Sunday, November 29, 2015

Temptation (11/29/15)

John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
November 29, 2015

First Sunday of Advent

Luke 4:1-13 

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 

The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ 

Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’ 

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ 

Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ 

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 

Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” 

When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Hope Abides 
Sri Chimney Ghose 
 Hope abides; therefore I abide. 
Countless frustrations have not cowed me. 
I am still alive, vibrant with life. 
The black cloud will disappear, 
The morning sun will appear once again 
In all its supernal glory.

Today is the First Sunday of Advent.

It is the beginning of the church liturgical year.  It is the first Sunday of the Christmas cycle.  Four Sundays of Advent then Christmas.    Advent looks to Christmas, the first coming of Christ.  It also looks to the second coming of Christ and to “the end” as it were.   It looks back and ahead.  

The season comes from a pre-modern time, in a three-tiered-universe with heaven above and earth below and the pit of hell, the lake of fire, beneath the earth.  Christ is on the right hand of the Father but will come again, that is return from heaven above to earth below and make a new heaven and a new earth.  

One could imagine this happening quite literally.  

Today an eight year old after watching an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy could tell you that Earth is 4.5 billion years old and is probably only half-way through its life-cycle.   There are billions of galaxies with more billions of stars and planets.  Is Jesus going to return to each planet and set up a new kingdom there and here?

As we began to realize that this picture of the universe and the Christian future didn’t quite square with the universe unfolding before us through science, two options were left.   The first was to reject the Christian view altogether as pre-modern and outdated.  The second was to cling ever harder to the pre-modern Christian vision and try to squeeze modern knowledge into the biblical world-view.  

One of the popular movements that found its home in option two was the Adventist movement.  It was a product of the Great Awakening in the early 1800s.   Characterized by revival preaching, the message was to get saved before the Second Advent of Christ, or the Second Coming of Christ.  

Christ is coming soon.  Look busy.

William Miller in New York State calculated the end as some time between March 21st 1843 and March 21st 1844.   When the long expected Jesus failed to keep his appointment, they set another date and another and finally gave up on date setting. That is some did for a while. 

Different religious sects were formed with many different theories including the development of the rapture when believers would be swooped up to heaven.

You might remember Harold Camping in 2011 predicted the rapture on May 21st, 2011.   He was a Christian radio broadcaster and his radio company Family Radio spent a lot of money advertising the rapture.    Billboards went up all over the country predicting the date of Christ’s return.   

Every now and then a date comes up and then goes away.  True believers hold that date predicting is a bad idea for obvious reasons but can’t resist pointing to signs of the end times and that Jesus will be making his Advent soon.

The point I want to make is that as the modern world made this doctrine of “the end” more impossible to believe, the doctrine became even more popular.    Any Christian bookstore will have plenty of books about the end.   Much of it centers around the tensions in the Holy Land and in particular the fate of the Temple Mount upon which sits the Dome of the Rock, the second holiest site for Muslims.     

If global warming doesn’t get us the fires flamed by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalists trying to bring on the end will.  

Here we are.  Mild-mannered, modern Presbyterians, lighting the Advent candle and singing “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.”  What are we doing?  For what are we singing?   

If option one is rejection of the Christian narrative whole cloth and option two is fundamentalism what is a progressive Presbyterian to do?    

What we are in the process of doing is raking through the ashes of Christendom to see if we can’t find anything there that is worthy of use.   We are asking what wisdom of our forebears outlasts the worldview in which it was constructed?   

Since we still light the candle we say there is still something there worth keeping.  Even this strange season of Advent may find a place in the faith we are constructing.    

We know if asked that Advent, the first or second coming of Jesus, is not about date-setting or signs of the end or Jesus coming on the clouds.    When I sing that beautiful Advent hymn, “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus” I translate it in my mind.    I know the era it comes from but I have no illusions that Jesus is ever going to return any more than George Washington or Elvis will return.  

Jesus did his work.  He reimagined for us, like all the smart Jews of his time, a world in which humans live true to their better natures.   He imagined a world in which we learn that the person we were supposed to hate is our saving grace.   He taught us that warring siblings can be reconciled, that unjust authorities have weaknesses, and that courageous seekers will find what they seek.  

Jesus did his work.   He offered a vision.  It is up to us to carry on.  

It is hard keeping the dream alive.    At times it is easier to be cynical.    Ask anyone who works for anything worthwhile.   By definition, if it is worth working for, it is hard.    It is hard making a marriage work.  It is hard raising children.  It is hard building a church community.  It is hard participating in democracy.  

Habitat for Humanity’s vision statement is ten words long:

A world where everyone has a decent place to live.

It is only ten words but it is a pretty big vision.   Everyone on the planet with a decent place to live?  What is the target date for that?   When is the end time for that vision?     

Bread for the World’s vision statement is no less modest:

Bread for the World is a collective Christian voice urging our nations’ decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad.

The end of hunger.  A decent place to live for everyone.   

