faith and Belief, “One’s beliefs belong to the century one lives in, whereas faith has been experienced in every century as something essential to human existence”. Faith is a matter of giving oneself heart and soul to the highest values one knows and the highest Christian value is love.    
--Lloyd Geering from his letter in support of United Church of Canada minister, Gretta Vosper.

Genesis 28:10-12 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  

Mark 1:13 [Jesus] was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Billy Collins, Questions About Angels

Originally today’s sermon was going to be a dialogue between Don Ludwig and me.    As it turned out, Don already preached on these questions on August 30th as I was in Montana for my mother’s funeral.   Don and I decided that I will take a turn at it today.  

These are excellent questions.  As a minister of a faith community, I struggle with these questions everyday.   They are about what it means to be a faith community.   Already in these questions it is granted that we are in the midst of great change.   These three questions are summaries of our dilemma or to put it positively, our joyful challenge:

What is the church now?   Given Neil DeGrasse Tyson, The Jesus Seminar, and E.O. Wilson, who are symbolic of the stripping away of the supernatural assumptions of the past, who are we now?   If we are no longer the “elect” carefully shepherded by doctrine and sacrament from birth to immortality, then “Are we another civic club?”   Good question.  That is the first one.  

Here is the second:  if there is no clear answer or consensus to the first question, how do we navigate our little boat through that dense fog together?   That is the second question, isn’t it?   How do we ask these questions in a community?   How do we explore and practice?  How do we decide what to take and what to leave behind?  How do we enthusiastically forge a new sense of self-awareness?  How do we do all of that  while at the same time “always include room for those less inclined to jump in?” asks the second questioner.     How do we respond to that first question, “Who are we?” and keep, treasure, and nurture that spacious, inclusive “we”?     

Then the third question:  won’t someone consider the children?  That is the future of the community, isn’t it?   If we are in a position when the assured answers of the past are less convincing to us, what do we teach?  If we don’t know what we are doing or what we believe, what do we tell the kids?    That question takes us back to the first two.  As we seek to forge our identity, as we seek to perform our lives, how and what do we nurture and teach?  

There is an easy answer to the above three questions.   The easy answer is to pretend nothing has changed.  Define faithfulness as passing on a box of beliefs as if it were an heirloom.   God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and so are our beliefs about him.   As Edith Ann would say, “And that’s the truth.”

If you don’t like that easy answer, there is another one.  That is to check out.   It is the flip side of the other easy answer.  It agrees that the church’s beliefs are fixed, but since the beliefs are not credible, the church is irrelevant.  

The first answer says, “The beliefs are fixed, just believe.”  
The second answer says, “The beliefs are fixed, let’s leave.”  

The two options?   Believe or leave.

But since we are here this morning, and we are asking these questions, then there must be a third option.    What might that be?

Today is September 13th.  It is an anniversary for me.  I was ordained into the ministry on September 13th, 1992 by the presbytery of Utica, New York.   I haven’t been doing this for that long, really, 23 years.   But in that span of time, a lot has changed.   

For the first ten years or so, I pretty much went by the book, the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.   I followed the lectionary and used the prayers and calls to worship provided there.    I used it for worship, funerals, and weddings.   

It was really in weddings and holy unions for same-sex couples that the book didn’t quite work.  People were interested in creating their own services.   I find myself now creating with the couple a service with language that is meaningful for them.   For some it includes bits and pieces from “the book” so to speak, and for others not so much.    I find it a lot more interesting.  

This is the same for funerals, or more common now, memorial services.   At a recent one in my previous congregation for a long time member, the family itself didn’t want any churchy stuff.  My role was to pass around the microphone so people could share their stories of the lovely person who had passed.  

Adult education has changed.  It is less and less a study of denominational materials or Bible study  that is presented from an authority to the class.   Now it is more centered on participants themselves asking questions and seeking out resources.    Southminster has been ahead of the curve on these kinds of changes.   These changes weren’t dictated, they happened.  

They are a natural outflow of people becoming empowered to take responsibility for their own spiritual and intellectual growth.   Lloyd Geering, the New Zealand minister and religious teacher, says that we are all heretics now.  Heresy really means choice.   We are making our own choices about matters religious and spiritual.  

While the Sunday worship service is still pretty much minister-focused, most weeks, I get my fifteen minutes of fame, nonetheless, the elements are drawn increasingly from a wider pool of resources.   I try at least to have the experience somewhat connected to  questions on your minds.  The point is that within the time span of my own ministry, within the last 20 years, I have seen a progression from beliefs passed down to the community creating its own expression of faith.    We are making it up as we go.

