Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Updike's Version


A couple of months ago I was browsing a used book store and picked up a paperback copy of John Updike's Roger's Version. Written in the early 80s it is about a Divinity School professor (Harvard?) who is challenged by a true believer who thinks he can prove God's existence via a computer program.

It is a great story with lots of theology (Barth and Tertullian are the professor's favorites), psychology, cultural observation, and of course, sex. The professor is a naughty boy.

Perhaps it is his naughtiness that enables him the grace to realize that the presence of God is in God's absence.


On the last day of the year of his death, I remember fondly, John Updike.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Taking the Plunge

The January White Spire is on-line my beloveds. You can find all of our newsletters here.


On January 10th, Baptism of the Lord Sunday, when Jesus took the plunge, we will welcome new members into our little club of bandits. It will be a big Sunday.


Because of the big snow last week, the choir will be performing Benjamin Britten's
Ceremony of Carols on the 10th. After church we will have a reception for our new members.

I often wonder what it means to "join a church." Not everyone is a joiner and many participate without uniting officially. However, saying "I do" can be an important step on one's own path. Making this step can help clarify priorities and be a way to say this is what I want my life to mean.

What I like about this little community is that we won't tell you what your life needs to mean or what you need to "believe." We are a progressive community meaning we honor the individual's search among many things. You might check out
The Eight Points and our Mission Statement to see what I mean.

I personally think it is good to officially unite with and support those organizations that work for sustainability, social justice, inclusion, and freedom of thought. We are bold about our full inclusion of LGBT people and we work for equality in church and culture. We accept the risks that go with that stand.

Joining a faith community is not about regurgitating a bunch of superstitions. To me, at least, it is about uniting with others toward a common quest--to be a blessing--to take a stand for what is compassionate, just, and beautiful--to make a difference--to accept others, ourselves, and all of life with all foibles attached--and to do it with style, grace, courage, and bit of good humor. I think Jesus provided a pretty good model for that.

If you are considering uniting with us, drop me a line
johnashuck [at] embarqmail [dot] com either if you have questions (I am always good for coffee) or if you would like to take the plunge!

Another Sign of the Apocalypse


Here is something juicy.

The powers have allowed me to corrupt the minds of ETSU students.

Holston Presbytery is in the process of searching first for an interim then a permanent (Ha! Has no one ever heard of impermanence?) director of youth and campus ministries.

Jim Kirkpatrick has retired as of December 31st, 2009. He has done a super job with the youth of Holston Presbytery and has done a super job establishing a Presbyterian presence on the campus of ETSU.

Well...that is all history. All of his good work is shot to Hades as I am going to fill in and take over the Tuesday evening gatherings for Presbyterian Student Fellowship.

PSF meets Tuesday evenings at 6 p.m. We start with dinner then have a program.

Any ETSU undergrad or grad student is welcome.
Check us on Facebook!

We begin Tuesday, January 19th! If you are an ETSU student, check it! Invite friends! It'll be hot!

The committee had best get off its rear end and get an interim in there pronto. I have plans to erect a totem pole then sacrifice chickens to the goddess.

Interested in this position? Check it out right here! If I didn't already have an awesome position I would apply. Find out more about it at Holston Presbytery's website.

Marcus Borg Near Our Mountain!


I just learned that Marcus Borg is going to be at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, NC in February. My presbytery, Holston, is connected with Lees-McRae. Banner Elk is just a stone's throw from Elizabethton.

Borg is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. Here are two articles he wrote for Westar's periodical The Fourth R, David Friedrich Strauss: Miracle and Myth and Me and Jesus: The Journey Home.

I am finding all this rather delightful.

The series of lectures that Borg will deliver are under the heading,
Christianity for a New Millenium:

Here is the scoop:

  1. “God for a New Millennium,”Monday, February 22, 2010, Evans Auditorium, 3:00-4:30 p.m.
  2. “Jesus Christ for a New Millennium,” Monday, February 22, 2010, Hayes Auditorium, 7:00-8:30 p.m.
  3. “The Bible for a New Millennium,” Tuesday, February 23, 2010, Evans Auditorium, 9:00-10:30 a.m.
Dr. Marcus Borg is the Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, OR. Internationally known in both academic and church circles as a biblical and Jesus scholar. He was Hundere Chair of Religion and Culture in the Philosophy Department at Oregon State University until his retirement in 2007.

He is the author of eighteen books and has recorded many video-based studies based on his writings. His works include the best-seller Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994), The God We Never Knew (1997), The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (1999), and God at 2000 (2000). His recent books, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (2001) and The Heart of Christianity (2003), have also been best sellers.

His most recent books are Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teaching and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (2006), and The Last Week (2006) and The First Christmas (2007) both of which were co-authored with John Dominic Crossan.

Marcus Borg has also appeared on NBC’s “Today Show” and “Dateline”, PBS’s “Newshour”, ABC’s “Evening News” and “Prime Time” with Peter Jennings, and NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. He is one of the foremost spokespersons and authors of liberal/progressive Christian theology today.


They forgot to mention his latest with Crossan, The First Paul.

