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

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Trouble and Transformation: A Sermon

Trouble and Transformation
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 10, 2011
Gospel of Jesus 20:1-11

They come to Jerusalem. And he went into the temple and began chasing the vendors and shoppers out of the temple area, and he turned the bankers’ tables upside down, along with the chairs of the pigeon merchants. Then he started teaching and would say to them:

“Don’t the scriptures say, “My house is to be regarded as a house of prayer for all peoples’?—but you have turned it into ‘a hideout for crooks’!”

They showed Jesus a gold coin and said to him,
“The Roman emperor’s people demand taxes from us.”

He said to them,
“Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor,
and give God what belongs to God.”

In Jerusalem, by the Sheep Gate, there is a pool, called Bethzatha in Hebrew. It has five colonnades, among which numerous invalids were usually lying around—blind, lame, paralyzed. One man had been crippled for thirty-eight years. Jesus observed him lying there and realized he had been there a long time.

“Do you want to get well?” he asks him.

The crippled man replied,
“Sir, I don’t have anyone to put me in the pool when the water is agitated; while I’m trying to get in someone else beats me to it.”

Get up, pick up your mat and start walking around,”
Jesus tells him. And at once the man recovered; he picked up his mat and began walking.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 51, 53. Mark 11:15, 17; 12:13-17; Matthew 21:12-13; 19:45-46; 22:15-22; Luke 20:21; EgerG 3:1-6; John 2:14-15; 5:2-3, 5-9; Thomas 100:1-3


Some people are comfortable with the word spiritual. Some people are comfortable talking about God. Others are not. I am not sure but I wonder if the difference between those who can speak of God and to God easily vs. those who cannot is akin to personality differences. Some people are introverts others are extroverts. Some people are spiritual, others are not.

It doesn’t have to be a cause for judgment. One isn’t better than another, just different. At least it seems to me to be the case. Some people have no problem with the miraculous, with the supernatural, with connecting with things unseen. Others are doubtful about such things. Some attribute things that happen in life to God and seek to be more in touch with what God might be doing in their lives or wanting them to do. Others don’t see God in that way at all and come at things from a more mundane, secular, or “worldly” point of view.

I suppose one could view it as a competition and say that folks of the other type need to mature and be like we are, whatever it is we are. At best, different types of folks can enhance the lives of others while learning from them.

One of the reasons I like the four paths of Creation Spirituality is because I think they can have value to folks of both types. One can emphasize the via to God aspect, the spirituality aspect and one can also see these paths as vias or ways to more integrated ways of living. In this second view, one doesn’t need God at all. Serving a congregation that has both types of folks and the entire spectrum in between, a worship leader looks for metaphors that all or at least most can have some connection.

The school of thought called Creation Spirituality seems to be a nice bridge. It is Earth-focused. It is about life here and now. Meaning is not located outside of our existence but within it. We are Earthlings as are bugs, branches, and bonobos. But it is spiritual in that meaning and vitality comes from our engagement with what is present.

We participate in ongoing creation. Creation doesn’t necessarily require a Creator. I have just finished the latest book by Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design. He speaks of multiple universes and spontaneous creation in which there is no need of a divine being to either keep it going or to start it off. But, one could allow for a Creator in Creation Spirituality.

Here I am offering my interpretation. Any one of you could define it very differently. Whether you are secular or spiritual or a combination of the two, you may find the four paths a helpful way to orient your experience.

Principle number five of The Twelve Principles of Creation Spirituality says:
Our inner work can be understood as a four-fold journey involving:
- awe, delight, amazement (known as the Via Positiva)
- uncertainty, darkness, suffering, letting go (Via Negativa)
- birthing, creativity, passion (Via Creativa)
- justice, healing, celebration (Via Transformitiva)
We weave through these paths like a spiral danced, not a ladder climbed.
What I have been doing for over a year now in worship is to celebrate one of those four paths per season. I have found it to be a helpful way of framing our collective worship experience. I have chosen Spring to be the via transformativa or way of justice, healing, celebration. I like to say it is the way of compassionate action.

Not only is Creation Spirituality available for those who are comfortable with God language and to those who are not, it is also available to those from various religious traditions. In other words, Creation Spirituality is not limited to the Christian tradition.

It does fit within the Christian tradition too. I think the historical Jesus fits quite well as a model or focus figure. Not just Jesus, but the movement of which Jesus was a part. That movement included those who were with him and not just those named in the gospels, but those who are unnamed, marginalized, and forgotten by the orthodox tradition.

Bev and I spent the week in Salem, Oregon attending the Spring meeting of the Jesus Seminar. The seminar honored the work of Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza. She teaches at Harvard Divinity School. Her field is early Christian origins. She has not been a part of the Jesus Seminar. She in fact has been somewhat critical of its work. Her criticism of the seminar is that it focused too much on Jesus as an individual making him carry too much weight.