That is the third option.   

Neither believe or leave, but spaciousness for discovery.  We are a community without answers.  We are a community living the questions.    This is not what I am declaring you are, or making you become.   You have already been on this path, and I am joining you.   Leadership is finding a parade and getting in front of it.

I know there is an expectation for a minister to have a vision.  I hate to disappoint, but I really don’t have one.    On my podcast that is released today, I speak with David Hayward, the Naked Pastor.  He wrote a book called “Without a Vision, My People Prosper.”   The title of his book is a spin on the biblical text, Proverbs 29:18, from the King James:

“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”

Many a preacher has claimed this text as his own, I say 'his' because mostly men do this.  It goes like this:  I’ve got the vision from the Lord.  Here it is.   I see a vision of a 200 foot cross along Interstate Five.”  

But, there is Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his important book on community where he writes that “God hates visionary dreamers.”   Why?  Because they impose their vision on the community and if the community doesn’t live up to it in his mind, then the community, as Bonhoeffer puts it, “Goes to smash.”  

I am very skeptical of that whole vision thing.  Political candidates tell us that they want to make America great again.  Vote for them.  They have a vision.   I don’t know.  I would be happy if we simply tried to be good as opposed to great.    

I do have ideas.    I use the phrase “public church” meaning a church engaged with the world, listening and expressing itself through social justice, opening its doors to people and ideas.    But I find these ideas often arise organically.  Sometimes we need to listen and allow ourselves not to know.    I really don’t know what the church will be or even is.   I am thrilled about being here and seeing what happens next.   I am happy and honored not to know what to do along with you. 

I do like Wendell Berry.  He said,

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do, 
we have come to our real work 
and when we no longer know which way to go, 
we have begun our real journey. 

The mind that is not baffled is not employed. 
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

 Let’s talk about something fun.


How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?   

As Billy Collins writes in his poem, the point of the question was to get the medieval scholastics to think about eternity, the big picture.    Big, big, big, the meaning of life.

I searched the word angel in my on-line Bible browser and found 344 instances from Genesis to Revelation.   Maybe that is the biblical answer.  344 angels can dance on the head of a pin.   We certainly couldn’t have more angels dancing on pins than what is written in the word of God.  

Jacob had a vision.  He saw angels ascending and descending to heaven.  He woke up so excited that he made a little shrine and a deal with God, that if God would do good stuff for him, he’d return the favor.  That is the prosperity gospel.    Jacob’s vision of angels meant the promise of prosperity.  

Years later he finds himself in an existential crisis along the river Jabbok and a man, an angel perhaps, we are not sure wrestles with him until daybreak.  Jacob discovers that life isn’t about prosperity but struggle.  He gets a disjointed hip and a new name, Isra-el, which means “one who strives with God.”   

Jesus was led by an angel into the wilderness to be hassled by Satan.   That couldn’t have been a picnic.  Get that? The angel leads him into the wilderness.  According to Mark’s gospel, while Jesus is there the angels ministered to him.  I wonder if he knew?  

Angels are interesting characters.  I mean that in a literary sense.    They function in biblical stories to bring a transcendent message.   To get whoever it is, Jacob, or Jesus, Abraham, or Mary, to change.  They introduce meaning and purpose.   It was an angel who told Mohammad to “Recite!”  Enter the angel.  Life gets disrupted.  Take a journey.  Your work begins now.  

Billy Collins of course brings angels down to Earth; he is a modern poet after all.   Transcendent beings dancing on heads of pins are less interesting than one dancing to a bunch of jazz musicians.     

What is more enchanting?    Not the transcendence.  Not the infinite.   Instead, the real flower.  The real wrinkled skin of your aging parent, the real kiss from your lover.  

Less interest on the big meaning of life.   What could it be in a universe that expands faster than our understanding of it?  Too big.   What does it matter?  We will never live to see its end.   But we are here.    We are here in the jazz club of life.   We are here to make our performance, to name our experience,  to tell our story, to listen to the music, and to sing back, and dance.

What is the church?   The holy mystical presence of God?  A manifestation of the earthly kingdom of God?  Another civic club?

I don’t know.  For now, I know church is here in this place, you and me, and I understand there are some hot dogs today and different folks have brought their potluck dishes.    

Angels have prepared coffee. 

In the course of conversation today maybe you will discover that another angel has interfered with your life and invited you to consider another idea.    

And the children?  They’ll be all right.  We will love them and nurture them.  We can tell them what we see and what we can’t yet see.  They’ll take it all in and find their path, too.


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