I will definitely be there for the Borgster. Hope you will, too!

I should also mention that Tusculum College is hosting Al Staggs as its theologian in residence in February 2010. Unfortunately, Staggs and Borg overlap. However, Staggs will be at Tusculum for four weeks, so you can catch both. Our presbytery website has that information.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bhagavad Gita and Jive!

In 2008 we read the Bible cover to cover. Bible and Jive.

In 2009 we read the Qur'an cover to cover. Qur'an and Jive.

In 2010 we will read the Bhagavad Gita cover to cover. Gita and Jive.

The "Song of God" or the Bhagavad Gita is not very long. You can read it relatively quickly. It has only 18 short chapters, but it is the most significant sacred text of Hinduism.

I will be drawing from it for worship as well as study.

My personal belief is that we need to draw from all of our wisdom traditions and then create from them something new to meet the demands we face today. These demands are not only intellectual but spiritual.

None of our current religious traditions--in and of themselves, as we have inherited them--is up to the task of speaking with any authority, wisdom, or compassion about the time in which we live. Perhaps if we draw from the wisdom of all of them and create something new, we will find the wisdom and courage to face humanity's greatest crisis that is unfolding before us.

We have been on the path of making life unsustainable for other species as well as human beings for some time. We are at a crisis point in our existence.

From crisis comes creativity.

The via creativa is our worship theme for Winter.


A Sign of the Impending Rapture


Poor Snickers.

What is he thinking?

Meaning of Life, Part 39

Some people today are lamenting that the "ecumenical movement is dead." What is dying and is boring is not the movement within ecumenism but the lack of it. And this comes from people's being satisfied with what is basically a dualistic approach to ecumenism.

In this model, which our psychologically oriented society calls "dialogue," representatives of different traditions talk to each other with a certain tolerance and desire to understand one another. This represents a first step to ecumenism, and it is clearly an improvement over centuries of battles waged between foes. But we must move today from dialogue to common creativity.

Ecumenism is not about talking together or putting out position papers together but about creating together. What can two parties, Protestant or Catholic, Christian or Buddhist, scientist or theologian, artist or mathematician, create together? That is the question that the universe and the human race and God the Creator put to all of us. It is a question of how deeply we care about birthing and how deeply we can create with those who differ from us by interacting in dialectical and not merely dualistic ways.

The universe was not created by tolerant dualisms but by mutual interpenetrations. Of course this implies letting go: Hydrogen must let go of its hydrogenness and oxygen of its oxygenness when the two come together and create water. Letting go is demanded as much of religious traditions as it is of individual religious believers.
--Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, pp. 215-6

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.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Holy Within--A Christmas Eve Meditation


Here is the text of the Christmas Eve meditation delivered at FPC Elizabethton.


The Holy Within
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Christmas Eve 2009
The Silent Shepherds
Angels
The Three Kings

Where do we go from here?
We left our country,
Bore gifts,

Followed a star.

We were questioned.

We answered.

We reached our objective.

We enjoyed the trip.

Then we came back by a different way.

And now the people are demonstrating in the streets.

They say they don't need the Kings any more.

They did very well in our absence.

Everything was all right without us.

They are out on the streets with placards:

Wise Men? What's wise about them?

There are plenty of Wise Men,

And who needs them? -and so on.


Perhaps they will be better off without us,

But where do we go from here?


Where do we go from here?” ask the befuddled wise men—the kings of renown.

I chose some odd poetry about shepherds, angels, and kings to contrast with the traditional scripture texts for fun in part. Also to show what a different world we live in from those who created and told these stories.

We don’t often run into shepherds, angels, and kings in our daily lives.

I don’t think I have ever met a shepherd. I knew people who ran sheep—sheep ranchers. But that is almost an agri-business. I don’t know shepherds who live in their fields. Doesn’t mean there aren’t any, I just don’t run into them in my daily rounds to the Wal-Mart.

I know I haven’t met any angels, except in the romantic sense. My lovely is, of course, an angel. But angels bounding about to and fro in and out of heaven proclaiming things in lights is not part of my experience.

I haven’t met any kings either. I was once a stone’s throw from President Bill Clinton when he visited Fort Drum in upstate New York. But I never thought of President Clinton as either a king or a wise man.

Shepherds, angels, wise men, virgins giving birth to sons of god….these characters are from an age long past. We haven’t lived in their world for a long time. We repeat this story year after year. What does it mean, if anything, today? How do we hear this story?

Where do we go from here?



A long time has passed since these marvelous legends were created. The universe has become larger. The Hubble telescope has shown us images of light of the Universe’s oldest galaxies, 13 billion years old.



The Earth has become smaller. To use a phrase by astronomer Carl Sagan, Earth is a pale blue dot in the suburbs of the Milky Way galaxy.

Time is longer. Earth is four billion years old. Modern humans are just 200,000 years old.



There is no more heaven up there. Earth is in heaven as we realized when we first glimpsed photographs of Earth from behind the moon on the Apollo spacecraft. There are no more gods or sons of gods coming down in human form.





Where do we go from here?

