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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Looking for a Guide--A Sermon

Looking for a Guide
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 30th, 2010
Trinity Sunday

Proverbs 8:1-4; 22-31
John 16:12-15


One of the hymns in our hymnbook begins with this line:
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou are mighty;
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Religion capitalizes on that feeling of being alone and lost. Life is uncertain. We don’t know the “right thing” to do or the "best" decision to make or the "correct" path to take. Life is cold, dark, and barren. Or has Thomas Hobbes put it, "nasty, brutish, and short." How nice it would be if there was someone to guide us through.

We long for someone to take our hand and lead us. Wouldn’t it be helpful if a cloud moved just ahead of us during the day and a pillar of fire by night to lead us along and show us where to go? A voice to tell us what to do and to say? Or maybe there is a bright star we can follow that will lead us to the Messiah?

I remember singing a camp song as a kid, I’m Using My Bible as a Roadmap:
I'm using my Bible for a road map
The Commandments they tell me what to do
The twelve disciples are my road signs
And Jesus will take me safely through

There'll be no detours in heaven
No rough roads along the way
I'm using my Bible for a road map
My last stop is heaven some sweet day

I'm using my Bible for a road map
The children of Israel used it too
They crossed the Red Sea of Destruction
For God was there to see them through
There is something comforting about knowing that we are on a path and that there is a guide leading us to a final destination.

Most of religious belief and practice is based on that notion that there is outside of us, external to the universe, often supernatural, something or someone that has a purpose and destination for our lives. It is no wonder that Rev. Rick Warren’s book, A Purpose Driven Life, is one of the best selling books ever.

We long to be told what to do.
Show me the answer.
Tell me what I should do with my life.
Give me direction.
What is my purpose?
Help me discover it.

The assumption is that there is an external purpose or Google Map made just for us, if only we could find it.

There are many folks who claim to have just that Google Map and who will gladly tell you what to do.

We call them preachers.

Jesus had a name for the preachers or religious leaders of his day. He called them “blind guides.”
You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
Jesus is saying that these people don’t know anything more about life than anyone else. More often than not they focus on the wrong thing and miss what is important. Strain a gnat and swallow a camel.

The question becomes, who are you going to trust?

One of the things that has been dawning on us as we have been contemplating the vastness of the universe, and the indifference of life on Earth as it evolves without any need of interference from an outside guiding force,...

...is that maybe there is no outside meaning.

Instead, meaning is what we make it.

That has always been true. We haven’t always known it.

Every story in the Bible and in any religion is human made.
  • Human beings created the story of Moses coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments.
  • Human beings created the story of Krishna speaking to Arjuna on the battlefield.
  • Human beings created the story of God creating the heavens and the earth.
  • Human beings created the story of the Risen Christ appearing before the disciples.
Once we realize that all religious stories are made by human beings, the balloon pops.

This doesn’t lessen the value or the importance of the stories. It shifts them. Rather than be external realities, they become internal creations. Now we are contemplating, marveling, and celebrating human creativity and imagination. The stories of God or of the gods are our stories projected outward.

A philosopher who I have come to appreciate is Don Cupitt. I discovered him through the Jesus Seminar. He writes in very clear language for non-professionals. He calls himself a radical theologian. In his book, The Meaning of the West, he writes:
In religion and philosophy there is a perennial dispute between two parties. There are those who think that our greatest need in life is to gain security and blessedness by attaching ourselves permanently and securely to something very much greater, stabler and more perfect than ourselves, something that transcends the passing show of existence. I'll call these people the party of metaphysics. They are philosophical realists, for whom our salvation depends upon our relation to something Big out there.

The other party includes all those who think that our chief need is to be cured of the errors and discontents that rob us of our ability to enjoy life and live it to the full. I'll call these people pragmatists, or even nihilists. They say that we don't need to attach ourselves to some great big saving Fact out there; we just need deliverance from our own anxieties, our illusions and our self-concern. We just need pure freedom and life-skills. p. 31.
Cupitt is of the second party. For him there is no “outside.” The self-evolving universe is “outsideless.” Rather than find our purpose, search out a guide, find our path on God’s great Google Map, we instead create it.