It is no wonder end times weirdness develops.  Real life is too hard.  Real goals seem impossible.   It is easier to resort to superstition and fantasy.   

“Rapture me, Jesus, so I don’t have to build homes or end hunger.”  

That isn’t the assignment.  The assignment is a houseless stranger and a hungry child.   Yes it is hard.  Yes there is opposition.  Yes there is disagreement about how to go about it.   So what?  

Here is option three.

Advent is about keeping the dream alive.   

We light a candle not because it is easy, but because it is hard, and because the dream is compelling and demanding and bigger than any of us.   

Today we lit the candle of hope.    

What are our hopes?  Advent is a time to name them.  To bring them to the surface and to offer ourselves to hope’s work.    

Augustine, the fourth century theologian, was definitely pre-modern.  He thought Jesus was literally coming again in the clouds, too.  But he also had timeless wisdom about hope.    He said,

“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

We light a candle at Advent to ignite our anger and our courage, to keep the dream alive.  

In the Northern Hemisphere the season of Advent gets progressively darker as it moves toward the Winter Solstice.    It is a via negativa season, a Dark Wood season, to use the metaphor by Eric Elnes and his book Gifts of the Dark Wood.    I am basing my sermons this Fall on the seven gifts he describes in his book.

The gift today is temptation.   The text I used is the temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness.   That text is normally used for the First of Sunday of Lent.    As I see it Christmas and Easter are really about the same thing, keeping the dream alive.   It is the same for Islam and Judaism, too.  

Why do Jews have so many festivals and what do they mean?  Here is the answer in three sentences.

They tried to kill us.
They didn’t.
Let’s eat.

Islam, Judaism, Christianity, all the religions, I think, as well as plain old-fashioned humanism are about keeping the dream alive.    They have different ways of symbolizing it, but if you boil it down, human beings have far more in common than we might think.  

Here is the temptation.   As Eric points out in his book, the temptation is not a temptation to do evil.  It is not to do sexy naughty things as we commonly think of the word temptation.    Temptation is about doing the good that is not ours to do.  

My spin on this, is that the temptation for Christianity is to allow the work that needs to be done by us to be projected onto a divine being.   

So Jesus in the wilderness.  This is not a story about the historical human Jesus.  This is about superpower Jesus.  Jesus could, the story assumes, do these things, turn rocks to bread, control the planet, jump off buildings unscathed.   Those would be good things.   Jesus could feed the hungry.  If he controlled the planet, he could make people enact his vision.  If he did a big fancy miracle in the public square like jumping off a building, everyone would be impressed and listen to him.  

Jesus says no to the adversary, not because these are bad things, but because they are not his to do.    As the legends of Jesus over time began to accrue and he took on super powers, people asked as children ask, why didn’t Jesus use his magic to make things all better?   These stories like the temptation of Jesus by the adversary are read back into the tradition to offer an explanation.     The explanation was that he could but chose not to do so.   He could have done the good things:  turn stones to bread, make the world a better place, jump off buildings unscathed, but that wasn’t his job.   He could do all that son of God stuff.  But no, he said.  His job was to be a human being.  

The Christian story has its own corrective.   The temptation is to resort to the supernatural, that Superpower Jesus will make it all right.    Yet even the story of Superpower Jesus tempted in the wilderness is really a human story.     Amidst all of the pressure all of the temptation to turn Jesus into a supernatural figure, a temptation that the church has given into time and time again, within that tradition is the story of Jesus himself saying no to that.  

Whatever is going to happen on Earth, whether we find a way to live in peace, to house the houseless, feed the hungry, make peace with justice, tall orders all, they will be done or not be done by human beings working together.    

I light this Advent candle not because I think or put my hope in magical solutions that Jesus will come again and make it all better.    He has come.  He did his work.  He inspired us with a vision. 

Now the task is courageously, against all odds, to articulate this vision and to live it.

Now that I am coming up on my first anniversary with you, I do see something perhaps emerging in the way of an identity for our congregation.    Housing justice is a term that seems to cover what this congregation has done in many ways, through Rebuilding Together and Habitat for Humanity, for instance.    There is a broad need for housing justice in our own county.   It requires advocacy as well as hands-on work and thoughtfulness.   

This congregation took on LGBT justice issues and we will continue certainly with that, but now I would like to engage with you about housing.    I put my cards out there that I am interested in exploring this and will be talking more about this and listening to you about possibilities for Southminster.

A decent place for everyone to live.  That is an Advent hope I can believe in.


Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Art of Losing (11/22/15)

The Art of Losing
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
November 22, 2015
Reign of Christ Sunday

Lost and alone on some forgotten highway
    Travelled by many remembered by few
    Lookin’ for something that I can believe in
    Lookin’ for something that I’d like to do with my life

    There’s nothin’ behind me and nothin’ that ties me
    To somethin’ that might have been true yesterday
    Tomorrow is open and right now it seems to be more
    Than enough to just be here today

    And I don’t know what the future is holdin’ in store
    I don’t know where I’m goin’, I’m not sure where I’ve been
    There’s a spirit that guides me, a light that shines for me
    My life is worth the livin’, I don’t need to see the end

    Sweet, sweet surrender
    Live, live without care
    Like a fish in the water
    Like a bird in the air
                                                --John Denver

    People who find and live into their calling rarely do so without getting lost first.  Yet since there are no straight or clear paths in the Dark Wood of life, they do not cease to get lost after once being found.  Rather, those who embrace life in the Dark Wood gradually learn that the regular experience of getting lost is one of the most important gifts we can receive. 
                                                --Eric Elnes

Wendell Berry
    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.           

One Art           --  Elizabeth Bishop
     The art of losing isn't hard to master;
     so many things seem filled with the intent
     to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

      Lose something every day. Accept the fluster 
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.                                                                       
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

     Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
     places, and names, and where it was you meant
    to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

     I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
     next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
     The art of losing isn't hard to master.

     I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
     some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
     I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

     - Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
     I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
     the art of losing's not too hard to master
     though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Matthew 2:1-2
 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’

For those keeping track of the church liturgical year you will know that today is the last Sunday of the church year.   A new church year begins next week with the First Sunday of Advent.   Advent literally means “coming” as in Jesus is coming again to return in the clouds and usher in the end times. 

When this marvelous theory was created the earth was viewed as the center of the universe.   Orbiting Earth in the first heaven was the Moon.  Then outside of that, Mercury, Mars, and then the Sun was in fourth place.  The Sun like the other heavenly bodies also orbited Earth.

In continuing concentric circles of orbit were Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.   The seven heavenly spheres.  The music of the spheres.   The musica universalis.  Pythagorus proposed that each heavenly body, each planet, emitted its own special hum or resonance based on its orbital revolution.    The quality of life on Earth reflects the tenor of these celestial sounds which are imperceptible to the human ear.  Everything in order.  Everything in its place.    Everything harmonious.  No heavenly body lost in space. 

Outside of the seventh heavenly sphere were the fixed stars and then at the top, whatever high god people believed started the whole thing and now administrates the system.  In Christianity’s case, the king of heaven was Jesus the Christ, who according to the creed “sitteth at the right hand of the Father. “ 

But things aren’t totally harmonious on Earth.  Children die.  Ruffians rule the streets.  Demons cause sickness.  Sin still lurks like a lion at the door.   The hope, the promise is that Christ on his throne will return to Earth in the clouds and establish the heavenly kingdom on Earth.   Heaven will come down to Earth like a bridegroom.  The music of the spheres will then sound in every believer’s heart.   

Now we pray for this to come soon, “your kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven.”   In heaven, things are going fine.  On Earth we still have death and taxes.  But one day, when Christ returns all that will vanish, the wicked will be punished eternally and the righteous will sit on their own thrones forever and ever, Amen.

This is Christianity.  At least it was Christianity for the past 1900 years and still is for the vast majority of Christians.    It wasn’t until the moon landing when photos came back to Earth of the Earth rising over the surface of the Moon did it begin to sink in our consciences that Earth is itself a heavenly body or that Moon was as earthy as Earth.   

Now we teach our children that Earth is a pale blue dot in the suburbs of one galaxy among billions, and you know all that. 

Nevertheless, vestiges of the old system of thought remain.   And we teach our children that Christ and Christmas are coming and that Jesus reigns.   We sing with or without irony, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” What do we mean by that now?

This last Sunday of the church year is called Christ the King.  Or since we are sensitive to inclusive language, Reign of Christ.  But it means the same thing.  Jesus, the eternal Word enfleshed in the life of a lowly peasant has ascended into heaven and taken the place of the gods.  In fact, there are no more gods but God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the holy mystery of the blessed Trinity.

When the trumpet sounds, like the Sun rising each morning in the East, God the Son, Jesus the long-awaited Messiah, will come from the East for Judgment Day.

It is beautiful and poetic and impossible. 

When did we stop believing this?  I think it was when we changed how we buried the dead.   I realized this in my first church in upstate New York.    I visited the cemetery where Daniel Nash was buried.  Daniel Nash preached and prayed at my first congregation, The First Presbyterian Church of Lowville, New York back in the 1820s during the Second Great Awakening.  

Charles Finney is the famous figure identified with that time period.  He would preach and preach to the sinners on the sinners’ bench for their hearts to melt and receive the good news of their fallen state and the redemption at hand.  There was an urgency to his preaching because Christ would be coming soon, any day. 

Finney preached up and down and all around Western New York State, even making it up to northern New York.   He called Western New York the burned over district because the area had been so heavily evangelized that there was no fuel that is no unconverted people left to burn or convert.   Finney worked himself out of a job. 

Charles Finney had a partner, Daniel Nash.  They were a team.  Finney would preach and Nash would pray.  Nash would pray for a long time.  He would pray the devil out of the hearts of sinners so there would be room for Jesus. 

Daniel Nash is buried in the cemetery connected with that early Presbyterian community just up the road from the church. On his gravestone is written “Laborer with Finney:  Mighty in Prayer.”