When something no longer becomes believable it becomes either superstition or poetry. Superstition for many is inevitable. We have to live with those who cling to superstitions and we hope that they will be harmless. And we hope that we will be harmless. In the meantime we must create poetry.

And there is something beautifully poetic about giving birth to the son of God. What better image could there be that gives permission to be creative? The creativity, imagination, and consciousness of the universe is born within us. We give birth to divinity. No species that we know of has achieved a consciousness as aware as that of human beings. We are the eyes and ears—the poets of the Universe.

The same material, the same dust, star-dust, that was present at the Big Bang is within us. And it has taken 13. 7 billion years give or take for the universe to tell stories about itself. We are the bards of the Universe.

Certainly it is possible that consciousness has arisen to our degree or past it somewhere in the Universe. We don’t know about it yet. But we are here. And it is a miracle. That is what our ancestors were trying to communicate through these Christmas stories. Life is a miracle! Don't miss it!

Of course they chose a baby as a sign. We have a new baby in our family. My new great-niece, Anjelica, is not quite nine weeks old. I met her for the first time today. I held her. What do I do when I see her? I approach her as if I am approaching a goddess. With care, with awe. My eyes get big. I look intently into her face. You can’t help it. That is what a baby does. She draws you to herself. Makes you look. Then of course, I act like an idiot. Coo coo! Try to make her smile. I do anything to impress the goddess.

All of these images, metaphors, archetypes that surround Christmas and the Winter Solstice are designed to remind us that we are incredibly special, precious, and important. Life is a miracle and we have an important job to do. It is a critically important job. We have to tell the universe’s story. We have to pass it on.

I realize that now I am 48 and Anjelica is nine weeks. What will this world be like when Anjelica is 48? There is no question more important than that. 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart said,
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I also do not give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time. When the Son of God is begotten in us.
The greatest crime we can commit is to sell ourselves short.

Where do we go from here?

We have important work—each of us—for our future, for Anjelica’s future. After 14 billion years of birth pangs, the universe has given birth to us. We need to take responsibility and tell its story and preserve the lives of its storytellers. We have much opposition. Fear, greed, violence, apathy, and shortsightedness, are all as strong now as they have ever been. There is a darkness to be sure. But the ancient scriptures also preserve this important truth. With it, I close:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The light is within you. Let it shine.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Here's To You!

Hey Friends!

Hope you are all enjoying Mithra's birthday! The god of the unconquerable sun wishes you a sunny 2010. Baby Jesus wishes you salvation and Saturn hopes you'll par-tay 'til you puke!

I'm just glad that however, whoever, and whatever you celebrate, that our paths have crossed!

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Eve in East Tennessee


If you are near our snowy mountain, join us for our Christmas Eve Service. At ten p.m. on the 24th of December we will celebrate where the Divine and the Human meet.

Music by our choir and several instrumentalists, carol singing, scripture, poetry, and candlelighting will be part of the celebration.

Check the webpage for details.

We will take an offering. One hundred percent of it will be divided among three recipients:
  1. Assistance and Resource Ministry of Carter County (A.R.M.)
  2. The Shepherd's Inn (Domestic Violence Shelter)
  3. Carter County Community Daycare & Learning Center
Peace to you during the holidays!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Time is Here and I Ain't Seen Santa Claus

Here is Sam Myers and Christmas Blues. For all the folks in Appalachia who are hoping that Santa Claus brings back the electricity this Christmas. And a few jobs wouldn't hurt none either...

Snowpocalypse

According to Tri-Cities Dot Com, 50,000 people are still without power in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee. 50,000! Nearly a third of American Electric Power's 175,000 customers.

Originally, the main obstacle was impassable roads. From there, diagnosing all the problems. And now, with more than 1,000 problem areas, the shear size of the situation. “Every contractor that we can get a hold of…they’re bring them in just as fast as we can get everybody brought in,“ said Gilmer.

Making matters worse, trees are continuing to fall, snapping power lines like this one. “There’s no way to know when one’s going to fall just like the one that fell that took it down,“ said Gilmer.

Just when the power will return depend on where you live. Sullivan and Hawkins County should see light Monday or Tuesday. But, in places like Dickenson and Buchanan counties, some might be without power on Christmas.

The snow didn't seem like much (to a northerner like me) but a few inches here is enough to make some people look to the clouds for the return of the Son of Man. I do wonder if local politicians, city and county officials, and so forth will do what it takes to prepare for the next Snowmageddon.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Blues for Christmas: A Meditation

Here is the meditation I gave for our Winter Solstice service:

Blues for Christmas
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
December 21st 2009

Today is the longest night.

The spiritual path of darkness is the via negativa.

It is for those who are acquainted with the night, like Robert Frost in his 1923 poem:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
O luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

There is a story about Carl Jung, the famous psychotherapist.

The story is that when people would come to him with sad feelings, uncertain feelings, angst or anger, grief or despair because of something that had happened. The story is that he open a bottle of champagne (must have had a lot of champagne) and would tell them, “This is great news! Good things are bound to happen now!”

