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

Monday, October 31, 2011

Reformed Again and Again and Again and Again...

Happy Halloween!

In the spirit of the season, the
true believers in the PCUSA are trying to bring back the inquisition.



Those were good times. Burning heretics at the stake. Elevating superstition above reason.



Meanwhile, our denomination's leadership keeps its chin up and reminds us that we are in the midst of a
new reformation.
“Today, in our time, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in the midst of another reformation. God is creating a new church in and through us. Signs of it and responses to it are plentiful.” They cite new worshiping communities that are “springing up,” a more flexible Form of Government, and several committees currently at work to “further the work of congregations and presbyteries.”
I think whatever reformation is coming will be bigger than we can imagine. It might be fun in the spirit of Reformation Day, to imagine what a reformed church would look like.

Here are some folks who have made some points. You might not like any of them, but they might spur your own thinking. Thinking for ourselves will be the heart of any real reformation.
A new magazine, Provoketive, followed me home today on Twitter so I decided to keep it.

I found a series of articles I thought important by
Deanna Ogle, entitled, Where the Church Lost Me. When you read those, you might see why the church needs, in the words of John Shelby Spong, to change or die.

The change may take many different forms.

For me, it is getting back to Earth.


Here is my reformation hymn by
Peter Mayer.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Life, Love, and Loot--A Sermon

Life, Love, and Loot
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 30, 2011

Genesis 12:10-20

Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife”; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.’ When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.

But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, ‘What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, “She is my sister”, so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and be gone.’ And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.


Those of you who have watched the Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series may have seen the advertisements for Captain Morgan Rum. The character is a swash-buckling 17th century pirate. He is suave and cool. When an enemy ship approaches, and begins shooting, he strips down, walks to the end of the ship’s plank and does a forward somersault dive. The enemy captain is amused and instead of fighting they all party and drink rum. Captain Morgan, the icon of the advertisement, is a lovable, cool, hip, non-violent pirate. To life, love, and loot.

The real Captain Morgan, Sir Henry Morgan, was a privateer. He was empowered by England to hassle and plunder Spanish ships. His pay was what he could loot. To do that kind of work you have to be a ruthless guy.

The title of my sermon, Life, Love, and Loot, came from the advertisement for Captain Morgan as I was reflecting on Captain Abram in our biblical story. In the midst of a famine, Abram and Sarai go to Egypt. They go there to survive, to live.

Life.

While there Abram is afraid that when the Egyptians see Sarai, they will kill him and take her because she is so beautiful. So instead, he has her say that she is his sister.

We have no idea what is going through Sarai’s mind. We don’t know what is going through Abram’s mind either. But she does it. To spare Abraham she apparently says she is his sister and she becomes a mistress or wife or something for Pharoah.

Love.

Since this is a myth of patriarchy, in which women always belong to some guy, fathers, brothers, or husbands, Abram gives her away to Pharoah in trade for sheep, oxen, male and female slaves, donkeys, and camels.

Loot.

The Lord doesn’t like this arrangement so he sends plagues on Pharoah. Somehow Pharoah knows that these plagues, whatever they are, are connected to Sarai and he learns the truth, that Sarai is Abram’s wife. Pharoah sends Abram home with his wife and his loot.

Did Abram and Sarai do well with this deal?
What is this story about?

Abram and Sarai together create the biblical icon for the married couple. Yet from our point of view, to say that they are opaque and distant is an understatement. We are given little dialogue between them and even less internal dialogue. The author of Genesis is not John Updike or Virginia Woolf.

This icon of marriage is a patriarchal icon. Human beings can be traded for sheep and donkeys. We don’t know what these characters were thinking. Sarai is Abram’s wife in a possessive sense. We don’t know if beyond patriarchy and the roles it prescribes for them if there is a relationship of love. The faithfulness of Sarai seems to be measured by her obedience to Abram. She follows him and his God.

These characters are like inkblots. We have the barest of narrative. There is no character description or development. It is up to us to give these characters voices and self-awareness. There is no right or wrong in doing that. It is an activity of creative expression on our part. The only limits might be the words in the text, but upon that bare skeleton we can put flesh, our flesh, on these icons, father Abram and mother Sarai.

Two books that I am reading as I am working through this series of sermons on the myths of Genesis are Peter Pitzele’s, Our Father’s Wells: A Personal Encounter with the Myths of Genesis and Carol Delaney, Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth.

Pitzele uses psychodrama or what he calls bibliodrama to enter into the text. In his groups, he invites participants to take over the characters and be them in the first person. Instead of asking in the abstract what was Abram or Sarai thinking, he invites participants, you and me, to be Abram and Sarai and then say what are you thinking and feeling.

Pitzele says this:
But here a voice inside me asks, Why make up anything at all? We have what we have of the story. It is highly condensed, highly charged, but it is all we have. By what right and license do you fill in blanks and intrude your contemporary experience into these ancient figures who were wrought by the imagination of a distant, different age? These mute characters cannot step from the frieze of the old book and speak our words or borrow our voices that they might tell us more of their stories. This is, after all, the Bible.
He goes on…
Precisely these questions face me each time I pass from merely repeating the biblical stories to re-creating them. I must deal with the guardians of the text, those internalized deacons who warn me against toying with Holy Writ. Yet through my years of psychodramatic explorations I have come to recognize the immense vitality of these characters, and the silence of the text has become not a barrier but an invitation for acts of imaginative projection that seem at once to reflect ourselves and to reveal the biblical drama at a deeper and more human level. p. 98
I remember in seminary that my professors would criticize my papers for "psychologizing" the texts. They were trying to teach us disinterested, scientific exegesis. It was good to learn. But it was refreshing after seminary had ended to find Pitzele who breaks the rules and invites psychologizing. It is the opposite approach. Rather than remove yourself, instead insert yourself.

