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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Interesting Times

My sermon from today.

There Is But One Commandment
(if we will keep it)

John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 2nd, 2008

John 15:1-17

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.


We live in interesting times. Supposedly an ancient Chinese curse goes like that: May you live in interesting times. Scholars aren’t sure if that goes back to China. This curse has not been found in Chinese literature. The earliest clear reference of this phrase is found in a science fiction story in the 1950s.

Robert F. Kennedy quoted it in a speech in Cape Town, South Africa in 1966. He said:

There is a Chinese curse that says, “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not, we live in interesting times….

I found that speech by Robert Kennedy on-line. It was delivered to the National Union of South African Students on something called the Day of Affirmation. The National Union of South African Students had been working on the Declaration of Human Rights for a decade.

Kennedy spoke about the importance of working toward the “enlargement of liberty for individual human beings.” It would be up to the youth (of that time, now who are in their 60s) who would work for societies of equality and freedom. In his speech he spoke of four dangers that would keep them from enacting this vision: futility, expediency, timidity, and the fourth, comfort. This is what he said about comfort:

For the fortunate among us, the fourth danger is comfort, the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. There is a Chinese curse which says "May he live in interesting times." Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. And everyone here will ultimately be judged--will ultimately judge himself--on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.

Interesting times according to the supposed curse has to do with chaotic, insecure, and fearful times. We would rather the times be a little less interesting and bit more boring. The 1960s were interesting times. So is the end of the first decade of the 21st century. In fact it is quite a bit more interesting than the 1960s.

Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams, author of the book A View from the Center of the Universe note that we live in a more critical time than any in the history of humanity. The future of our descendants depends on the choices we make today. They write:

“Thus our descendants could have many billions of years to live together—if we can just get through the next few decades without disaster.”

Assuming that Primack and Abrams are not exaggerating, that is pretty darn interesting.

The issues before us are even more pronounced than they were when Senator Kennedy gave his speech in Cape Town. In addition to human rights, human beings have the burden of contemplating and working for the rights of other species.

In last Sunday’s Johnson City Press I found a story about Orca whales in Puget Sound. The news story began:

Seven Puget Sound killer whales are missing and presumed dead in what could be the biggest decline among the sound’s orcas in nearly a decade, say scientists who carefully track the endangered animals.

“This is a disaster,” Ken Balcomb, a senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, said Friday. “The population drop is worse than the stock market.”

While the official census won’t be completed until December, the total number of live “southern resident” orcas now stands at 83.

Among those missing since last year’s count are the nearly century-old leader of one of the three southern resident pods, and two young females who recently bore calves.

That whale, the leader of the pod now presumed dead, was a century old. When he was born in 1908, the human population of Earth was 754 million. 100 years ago, Earth’s human population was just little over twice the population of the United States today. In 2008 homo sapiens number 6.7 billion. Our orca cousin may have felt crowded. Earth is losing species at a faster rate today than we have in 65 million years when the dinosaurs became extinct. This is from the Web of Creation website:

Massive extinctions have occurred five times during the earth's history, the last one was the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. Scientists are calling what is occurring now, the sixth mass extinction. The loss of species is about losing the very web of life on Earth. People trying to save critical habitat have been dismissed or ridiculed as sentimental “tree-huggers” who want to save the “spotted owls,” even if it costs jobs. Most Americans have little idea of the magnitude of the problem.

Although they are uncertain of the numbers, most scientists believe the rate of loss is greater now than at any time in the history of the Earth. Within the next 30 years as many as half of the species on the earth could die in one of the fastest mass extinctions in the planet's 4.5 billion years history. Dr Leakey, author of "The Sixth Extinction," believes that 50% of the earth's species will vanish within 100 years and that such a dramatic and overwhelming mass extinction threatens the entire, complex fabric of life, including Homo sapiens, (the species responsible for the crisis.)

Dr. Leakey wrote that work in 1995. Thirty years from then is now 17 years.

We live in interesting times.

Each day the news tells us about the financial markets. Up one day down the next in exaggerated fashion. Many of us are concerned about our own finances, our jobs, our future. This crisis can cause fear and some panic.

In the scope of things, the current financial crisis is more of a sign of the times--a barometer of the times--rather than the crisis itself. It is the latest in one of the many warning signs that tell us human beings need to find a new way of living. We need to find a new picture of ourselves in relation to Earth and to all of its inhabitants.

But as Robert Kennedy said 42 years ago, the time does not call for futility, expediency, timidity, or comfort.

What does this time require of us?

We might find guidance in our spiritual literature. The Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible are filled with stories of people who lived in interesting times. In fact, if the times weren’t interesting their stories weren’t included.

From Genesis to Revelation we find people struggling with how to live in an interesting time, their own. They were as confused and fearful as we are.

One of the great stories about an interesting time is the Gospel of John. It is the story of Jesus upon whom the author pours forth metaphors and similes as freely as barrels of wine at a wedding.

Jesus is the Word become flesh, the Bread of Heaven, Life Eternal, the Good Shepherd, the Vine. In John’s gospel, Jesus is the Cosmic Christ who is one with the Father, in whom all things have come to be. This is the Jesus who is bold enough to say: “I have overcome the world.”