When someone would come with news of a promotion at work or some other seemingly fortunate event, he would shake his head sadly and say how sorry he was for them.

I am sure it is apocryphal but insightful nevertheless.

The truth is that “this too shall pass.”

Whatever this is, it will pass. Change is the harshest and most glorious truth of all.

As seasons come and go, so our lives come and go, and ebb and flow.

The wise among us allow the seasons and the tides and the cycles of birth and death to be our teachers.

So on the darkest night of the year, what we appropriately celebrate is light! Because from now on (for at least a half a year), we will be experiencing more light each day. Good things are bound to happen now!

If you are here tonight it is very likely that you, too, are acquainted with the night. A loss, a disappointment, a relocation, a tragedy, an illness, or a lingering melancholy, perhaps aided by cloudy, cool, dark skies can put one in a funk.

The whole happy family Christmas thing that is continuously piped in so that every nook and cranny is flooded with Christmas cheer can serve to make it worse.

As that song from Dean Martin goes:

The jingle bells are jingling
The streets are white with snow
The happy crowds are mingling
But there's no one that I know

I'm sure that you'll forgive me
If I don't enthuse
I guess I've got the Christmas blues

I've done my window shopping
There's not a store I've missed
But what's the use of stopping
When there's no one on your list
You'll know the way I'm feeling
When you love and you lose
I guess I've got the Christmas blues

When somebody wants you
Somebody needs you
Christmas is a joy of joy
But friends when you're lonely
You'll find that it's only
A thing for little girls and little boys

May all your days be merry
Your seasons full of cheer
But 'til it's January
I'll just go and disappear

Oh Santa may have brought you some stars for your shoes
But Santa only brought me the blues
Those brightly packaged tinsel covered Christmas blues

So tonight, we take it on.

Hey, rather than sit in front of the TV you made it out.

Santa may have brought us the blues for Christmas,
...but it is bound to get better.


We tell a little bit of truth tonight.

Sometimes life is heavy.

We sing the blues to get through it.

The via negativa or the way of letting go and letting be is recognizing that even as we may not be conscious of what is happening, life is happening in the dark.
Growth is occurring.
Seeds are germinating.
Creativity is being nourished.

It is in the darkness of the womb—that is why we celebrate Mary being pregnant with the Son of God! It isn’t literalism, it is archetypal. In the darkness of the womb is where God—where Life—is creating!

The darkness of earth nurtures the seed.
The darkness of space nurtures the stars.
The darkness of our experience nurtures our creativity and our blessing.

We don’t have to know how it all works now.
We don’t have to search for it.
It is enough to know that creativity is at work while we sit.

The tears we shed as we walk the darkness looking down “the saddest city lane” will will water the creativity that will someday be a blessing to us and to others.

Tonight, we don’t need to figure any of it out.

It is OK to sit with our Christmas blues and let it go.

One more poem.

This is by Rebecca Parker and it’s entitled Winter Solstice.

WINTER SOLSTICE

Perhaps
for a moment
the typewriters will stop clicking,
the wheels stop rolling
the computers desist from computing,
and a hush will fall over the city.
For an instant, in the stillness,
the chiming of the celestial spheres will be heard
as earth hangs poised
in the crystalline darkness, and then
gracefully
tilts.
Let there be a season
when holiness is heard, and
the splendor of living is revealed.
Stunned to stillness by beauty
we remember who we are and why we are here.
There are inexplicable mysteries.
We are not alone.
In the universe there moves a Wild One
whose gestures alter earth's axis
toward love.
In the immense darkness
everything spins with joy.
The cosmos enfolds us.
We are caught in a web of stars,
cradled in a swaying embrace,
rocked by the holy night,
babes of the universe.
Let this be the time
we wake to life,
like spring wakes, in the moment
of winter solstice.

Winter Solstice

We our having a service to honor the Winter Solstice and the longest night. It is called "Tidings of Comfort."

On the shortest day of the year we will hold a special candlelight service; a time when we can, with others, acknowledge the “blue” feeling we may have at Christmas time, reflect upon the reasons for them, and then offer them to God.

This will be the final service honoring the via negativa. Join us at 7:00 p.m. The sanctuary will be open at 6 p.m. to allow for a time of reflection before the service.

Visit First Presbyterian of Elizabethton tonight and on Christmas Eve at ten p.m.

Thanks to Nancy Barrigar for alerting me to this beautiful poem by Rebecca Parker.

Winter Solstice

Perhaps
for a moment
the typewriters will stop clicking,
the wheels stop rolling
the computers desist from computing,
and a hush will fall over the city.
For an instant, in the stillness,
the chiming of the celestial spheres will be heard
as earth hangs poised
in the crystalline darkness, and then
gracefully
tilts.
Let there be a season
when holiness is heard, and
the splendor of living is revealed.
Stunned to stillness by beauty
we remember who we are and why we are here.
There are inexplicable mysteries.
We are not alone.
In the universe there moves a Wild One
whose gestures alter earth's axis
toward love.
In the immense darkness
everything spins with joy.
The cosmos enfolds us.
We are caught in a web of stars,
cradled in a swaying embrace,
rocked by the holy night,
babes of the universe.
Let this be the time
we wake to life,
like spring wakes, in the moment
of winter solstice.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

White Christmas

Thanks to FPC Peep, Donna, for sending this great photo of our church!


