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Monday, December 28, 2009

The Way of Eloquence--A Sermon

The Way of Eloquence
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 27th, 2009
Luke 2:41-52
Surah 19:16-34
Surah 55:1-4

Today we are finishing our reading of the Qur’an cover to cover. Beginning in January we are going to read the Bhagavad Gita cover to cover in 2010. The Qur’an is the scripture central to the Muslim tradition. The Bhagavad Gita is of central importance to the Hindu tradition. What I find interesting in exploring other faith traditions is that if I allow myself to come to them with a Beginner’s Mind or an open mind, I find that there are many points of contact between faiths.

We share many symbols that are deeper than the meaning each faith attaches to them. The life of Krishna and life of Christ are similar in many ways. The Qur’an has a high reverence for Jesus. Today we are reflecting upon a story of the infant Jesus in the Qur’an.

These religious texts, whether they be the Bible, the Qur’an or the Bhagavad Gita are rather mature. The common symbols and archetypes first appear much earlier than what we find in these established religious texts. For instance the precocious divine child is an archetype found in all of the religious texts yet is more primal than any of them.

Exploring other faith traditions enables us to see the larger archetypes and symbols at work in the stories that are common to us. I hope that becoming familiar with the sacred texts and traditions of others will enable us to understand our neighbor, perhaps be more sympathetic to them, and to discover and strengthen bonds of commonality.

Today, stories of the child Jesus take center stage.

When I was a child I remember being disappointed that the Bible said very little about Jesus as a child. We have him as a baby, then when he is twelve and in the temple and that is it. It wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. That shouldn’t be confused with the Gospel of Thomas, which is a sayings gospel of Jesus. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas tells stories about Jesus when he was a child, before reaching the age of twelve.

Here are a few stories from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas:

This child Jesus, when five years old, was playing in the ford of a mountain stream; and He collected the flowing waters into pools, and made them clear immediately, and by a word alone He made them obey Him. And having made some soft clay, He fashioned out of it twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when He did these things. And there were also many other children playing with Him. And a certain Jew, seeing what Jesus was doing, playing on the Sabbath, went off immediately, and said to his father Joseph: Behold, thy son is at the stream, and has taken clay, and made of it twelve birds, and has profaned the Sabbath. And Joseph, coming to the place and seeing, cried out to Him, saying: Wherefore doest thou on the Sabbath what it is not lawful to do? And Jesus clapped His hands, and cried out to the sparrows, and said to them: Off you go! And the sparrows flew, and went off crying. And the Jews seeing this were amazed, and went away and reported to their chief men what they had seen Jesus doing.

He was "being reported" at an early age!

And another:

After that He was again passing through the village; and a boy ran up against Him, and struck His shoulder. And Jesus was angry, and said to him: Thou shalt not go back the way thou camest. And immediately he fell down dead. And some who saw what had taken place, said: Whence was this child begotten, that every word of his is certainly accomplished? And the parents of the dead boy went away to Joseph, and blamed him, saying: Since thou hast such a child, it is impossible for thee to live with us in the village; or else teach him to bless, and not to curse:4 for he is killing our children.

Jesus is dangerous. But helpful:

A few days after, a young man was splitting wood in the corner,11 and the axe came down and cut the sole of his foot in two, and he died from loss of blood. And there was a great commotion, and people ran together, and the child Jesus ran there too. And He pressed through the crowd, and laid hold of the young man's wounded foot, and he was cured immediately. And He said to the young man: Rise up now, split the wood, and remember me. And the crowd seeing what had happened, adored the child, saying: Truly the Spirit of God dwells in this child.

And handy to have around in the carpenter's shop:

And His father was a carpenter, and at that time made ploughs and yokes. And a certain rich man ordered him to make him a couch. And one of what is called the cross pieces being too short, they did not know what to do. The child Jesus said to His father Joseph: Put down the two pieces of wood, and make them even in the middle. And Joseph did as the child said to him. And Jesus stood at the other end, and took hold of the shorter piece of wood, and stretched it, and made it equal to the other. And His father Joseph saw it, and wondered, and embraced the child, and blessed Him, saying: Blessed am I, because God has given me this child.

And smart!

And Joseph, seeing that the child was vigorous in mind and body, again resolved that He should not remain ignorant of the letters, and took Him away, and handed Him over to another teacher. And the teacher said to Joseph: I shall first teach him the Greek letters, and then the Hebrew....And Jesus said to him: If thou art really a teacher, and art well acquainted with the letters, tell me the power of the Alpha, and I will tell thee the power of the Beta. And the teacher was enraged at this, and struck Him on the head. And the child, being in pain, cursed him; and immediately he swooned away, and fell to the ground on his face. And the child returned to Joseph's house; and Joseph was grieved, and gave orders to His mother, saying: Do not let him go outside of the door, because those that make him angry die.


A power every child wishes to possess! And finally:

And after this the infant of one of Joseph's neighbours fell sick and died, and its mother wept sore. And Jesus heard that there was great lamentation and commotion, and ran in haste, and found the child dead, and touched his breast, and said: I say to thee, child, be not dead, but live, and be with thy mother. And directly it looked up and laughed. And He said to the woman: Take it, and give it milk, and remember me. And seeing this, the crowd that was standing by wondered, and said: Truly this child was either God or an angel of God, for every word of his is a certain fact. And Jesus went out thence, playing with the other children.

