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

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Good Life--A Sermon

The Good Life
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 19, 2011
Trinity Sunday

A Trinity

Of three in One and One in three
My narrow mind would doubting be
Till Beauty, Grace and Kindness met
And all at once were Juliet.
--Hillaire Belloc


Gospel of Jesus 17:1-14

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 1999), pp. 73, 75. Mark 8:35, 10:1, 23, 25; Matthew 5:42; 6:24; 10:39, 16:25; 19:23-24; Luke 6:30, 34; 9:24, 12:16-20; 17:33; 18:24-25 John 12:25; Thomas 47:2; 63:1-4; 95:1-2

And from there he gets up and goes to the territory of Judea and across the Jordan, and once again crowds gather around him. As usual, he started teaching them.

Jesus advises, “Give to everyone who begs from you.”

Jesus said, “If you have money, don’t lend it at interest. Rather, give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back. If you lend to those from whom you hope to gain, what merit is there in that? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to get as much in return.”

Jesus said to his disciples, “I swear to you, it is very difficult for the rich to enter Heaven’s domain. And again I tell you, it’s easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy person to get into God’s domain.”

Jesus said, “No servant can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account.”

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who had a great deal of money. He said, “I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce, that I may lack nothing.” These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”

Jesus said, “Whoever tries to hang on to life will forfeit it, but whoever forfeits life will preserve it.”


With what are you left when you strip from Christianity the miracles of Jesus?

With what are you left if you regard the Trinity as a metaphor?

What remains if you leave behind the notion of Jesus as a supernatural being?

What do you have when you separate the myth from the man?

Many would say,
“Not much. The magic is the mojo.
Why even bother with Jesus if he was just a guy,
just a slob like one of us,
another stranger on the bus.”
Others, like the late C.S. Lewis, feel quite strongly about it and say that Jesus if not Lord was either a liar or a lunatic. To quote Lewis from his book, Mere Christianity:
Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Those who object to Lewis’ conclusion might offer a fourth option. In addition to lunatic, liar, or lord, the fourth option is legend. In this view, the stories of Jesus’ divinity and miracles as well as some of the words attributed to him were later additions. He was “framed” so to speak. If his teachings and deeds were a painting, the frame of the church has been supernaturalism.

The nice thing about going to an art gallery and seeing paintings in their frames is that the observer has the freedom and the autonomy to interpret and to make up her or his own mind on the matter. I argue the same is true for Jesus. Far be it for me to tell you how you must view him or to pretend to offer the “correct” way to view him.

Back to my original question.

With what are you left when you strip from Christianity the miracles of Jesus?

A church member and I were talking about that a few weeks ago. The church member said that if we strip away the supernatural from Jesus we are left with a moral code that is impossible to keep.

As I was thinking about what this church member said, I thought no wonder the church decided to turn Jesus into an object of devotion. It is far easier to express belief in him than to do what he said.

In some circles the teachings of Jesus have been framed in such a way as to be the opposite of what Jesus said. I am sure you have heard some believers say that it doesn’t matter how good you are. You can be a moral superhero but if you don’t believe in Jesus, down the chute to the fiery furnace for you.
  • Of course, here is the thing. What if there is no fiery furnace?
  • What if there are no streets of gold either?
  • I am not saying for sure either way. I don’t know.
  • But what if our decision as to whether or not to lead a virtuous life,a good life, a moral life, has nothing to do with whether or not we will be judged eternally for it?
  • What if we had the choice each day to be good for goodness sake?
  • What if there is no stern Santa making a list of who’s naughty and nice?
  • Would we do it?
  • Would we seek the good?
Over the past couple of years, I have been preaching on the red and pink sayings and deeds of Jesus that the Jesus Seminar distilled in their collective quest for the historical Jesus. I have preached on his parables and aphorisms and have tried to offer my assessment of who Jesus was and speak of the values he held.

The red and pink sayings and deeds are those things they voted as more likely than some other sayings and deeds to be voiceprints and footprints of an actual guy who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago.

I am nearing the end of that project. I will close this series of my sermons on Jesus with this collection of sayings in today’s bulletin.

It is easy to see that these things are not easy to do.
Give to everyone who begs from you.
Really, Jesus? Really?

Common wisdom says we aren’t to do that because they will just spend it on liquor. Knowing that makes me feel a little better when I pass them by. That moral code is a piece of cake if you know how to spin it.
Jesus said: If you have money, don’t lend it at interest. Rather, give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back.
Really? That’s just un-American. Of all of the teachings of Jesus, is there any that we have more blatantly defied and ignored than this one? The whole thing--our whole world-- Industrial civilization itself and its globalized economy--is based on lending money at interest. It is the basis for economic growth. Yet as we read and hear the news, we can see where our economic philosophy is leading us. In the future, our descendants, should they survive us, may discover that Jesus was right after all.
Jesus said, “No servant can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account.”
On that score, we decided that what Jesus really meant was that the size of our bank account is evidence for how much God has blessed us. The bigger the bank, the better the blessing.

You know, all this money stuff is too complicated. Jesus was out of his field here. The important thing to know is that what Jesus really cared about was sex, and who shouldn’t be having it.
Jesus said, “There was a rich man who had a great deal of money. He said, “I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce, that I may lack nothing.” These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”
That guy ended up dead, but he did have a good investment strategy, don’t you think? His portfolio was in order. Sure there is that death thing, that whole impermanence and transient thing about life, but if we don’t take that into account, if we bracket that, the strategy of building bigger barns makes a lot of sense, right? If we ignore death, then building bigger barns is a good plan.
And Jesus said: “Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”
I don’t think Jesus left us with a moral code. I also don’t put much personal stock in Christian supernaturalism. Whatever happens after death is out of my control anyway. I don’t insist. It is just how I see it. The only thing for which I have any control, and that is limited, is what I do in the present.

I don’t think Jesus provided us with a moral code for which we will receive a grade as to how well we followed it. He didn’t give us a code so we could compare ourselves with one another and judge accordingly.

I think instead, he gave us a poke. His parables and aphorisms, even the way he lived his life was a prod, a poke, and a push. He wasn’t giving us a list of things we needed to do to be good or to avoid so we won’t be bad. He was an observer of people and of life. He saw the things that people valued. He poked.

He said,
“Are you sure? Bigger barns? Really?”
It seems that Jesus wanted to point out a truth:
  • Life is short. What are you going to do about it?
  • Those people you have around you won’t be there forever. What are you going to do about them?
  • Is your goal to make a good living or to make a good life?
  • Do you know the difference?
He challenged authoritative structures and conventional wisdom. He exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders and the cruelty of those in power. He criticized our economic ideas for the frauds they are.

He poked and prodded then.
Now 20 centuries later, he pokes and prods us today.

Insightful people who poke and prod us are hard to take. Our human tendency is to react to them out of extremes. In the case of Jesus, we crucified him then turned him into a god. He is either lord or lunatic. We’ll do anything to avoid having to deal with what he actually said.
Jesus said, “Whoever tries to hang on to life will forfeit it, but whoever forfeits life will preserve it.”
What did Jesus mean by that? I could give you my opinion, but it would just be my opinion. He pokes and prods us to take his statement seriously.

What is the good life?
What is life for?
What am I hanging on to that I need to let go?
What do I want to preserve?
What do I need to forfeit so I can do that?

The freeing and frightening thing is that no one but no one can answer those questions for you but you.

To life!

Blessed Be.