This is the first time I have seen snow like this in East Tennessee.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

What's on Your Billboard?

If it is a painting of Mary and Joseph in bed, then you have been naughty.


St Matthew-in-the-City Church in Auckland, which erected the billboard, said it had intended to provoke debate.

But the Catholic Church, among others, has condemned it as "inappropriate" and "disrespectful".



Within hours of its unveiling, the billboard had been defaced with brown paint. (Read More)



And a Happy Christmas to All!!

Christmas Update

Here is an update regarding services at FPC Elizabethton!!

Hope you are doing OK through it all. Some folks have lost power, others snowed in.

Thanks to Mike Brown, the parking lot is cleared of snow. The walks are shoveled and salted.


1) We are postponing the ceremony of carols to January 10th (making it a New Year's Ceremony).
2) No choir rehearsal Sunday morning.
3) No bell rehearsal Sunday morning.
4) YES, we will have church service at 11:00 a.m. It will be great! Carol singing. Wild surprises.
5) YES, we are having Christmas dinner Sunday night at 5:30. Also great!
6) We are going to continue with our Monday 7 pm Tidings of Comfort Service and 10 pm Christmas Eve service.

So, yes, church is on.

Here is the information about Christmas services. The only change is that we are not doing our Ceremony of Carols Sunday, but we are still having worship!!

However, if you can't get out or if you don't feel comfortable driving in the snow, then stay put, keep warm, enjoy the day!

Whether I see you in church or not...

Love ya!


Friday, December 18, 2009

Via Creativa!


I am designing our worship services around the four vias or paths of Creation Spirituality. Each path corresponds to a season.

  • Fall—via negativa (the way of letting go and letting be)
  • Winter—via creativa (the way of creativity and imagination)
  • Spring—via transformativa (the way of justice-making and compassion)
  • Summer—via positiva (the way of awe and wonder)
On Monday, with our Tidings of Comfort service we will wrap up the via negativa and on Christmas Eve begin the via creativa. The Christian myth of the incarnation is one of the many symbols for the meanings of creativity. Creativity, as Matthew Fox titled one of his books, is where the divine and the human meet.

If you find our webpage under the heading "worship" you can find the pdf schedule of our Winter worship services. I am using the lectionary and reading these texts through the lens of Creation Spirituality. I open the service up to the creativity of our congregation. If folks have an original reading, poem, piece of music, artwork, or dance that goes with the theme, they contact me and they are on. If you are in our area and have heard about us, now is a good time to check us out. We are calling on the artists and musicians of the Tri-Cities to help us celebrate creativity!

Remember, one of the principles of Creation Spirituality is that
everyone is an artist.

What is creativity? According to theologian, Gordon Kaufman, God is Creativity.


His two books on this theme,
In the Beginning...Creativity, and Jesus and Creativity are his attempts toward a naturalist theology as opposed to a
supernaturalist theology.


Rather than think of God as a personal being or Creator, he suggests that God is Creativity (not unlike the Johannine tradition in the Bible that imagined God as Love).

God is not a person. God is an activity. God is mysterious, serendipitous, creativity. This creativity has been active in the universe for 14 billion years.

The God with which we are concerned here is the wondrous serendipitous creativity that has brought us humans into being within this magnificent universe--this universe that continues to be creatively transformed in new and surprising ways. It is a universe of great beauty and of overwhelming displays of power; a universe populated by many utterly diverse kinds of beings; a universe within which, on planet Earth (and possibly elsewhere) living beings in countless varieties have been created--including our own human mode of existence....

....this creativity that has also, through the mission and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth in life, in death, and after his death, brought into our world the practice of agape-love and shown us its profound meaningfulness and value. This deep mystery of creativity thus becomes light enabling us to see more clearly how we ought to live and act as we move forward into the unknown future. pp. 60-1, Jesus and Creativity
I really appreciate what Kaufman is doing. He is providing a constructive, naturalist theology that connects what we know from science and radically reinterprets our tradition with its outmoded supernaturalist claims. He takes on the Trinity:
...it is difficult to see how anything like the traditional doctrine of the trinity can still be advocated. Most of the vast universe, as we think of it today, is in no way at all affected by Jesus' life, death and resurrection; it is only the human project and its evils, on planet Earth, to which the Jesus-story--because of the healing and new life that it has brought--is pertinent.

Some may object to this argument, holding that the idea of trinity is central and indispensable to the Christian understanding of God; and it is not, therefore, a matter of choice or consent for Christian theologians: trinity is simply what God in fact is for Christians. But that is a misleading claim. We need to recognize that from the very beginning of specifically Christian thinking about God, all the major issues that needed addressing involved human choices. Doubtless the divine creativity was playing its part in these developments, but from our vantage point today just what that part was remains (as always) a profound mystery. What was visible to the humans participating--and continues to remain visible to us today--were the decisions these humans themselves made....