The other book, Carol Delaney’s Abraham on Trial is a critique of the patriarchal myths and their influence today. She shows us that patriarchy is not the natural human condition, but a particular social condition. One that we can reject. But we have to know its assumptions. She writes:
Religious myth has social implications….We can never recapture the living quality of the culture of the biblical writers, but we can investigate their vision of the world and its legacy. We can ask about the role of the Abraham story in that vision. And we can ask if this vision is one we wish to perpetuate. P. 11
Her book is specifically about the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. We will get to that story in a couple of weeks. She is asking why Abraham’s willingness to kill his child is a model of faith and what that means for us who have inherited this story. What are the assumptions behind this story? Why is the story of sacrificing children a story of faithfulness as opposed to a story of saving children for example?

The Abraham story is central to Christianity. It is the model for the Christian myth of the Father sending his only begotten son to death on a cross for the sins of humanity. The myth says that humanity is saved by this. Why that myth? There could be other myths. A Divine Father killing the Divine Son to save the world is not a universal human myth. It is not eternally written in the heavens. It is a patriarchal myth. It arises from a particular social location. In this social set up, that is not universal, children are the property of fathers and women are tradable assets like sheep and donkeys. The Father’s honor is paramount and is maintained by violence. These assumptions continue to have effects in the way we regard children, issues of gender, and social roles.

These stories are fictions. But why these fictions? Why have these fictions become holy scripture? What are the implications and assumptions these stories have in our lives today? How do these stories inform what it means to be a good wife for instance or a good father?

October is domestic violence awareness month. The case is easily made that the assumptions behind the myths of Genesis still exist today in a culture that continues to look the other way in regards to violence in the home. Well, she is his wife. Those are his kids. The good, faithful wife forgives and follows her husband and whatever schemes he dreams up.

Here are the points I am trying to make:
  1. These stories are not quaint and harmless. They have a legacy and influence today on society.
  2. They are not stories of the universal human condition. They are not divinely ordained. They are human stories that have arisen out of a particular culture that is shaped by patriarchal assumptions.
  3. We who read these stories today and even call them scripture have the freedom and the obligation to deconstruct them and challenge their assumptions.
  4. Entering these stories with awareness may help us uncover these assumptions in the stories, in our own personal lives, and in the lives of our culture.
  5. We can then make choices about how we interpret these stories and how we might treat them.
With those points, that Carol Delaney helps me understand, I want to move toward the the Pitzele approach. I want to jump in and be the characters, take them over, and give these statues voice. The Delaney approach is to analyze behind the text and uncover their assumptions. I am trying to use both approaches in this series of sermons.

I invite you to enter the story. It would be best in a small group in which we could speak to each other and hear each other. In this setting I will lead you in a guided way and you will enter it yourself. Perhaps you can continue it with others later.

You are Sarai.

Both men and women can do this. I invite you to close your eyes if you wish. Enter into the character. I will ask a series of questions. They are not loaded. There is no right or wrong answer. There is no text we can go to look it up. I am just going to give the text, elaborate a little bit, and ask some questions. These are your responses. Don't respond how you might think the real Sarai would have responded, put yourself there. You have the freedom to be yourself in her. What would you do in her position? What do you think? What do you feel?

There is a famine. There is no food. You and Abram have nothing. You need to leave and live as aliens, as immigrants in a strange land. You go to survive. Just before you cross the border, Abram speaks:
‘I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife”; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.’
Is Abram asking you or telling you?
Do you agree with him?
Do you talk to him about it?
Does Abram have your interests in mind as well as his?
Is there another option?
Do you take ownership of this decision?
Is it yours and his together or is it his decision and you do what he wants?

As it turns out Abram was right about the men thinking you are beautiful. You catch the eye of the Pharaoh and he takes you into his house. We are given no details. We are not told how much time has passed. You have to fill in those details.

You are Sarai.
How are you feeling?
Do you manage to put the Pharaoh off?
How creative can you be?
Maybe you cannot?
How did you cope?
How do you retain your dignity?
Do you worry about Abram?

You are Abram.
What do you think is happening to Sarai?
How do you feel?
The Pharaoh gives you sheep, goats and loot.
What do you feel about that?
Would you rather have been killed?
Do you plan a daring rescue?
How do you sleep at night?
“But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai.”
Pharaoh releases Sarai and Abram and sends them home with all the loot.

You are Abram.
Do you ask what happened?

You are Sarai.
Will you ever tell Abram?

You are both.
Will your marriage ever be the same again?
Is forgiveness possible for the two of you?

This is a painful story. As I enter this story, I have a renewed sense of compassion for these characters. The suffering upon both Sarai and Abram is intense. What relationship can survive this? And yet they do.

Abram is no Captain Morgan. The loot, to me, is a distraction. If these characters are nothing more than patriarchal tropes, then there is no humanity here at all. But if there is any humanity in these characters, this story is pure anguish. And yet, and yet…they come through. We get no dialogue. We get no internal monologue. We have to make that up with our own stories of our own relationships.

I have to allow Abram to be a human being in love. I have to allow Sarai to be a human being in love. I have to have this choice be a choice they both make. I have to have them both be strong. I have to have them both be survivors. I have to have them both experience the pain. I have to have them both do anything for each other. I have to have them both find a way to forgive and be forgiven.