The passage we read today is part of a long speech by Jesus to his disciples. Students of the Bible call it his farewell discourse. I wonder if that is correctly named. Jesus in John’s gospel doesn’t escape in a hot air balloon back to Kansas like the wizard who is really a humbug in the Wizard of Oz. Jesus doesn’t tell them: “See you later. Good night and good luck,” then fly off to heaven somewhere beyond the limits of the Milky Way.

In John’s gospel, Jesus ascends to the Father to attain his rightful place at the heart of the cosmos. It is a symbolic story of the very essence, the Being of the universe, becoming one with us, and drawing all to himself, so that we are all one with the Father, as branches are one with the vine. The life spirit of the vine that holds us fast is love. As we grasp this reality, there is nothing of which we can be afraid.

What does this interesting time in which we live require of us?

The same that was required of generations past: love. Now before you say I am being simplistic and sappy, remember the love of which Jesus speaks:

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Jesus did not only speak it. He did it. He gave his life for his friends--the world--who God loves. What may it mean for us to give our lives for our friends?

I don’t think it means looking for a cross to die on. At this point, I should quote that great theologian, Dolly Parton. In speaking to a woman who thought God required her to stay in an abusive relationship, Miss Parton said: “Get off the cross, honey, somebody needs the wood.”

To give our lives for our friends does not mean we look for others to abuse us. That is not love for them or for us. It means that we live from love. We give our lives to love. We lay down our lives for the rights, the dignity, and the life of others as well as our own. At the deepest level of being, the other, whether near or far, whether two-legged, four-legged, winged, or finned, is our friend. We lay down our lives for the orca whale and the orangutan as well as the next door neighbor and the neighbor on the other side of our beautiful planet.

In a time in which we are told in many different ways that we are to be afraid, that we need to fear the other, or dismiss the other, or demonize the other, Jesus told us to live from love.

In a time in which we are told to protect our interests, to keep our vision narrow, and to worry ourselves sick over what we shall eat, or wear, or sleep, Jesus said, “Go and bear fruit. Fruit that will last.”

Peter Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University and the minister of Harvard University’s Memorial Church, has just published his latest book: The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News?

Gomes writes:

The opposite of fear is not courage but compassion. We fear what we do not know, and the mother of fear is ignorance, but we cannot fear that which we love, for, as Jesus tells us, perfect love casts out fear. Compassion leaves no room for fear; we are too busy doing what we can, what we must, and what God wishes us to do, to take time to fear the consequences. (p. 107)

I should say a little about Peter Gomes. Peter Gomes spoke at my Commencement when I graduated from Princeton Seminary in 1992. His presence created a bit of a scandal. Between the time the senior class invited him to speak and the time he was to speak, he came out publicly as a gay man.

That involved no small risk. He felt at that interesting time in which gays and lesbians were used as pawns for political gain and were the object of ridicule, abuse, and discrimination especially in the church, he needed to be honest with the world and with himself.

His coming out created a bit of a sticky wicket for the administration at Princeton. The president was on record that homosexuality was incompatible with Christian faith. He was one of the authors of a denominational statement that said as much. That statement, by the way, was overturned by the Presbyterian Church this summer.

A number of conservative students went to the president to prevent Rev. Gomes from preaching. After all, what would grandma think? The president found a maneuver I suppose to save face and to keep the proceedings rolling. He said while Professor Gomes came out as gay it didn’t mean he practiced being gay. I don’t know if Professor Gomes was asked whether he practiced being gay. If so, I am sure he would have answered in this way: “I no longer practice. I have perfected the art.”

At any rate, Professor Gomes was able to preach to us aspiring preachers. This was all in the news; the campus was all abuzz. As he approached the pulpit in Princeton’s magnificent chapel, I and I am sure many others wondered if he would say anything about “it” in his sermon. He said something to this effect: “I know my presence here has caused a bit of a concern. What could be more scandalous than a Harvard Baptist preaching to Princeton Presbyterians?”

He pretty much won us over. I remember what he said, not word for word, but the essence. He told us would-be-ministers that the greatest adversity in our ministry will not be conflict. The greatest challenge to overcome will be boredom. Afraid of criticism we will deliver boring sermons. Afraid of offending we will settle for doing boring things. Afraid for our own comforts and position, we rob our people of their opportunity to love. Don’t be boring, he told us. It is a mockery of the gospel. I have tried to take his sermon to heart.

We live in interesting times.

It is not the time to allow our fears to make our decisions for us. Fear is boring. Boredom is death. It is the time for perfect love to cast out fear. John’s gospel reminds us that we are not alone. We are branches of a cosmic vine held and strengthened by love. We are branches that bear fruit. Love is that inner strength, the strength of the vine. The fruit is compassion. We exercise our inner strength through the practice of compassion.

I will close with these words from Peter Gomes’ The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus:

As we consider how we ought to manage in a less-than-friendly world, when we wonder on what we may rely, perhaps the answer is found in the exercise of compassion. We should take courage from these words:

“The strength that God gives is available for those who care for others.” p. 108

Amen.


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