Her historical reconstruction includes a larger movement for justice and equality. She is quite suspicious, for instance, that the early movement consisted of Jesus and twelve male apostles. The Jesus Seminar is suspicious of that as well of course. Yet she says the seminar doesn’t go far enough. Its reconstruction of Jesus is still too focused on Jesus the sage, poet, and hero. She reminds us that there were more people involved. She finds hints within the tradition that show far more diversity than those who wrote the history wanted us to know. She goes outside of it to gather the stories of the forgotten. Schussler-Fiorenza defines history as remembrance of struggle.

When we read stories of Jesus we are not just reading about the Divine Son of God on one hand, nor an historical person who is a hero on the other. We are reading about a much larger movement for equality and justice that includes the stories of women and men, the marginalized, and the abused and the forgotten. We don’t find them in the texts, but they were there. Like specters they haunt the text. They are there now in our current struggles for equality, justice, peace, and healing. It isn’t just about Jesus, but Jesus as a pointer to a movement of human beings celebrating and transforming oppressive powers into the kingdom of God.

When Jesus is in the temple overturning tables, it isn’t just him. The temple incident was likely a staged action. It was a protest. The protest was not about selling pastries in the sanctuary. It was a protest against the temple’s collaboration with Rome and its lack of compassion for the poor. It had become a hideout for crooks. The money exchange was like laundering money. You rip off the poor then trade it for sacrifices to make you holy before God. In this staged action that featured Jesus, we can imagine that it took a number of people to pull it off. We can imagine this protest didn't just happen once but happened many times in many ways.

It takes a lot of trouble-makers to change history.

When Jesus has the conversation about the coin with the emperor’s image, we can imagine that that is part of a long conversation and struggle about taxation, about Roman imperialism, and about the different ways in which you cope, resist, and often simply starve. The preservation of this story is simply the tip of an iceberg of events and struggles happening underneath. This is a story that is live and happening today all over the world and in our own communities as the impoverished struggle with the powerful. It should lead us to discussions of injustice in our time and what are the risks that we might take naming those injustices and responding to them.

The healing at the pool of Bethzatha could lead us to empty arguments of whether or not supernatural healing occurs or whether or not Jesus was a miracle-worker and so on. I think this story might be preserved for a different purpose. It reminds me of the futility of brokerage systems (38 years waiting at the pool) and the possibility of transformation and healing when people (not just Jesus) people take responsibility for themselves and their sisters and brothers, symbolized by the man courageously picking up his mat and walking.

That story itself becomes a symbol for this kingdom movement.
  • In this new movement that did not end with the execution of Jesus, people pick up their mats and walk.
  • They find their dignity.
  • They discover their voices.
It takes a lot of trouble-makers to change history.

Sometimes we need to be troubled as well.

One of our church members saw what I was going to be talking about this week and emailed me. He told me about this song by Susan Werner. He liked it and thought it might fit the sermon. I think it does. It is called “Did Trouble Me.”



"To make me human, to make me whole."

That is the essence of this fourth path.

The via transformativa, or the path of justice, healing, celebration, compassion is a path, like all the paths, for those who are spiritual and for those who are not.

It is a path of engagement. It is a path that has been walked by many throughout history, the vast majority of those names are lost to us forever. We can imagine them, though. We can imagine women and men who work each day growing food, caring for bodies, teaching children, making beds, cooking meals, working in factories, building homes, and comforting the troubled.

It is a path also of troubling the comfortable.

Today we celebrate Self-Development of People. This is a program within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that allows partnerships to develop with low-income community groups. Our offering to the One Great Hour of Sharing that we will receive on Easter will go in part to Self-Development of People.

Here is an example:
In 2007, SDOP formalized a partnership with Development Promotion Group (DPG), a Chennai, India-based non-governmental organization that empowers community-based organizations to develop economic enterprises. Its primary focus is on the most neglected and vulnerable of rural and urban populations, with particular attention to the needs of women and children.

Over the course of this three-year intermediary partnership, 13 self-help groups in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have undertaken successful economic enterprises. Their ventures include a milk cooperative, a cement block business, a supermarket for home products, thatched roof production, charcoal making, and cashew nut processing. These projects have benefited a total of 229 families, as they begin their journey toward economic empowerment, self-sufficiency, and fulfillment of their leadership potential.
It takes a lot of trouble-makers to change history.

We are teaching our youth to be trouble makers. You are invited to participate with them for their work with the Appalachia Service Project. They will be spending a week in Kentucky working on homes, working with people, sharing their lives, experiencing the lives of people who make life choices amidst grinding poverty, and learning what it means to care. You can invest in their work after church today for our lunch and auction to fund their work.

This is the essence of the fourth spiritual path. Finding and making connections to provide hope and dignity to people and Earth.

It is just the kind of trouble we need.

Amen.
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