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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Creative Re-membering: A Sermon

Creative Re-Membering
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
February 21st, 2010

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Luke 4:1-13


Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Since I attended Baptist and Pentecostal churches growing up, Lent was not on the radar. I secretly envied my Catholic neighbor and best friend because he seemed to have all kinds of churchy parties, events, and saints. We were pretty much a dry bunch in comparison.

The big question around their house at this time of year was what will you give up for Lent? When I told my mom I was going to give up vegetables for Lent she wasn’t amused.

“We don’t do that,” she said.

After becoming Presbyterian, I was introduced to Lent. Kind of Lent Lite. Some people get into it and some don’t. Those who were Presbyterian before the 1970s and the liturgical renewal probably didn’t do much for Lent either. Our Presbyterian forebears were highly suspicious of any kind of “Romanist” activity. They didn’t even celebrate Christmas.

Nowadays we Presbyterians do acknowledge Lent. We have the ashes on the communion table, purple paraments, a song about Jesus walking the lonesome valley, and a reading from the lectionary (definitely not a Puritan practice),

Recognizing Lent is a way to connect to our deeper past. We now realize that our Puritan ancestors might have been a bit zealous in stripping away all of the traditions. We have a better sense of our history than they did and now know that in the early centuries the church developed this period of Lent leading up to Easter. It was a time for those who wished to join the Christian faith to be instructed in preparation for baptism on Easter Sunday.

Lent is 40 days. It begins with Ash Wednesday, skipping Sundays, and ends the day before Easter. It is a period of fasting, of prayer, and of discernment. The foundational story for Lent is the story of Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry.

This is probably a fictional story. It was a creation of the Gospel writers to bring to mind Moses and the Hebrew children wandering forty years in the wilderness in preparation for entry into the Promised Land. That, too, probably, is a fictional story, created a few hundred years before Jesus.

A fascinating book on the creation of these stories in the Hebrew Scriptures is by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. It is called The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and The Origin of Its Sacred Texts. A generation or two ago, scholars viewed the Old Testament as fairly reliable history. Nowadays, scholars are discovering that it is more likely a creative fiction. Not history remembered, but memory created.

To put it bluntly: Moses and the Hebrew children escaping from Pharaoh and wandering in the wilderness and receiving the ten commandments and entering the Promised Land and killing off all the natives. All of it is fiction. None of it happened. Truth be told, I am a little relieved. I never liked the stories about killing off the natives anyway. The rest of it seemed too fantastical to be credible and that is turning out to be the case.

What is fascinating is how these storytellers created their history. They created their memory. They created their meaning. They created their identity. They created their god. Why did they tell their stories in this way? What did they want to communicate about themselves? Those, to me, are the interesting questions.

The gospel writers were likewise creative. Drawing on the literary motifs of the Hebrew Scriptures and from pagan stories, they created the stories and the Story of Jesus. I don’t think they created him out of whole cloth. There is an historical person in there somewhere. But for the most part, it appears that Jesus is a creative construction. He was the symbol of meaning. He was the product of creative re-membering.

Again, you don’t have to believe a thing I tell you. In fact, you shouldn’t. Check it out for yourself. Certainly there are many who disagree with me. But as scientists tell us honestly what they observe about Earth and its life, so should preachers be honest about what we observe about our religious texts and history.

I might be wrong. I might and likely will change my mind as I learn new things but I won’t tell you something I don’t think is true for the sake of propping up some kind of belief.

Let’s check out this story of Jesus in the desert. The details of the story, the three temptations, are found in Matthew and in Luke, but not in Mark. Possibly, there was an earlier source for these stories. It is also possible that one of the gospel writers created the story and the other copied it with slight modifications.

For both Matthew and Luke, the story tells us about the character of Jesus. It also provides a model for those who identify as followers of Jesus. This is what it means to live with integrity and authenticity. These are the temptations and the desires that will lead to an inauthentic life, according to the gospel writers. The wise person will recognize them and choose a different course of action.

Jesus in the wilderness is a story of meaning. It is a creative re-membering. A story doesn’t have to be historical to have meaning. Quite the opposite. It is the stuff of legends that provide stories that help us understand, make sense, and re-member our lives.

These forty days of Lent, for us, if we wish, can be a time in which we bring to consciousness, recognize, and name, the temptations or desires that keep us from authenticity and integrity. Taking some time for critical reflection, or deciding upon some kind of devotional practice, meditation, or act of service, or an act of negation (giving up something for Lent), can remind us to live with a deeper sense of reverence.

This is not about being somber or serious or depressing. It is a reminder to be vital. We re-member our vitality. We have ashes on our communion table. They are not there for morbid effect. We bring to mind the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” to remind us of the most true, real thing in life—our mortality. One day we will not be. We will be as we were before we were born. Our bodies will be some other critter’s lunch.