Nash’s gravestone, like all of the Christian ones in the 19th century, face East.   When the trumpet sounds and that roll is called up yonder, the dead in Christ will rise first as the scriptures say and face the Lord as he comes from the East like the rising sun.

The gravestones often have scripture verses inscribed on them.  

When did we stop believing this?  We stopped believing this when we stopped facing gravestones to the east and writing scripture verses on them.  Now gravestones for those who even bother to have them anymore face whatever direction the cemetery architects find aesthetically pleasing.  Instead of scripture verses we find inscribed etchings of boats or golf clubs or other things that were of interest to the deceased.    Instead of funeral services that preach of the urgency of Christ’s return and the need to get right with the Lord, we have celebration of life services. 

When I say “we” I mean modern secular society.   Christian fundamentalists are part of this society as well.  They resist it.    They think this is a bad thing.  We are losing faith according to them.  I often hear the phrase “theological drift” to describe this secularizing trend.    Even those of us still religious, who attend worship and hear the stories and mull over them and celebrate Advent and Christmas do so in a metaphorical way.   On Southminster’s website under the link called theology is written: 

“We do not espouse a literal interpretation of the stories of the Bible…”

In other words, we don’t espouse the theory that Jesus Christ is literally in heaven and will literally return to Earth.    Questions might arise such as what do we espouse?  And is there anything regarding Christianity about which we are literal?  Is it all metaphor?   What then does that mean for us?  When we bring these questions that are within us to the surface and admit them we may feel a sense of loss and of being lost.    What do I believe?  What do I hold onto?  What holds us together?  We also may feel a sense of liberation.  More on that later.

I am speaking in the Christian context, but a similar thing is going on with Islam and Judaism and of course, all religious traditions formed in a pre-modern era.  They all have run into an overwhelming force, modernism.    Modernism or the scientific method has over the centuries changed the way we see how things work.  

While the response for many has been to reflect, accommodate, and change pre-modern religious doctrines to fit the modern world, for many others the response has been resistance.   We are witnessing now, in my view violent resistance to this crash of worlds.   This is for both Christianity and Islam.  There are many other factors that are fueling violence in the name of Islam to name an example, but the crash of worldviews is one, and it is a big one.  And I think it is something we, that is we religious secularists, if you will allow me to say that, can address.

I think we address it by looking at our own tradition critically without flinching.   If we can’t handle it how can we expect ISIS to handle it?  If we are afraid or uncomfortable about examining our religious tradition critically how can ever hope to say anything to a world that is dominated by religious extremism?  The popular face of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism is fundamentalism.     The only way we can legitimately say, “You should take your religion less literally,” is for us to do it ourselves. 

Today is Christ the King Sunday.  How do you think Christ the King sounds to a Jew?  How does Christ the King sound to a Muslim?    Now add the phrase Christ the King to a nation that is predominantly and historically culturally Christian that uses 25% of the world’s resources and makes up only 5% of the world’s population, that has 10,000 nuclear weapons and has used them in war and has military bases in virtually every country on Earth including countries with overwhelming Muslim populations? 

Christ the King has meant both for Americans and non-Americans dominance.   It is simple logic.  Christ is King.  We are Christians.  We are King.    For Muslims it goes like this.   There is one God.  Abraham, Jesus and Mohammad were his prophets and were Muslims.   We Muslims are thus chosen.    The faithful of both traditions think they are chosen, destined, and for good measure persecuted and they believe all this literally.   What greater reward than to be a soldier for your faith and be martyred on the battlefield?

Christ the King is an idea whose time has come to end. 

It isn’t true literally and it is dangerous socially. 

How do we revisit our stories?  How do we, like the sages from the East, search for the one born king of the Jews, when kings are really bad ideas?    Who will we find in that stable?    What is the heart and soul of our religious tradition that needs liberation from centuries of superstition and violence?    

A simple way to begin is to look at our stories from an historical perspective.   The earliest followers of Jesus gave titles to Jesus that were grandiose.  They were in a sense spoofing the dominant religious system of the day.   By calling Jesus son of god, messiah, king, and attributing to him miracle stories, rising from the dead, ascending to heaven, they were spoofing Caesar, who called himself son of god.  

The scandal of these early followers of Jesus is not that Jesus is son of god in some metaphysical sense, but that Jesus, the non-violent, justice-seeking peasant with an attitude was son of god in an honorific sense.   This particular Jesus was Caesar’s replacement.   They were advocating a society based on peace through justice not peace through violence.    How should the world work?  Through dominance and power or through justice?  

What has happened over the centuries is that we forgot it was a spoof.   And we literalized all these terms.   And we turned Jesus into a Caesar figure. 

The same for Mohammad.  Mohammad was a prophet of social justice. Again the tradition literalized all the superstitious parts like the Qur’an magically coming from God.

If we really want to follow Jesus and Mohammad, we need to lose our religion.  Our religions have become toxic and they need an upgrade.   