Amidst the greatest pain, amongst the most anguishing choices, they survive. Together.

Amen.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Occupy Aerojet Today

I received this news that I will pass on to you. I will be visiting with the Christian Peacemaker Teams to see what they are about.

Here are two articles about the events this week in the Johnson City Press:

  1. Occupy Areojet Movement Planned, Forum Focuses on Depleted Uranium's Usage and Safety, and
  2. Peacemaker Group Visits Jonesborough to Raise Awareness of Company's Depleted Uranium.
This is from the Christian Peacemaker Teams website:




Depleted Uranium delegation collects samples to be examined for DU contamination, participates in press conference.





Christian Peacemaker Teams will be at the plant today from 11-5. Here is the announcement:


OCCUPY AEROJET:

A day of re-imagining Aerojet Ordnance without the manufacturing of Depleted Uranium weapons.

Open to all of the public!

Bring food, stories, drums, signs, concerns and questions to share. While your dogs are welcome, please consider leaving them at home for their own sakes.
  • Where: Across the street from the Aerojet Ordnance plant: 1367 Old State Route 34, Jonesborough, TN
  • When: 11am-5pm, Saturday October 29
  • 11am: Re-imagining new jobs, products and layout of the Aerojet plant
  • 1pm: Storytelling from local residents affected and concerned about the manufacturing of Depleted Uranium weapons in their neighborhood, as well as those who have encountered the DU in war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan
  • 3pm: Organizing a clean up of Aerojet
  • Why: To raise local awareness that Depleted Uranium weapons are being produced in our midst, as well as its effects on the battlefield on our own troops as well as the families of non-combatants. While we hold environmental and public health concerns for DU production, even more dramatic are the consequences for veterans and citizens exposed to DU particulates after its production.

For questions about Occupy Aerojet contact Heather Mitchell (CPT Representative) at 214-502-8035.


Organized by Christian Peacemaker Teams and local citizens concerned about Depleted Uranium munitions, this event is a follow-up to the forum co-sponsored by APEC at ETSU on Tuesday, October 25th.


Hope to see you there!

Friday, October 28, 2011

I May Be A Unipresbyteryversalistian

Thanks to SeaRaven for sending me this. I don't think there is anything here with which I disagree. Does that make me a Unitarian Universalist Presbyterian? A Presbyterian Universalist? A Presbyuni or a Unipresby?

A Religion of This Life

Madpriest and I have been having a conversation of sorts. It started with my post on the Jesus Seminar, Good Old Jesus and Me. He created a thought for the day. He tends to write in hyperbole and because I am such a literalist I am not quite sure if he is being straight with me or not. He sounds snippy and I get defensive but we trundle on.

The question comes down to afterlife. What happens to us when we die? This is an important question whether we are religious or not. To raise the question creates a crisis. That crisis is my mortality. When we bring our personal mortality into focus we are forced to address our lives and the time we spend doing whatever it is we do.

So I won't have to write this all again, I am taking what I posted at his place with some editing to offer my thoughts on this question. What comes up for me is that I don't find any type of afterlife persuasive. One can argue with me back and forth on that, but I doubt I will change my mind simply because I don't think it is real. That is one argument to have, whether or not afterlife is real or credible.

The other argument is whether or not belief in afterlife is good or not. One might say that believing in it is better than not believing in it as to do so makes life tolerable or provides other benefits.

I don't think you can believe in it if you don't think it is real. In medicine a placebo only works if the patient doesn't know it is a placebo.

The church seems to promote a belief in belief. The unstated argument goes,
"We have a placebo thing going, don't screw it up. It makes people feel good, it gives people hope, don't take it away."
As a minister, I know that argument and I know the compassionate impulse behind it.

I also know that the church's beliefs including afterlife have become less credible for many people. Many people who in times past might have been church members are now into New Age things which I find to be placebos in newer wrappings. Others have left organized religion altogether. It is for these folks, including me, that I want to offer an alternative option to the religion of afterlife.

I make the case that religion primarily is not about afterlife but about helping people cope with this life. It always has been. Religious belief may include afterlife, but must it? Is a belief in afterlife the best way to cope with the suffering of life or has it been the only way we have known?

I personally believe that a religion of this world is a beautiful, meaningful thing, even in the midst of suffering. I know that one day I will enter an unconscious rest like the rest I had before I was born. In one sense I look forward to it, and yet, I have no desire to wish time away. Despite what may happen to me in this life, I have that rest coming. It will be a full rest, an unconscious union with the Divine. Call it eternal life if you like.

With that confidence, I can say,
"Yes, I can live another day. I didn't ask for this day or this life, but I will treat it as a gift and an adventure. I will face my depression. I will notice something beautiful. I will kiss my wife. I will stand up for someone."
I find the religion of this life to be comforting and credible. It fits my understanding of the universe, our cosmic history, and the evolution of species. I have no fear of God, gods or hell or concern about doing certain things to get a better future incarnation or a spot in heaven. I have the freedom to create my own meaning. Nothing is ready-made. I can draw from all wisdom available to me. There is no coercion to embrace certain beliefs. I don't need to "believe" anything. My energy, intelligence, imagination, and love is directed toward this life, this Earth, this present now.

I do acknowledge that we are headed for change on a massive scale due to energy, environmental, population, and economic crises. These unfolding crises as industrial civilization faces its limits will last for centuries. I have been blathering on about this since I started this blog five years ago. I include links to these concerns on the sidebar. My primary concern is that we face whatever changes may come with awareness, compassion, and courage because these are the angels of our better nature.