....We in the twenty-first century are the heirs of many different ways of understanding and interpreting Jesus: Which (if any) should we commit ourselves to and seek to develop further? Which should we ignore or discard? These are difficult questions, and in the past they were often answered on the basis of what was regarded as authoritative divine revelation, an option no longer open to us...." p. 55-6
The point of all of this is help us find the resources, the vision, and the inspiration, to be co-creators of our future. Through articulating a thoroughly human Jesus we discover
a picture of profound appeal, a picture in terms of which we may be drawn to measure and judge our own humanness and humaneness....

....At this portentous moment, perhaps more than ever before, we need conceptions of the human and visions of history that will facilitate whatever centuries-long movement there has been toward a more responsible ordering of our lives and our world, an ordering in which the integrity and significance of each tradition and community are acknowledged and the welfare and rights of every individual are respected and nurtured. New cultural patterns of association and cooperation must be developed, new institutions must be invented, new ideologies that are at once universalistic and truly pluralistic must be created.

For these sorts of things to happen, a spirit of self-sacrifice for the well-being of all of humanity--indeed the welfare of the whole network of life on planet Earth--is now needed, a spirit that can subdue the instincts for self-preservation and self-defense that so dominate our communal and ethnic, our national and religious, practices and institutions, as well as our personal lives. Just such a spirit of self-giving, love, reconciliation, and the building of community is what the image/story of Jesus and the early Christian communities powerfully present. p. 35
I offer these longer quotes of Kaufman to show what I think many people have been thinking already. Perhaps you resonate as I do. I have been drawn, despite myself, to the Jesus story. Even as I have been repulsed by the supernaturalism, the exclusivism, and the violence of the popular, so-called "orthodox" Jesus trajectory, Jesus as human, as part of the matrix of creativity, is actually quite engaging and powerful--transforming even--toward a vision of what it might mean to be a human being in a time in which we need the vision, love, and creativity of human beings and not that of supernatural gods or their spokespersons.

Creativity is not all pretty pictures and daisies. The Mona Lisa and the atom bomb are expressions of human creativity. Solar panels and eight lane highways, agriculture, industrialization, iPods, and composting are all products of our creative imagination. Creativity is arguably the most powerful force in the Universe. It is to be treated with honor and reverence and critique. Directing our creativity toward compassion and justice is our most urgent task.







“Creativity, when all is said and done, may the best thing our species has going for it. It is also the most dangerous.” Fox, Creativity, p. 1.






Here is an interview with Matthew Fox on creativity from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

Check out his Stanford lectures on youtube.


He speaks here about his book:


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Why I Love the Onion


Reyes-Chow and Parsons Denounce Ugandan Anti-Gay Bill

It was good to see PCUSA moderator, Bruce Reyes-Chow and PCUSA stated clerk, Gradye Parsons sign a statement denouncing the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act. The Presbyterian News Service has the story:

Two leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are the latest to sign a Christian statement denouncing the Ugandan “Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009.”

The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008) and the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the GA, added their names to those of dozens of other leaders from Catholic, mainline and evangelical churches who also signed the statement.

The “Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009” is under consideration by the Parliament of Uganda. If passed, the act would make homosexual behavior punishable by life imprisonment or death. It would also punish citizens for not reporting their gay or lesbian neighbors to the authorities.

You can read the statement and a list of signatures here.

I am not sure if there is a way to add a signature. If so, I would add mine.

Christmas In Elizabethton

The elves at FPC Elizabethton have put together a few opportunities for celebrating Christmas. Please come to one or more and let others know. Here is the scoop:

December 20, 11:00 am: Fourth Sunday of Advent.

The choir, directed by Beverly Shuck (yes--my lovely), will present Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols.
December 20, 5:30 pm: Our Christmas Dinner.
Bring a dish to pass. We have communion and several of our youth will play some Christmas songs on their instruments. This is one of the most cherished events of the year.
December 21, 7 pm: Tidings of Comfort.
On the shortest day of the year we will hold a special candlelight service; a time when we can, with others, acknowledge the “blue” feeling we may have at Christmas time, reflect upon the reasons for them, and then offer them to God. This will be the final service honoring the via negativa. The sanctuary will be open at 6 p.m. for silent reflection.
December 24, 10 p.m. Christmas Eve Candlelight Service.

Christmas Eve will begin the via creativa, the next phase in our guided worship. Autumn was spent honoring the via negativa, or the “way of letting go and letting be”. The via creativa reminds us that “In Creation, God is both immanent and transcendent.... We experience that the Divine is in all things and all things are in the Divine.”

What better time to begin the path of creativity than at the celebration of Christ’s birth? Join us at 10:00 pm for this special service of poetry, readings, song, and silence.

'What good is it if Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and culture?" --Meister Eckhart (14th century)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Climate Change Demands We Live Differently

I posted this quote last year as a Meaning of Life. I thought it timely to re-post as our world leaders meet in Copenhagen for talks (and hopefully action) on climate change.

