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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Spirit Surprise: A Sermon

Spirit Surprise
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 27th, 2009

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Mark 9:38-50

Yesterday about thirty of us gathered in Martin Hall for the Awakening the Dreamer symposium. I was impressed that so many took an entire day, their Saturday, and spent it at church in a conference about serious things. It wasn’t a trip to the ballgame.

People came from all over. In addition to people from this congregation there were folks from around the Tri-Cities as well as Asheville, Raleigh, and Columbia, South Carolina. Dr. Vinita Eusebius who is in the United States for a month as an International Peacemaker, was there. She received the prize for the longest distance traveled as she flew in from India.

She will be in Holston Presbytery this week talking about poverty, children at risk, the empowerment of women, and water. We are all talking about the same things. She will be speaking tonight at 7 p.m. again in Martin Hall.

This weekend we were addressing topics that one might say was beyond the scope of our concern and the sphere of our influence. We were contemplating global issues like economics, the environment, poverty, the state of the planet, the extinction of species, and the fate of the human race. This was no Saturday afternoon matinee.

At the same time while thirty of us were meeting in a church basement in a little town in East Tennessee, another meeting was underway up north. The leaders of the twenty wealthiest nations on the planet were meeting in Pittsburgh.

They are talking about serious things, too. They are talking about economics, and trade, and the International Monetary Fund, and geopolitics, and how the wealthy countries can get the poor countries to keep sending the wealthy countries the good stuff. They are talking about how we can keep this energizer bunny, this globalized industrial economy growing and growing and growing.

One might be tempted to say to the little group meeting in the church basement in Appalachia:
“Why are you worrying your pretty little heads about all of this? The folks in Pittsburgh will take care of it. You don’t need to be thinking about these serious things. Take it easy. Treat yourself. Go down to the Wal-Mart and buy yourself a toaster oven. Prices have been rolled back. The big boys will take care of the heavy thinking.”
Those of us in the church basement heard that before. We have heard that many times before. We listened to it for too long. We obeyed for too long. For too long we denied what our senses have been showing us.

With our eyes, ears, noses, fingers, and tongues we know what is happening. We know it. We can see it. We can hear it, smell it, touch it and taste it. We know what is happening to our home, Earth, and our fellow sisters and brothers and all the other creatures that evolution took 14 billion years to bring to life, and that we have taken less than a century to bring to the edge of permanent death.

The dream of the leaders of the 20 wealthiest nations is a dream that is killing this planet and us. It is not a dream. It is a nightmare. It is the nightmarish dream of unlimited exponential economic growth. It is pumping out that oil 24/7 and producing plastic clock radios non-stop.

Meanwhile, our arctic ice is melting; our oceans are filling with plastic; and we are dying.

The vision of our leaders is what has led us to this situation. As the late Thomas Berry wrote in his book, The Great Work:
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. (p. 76)
So, yes, we are worrying our pretty little heads about it in the basement of the church.

During the program we heard from a great number of thinkers, poets, and activists. One poem stuck with me. We heard just a few lines from it. It was enough to haunt me. It was written by a young man by the name of Drew Dellinger. It went like this:
it's 3:23 in the morning
and I can't sleep
because my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the earth was unraveling?
In the basement of the church we worried and wondered and wept just a little.

So while the G20 was in Pittsburgh surrounded by their stormtroopers for protection, we were in the church basement. The police were ready in Pittsburgh. They were decked out in riot gear like a Star Wars army. They had tear gas which they used.

They had a new toy, a sonic cannon. It is a long-range acoustic weapon. The U.S. military has used it against Somali pirates and Iraqi insurgents. This weekend they used it for the first time against American citizens. The media called those who dared to protest the G20 “anarchists.” So if they are anarchists I guess it’s O.K.

I am thinking about one of the participants at our symposium, though. He is a second year student at Warren Wilson College. He drove himself up from Asheville to spend his Saturday with us. He is majoring in environmental studies. He told me that some of his friends, his fellow college students, had gone up to Pittsburgh to protest the G20 summit. Anarchists they must be, these students from Warren Wilson College.

They should know better than to get in the way of the stormtroopers who are protecting the dream. They are protecting our Wal-Mart purchases. They are protecting uninterrupted access to all the comforts to which we have grown accustomed. Don’t look too closely to what the G20 is doing. Don’t look at the destruction of ecosystems and entire peoples. Don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain says the wizard, or else you will face our tear gas and a blast from our sonic cannon.