The church will have a role in helping people cope with these changes. On one hand, one branch of the church will help many people cope by offering traditional beliefs in the afterlife. For folks who find that helpful, then I have no argument.

My branch of the church will help people cope by offering an encouragement to be fully present here and now. Life is a crazy ride and it is best to travel lightly and to recognize that we can be and are blessings to others if we choose to be.

Maybe these two forms of Christianity, the Christianity of this life and the Christianity of the afterlife can work together.
We can be with and for one another in the here and now, accept our limits, accept our mortality and be humane, even joyful in the midst of the via negativa.

I have no idea how I will respond when I face severe personal crises. Maybe I will jump over onto the afterlife branch, but I doubt it. I plan to stick with my religion and do what I can while I have breath.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Good Old Jesus and Me

We had a great Jesus Seminar on the Road with Robert Miller and Jarmo Tarkki. Here are some pics on my Facebook.


The subject was Jesus in the first and twenty-first centuries. Bob Miller stayed an extra day and participated in our adult forum and preached on "The Historical Jesus and the Kingdom of God."



It has taken me a long time since seminary, when I first had to wrestle with biblical criticism and critical analysis of Christianity, to make my peace with Jesus. At this point on my journey, I find that the Christ of creed is flat, dated, and oppressive for the most part.

In a liturgical setting, hymns and prayers to the "Cosmic Christ" are tolerable. The Cosmic Christ, Buddha-Nature, God, Goddess, etc. all speak to that transcendent aspect of reflection and experience. Even more so, does good poetry about nature and life.
I like liturgy to reflect the creativity of the human spirit. I can appreciate some of the traditional hymns (especially the classical ones) as long as the words aren't too supernatural, archaic, or bloody. I like "secular" music in worship as long as it's good. Moments of silence are nice.

But when it gets right down to what it is about, that is,
what I want my life to be about, I find the historical Jesus a good resource. He wasn't perfect. As Bob Miller pointed out on Sunday morning, he died young before he could mature and reflect on his vision and mission. He appeared to be impulsive. He cut himself off from his roots and demanded that others do the same ("let the dead bury their own dead") and it is doubtful that he could have sustained an itinerant lifestyle through middle or old age.

But he stood up against the powerful on behalf of the marginalized and that is enough for me. I don't need much more religion than that. I certainly don't need miracles or afterlife. I don't need supernatural beings telling me what to do. Nor do I need supposedly supernaturally derived books as proof-texts for decisions I need to make on my own.

Back to Jesus. He poked and prodded his listeners to live a life with courage. Be bold. Take some risks. Leave the zone of comfort. Stop whining about whatever isn't going your way and have some compassion for others. I mean, really.


Bob preached on Luke 10:1-9, where Jesus instructs his followers to wander around and heal in exchange for food and in the process tell the good folks that this is the kingdom of God. Or in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, tell them, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

For some people, religion should be more than that. They need miracles, angels, resuscitated corpses, reincarnated souls, complex ladders of being, and life everlasting. Not me. I'm good with good old Jesus, the socialist prophet who thought if we shared and healed we would be doing all right.

Are You an Evangelical or a Fundamentalist?

The LayMAN reports that two more congregations voted to leave the PC(USA) over the weekend. I wonder why? I don't suppose it could be because of homophobia could it? Here is the story.
The overwhelming votes of the churches represents a growing trend among some PCUSA churches disenchanted with the denomination’s theological shift, especially following the passage of Amendment 10A in April.
The leaders of these churches know that it is unbecoming to express their uneasiness with LGBT ministers quite so blatantly. They say they are leaving not because of the gays but because of the authority of scripture and Jesus. They cannot be in a denomination that would allow someone (like me) to have theological views that do not match theirs. That is the definition of a fundamentalist, in case anyone is wondering, Al Mohler.

There are many evangelicals who disagree with my views about the Bible and Jesus. Some of them even comment on this blog. They may have similar views about the Bible and Jesus as do the leaders of these disaffected churches. They are not fundamentalists. Evangelicals can live with disagreement. Fundamentalists cannot.


Here is a for instance. The session of the church in Kansas that voted to leave wrote this in their statement:

“Many in the progressive wing of the PCUSA believe that God speaks to us in many ways and that revelation can come from a variety of sources and most significantly through the subjective means of personal experience as well as Scripture,” the session stated. “This reduces the authority of Scripture to a level equal to, and at times less than, the subjective authority of personal experience.” According to Eastminster’s website, the church believes that: “The Scriptures inspired by the Holy Spirit are the Word of God and therefore the only infallible rule of faith and life, the final authority by which to judge all controversies in the church and to which all appeals are to be made."
So what? So what if there are progressives in the denomination who have those views? What does that have to do with you? That is what normal, mature, evangelicals would say. Fundamentalists cannot handle that. In their world, coexistence is not possible. Someone has to leave. If they can't drive out the progressives, they will go, or they will do nothing but whine and claim they are victims.

Remember, it wasn't progressives who passed 10-A. Enough evangelicals and orthodox saw that 10-A was consistent with their theology to make the change. I think it is important to recognize the distinction between evangelicals and orthodox on one hand and fundamentalists on the other. The orthodox and the evangelicals can live with progressives; fundamentalists cannot. It will be the fundamentalists who leave the denomination, or more than likely, stay, whine, and pretend to be victims.

In the meantime, the rest of us will continue to do our work.

Friday, October 21, 2011

It's Like Christmas!


We are tickled as Santa's mice waiting for the parousia of the Jesus Seminar. John is going to capture their arrival on film and record their visit with us.