The stories of the Bible are not stories of external realities, but stories of human beings finding themselves, and when we put ourselves in these stories they are stories of our own self-discovery. So in Genesis chapter one when God creates order out of chaos, that is our task. We are the ones to create order out of chaos.

Jesus is the precursor to helping us get this.

The irony is that Jesus’ teaching was so radical that the tradition turned him into a god. This is the last thing he wanted. This is why I think the historical Jesus study is so important. There was a person there who had some radical things to say. We have covered him with mythology and distorted his voice. Part of his radical teaching was to forget searching after an external purpose and meaning. The kingdom of God is not “out there” he said.
The kingdom of God is within you.
Even the Gospel of John, which contains hardly anything that can go back to the historical Jesus, still has Jesus affirm that the external God (Father) is known in us through Spirit. This means, I think, that we need to take ownership for that which we have projected onto God or onto Jesus.

When we project onto God or Jesus love, compassion, justice, strength, Jesus says to us,
“Take it back. You are love, compassion, justice, strength. Don’t say, ‘I am weak but Thou art strong.’ No. You are strong."
Jesus tells us:
"You are your own guide. Claim it.”
I am going to quote Cupitt one more time. This is from his book, Jesus and Philosophy:
In the old mythology, God, confronted by the Primal Chaos, by a free and purely generous act of will chose to conquer chaos and create the world. The Israelite prophets saw the religious problem—namely, the infinite qualitative difference between the Holy God and the wayward human individual—as being solved when God relocates himself within the human heart. Jesus takes that thought and radicalizes it, in order to force upon the individual a repetition of the original creative choice. When I feel that everything is crumbling and I am confronted with pure chaos, I have to make a free, generous and founding choice of life itself. This original choice, a choice to launch oneself bravely out upon the sea of contingent existence, comes from what we speak of as ’the heart.’ By it we live. P. 94
Jesus is the transition between an external God (Father) and Spirit within the heart, the human choice. It has taken us two millennia to get this.
  • We have projected onto God all goodness, when instead we need to claim it and live it.
  • We have said that only an external God can give us meaning, when instead we create it for ourselves as individuals and as a human community.
  • We have said that we need to obey an external moral law that is absolute and revealed to us, when instead it is written on our hearts—in other words we create morality by listening to one another and stumbling through together.
Once the balloon pops and we dare to utter to ourselves the blasphemous truth that we created the concept of God, and that we created the stories about God, then we need to take a deep breath.

It is both liberating and frightening.

It is frightening because we realize that we are our own guides. No one else to blame. No one else to credit.

It is up to us to live life.


It is liberating because someone else’s concept of God no longer has power over us. No one else has power to make us feel guilty or sinful or shamed or whatever. With this liberation comes responsibility to make our world a place we really want to live in.

This liberation is not from goodness or compassion, it is liberation to create as a human family a world that works for the blessedness of all.

Rather than a Bible as an infallible code of law, we create a declaration of human rights. We create a loose-leaf Bible of the wisdom we have gleaned that is on-going and outsideless.

This is from Joanna Macy:
People are not going to find their truth-force or inner authority in listening to experts, but in listening to themselves, for everyone in her or his way is an expert on what it is like to live on an endangered planet.
Is there still a place for projection? Is there still a place for a hymn to “mothering God” or the Divine Sophia or the Great Jehovah or our ishta deva (our chosen deity)? Of course. As long as we are aware of what we are doing. We are getting out, we are bringing forth, what is within us.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is reported to have said:
"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." (70)
We are getting it out. It is psychologically healthy and necessary to do so. But we also must remember to bring it back. We are the mothering God, we are the Divine Sophia, we are the Great Jehovah, we are our own guides.

If you are looking for a guide, for someone or something to direct you, lead you, give you a purpose, a reason, and meaning, you are welcome to look all over. You are welcome to join all kinds of spiritual groups, self-help clubs, churches, and so forth.

And when you are finished searching and have learned all kinds of wonderful things, come home and find You.
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