That feels like a loss.   And it is.  Loss is an art.  We get better at it as we do it.     As we lose all metaphysics we make room for what is life-giving.    Jesus, Amos, Moses, Mohammad, Buddha, Krishna were about peace within and without.   Whether these figures were fictional or real they represented the miracle and hope, if you will, of transformed lives and societies.      

If there is a place for Advent or Christ the King in our religious lives, we Christians must be willing to say Mohammad the King and the Advent of Buddha.   It isn’t about the figure, but the spirit of that figure.  The spirit of all the great ones was pretty much the same.  How do we live in peace with ourselves and with justice with our neighbor?   As we honestly search for that we search for a liberating and flourishing faith. 


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Under the Thunder (11/15/15)

Under the Thunder
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

November 15, 2015

Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood
According to the ancients, you don’t need to be a saint or spiritual master to experience profound awakening. You don’t even have to be “above average”. All        you really need to be is struggling.

I Kings 19:11-13   
He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’

Earth, Wind, and Fire, Hearts of Fire
     Hearts of fire creates love desire
     Take you high and higher to the world you belong
     Hearts of fire creates love desire
     High and higher to your place on the throne

We come together on this special day
Sing our message loud and clear
     Looking back, we've touched on sorrowful days,
     Future pass, they disappear
     You will find peace of mind
     If you look way down in your heart and soul
     Don't hesitate 'cause the world seems cold
     Stay young at heart, 'cause you're never, never old
     That's the way of the world,
     Plant your flower and you grow a pearl
     Child is born with a heart of gold
     Way of the world makes his heart so cold

Hearts of fire create love desire take you
     High and higher to the world you belong

I have always enjoyed this scene from the Bible of Elijah in the cave.   The Bible is a very strange book.   I don’t say that by way of mocking or dismissing it.   The great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, loved the Bible a great deal, in fact created a huge set of books about it called Church Dogmatics.  As the name, Church Dogmatics, indicates, they are imposing thick books with black covers.   Before the dogmatics,  Karl Barth wrote a little book entitled, The Word of God and the Word of Man.   The second chapter of this book he named, “The Strange New World Within the Bible.”

Barth’s theology was shaped in the crucible of German philosophy and politics between the two world wars.  He rejected the German Christian church and its acquiescence to German nationalism.  He was the primary force behind the Delcaration of Barmen that Presbyterians have in our Book of Confessions.  Written in 1934 it was a condemnation of the German church and of any theology that would allow itself to be co-opted by it.  

Barth determined that revelation trumps reason.   God comes to us from the outside in the revelation of Jesus as the Christ.   The Bible for Barth is strange, in a sense, not of this world.   It provided an alternative world, an alternative way of being in the world.   For Barth, the Bible and God were “other.”   For Barth, God and God’s Word, the Bible, come to us from the outside, from revelation. 

I resonate with his contemporary, Paul Tillich more than Barth. Tillich also opposed the Nazis, of course.   But Tillich sought to correlate theological symbols with natural philosophy, with science and reason.   Barth would have none of that.  He wanted theology protected from any naturalistic philosophy.    

Barth did resist Nazi ideology.  Barth did have a great deal of influence on several generations of preachers, particularly Presbyterians.   At the time, his Christ-centered theology that comes exclusively from the outside provided an important voice.    I don’t think his approach has staying power.  We must ultimately converse with science, other religious traditions, historical criticism and so forth, and not just stay in the Bible.  

That said, there is a sense in which I can suspend my disbelief in the Bible and Christ as the sole revelation and with Barth enter this strange, new world of the Bible now and then.  

The scene of Elijah in the cave is one of those times.   

This is certainly a “God as other” text.   

Elijah is metaphorically within the Dark Wood, and literally, within a dark cave.   He is hiding out.  He is on the run.    According to the tale, Elijah had finished his contest with the prophets of Baal.   Remember that story?  Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal have a contest to see whose god is the real thing.   

They set up two altars, one for the prophets of Baal and one for Elijah the prophet of YHWH.   They each kill a bull and put it on the altar.   The contest will be to see which god can light the fire.  The prophets of Baal do their thing.  They dance and shout and cut themselves and bleed from morning to noon, but no fire.    Elijah mocks them.   “Maybe Baal has gone out relieve himself,” he says laughing.

When the prophets of Baal can’t get the job done, Elijah tells the people watching to come close.  He digs a big trench around the altar and fills it with water and pours water all over the bull and the wood.    Then Elijah prays that YHWH would do his thing and show who’s boss.   A fire comes down, burns up the offering, the wood, the stones, the dust, and “even licked up the water in the trench.”

Then the part we mostly skip over in the children’s version, Elijah has the prophets of Baal seized and he personally executes all 450 of them.   

Since the prophets of Baal were Jezebel’s prophets, she is not pleased and vows to kill this “disturber of the people.”  Elijah runs.  After a day he stops by a “solitary broom tree.”  He is despairing.  He asks YHWH to take his life. “I am no better than my ancestors,” he says.  He goes to sleep and an angel wakes him up and sitting on a hot stone is a cake freshly baked and a jar of water.  The angel says, “Eat up.”     He does and goes back to sleep.  Later the angel wakes him.  More hot cakes and water.  “Eat up.  You will need your strength.”  