As Sallie McFague points out this is not simply an "issue" it is about the way we live and the way we see ourselves in relation to one another and our only home, Earth.

In addition to carbon emissions, I would hope our world leaders would address peak oil, peak natural gas, peak coal, the depletion of fisheries, deforestation, the mass extinction of species, and how we as a human family on one planet might think about living sustainably with one another and all of life.

It is all related. It is time for radical change. It is urgent. To recall the words of a long-haired, locust eating desert prophet:

"The axe is at the root of the tree."


"Global warming is not just another important issue that human beings need to deal with; rather, it is the demand that we live differently. We cannot solve it, deal with it, given our current anthropology. It is not simply an issue of management; rather, it demands a paradigm shift in who we think we are. This is certainly not the only thing that is needed, but it is a central one, for without it we cannot expect ourselves or others to undertake the radical behavioral change that is necessary to address our planetary crisis." p. 44
--Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Theology

Monday, December 14, 2009

Meaning of Life, Part 38

When Jesus was crucified, his followers saw that he could never carry to fulfillment the mission of the Jewish people as they conceived it....He was not the messiah they had expected, and, so far as they could see, he was no messiah at all. The depth of devotion and the glory of the vision they had possessed made their disillusionment all the more bitter and devastating....They reached that depth of despair which comes when all that seems to give hope to human existence is seen to be an illusion....

After about the third day, however, when the numbness of the shock had worn away, something happened. The life-transforming creativity previously known only in fellowship with Jesus began again to work in the fellowship of the disciples. It was risen from the dead....What rose from the dead was not the man Jesus; it was creative power. It was the living God that works in time.

--Henry Nelson Wieman (quoted in Gordon D. Kaufman's, Jesus and Creativity)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Fruits of Letting Go--A Sermon

The Fruits of Letting Go
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Luke 3:7-19


My father gave me a great gift. He taught me how to play chess. When I was a teenager we would play in chess tournaments in Montana, Idaho, Washington, and sometimes we would go to California.

One year we went the Paul Masson winery for a tournament. This was in the wine country of California. We toured a winery while there. The tour guide showed the winery and the fields where they grew the grapes.

I noticed that the grape vines were really scrawny. Almost like sticks. I was expecting a lush bush with grapes. Anticipating that the host told us that the grapes are pruned in such a way that all of the energy of the plant goes to the fruit as opposed to branches and leaves.

Pruning is a way in which the gardener tries to focus the energy of the plant toward producing fruit. Rather than the energy of the plant going to branches and leaves it goes to fruit.

Plants would be replaced as needed. A plant that doesn’t bear fruit is worthless. It takes up space and energy. The unproductive plant is used for burning.

So John the Baptist is using this metaphor to get people to think about their own lives.
  • Am I doing good stuff with my life?
  • Is it aimless?
  • Am I going through motions?
  • Am I growing useless branches here and there?
  • Am I producing fruit?
John is asking the folks who come to him for baptism, “Is your life fulfilling?”

I think he would have meant fulfilling in the fullest sense of that word not in a self-absorbed way.

Nor is it a legalistic, fear-based, guilt-based thing.

John the Baptist gets a bad rap. He has been viewed by much of the tradition as a firebrand, turn or burn, repent you sinner, kind of figure. The common spiritual model of fall into sin and repentance reinforces that aspect of guilt, fear, and self-loathing. But that isn’t how we have to see him. So let’s go of that.

Let’s read John the Baptist in a different way.

We aren’t going to let go of John’s urgency or his high energy or his honesty, but we are going to let go of the guilt, fear, and shame that often comes with the fall/repentance path of spirituality.

Creation Spirituality invites us to look at John the Baptist, Jesus and the Christian wisdom tradition through a four-fold spiritual path.

1) a path of wonder and amazement about being alive in this fantastic universe,
2) a way of letting go rather than clinging to that which we need to let go,
3) a way of creativity and strength,
4) and a way to use that creativity on behalf of compassion

No shame here, no beating up of oneself. There is no spiritual benefit for beating up on ourselves or for feeling bad about ourselves. No points for that. I do that on occasion. I beat up on myself. I am glad when I hear that I don’t have to do that. When I hear that I do it less. I am a blessing. A good person. So are you. We all are. We don’t have to do that.

We need to be honest. Yes. We need to evaluate. Yes. But we don't need to beat ourselves up or invent a God who beats us up.

The word translated as repent is metanoia which literally means change or turn. As in change in direction or turn toward a new way of living.

So John is asking them if their lives are fulfilling and authentic. He is challenging them to turn and to change and to bear fruit.

To do that, we need to let go of unhealthy parts of our lives that are not fruit producing. To mix some metaphors, if we are
spinning our wheels,
drawing from a dry well,
bearing branches and leaves but no fruit,
then it might be time for a turn.

John the Baptist gives them a ritual to go with their new conviction. A baptism. A jump in the river. A cleansing to start anew. He says this is just water. The Christ, the Spirit, the creativity of the universe is the real power. This power is on the way. We think of Christmas as creativity of Christ being born within us.