Jesus is the precocious child. These stories don’t tell us much about Jesus, I suppose, but they do tell us about our fascination with The Child Archteype. These stories as well as the one in Luke and in the Qur’an feature the eloquent or wise child. Jesus, speaking with wisdom and authority astounds the scholars.

Where does this eloquence or wisdom come from? According to the stories it is not from learning. It is not human wisdom. It is from God. It is a gift. Its source is Divine Creativity. There is a mythology of innocence at work here. We think of a child’s purity before being corrupted by learning and by living. The wise child who teaches adults reflects our desire for innocence.

We think of the newborn is closer to God. You might have heard the story of the five year old girl who looks into the crib of her newborn baby sister and asks her:

Tell me about God. I forgot.

We often say that prejudice is not innate but learned. Also, true enough. The precocious or eloquent child celebrates the innocence--the goodness--of children before the corruption of culture. The shadow of this kind of thinking is that you can end up with a devaluation of education in favor of superstition. We see this in religious leaders who put down education in favor of charisma, being caught up in the spirit and so forth.

The child archetype has its shadow. It can lead us to become childish as well as childlike. How can we draw from the child archetype and use it as a constructive aspect of our personality?

Caroline Myss (Mace) has some instructive ideas regarding the child archetype. I don’t know much about Caroline Myss. She has written some popular books and appears on the Oprah show frequently. I am neither recommending her or not recommending her. I did find this helpful. These are some of her thoughts on the child archetype. She writes:

The mature personality of the Child archetype nurtures that part of us that yearns to be lighthearted and innocent, expecting the wonders of tomorrow, regardless of age. This part of our nature contributes greatly to our ability to sense playfulness in our lives, balancing the seriousness of adult responsibilities. The balanced Child is a delight to be around because the energy that flows from this part of our personality is positively infectious and brings out the best in others, as well as in us.

Subsets of this archetype include the wounded child, orphaned child, eternal child, magical or innocent child, and needy child. We all have within us a child. It is an archetype or a personality blueprint that we work from usually unconsciously. We can be aware of this archetype by being conscious of our dreams, of telling the stories of our childhood, by connecting with the values we learned. Particularly it is important to pay attention to what is "shaming" as well as what makes for “good little boys and girls.”

It might be odd for me to talk about this today, because it could be right on the surface. At Christmas many of us reconnect with family. The rule of thumb here is that your family remembers you as you were not as you are. Not only as you were but as you were in their eyes. So you can be 40 but go back home and you are ten again. These can be humorous episodes or painful but they can be learning.

What is it that pushes our buttons?
What keeps us from growing up?
What sense of childlikeness have I lost in a desire to keep the hurt child protected?
Do I never let the child out—that is the playfulness, spontaneity, creativity—because if I do she or he might be hurt?
Do I not trust because I may end up being orphaned or abandoned?
Is there unfinished business, needs not met by my parents that I want others to meet?

I know we make a lot of fun about the inner child and the pseudo-psycho self-help industry that surrounds it, but actually it is a good thing to do this child work. Doing the important, and sometimes painful childhood work, can save some wear and tear on current relationships.

When Jesus said,

“Unless you become like a child, you won’t enter the kingdom of God,” what was he talking about? The assumption here is that he wanted his followers to be childlike not childish.

The Apostle Paul said,

“When I was a child I thought like a child, reasoned like a child, spoke like a child. When I became an adult I put away childish things.”


Fundamentalisms of all kinds are childish. They come from the needy child who desires authority. Give me all the answers. Give me the magic book. Give me a savior. You don’t have to grow up. You don’t have to take responsibility and think for yourself. You just have to obey. That is what children do in authoritarian households. They obey. That may be fine when you are five. But not when you are 25 or 45 or 75.

Even societies can get stuck in childish ways. Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is a scary individual. He has all the power of divinity but none of its maturity. He is a terror to the neighbors. “Teach him to bless and not curse. He’s killing our children!”

Because he is the divine child he is supposedly innocent and pure. That is a dangerous combination. Power and innocence or more accurately power and perception of innocence.

Think of the United States and its citizens. We are the city on the hill. Manifest destiny. God's chosen. Pure and innocent. All of our forays into other countries are for benevolent causes. Our history is one of goodness and mercy. We have a childish self-perception. Even when we are faced with facts of our non-innocence, we cannot see them for the over-arching shadow of the myth of innocence.

The challenge of the via creativa the way of creativity, the way of eloquence, is to move from childishness to childlikeness.

At the beginning of the sermon I mentioned the importance of the Beginner’s Mind. Zen teacher Shunryo Suzuki-Roshi said:

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

So part of the childlikeness that we want to move toward is to be teachable. To approach life with awe, wonder, openness, and possibility. To do this we use our imagination, our creativity, our confidence, our skills, and our eloquence.

Eloquence is to speak truthfully in such a way that evokes beauty. The eloquent uplifts as well as informs. Sometimes that speech seems childlike in its simplicity, such as the parables of Jesus or a Zen koan, but actually comes from a long history of living.

May we discover eloquence in all of our speech.

I will let the Qur’an have the last word:

The all-Merciful!
He taught the Qur’an,
He created humankind,
He taught them eloquence.
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