Now whether or not our consciousness survives our death in some way, I don’t know. I remain blissfully agnostic. I don’t insist either way. There are others more certain than I. Regardless of what happens beyond this life, still, this life is unique, precious, and finite. We are not coming around this way again.

The ashes remind us then of our vitality in the present. We are alive right now. One day we will not be, but now we are. The tests, temptations, or desires that the Satan shows to Jesus are really what we succumb to most of the time. They are the busy-ness of our sense experience. The busy-ness of our brains keep us from noticing the blade of grass.

That is why our poets and spiritual leaders are constantly harping on us to notice the blade of grass, the single flower, the landscape, the roughness of our hands, the warmth of the sun, the wetness of the snow, the smile of our lover, and so on.

Take it in. Take it all in. Notice it. Don’t let it slip by without a thank you. Some times to appreciate the present we need a stark reminder of our future, or our possible future. If you are up for it, a good book for Lent is Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road. Talk about ashes to ashes and dust to dust. It is a post-apocalyptic novel. We aren’t told what happens except that humanity made some pretty dumb choices and wiped out nearly all of life.

The main character and his son are walking on an abandoned road. Everything is dusty gray. No birds, no grass, no bugs, nothing. It is a very, very sober novel. The characters don’t even have names: man, boy.

In one scene the father finds a newspaper in an abandoned gas station. It is a newspaper obviously from the time before the catastrophe. As he is reading the newspaper and all of the events, news, advertisements, and so forth, he thinks to himself:

How quaint were our concerns.

I think Cormac McCarrthy is a genius. He says it all in a few words.

How quaint were our concerns.

You can read that in a couple of ways. You can read it as a judgment. We weren’t taking seriously what we were doing. Our concerns were not related to the reality we needed to engage.

Or you can read it nostalgically. How wonderful were those days in which we had the luxury to be quaint. Worrying over school board meetings, soccer practice, the colors of flowers for the church, the budget at work, all in comparison to ashes are quaint concerns.

That isn’t a judgment. It is a recognition that all of life, even its hassles, is fragile and precious and worthy of notice.

Life is short. Notice it.

Let’s look at the temptations in particular. This is a story. The character Jesus has divine power. This is not about the historical Jesus. When we read stories of the gods we are projecting on the big screen our own internal struggles. This story is symbolic about our own tests, temptations and desires.

Jesus is hungry. The satan or the adversary tells him to turn the stone to bread. He has the power. Jesus answers that we do not live by bread alone. The point is not whether we can or cannot turn bread to stone, but whether or not using our energy and power to satisfy our sense desires is our highest purpose.

Jesus answers that we do not live by bread alone. Life is not about satisfying our sense desires alone. Yes we need bread to eat. But if we focus only on getting these things for ourselves we will lose the capacity for justice and compassion for others.

The satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. The test here is the desire for power and control. It shows lack of trust. Desire for power at its root is a desire for security. Unless I control you, you will destroy me. Powerful military nations are especially susceptible to this temptation. Unless we are the boss of the planet we are not safe.

Then the satan takes Jesus to top of the temple and says, “Jump!”

I am thinking that this temptation relates to a fear of not measuring up. Needing rescue. Needing external validation. “Prove you are the son of God,” says the satan. Prove you are a worthy human being. Jesus responds in essence that he doesn’t need to prove anything. Neither do we.

These tests are tests of integrity. Will we use our energy and our power to secure for ourselves at the expense of community, others, and the reverence for life? Authenticity for individuals is related to just and compassionate relationships with others.

These tests or temptations are temptations to be self-focused and distracted. They are temptations to live small, self-absorbed lives. They keep us from cooperation and collaboration with others. They keep us from living peacefully within our own skin.

I don’t claim that my commentary on these temptations is correct. In fact, the point of them is to open up conversation. If I might be so bold as to give you an assignment, it is to talk about these tests over lunch today.

What do these tests relate to in our own lives as individuals, communities, nations, and the human species?

What are the temptations, desires, or tests that keep us from living authentically, that keep us from noticing life with awe and reverence?

What keeps us busy and preoccupied?

How might we instead creatively re-member who we are?

Even if just for a moment?

With that I wish for you a Holy Lent.

May this be a season of discernment, of renewal, of re-membering, and of vitality.

Let us pray.

Holy Spirit, you know what the world needs more than we do. It is for this reason and this reason alone that we meditate. Bring it swiftly, surely, and most harmoniously into the life of every living being.

Holy Spirit, you know what each of us needs more than we do. It is this reason and this reason alone that we meditate. Bring it swiftly, surely, and most harmoniously into each of our lives.

Peace, Peace, Authentic Peace.

Amen.
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