So the people are excited about this.
We are too.
We want that.
We want to bear fruit.
To be a blessing.
To have what we do be meaningful and helpful.

Sometimes that change that turning might be a recognition that we are a blessing already but we aren’t aware of it. That is the story of the Wizard of Oz, right? The wizard who is a good man but a bad wizard gives awards to the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion. They all are lacking wisdom, compassion, and courage respectively. But the wizard shows them that they already possess these qualities. They already are a blessing. They just need to recognize it.

It could be that we are already bearing fruit (and I would say we are) but we don’t think of it as such. We are doing good work and are already a blessing.

Back to our story. The people ask John the Baptist: “What do we need to do?”

Here is his answer:

Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.

That is to the heart of the matter. The great accomplishment of civilization is that people didn’t have to live hand to mouth. The agricultural revolution allowed for surpluses and for towns and cities and educated classes and governments and roads and standing armies and all kinds of marvelous things.

It also resulted in great inequities. While on one hand some had food to waste, others starved.

John the Baptist is speaking to those whose privilege has allowed them to benefit by this economic system. In John’s audience there might have been those who had no coat and who had no food. What is recorded is John’s speech to those who did have extra coats and food. John is putting the responsibility on those with means and privilege to turn the system so it is more just.

This is not a matter of individual charity. This isn’t about giving a can of corn to the homeless shelter at Christmas. That is a great thing to do. John is asking a great deal more. He is talking about changing our values and the way we live. If we always shared the surplus we wouldn’t need homeless shelters.

I can’t read this passage and not think of the health care debate. Where are our values? .

“I have health care. What should I do, Mr. John the Baptist?”

I think John might have replied,

“Well why don’t you see to it that others have it as well?”

John believes that some great change is upon them. The axe is at the root of the tree, he says. This change, this metanoia, this repentance, this turning will involve a reversal of sorts. When the angel announced to Mary that she was to give birth to Jesus, she said,

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Throughout the gospels Jesus is quoted as saying,

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

Wisdom teachers are always aware of the change and the turning that is about to take place. Only the foolish think that things stay the same.
Life is change.
Let us let go and let be.

The values of this age, the values of domination and injustice, are about to be turned upside down. That is the message of the gospel. John is inviting people of privilege to be a part of this change and to bear fruit for this change.

Participate in economic justice…food, clothing, shelter, health care…move from clinging to sharing.

Then the text reads:

“Even tax collectors came to him to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher what should we do?”

And he said to them,

“Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”

If that were to happen, the system might collapse. It isn’t as if tax collectors were salaried employees like IRS agents. Their job was to shake you down, pay their quota to Rome and keep as much as they could for themselves. The tragedy is that the collectors were the oppressed extorting their own people. Rome did what it did well; it divided and conquered. It pit the people against each other. The taxes were heavy and they were collected by their own people so the rage was directed at them as opposed to Rome.

It is interesting that Luke records the three major sources of oppression by the Roman Empire over the Jews.
  1. Surplus and inequity,
  2. taxation, and
  3. armed occupation.
That is the third group that comes to John:

Soldiers also asked him,

“And what should we do?”

He said to them,

“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.”

It is easy to see that the reason soldiers extorted money is that their wages were not satisfactory. Rome counted on the soldiers to extort. That is how the system worked.

The interesting point here is that John is setting up a revolution. John’s baptizing is changing the loyalties of those who are benefiting from or who are directly involved in Rome’s domination of the Jews. He is targeting the wealthy, tax collectors, and soldiers, and challenging them to do justice and to change things from within.

This is how first century historian Josephus put it regarding John the Baptist. Josephus writes in this elevated elitist language:

Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause…

As Josephus knew, John the Baptist was beheaded because he was meddling. He was up to mischief. He was talking about a new way of living as opposed to systems of economic exploitation. He was about nothing less than changing the values of Empire itself.

The Church, because the Church has historically benefited by the power of Empire, turns John the Baptist into a fundamentalist hellfire preacher obsessed with pecadillos and getting into heaven. A careful reading of the text shows that he was more interested in social, political, and economic justice.

So what about us? What do we do with this interesting story in the Bible?

What I take away from this story is that our personal fruit bearing, and the corresponding pruning that is required to bear fruit is connected to our social good. Bearing fruit is about living with Earth and all its life in a just way. Whatever pruning, letting go, bearing fruit that we are invited to do, it is all connected with being a blessing. We are here to be blessed by the universe and to be a blessing in return.

One of my favorite quotes is from Gary Snyder.

If we are here for any good purpose at all...I suspect it is to entertain the rest of nature. A gang of sexy primate clowns. All the little critters creep in close to listen when human beings are in a good mood and willing to play some tunes.

The second thing I take away from this story is that those with privilege are not left out. This story is not saying the poor are all good and the rich are all bad and there is nothing you can do. In each case, those who come for baptism are those with means who are invited to use their means for good.

There is hope there. Those with privilege are not simply condemned but are invited and challenged to use their privilege for good.

To help somebody.

I have a song to go with that. This is Susan Werner. Crank it up.



Let’s produce some fruit.

Amen.