On the strength of that food he journeys for forty days and forty nights and makes his way to Mount Horeb where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments.   There he finds a cave and spends the night.    YHWH comes to him and asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah says, “I have been very zealous for YHWH, the god of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  

Then we get to the text we read for today.  YHWH tells Elijah to go out to the entrance of the cave and wait for YHWH to pass by.   Again, the text:

He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’

My question is why?  Why all the earth, wind, and fire stuff?   What is the storyteller trying to convey with this strange scene?    After the big show, YHWH asks Elijah the same thing, “What are you doing here?”  Elijah gives the same answer he gave previously.    They are after me and they want to kill me.  

Then, YHWH gives Elijah his next instructions.

Why this scene?   
Why the wind, earthquake, fire, and silence?  
How is it that Elijah knows that YHWH is not in the earthquake, fire, and wind?  
How does Elijah hear sheer silence?   
How does he know that YHWH is there?

This is beautiful stuff.

This is what I mean about the strange, new world of the Bible.  This is where the text gets strange and holy.   

It is sometimes hard to read the Bible because it is filled with a lot of fanciful tales and if we don’t take the time, we can easily dismiss it.   I suggest that there is some wisdom here that can be surprising.   

Let me put it this way: 
Have you ever heard the sound of sheer silence? 
What does the sound of sheer silence sound like?

You can’t hear sheer silence.
You can’t see absolute darkness.
You can’t touch no thing.
You can’t smell no odor.
You can’t taste tastelessness.

What does absolute darkness look like?
What does no thing feel like?
What is the smell of odorlessness?
How does tastelessness taste?

How does Elijah hear the sound of sheer silence?

This is the heart of the via negativa.  This is the path of no thing.   Absolute absence.  

Have you ever heard the sound of sheer silence?  

I can’t really talk about the sound of sheer silence.  Not because I am not skilled.  No, it is because it isn’t possible.  We can talk around it.   We can talk perhaps about the effects on us.    We can’t really describe it, though.   

It is the words we want to say when there are no words.   

Sometimes I confess, I wonder what church is about.   What is the point of this thing we do at ten o’clock on Sunday morning?  What is this worship?   We kind of stumble about.  We don’t do it right or so we say.   We have judgments: we like this, we don’t like that.   We can splash around in the shallow end of the pool and offer a critique of the form.

But what is it?

What are you doing here?

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” says the Lord.

In the Dark Wood we hear the sound of sheer silence.  

It is a place of revelation.  I give a nod to Karl Barth.    There is an otherness to life.  

Not in the usual ways we might think.  The ancients thought the thunder, earthquakes, fire and lightning were communications from the gods.    How do we know?  How did Elijah know that YHWH was not in the earthquake, wind, and fire?  

The same way you know when you are able to listen.   

It comes.  It directs.  It summons. 

Sometimes it is when we are at the bottom.   When perhaps like Elijah, we don’t even know why we are alive.    All the answers that we have relied on in the past sound hollow.  

It is not a matter of being mystical or spiritual or prayerful.  As Eric Elnes put it in his book, The Gift of the Dark Wood:

According to the ancients, you don’t need to be a saint or spiritual master to experience profound awakening. You don’t even have to be “above average”. All        you really need to be is struggling.

Then we may hear the sound of sheer silence.

Some call it an “Aha” moment.   

A lightless light, a touchless touch, a soundless sound.

Corporate worship is that, when it is that.   

What are you doing here we ask ourselves.  In the sheer silence we are named.  

We know then to wrap our faces in our mantles and walk out of the dark cave into the world, the cold world that is filled with uncertainty and violence.  We go out nonetheless because the sheer silence beckons us.

There we are named.  There we are asked to name our experience in that holy silence.   As we name it in the presence of the holy, we are freed.     

Freed to be.  Freed to serve.  Free to carry on.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Gift of Emptiness (11/8/15)

The Gift of Emptiness
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

November 8, 2015

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few.”
--Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p. 2 

“The Dark Wood gift of emptiness brings us straight to this place beyond notions of wrongdoing and rightdoing.  It’s not a place beyond morality.  Rather, it’s where our fractured humanity finds its most intimate connection to divinity and an astonishing fullness is discovered within our deepest emptiness.”
--Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood, p. 42 

--Don Cupitt , Emptiness and Brightness, p. 63
“Anyone who tries to do creative work finds that her best ideas are gifts that come to her with no giver.”

                                               Leonard Cohen, Poems and Songs, p. 188  
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, p. 532-3 
If we affirm one single moment, 
we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. 
For nothing is self-sufficient, 
neither in us ourselves nor in things; 
and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, 
all eternity was needed to produce this one event—
and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good,
redeemed, justified, and affirmed.