Paul set up the tables for faithfully raptured and has microphones on stun.


And John and Snad are ready. Water. Check. Tissues. Check.


End of the world?

Bring it.

Jesus Seminar Arrives with the Rapture!


Today is supposed to be the rapture. Remember?




Harold Camping says the world will probably end today.




It is the same day when scholars from the Jesus Seminar come to Elizabethton!

Ooohhh.

We are ready at FPC Elizabethton!

We are set up and waiting for the parousia.

The book room.


The banquet tables for the seating of the faithful.


The scholars' heavenly thrones.


I hope your name is on the scroll of life. Don't fret if you are not. Walk-ins are welcome.

See you tonight at 7:30 and/or tomorrow at 9:30 a.m!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Jesus Did NOT Die for the Sins of Humanity, Part 2

My recent post Jesus Did NOT Die for the Sins of Humanity has generated some interest. I think that is a good thing. I think it is a good thing to think about who killed Jesus, and why and how. Immediately following his death, people tried to make sense of it. They did so in ways that made sense to them.

Theology is about trying to make sense of things. It is about meaning. It is about truth and goodness. The death of Jesus has caused a great many to seek to find meaning in it. Some attempts have been more helpful than others. Abelard makes more sense to me than Anselm, but both theories are dated. Theology is a living discipline. Yesterday's theology does no one any good when it is simply repeated. It becomes a formula and then an idol. Idol worship turns into heresy hunting. That is the problem as I see it in the PC(USA).

You know why Jesus was killed?
He was in the way. If you would like to know how I really feel about it, you can read a Palm Sunday sermon of mine, No More Crosses.

This is what I preached the following Sunday:

Jesus didn’t die of old age. He didn’t die of cancer. He didn’t get trampled accidentally by a runaway horse. Jesus was bullied to death. Not only Jesus, but thousands of people were tortured and executed methodically in a spectacle of brutality and control. We have covered over this story with so much theological gobbledy-gook that we miss the main plot. Jesus was a victim of imperial terrorism.

The Easter acclamation, “Christ is Risen!” meant what? I think it meant that they, the people, those who told and wrote the stories about Jesus had had enough. They had had enough of Rome’s bullying. They said,

“Every time we gather for a meal of bread and wine we will remember. We are Christ's body. Christ is alive with us. We will continue to remember and to resist. We will show hospitality to those who are victims of imperial bullying, to the outcast, to the slave, to the stranger. We will lean on and support each other. We will remember and tell the stories of the victims. And we will dream, hope, and work for the day in which the kingdom of God, the empire of God, the empire of justice and peace will be realized on Earth.”

Obviously, Christianity evolved and moved in all kinds of directions and embraced many different mythologies and interpretations, and some of them quite good and helpful. But it is important not to lose sight of our roots. The earliest interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus is this:

In Christ, Empire’s brutality is overcome by God’s justice.

I wear this cross around my neck to remind me whose side I need to be on.
There was and is nothing sacred and holy about the execution and torture of Jesus or of anyone. "Holy Week" is a misnomer as is "Good Friday." If anything, remembering the death of Jesus should summon us to honor life not death. It should give us the courage and commitment to speak out and not remain silent in the face of torture, execution, violence, injustice, and needless suffering around the world. Whenever any of us stands up for those who are abused or put down or who suffer injustice from bullies big and small, we practice true religion.

Learning how doctrines and various theological theories and formulas were formed is helpful. It keeps us from making an idol of our theological formulas and then doing bad things with them, like heresy hunting.

I am looking forward to the Jesus Seminar on the Road this weekend. Do come and register at the door. As a special treat, Robert J. Miller will stay over on Sunday to make a presentation at our adult forum at 9:45 and preach at 11:00.

Will all this talk about Jesus by the right wing who are so concerned that everyone repeats the "correct" formulas, while at the same time continually persecuting LGBT people, I will close with Bob Miller's words from Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God:

Seeing God in the historical Jesus entails a willingness to live within Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God. This is what is ultimately at stake in the question about the virgin birth and divine sonship of Jesus. If you say that you see the presence and power of God in the life and teachings of Jesus, then this stance of yours should mean that you are willing, for example, to seek the kingdom of God among the marginalized nobodies of our society. If you aren’t, then it’s just talk, no matter how high-minded.” p. 257

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Meaning of Life, Part 74


Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

--Douglas Adams, Last Chance To See

Jesus Is Thrilled that the Jesus Seminar is Coming!

Jesus is very excited about Robert J. Miller and Jarmo Tarkki who are coming to Elizabethton this weekend!

Here is what the Son of God said about the visit:

I am so happy the Jesus Seminar is telling the truth about me. I am tired of wearing this crown and being the True Light of True Light and all that hoopah. I was just a guy. A peasant with an attitude. Peace out.

  • The lecture is Friday at seven.
  • Workshops Saturday morning and afternoon.
  • Don't miss this.
  • It will be great.
  • You can just show up and register at the door!
  • Here are the details.
Here is Bob Miller talking about his book, Born Divine: The Birth of Jesus and Other Sons of God.


What Presbyterians Believe (except me) Part 3


This is the third post in this series. Here are the first two:

What Presbyterians Believe (except me)

What Presbyterians Believe (except me) Part 2



My series began in response to this special issue of Presbyterians Today.

You can go to the
Presbyterians Today website and read articles about various things "Presbyterians Believe."


These articles are not definitive statements about what Presbyterians believe. These articles are the opinions of particular authors about what they think Presbyterians believe or should believe.