It takes a lot of energy and military firepower to keep a dying dream alive. The dream of unlimited industrial economic growth is dying. My money is on a new dream. This is a dream that is being articulated in unexpected places all over the world.

In our two readings from scripture, the Spirit is unleashed on the unexpecting and the unexpected. Moses gathers his 70 elders into the sacred tent of meeting. The reason he is gathering them is that Moses realizes he has a resource problem. The people want meat and Moses knows they do not have enough. Moses says to God:
“Even if we butchered all of our sheep and cattle, or caught every fish in the sea, we wouldn’t have enough to feed all these people.”

The Lord says to Moses: “I can do anything. Just watch and see my words come true.”
Moses gathers the leaders into the tent and Spirit pours out upon them and they prophesy. Some of this Spirit spills out on Eldad and Medad, who were outside the tent. They begin to prophesy. They are outside the sacred tent. They are outside the place of authority.

Moses’ assistant knows that. He tells Moses, “Hey you need to stop these guys! This can’t possibly be from God. They are working outside the system!"

Moses sees the situation. "No, I am not going to stop them," he says. "I wish the Lord would make everyone a prophet."


The new dream of sustainability, social justice, and spiritual fulfillment is unfolding all over the world including in church basements in Appalachia. Old structures and systems cannot contain the dream. The dream of Spirit is too large and too comprehensive to be managed by corporate profit and loss statements.

People all over the world are catching the dream of Spirit. They are outside the sacred tent—outside the places of authority—outside traditional structures of power. No one is running the dream. No one is in control. Spirit is spilling out all over. People are growing gardens and learning about rainforests and protesting economic summits and doing all kinds of things because Spirit is showing us a new dream.

It is the dream of people living with Earth and in relationship with all the inhabitants of Earth including the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds and winged ones. It is a dream that the G20, the IMF, Wall Street, Wal-Mart, the World Trade Organization and all the rest cannot imagine. It is not that they are bad people. They are simply working from an outdated manual. The dream of unlimited economic industrial growth has ended. We need a funeral. The dream of exploiting Earth’s resources indefinitely is over. Earth itself is saying, “Enough. You need to find a new way, a new-ancient way.”

People are beginning to awaken from a centuries-long slumber. They are weeping. They are recognizing the cost of this former dream. They are grieving. They are realizing that if they are going to be ancestors the dream will change. They know that they will be participants in this new dream. They are uncertain and anxious because they do not know what to do or where to start. Of course, “they” are us.

The path we are exploring during the season of Fall is the via negativa or the way of letting go and letting be. It is a path of depth. It is emptiness and emptying. It is the path of emptying ourselves of old images, models and ideals, of becoming a vessel so that we can make space for new visions. We don’t have to have the answer. We don’t need the solution. We need to trust that the Universe wants us to ask the questions.

Only with a healthy via negativa that dances with the via positiva the celebration of life can we be open to the via creativa the way of imagination, creativity and Spirit, which then leads us to the via transformativa the way of justice-making the way of sustainability, social justice, and spiritual fulfillment.

These paths are not linear, they flow into each other. They are like a spiral. We are simply invited to recognize and explore them. The spiritual path of letting go can be the most difficult because we spend a lot of energy, psychic energy, keeping a lid on it. We don’t want to feel the sadness so we put a lot of effort into denying it, covering it, avoiding it, or numbing it. The spiritual path of letting go invites us to explore it. Rather than spend our energy controlling it, we allow the energy to come up through it.

Then and really only then can the creativity of our species really blossom. That is the Spirit spilling out all over the place. Our ancient texts tell us this. Our ancestors knew about that. They knew you couldn’t control Spirit. Moses and Jesus are spiritual leaders, wise ones, because they could sense the activity and presence of Spirit.

In the Gospel reading, the disciples are upset that some other guy is casting out demons in the name of Jesus, and he is not a card-carrying member of the Jesus team. We stopped him of course, they said. Jesus said to them, “Don’t stop him. Whoever is not against us is for us.” That is openness to Spirit. Get allies when you can. We are in this together.

Our descendants are counting on us. They are asking us in our dreams what we did when Earth began to unravel. They are asking us what life means for us. That is the spiritual fulfillment part. I am going to close with a quote that was given to us at the symposium yesterday. This is from George Bernard Shaw:
“This is the true joy in life … being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one … being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy … I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. For the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got to hold up for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing on to future generations.”
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