Gospel of Thomas 97 
 Jesus said,
The Empire [of God] is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal.  While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her along the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem.  When she reached her house, she put down the jar and discovered that it was empty.

Don Cupitt , Emptiness and Brightness, p. 58
“…it is now even possible to venture the view that nihilism is a friendly doctrine.  Nihilism is (in the Buddhist sense) ‘Empty’ radical humanism; nihilism is pure religious freedom in a world in which nothing is ‘absolute’ and everything can be reimagined; nihilism is our own anti-discrimination; and finally, what Nietzsche calls the advent of nihilism is pretty much the same event that an earlier teacher described as the coming of the Kingdom of God.  It calls upon us to live in radical freedom as if at the End of the World.”

On the bulletin cover is the image of the Morton Salt girl.   In 1911 Morton Salt came up with a process that would prevent salt from clumping.  They added magnesium carbonate as an absorbing agent.  Now they use calcium silicate.   This absorbing agent allowed the salt to pour freely even in damp weather.     

Thus was born the Morton Salt girl.   The one image that is now iconic shows a girl in a yellow dress holding an umbrella in one hand and a canister of Morton Salt in the other.  She walks along while the salt pours out from behind her.    The caption reads, “When it rains, it pours.”  

Piece of trivia.  In 2013 the Timbers Army, the fan club for the Portland Timbers used the image of the Morton Salt girl on t-shirts and on a huge banner to support the Timbers when they kicked off the 2013 season against the New York Red Bulls.  

The Morton Salt girl is in the Madison Avenue advertising Hall of Fame.   She is a part of American culture.  

But that isn’t why I put the image of the Morton Salt girl on the bulletin cover.

I didn’t choose it because of salt even as Jesus does talk about salt, as in, 

Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? 
It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile.

That saying of Jesus received a collective pink vote from the Jesus Seminar as in yes, likely authentic.    Perhaps it might inspire us not to lose our saltiness, not to lose our taste, not to clump up even in rainy weather.   

But that isn’t why I chose the Morton salt girl.  

I chose her image because of another parable of Jesus that really has nothing to do with salt.    This parable also received a pinkish vote from the Jesus Seminar.  The seminar was a bit divided on this one.    Some thinking it was the result of a later Gnosticizing of the sayings of Jesus.  Others said it reflected the original voiceprint of Jesus but wasn’t picked up by the canonical gospels perhaps because of its disconcerting message.  

It is a parable that is not found in the canonical gospels.  It is likely that you haven’t heard of it unless you’re into strange sayings of Jesus that didn’t make it into the Bible.    The parable found in the fairly recently discovered Gospel of Thomas, a sayings gospel of Jesus, is a bit odd.    

Jesus said,
The Empire [of God] is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal.  While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her along the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem.  When she reached her house, she put down the jar and discovered that it was empty. Thomas 97

Like the Morton Salt girl who is oblivious to the salt pouring out of her canister as she walks along in the rain, so is our woman carrying a jar full of meal in a broken jar.  Oblivious to her loss she walks all the way home only to discover her jar empty.  

Like someone pointed out to me last week as I was oblivious to the coffee dribbling out of my travel mug and onto my foot.    My response is that I was exhibiting the kingdom of God.  

Jesus’s parables were these weird little stories in which he would throw metaphors alongside each other.  Parable comes from the Latin words para and bole or throw alongside.    So Jesus throws this phrase kingdom or empire of God alongside a story or aphorism.  The content of Jesus’s preaching was “the kingdom of God.”  What is the kingdom of God?  Well, it is like this, a woman was carrying a jar full of meal, the handle broke the meal poured out behind her.  She didn’t notice it.  She gets home and the jar is empty.  Ponder that, Grasshopper.

That’s why they killed him.  He was just so annoying.  Give us the answer!  No, he wouldn’t do that.  Just tell quirky stories and make them guess. 

That’s a good thing.  It keeps us preachers employed.  We can just make up stuff in trying to explain what he meant.  

Let’s play with this a little bit.  It isn’t a happy story, is it?  Anymore than pouring coffee on my foot is pleasant.   In her case, we could imagine it would be disastrous.  This could be and likely was her food source for the next several days.   It is more than pouring out some salt.   

The kingdom of God, if anything, should be good news not bad news.  One would think.    

Robert Bly wrote about Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology.  Jung came up with all of that cool stuff like archetypes, collective unconscious, the complex and so forth.   Robert Bly said this of Jung:  

"It is said that whenever a friend reported enthusiastically, 'I have just been promoted!' Jung would say, 'I'm very sorry to hear that; but if we all stick together, I think we will get through it.' If a friend arrived depressed and ashamed, saying, 'I've just been fired,' Jung would say, 'Let's open a bottle of wine; this is wonderful news; something good will happen now.'"

Ponder that, Grasshopper.

When we moved from my first church to my second, from Lowville, New York to Billings, Montana, our daughter Katy was a Sophomore in high school.   The following summer she invited a couple of her friends from back in New York State to visit.     We drove them around.  Took them to action spots like Roundup and Two Dot.      