Presbyterians in the PC(USA) have a
Book of Confessions and a Book of Order. They make up our constitution. Both of these books change as we vote to change them. Even the vows ordained officers affirm are subject to change. Views of the Bible change. Theological theories change. We could even decide to throw out some creeds and add books to the Bible. We could toss the Nicene Creed and add the Gospel of Thomas.

I cannot think of anything that is not theoretically subject to change. Actually, what I would really like to see is to change our approach to canon and creed and allow them to be porous and seen as resources for wisdom rather than sources for belief.

While these changes are theoretically possible, the denomination cannot handle too much change without splitting. Fracturing occurs even in response to small changes. This is a reason churches and denominations are so reticent to change. The pain of change is too great. It includes loss of people and resources and lots of nasty sniping along the way. But there comes a time when the pain of not changing becomes greater than the pain of changing, and change happens.

The points I am making are these:
  1. Presbyterians don't have a list of things we are supposed to believe, and
  2. What Presbyterians believe is not static. We are always in flux.
I love this video from the theology and worship unit that speaks about essential tenets. The message is that essential tenets are important but we don't have a list. There you have it. That is a survival technique for responding to change.

The challenge is that the world is changing so quickly and what we know and how we know it has changed so dramatically that compared to what we are learning through science traditional forms of theological reflection sound like quaint medieval fairy tales.

Through the 19th century (and in evangelical circles still today) the Bible was regarded as a fairly reliable account of the history of the world. Now we see it as mostly fiction. Rather than God being the author of the book, God becomes a character like Zeus or Athena in a book of dated mythology and legend.


The great Christian doctrines such as Trinity, Creation, Sin, Christology, Atonement, and Eschatology, are no longer great. They are shadows. They don't speak of reality on a grand scale like they once purported to do. They may fill an emotional or psychological niche here and there. For more and more people they hold little interest or suasion. The world has passed these doctrines by in the way that science has left alchemy.

The church is now pulled by a first group who wants to hold on to these doctrines and deny reality (ie. Creationism) and a second group who wants to change theology in response to the insights of science and the humanities. There may be a third group. These are the folks who are scientists six days a week and on Sunday put on the faith hat and believe even when it makes no sense. I have a soft spot for this third approach but I don't know if it is sustainable. Maybe. As to the first group I just hope they don't do too much damage in their panic while their worldview crumbles around them.

This second group is where I find myself. What can be salvaged from our Christian past? Are there resources within it that can help us make life more humane, meaningful, and prophetic? How might we appreciate the universe as itself holy and transcendent? Do we reclaim and reinterpret Jesus and God or do we let them go? How can we regard the Bible and our tradition both critically and as a source of wisdom? To use Karen Armstrong's language, how can we draw from the mythos so it can dance with the logos? I am speaking of the poetry, music, and heart of faith. Finally, what do we do with our faith communities, our churches and institutions? How do they adapt?

And the question with which I started this post, what do Presbyterians believe? It sounds rather small now. But I ask in the spirit of affection. What becomes of this institution that I have grown to love and that has served me as I have served it? Will we be stuck in "beliefs" and heresy trials or will we be able to embrace a posture of openness, learning, and compassion?

I think our denomination because of its polity and history is in a fairly good position to adapt to these changes. Because we don't have lists of essential tenets and because we allow freedom for our governing bodies to elect leadership and because we do embrace science and social justice we may be able to hang on and hang in. We may be smaller as the disaffected grow frustrated and find ways to leave with property but those who remain may find a new sense of intellectual vitality and a sense of purpose.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Jesus Did NOT Die for the Sins of Humanity


Mary Naegeli, who blogs at Bringing the Word to Life, asked her readers: Did Jesus Die for the Sins of Humanity, Or Not? Ms. Naegeli is infamous as the one who keeps stalling the ordination of Lisa Larges through the Presbyterian court system.

Since the right wing has had little luck stopping the tide of human decency, reason, and biblical and theological literacy regarding ordination equality, now they are up to their old tricks of trying to enforce theological purity.
In the spirit of the fourth century they seek to impose their superstitions on the entire church.


An excellent book by the way is
A.D. 381: Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State, by Charles Freeman. The interesting and compelling thesis of this book is that the doctrine of the Trinity was forced upon the empire by Theodosius I. This put an end to freedom of thought. Enter the Dark Ages.


This is where our true believers want to take us today. Upset that the presbytery of Coastal Carolina welcomed to its membership a teaching elder (new/old word for minister) who doesn't believe Jesus died for our sins, she attacks the presbytery:
So now we have a concrete example of our worst nightmare, when a presbytery fails to recognize a serious departure from the essentials of the Reformed faith. Coastal Carolina has determined that “Jesus died on the cross for our sins” is not an essential of our faith. All I can say at this point is, “Thanks for nothing. You failed to act according to your responsibilities: to ‘provide that the Word of God may be truly preached and heard’ and to ‘nurture the covenant community of disciples of Christ . . . [by] warning and bearing witness against error in doctrine and immorality in practice within its bounds’ (Book of Order, G-3.0301a,c). This is a serious irregularity that leads only to confusion, disunity, and pastoral fraud. When the church perpetrates such a hoax, it is denying our church members that which the PCUSA promises to deliver: the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; and preservation of the truth.
Same old trick. Browbeat people into submission with dogma. Ms. Naegeli and the right wing of the church are not interested in truth. They are interested in power. They wish to enforce their narrow and pitifully dated theology on the entire church. I wonder if these blog posts from her and others on the rabid right are testing the waters for heresy trials?

Here is my answer to Ms. Naegeli's question,
Did Jesus Die for the Sins of Humanity, or Not?

