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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Being A Sermon--A Sermon

Being a Sermon
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 24th, 2010
Nehemiah 8:1-10
Luke 4:14-21
Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2

Krishna said: Those who lack discrimination may quote the letter of the scripture, but they are really denying its inner truth. They are full of worldly desires, and hungry for the rewards of heaven. They use beautiful figures of speech. They teach elaborate rituals which are supposed to obtain pleasure and power for those who perform them. But, actually, they understand nothing except the law of Karma, that chains people to rebirth….

….When your intellect has cleared itself of its delusions, you will become indifferent to the results of all action, present or future. At present, your intellect is bewildered by conflicting interpretations of the scriptures. When it can rest, steady and undistracted, in contemplation of the Atman, then you will reach union with the Atman.


This is from British born, American poet Edgar Guest:
I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I'd rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way:
The eye's a better pupil and more willing than the ear,
fine counsel is confusing, but example's always clear.
I do like that. I would rather see a sermon than hear one, too.
Even better than to see a sermon is to be one.
The best you get from me today is that you will hear one.


The scripture texts today feature characters who are reading scripture texts. From Nehemiah, we find a ceremonial scene. People are standing and listening as Ezra reads the Law (which if the Law refers to the first five books of the Bible would take a long time) and not only that but there are people explaining and interpreting. According to the text:
So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
On one level, that is good. But it is also risky business. Interpreters twist things you know. Whether they mean to or not, whether they have ill motives or good, people interpret from their own experiences and viewpoints. That is why you should never believe what a preacher tells you. Check it out for yourself.

I have heard a lot of horror stories in my ministry from people who believed what they heard from a pulpit. What they believed about themselves or others or what they were supposed to do often didn’t turn out so well. It is frightening the power that interpreters of sacred texts can have over people.

This last Thursday at our PFLAG meeting we had a guest speaker. His name is Marc Adams. He wrote a number of books about growing up gay in a fundamentalist household. He started an organization called Heartstrong. The organization is to help students whose lives are literally threatened by religion. Particularly gay youth who learn about homosexuality from the pulpit.

Marc told his story how when he was a young boy he first heard a preacher talk about homosexuality. Marc saw himself in this description. Finally, he thought, here is someone talking about him. Then the preacher went on to say that homosexuals will become child molesters and then die from AIDS. Marc went into deep depression as an adolescent because he knew his future would be one in which he would become a child molester and then die from AIDS. His preacher said so. He never thought that he could ever question a preacher.

As it turned out for Marc, he got lucky. He eventually finally found a way to listen to his doubts and to take seriously his questions. His mission now is to help other students who grow up in religious schools, where unlike public schools there is no protection from this kind of abuse—to literally save them from suicide—by getting to them good information.

Of course, this can be about anything. Think of all the damage being done at this very moment from pulpits all around the country. The damage isn’t the content of what is said, it is the authority that comes with it. You should never believe anything your preacher says, and that includes me, of course. Check it out for yourself.

If you grew up in a religious tradition that encouraged free-thinking, consider yourself fortunate. It is sobering to discover how many people are victims of religious abuse.

It might be good to reflect on scripture. What is it, exactly? What makes some texts sacred?

I heard a minister say not long ago as he forcefully patted his Bible:
This is the only book God ever wrote!
I thought it was funny. As if God wasn’t a bit more prolific. I have no idea what it means to say that God wrote the Bible or that God inspired the Bible or that the Bible is the Word of God. To me it appears to be theological speculation bordering on superstition.

I do know that human beings wrote the Bible and the Qur’an and the Bhagavad Gita and the epic of Gilgamesh and everything else that has been written. I am not sure if they were inspired by anything more than human creativity, which is no small thing.

Let’s give humanity credit where credit is due. We are creative. From cave drawings to inscriptions on stone our ancestors communicated their fears and desires in the way they knew how. They told all kinds of stories, made music and created rituals to help themselves cope with life’s struggles. They even created God in their image.

We need to continue to be creative. I don’t know what it means to say God wrote a book, but if so, I think “God” wrote a lot of books. Earth is filled with God’s creative writing. You can read scripture in tree rings or in light from distant stars.

In a few weeks we are going to celebrate Evolution Sunday. It is becoming one of my favorite holy days. The story of evolution is scripture. Scientists might bristle at that, but I am just being poetic. It is a sacred story in that we are reading our history, our deep history, and it rightfully fills us with awe and amazement.

Of course our different religious traditions and their various sacred texts tell sacred, holy stories as well about life and its struggles. I still find myself surprised at how contemporary stories from scripture can be.

For instance in today’s reading from the lectionary, Luke records Jesus’ first sermon. Who knows if it happened like this at all, but it makes a great story.
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Now when we look at the world in our time and in the time of Jesus we know that all the captives have not been released, that the poor still hear crummy news, that the blind are still blind, and the oppressed are not free.

One can imagine that first century Rome was wonderful for a powerful and wealthy few and less wonderful for many others. It was a plutocracy in which the few with power and wealth made decisions that affected the many. Some have suggested that the United States is becoming a plutocracy. The latest Supreme Court decision could be a sign of that fundamental change that is being made right before our eyes. It isn’t so difficult to see that decisions increasingly are made of, by, and for wealthy corporations rather than the people.

So maybe Jesus or Luke wasn’t telling the truth. Or maybe Jesus and Luke were telling us a different truth. Maybe this sermon was an invitation to be a sermon.

I think Jesus was saying that the creative power in this text is in him.
Not only in him but in his hearers too.
And if we would listen, in us.

This creative power is to live the sermon--to be it.
To be on behalf of the poor in Haiti and Tennessee,
the captive in Guantanamo and in Mountain City,
the blind in both places of power and misery,
and the oppressed everywhere.

And to never, never, never give up.

The text from the Bhagavad-Gita reminds us of another way to be a sermon. Krishna is speaking to Arjuna and says:
When your intellect has cleared itself of its delusions, you will become indifferent to the results of all action, present or future.
This does not mean to be cold, uncaring, or lacking compassion. It is quite the opposite. It means to be pure of motive so we don’t try to control what we have no control over anyway.

It is to be present fully. We are better able to do what we need to without constantly evaluating the profit or loss of what we are doing. To be non-attached from the results of our actions helps us not be so overwhelmed by the mountain of problems we have to climb that we don’t take the first step.

Perhaps both Krishna and Jesus are telling us that amidst all of the forces that are life-denying, humiliating, imprisoning, blinding, and wrenching, that the human spirit is yet present and powerful. We can’t see the future. We can’t calculate the results. We don’t need to do so.

We need to be and trust.
We need to know where we need to be and to live with integrity from that place.
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Today you and I can be this sermon.
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