They had never been west of the Mississippi.   Montana was a different experience.  Near the end of the visit, I asked them what they thought of Montana.   One of the girls curled her lip, sighed and said, “Its empty.”  

True enough.  Eastern Montana, like Kansas, excels in minimalism.   Empty.  

What is the feeling of emptiness?

The let down after the holidays when we say our goodbyes; the relatives go home, the voices and sounds and energy are now memories.  We wave as the car goes out of sight, turn back inside and realize that the house feels bigger than it was.   The stillness is a relief, yes, but melancholy.  Empty. 

What is emptiness?

The project is finished.  The season is over.   The degree is earned.  The deck is built.  The law is passed.  The vacation ends.  Now what?  Empty.

When we experience emptiness, a first instinct is to fill the space.  With noise, with actions, with thoughts, with plans, with people, with dreams.    Why?  Emptiness can be frightening.  The void.   Earth a pale blue dot in the midst of empty space.   Empty of meaning.   

We might say, 
I feel empty.  Empty of purpose.  What do I do now?  What is next for us?  Do we have a five point plan?  

Then Jesus.  The empty broken jar.  The kingdom of God? 

The Buddhist holds up a glass.  She says look at how beautiful this glass is.   It is useful.  I drink from it.   I feel its smoothness.  I am grateful for the energy, the work, the time of so many people to make this glass, for all the materials used for this glass from which I drink.   But to truly appreciate the glass, I must know that one day this glass, this very glass I hold in my hand will be broken, shattered into a thousand pieces.  I don’t know when or how.  But one day, for sure, this glass will be no more.  

Here is the challenge.  Do we think about that or not think about that?   

Yesterday at the seminar we had at the church, one of the speakers said, quoting someone else, I think, and I am paraphrasing from memory.  So who knows how authentic this is?  But this is what I remember.   

He said, “Church can be a place where we lose our faith together.”  

Of course that’s wrong.  That is wrong as the kingdom of God being the discovery of an empty broken jar.    

Church is where you build up faith.  When that dark cloud of doubt lingers on the horizon, you shut it out, fight it off, say it isn’t so, believe harder, close your ears, cling to assurances, and if the doubt is overwhelming, you don’t tell anyone but you fade away, alone, outside, apostate, empty, once a believer, but now….

But what if we took up the challenge.   What if, even if just for argument’s sake, we saw loss of faith as a gift of the kingdom of God?  

You have lost your faith before.  When you think about it, there are many things you no longer believe that you used to believe.   Can any of you really say that everything you believed as a child you believe today?   No, you lost faith.  And it was a loss.   It was wrenching.   It was disconcerting.  It might have caused feelings of sadness, anger at yourself, at others.   You may have even felt betrayed.   You may feel lost, empty, what possibly can you find now?   

And yet, somehow you have managed.  You don’t even think of it as a loss anymore, because, the loss opened a space for a new possibility.   You couldn’t get there without the gift of being emptied.   

So maybe we should lose our faith together in church.   If we are going to lose faith anyway, how much better to lose it in community, with an openness about it as opposed to alone, outside.  

Don Cupitt is a philosopher from the United Kingdom.   He has written over 50 books.   I have not read all of them, perhaps a dozen.   His books are a progression of his own spiritual and intellectual journey.   It is really fascinating.  One of the things I admire about him is his courage to face it.  What do I mean by “it”?  Well, whatever is.   To be honest and confident with what he really thinks, even if it takes him to a place that is not comfortable.     

One of his books is Emptiness and Brightness.  In the introduction he offers recommendations to get started, to give it a go.  As he put it, to democratize religion.   To admit that the truth is fluid, not absolute, that is not top down, but emerges from within.    He offers four recommendations to get started and here is the fourth one:

“Don’t forget that it is necessary to pass through a stage of complete loss, or nihilism, in order to reach the new world and way of thinking.  By nihilism I mean the questioning and the loss of all the deep philosophical assumptions that have underpinned Western culture since Plato.  People who try to think out a new position without first clearing their heads merely repeat all the errors of the past:  hence the plethora of muddled New Age movements, alternative cults, and complementary therapies that infest our contemporary world.  Have nothing to do with any of them.  Instead, follow the Purgative Way and go for nihilism.  No cross, no crown, as believers used to say.”  P. 6.

OK, what have we done here today?

I am suggesting.  That is all I do.  I make suggestions and then you decide whatever you want to do about it.    My suggestion is that emptiness whether it comes from an experience of loss or existential angst or when our belief system develops cracks or when we realize that we aren’t as young as we used to be or however this emptiness manifests itself, is perhaps as Jesus said, like the kingdom of God.   

Not insisting, just play with that.  Entertain that your emptiness, your no answer, your no thing,  could be a gift.    It is what it is.  You could deny it or cry over it or blame others over it or try to fill it or fight it until you are exhausted.  

Or you could take a breath and say, well, now what?    

Maybe this is an opportunity to begin again.