Not.


Jesus was executed like thousands of others as a perceived threat to the Roman Empire. Some, and I emphasize
some of his followers attempted to find meaning in his death and many theological explanations were offered including the perverse notion that God the Father sent him to die in order to satisfy the Father's honor and to save you from hell. It doesn't even make sense.

Adam and Eve supposedly sinned in the garden and as punishment all their descendents are infused with a shot of original sin. Since God the Father needs to have his honor restored (talk about patriarchal nonsense) he kills his Son (who in the weird Trinitarian formula is really the same guy, sort of) so that everyone on planet Earth doesn't spend eternity in hell.
If anyone takes twenty minutes thinking this through they can see that the whole structure is absurd. Beginning with the fact that Adam and Eve never existed.

This is an entirely imaginary scenario invented by the first through fourth century mind. It is theological fantasy. The only reason it still exists is because of force and guilt. The goal is to keep people childish. The respective reward and punishment of heaven and hell and the guilt that plays on our individual psychologies and need for acceptance keeps this nonsense going.

If you want to see this psychological and spiritual abuse in action visit one of the "Judgement Houses" we have in our area. They are operating at full speed during the Halloween season. Gotta love that irony.

Even as absurd as the "Jesus died for our sins" notion is, it has been successful at claiming to be the right and only way to understand Jesus. That is why religious literacy is so important and why we do our little part to bring it to our neck of the woods.


Do join us if you can for our Jesus Seminar on the Road, this weekend, October 21-22. We examine the historical person of Jesus. Who was he before he was bitten by Christian dogma and what might he be for us today? Here is the information. Full-time students with ID get in free.

Freedom to think.

It is worth it.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Meaning of Life, Part 73

We can no longer buy the highest satisfactions of the individual life at the expense of social injustice. We cannot build our individual ladders to heaven and leave the total human enterprise unredeemed of its excesses and corruptions.

In the task of that redemption the most effective agents will be men who have substituted some new illusions for the abandoned ones. The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justice.

It is a very valuable illusion for the moment; for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’ The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done. P. 277

--Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Myth of the Call--A Sermon

The Myth of the Call
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 16, 2011

Genesis 12:1-9
Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages towards the Negeb.


The myths in the first eleven chapters of Genesis cover huge swaths of time. It is almost as though they are outside of time. Creation, the garden, the expulsion of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Cain's exile, Noah’s flood, his nakedness and curse, and the tower of Babel are broad stories, and from the point of view of the ancient world, cosmic. The stories were as large as creation was thought to be.

Elohim and Adonai are the two names for God in these early chapters. Peter Pitzele in his book, Our Father’s Wells: A Personal Encounter with the Myths of Genesis, calls these first stories, “Tales of a Lonely God.”

Elohim is lonely. He does nothing for eternity but brood over the deep. Creation appears to be an act of longing. He is bored. Finally he speaks and light becomes. Both creation stories regard the human as special even created in the divine image.

But God doesn’t seem to really know what to do or how to relate to this new creation of human beings. There is a longing on the part of God for a relationship. There is a desire to relate but there is a fear on the part of God.

In the garden scene Elohim is concerned that the human will become like God by eating from the tree of life. In the tower of babel, Adonai sees that human beings have one language and will. Adonai sounds paranoid. He is afraid of these humans. He is concerned for his territory:
“This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible from them.”
He confuses their language and scatters them around the earth. He creates. He destroys. He scatters. Still he is a lonely God.

Finally, he calls.
“Now Adonai said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’”
Adonai chooses and calls one human being. With Abram’s story we shift to the ancestral tales. Time narrows to one life span. Through Abram, Adonai announces a destiny.
“To your offspring I will give this land.”
This is from Peter Pitzele:
From a certain point of view Genesis must be seen as propaganda. Like myth-theology the world over, it propagates the idea of a national destiny divinely favored that will in time rule the world. Signs of this agenda are scattered throughout Genesis and the Bible; it is the agenda of men, the fathers of the tribe, the priesthood, and later of the church. The fathers pass it on to the inheriting sons, those men called and chosen by God and by one another to carry on this dream of a divine destiny. P. 10
A Pitzele points out, patriarchal spirituality is about hearing, obeying, and following the call, the divine summons. I struggle with this. I struggle with it in my relationships, my sense of vocation, the meaning I seek to discover and create for my life. This partriarchal spirituality is in my bones. As we look further into the Abraham saga we are going to be confronted with the shadow, even the terror of this spirituality.
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
I cringe when I hear that. I also cringe when read these opening verses in the saga of Abraham. I wanted to leave out verses 6 and 7 of chapter 12:
“Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’”
The Canaanites were collateral damage on the way to fulfilling Abram’s destiny. Growing up in Montana, the Big Sky Country, gave me perspective on the people who lived there long before Europeans arrived. They had their own gods and myths. Now these native peoples are sequestered on six reservations around the state, placed there by those who followed the God of Abram. For them, the dream of Abram’s destiny has been a nightmare.

I want to make sure that I don’t judge and dismiss this spirituality before we look into it. I don’t want to judge it prematurely for two reasons.

The first is that if I judge it as bad and seek to dismiss it, I won’t be honest. Abraham lives deeply in the marrow of the bones of our civilization, in the lives of women and men alike. If I say that I will refuse Abraham and substitute the name of a goddess for him, or a native shaman, I may discover I have really changed little. I will have given Abraham a woman’s name or a shaman’s name, but he is the same guy. The project, the destiny, the myth is the same. So I don’t want to judge patriarchy prematurely because I don’t want to deceive myself that I have moved beyond it when I haven’t.

The second reason I want to hold off judgment is that there is much that is appealing to patriarchal spirituality. The great people whom we admire and seek to emulate are rooted in it. Think of Martin Luther King. His sermons, his speeches, his demonstrations and marches were filled with patriarchal images. King himself followed a voice calling him to dream and to build the beloved community. King’s spirituality was driven by the myth of patriarchy: by call, sacrifice, and destiny.

The protesters occupying Wall Street and those standing and marching and dreaming in solidarity with them around the country are following a call. This call is vague. It isn’t clear. It lacks specifics. But that is exactly what a call is.
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Novelist, Barbara Kingsolver, who lives just up the road in Meadowview, Virginia, was at the demonstration in Johnson City yesterday. She was quoted in the Johnson City Press:
“It is a movement in its early stages that’s getting on its feet,” she said. “If you look at the signs here everyone agrees on certain principles of mercy for people, principles about distributing the wealth of this country more fairly and principles of humanitarian kindness.”
I am not sure if Barbara Kingsolver would agree that she is following the myth of the patriarchal imagination. But she did describe it well. I want to point out that the myth of patriarchy, the spirituality of Abram, is not self-absorbed. He is not about finding personal peace or going to find a home on a little hideaway on an island. Abram is called for a purpose, for service, for vocation.

Nor does he follow this call to build a dynasty for himself. He isn’t called to build skyscrapers and have “Abraham Incorporated” emblazoned on his business cards. He isn’t called to use people for his own corporate greed.

That would be Odysseus. Pitzele compares Odysseus with Abram. While Homer’s Odysseus has many adventures and does many heroic deeds, he does not do it to become a blessing, nor does he become a blessing. It is all about him. His story ends when he comes back home. He has been successful, defeated the enemies, and now he will enjoy his own kingdom.

The spirituality of building a dynasty or the spirituality of finding oneself (a spiritual narcissism) is not Abram’s. Abram’s story does not end with the end of his life. It does not end with the building of his own dynasty or kingdom. His dream is the beloved community, if you will, that is passed on to his offspring. They also must hear and follow the call.

That call is also kind of crazy.

The Voice speaks:
Leave everything of value and go. I’ll tell you where you are going when you get there.
Would you do it? Do you follow that voice? Why not? You have one life. Follow the call and be a blessing. Be crazy. Be a holy fool.

Occupy Wall Street? Really? That is kind of crazy isn’t it? The opposition is powerful and ruthless. They control everything. But, Barbara Kingsolver is quoted in the paper today:
“I think it’s a very exciting moment in political history. I think this is going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
She is talking about this broad movement for economic and social justice and its particular expression in these demonstrations. It is a movement to be a blessing. The call of Abram.

In the 1930s Reinhold Niebuhr wrote Moral Man, Immoral Society. This is the last paragraph.
We can no longer buy the highest satisfactions of the individual life at the expense of social injustice.
He wrote that in the 1930s. Is it even more true in 2011?
We cannot build our individual ladders to heaven and leave the total human enterprise unredeemed of its excesses and corruptions.
That is the call we are hearing today. Niebuhr continues:
In the task of that redemption the most effective agents will be men who have substituted some new illusions for the abandoned ones. The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justice.
Abram operates under the illusion that he will be a blessing to the world. This is the illusion of the demonstrators, that they will change this world. One sign yesterday read: “Corporate Greed” and had a slash through it. Can we end corporate greed? Can we really build a beloved community that values education over prison, people over profits, and that protects Earth from our savage exploitation? Yes, it is an illusion, but listen to Niebuhr:
It is a very valuable illusion for the moment; for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’ The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done. P. 277


That is how Niebuhr concludes his book, Moral Man, Immoral Society. It is hard for me to imagine a more relevant work for today.

His book is a commentary not only on the events of today, on the sublime madness that is being expressed by those who are answering a call to social justice. His book is also an illustration of the myth of the call itself, the call of Abram, the call of a spirituality that is not afraid to go into uncharted areas, to boldly speak to the powers for a new order, to be a blessing.

There is madness. There is fanaticism. There are delusions of grandeur. There is carelessness. There is a dark shadow on patriarchy’s project. While Niebuhr says this illusion needs to be tempered by reason, I think it might need to be tempered and embraced by the feminine as well as the masculine.

Abram doesn’t have to hear this call alone. Our movements for justice need to incorporate the spirituality of companionship, relationship, diversity, partnership, mutuality, equality, compassion, and wisdom. We need the spirituality of the feminine or the matristic equal to that of the masculine and the patristic.

Here is what to take home:

The myth of the call is rooted in patriarchal spirituality. The figure is Abraham. He gets the divine summons to leave what is familiar, to leave his comfort zone, and to be a blessing. The call to be a blessing is a source of power that we can tap into in our contemporary movements for justice and peace, such as the movement taking place around the country. That call to go out and demonstrate, to dream of change, and to act is a powerful and necessary thing.

The shadow of the call is fanaticism. Abram’s call involved a displacement of the Canaanites and the willingness to kill his own son for this vision. There is delusion, fanaticism, carelessness, and ruthlessness associated with this call. Abram needs a partner. He needs a strong Sarai. Before going off to sacrifice their son, he might ask her opinion first.

If there is a call, it is to all of us. It is a call to be as well as to do. The values of relationship, companionship, diversity, wisdom, partnership, nurturing, and compassion will make our movement for social and economic justice stronger, more sustainable, and will enlarge that circle of blessing.

Amen.