Shuck and Jive

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

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sunday's Sermon, Nahum v. Jonah

Nahum vs. Jonah
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
April 20, 2008

An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh.
A jealous and avenging God is the Lord,
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and rages against his enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger but great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
--Nahum 1:1-3

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

Jonah 3:10-4:2

I have been thinking about God this past week. I am happy to report that I have it all figured out. Here is the answer.

It is kind of silly, isn’t it? What I mean is, the idea that we can figure out what God is all about. Even more foolish it seems to me, is to make any claim that we can speak for God.

Yet people do it all of the time. You may hear people say, “This is God’s will. This is what God wants; this is what God says.” Usually, folks are not quite that obvious. Some Christians who claim to speak for God usually settle for what they think the Bible says. We hear phrases such as, “The Bible says” or my personal favorite, “These are biblical values.” In this sense, the Bible serves a cipher for God.

Preachers who talk with certainty about what God says and what the Bible says are a dime a dozen. What I find odd, frightening really, is how many people go along with that. People who are intelligent and capable of making their own decisions will give that power away. They voluntary hand over their own authority and autonomy to some preacher who tells them how God wants them to act, think, and feel.

What is that about? Is there a psychological need or a social need that is met by doing that?

  • Perhaps making their own decisions is frightening and they need an authority to tell them what to do.
  • Perhaps they are afraid of being alienated from family and friends and they need to belong.
  • Perhaps fear of eternal punishment has been so ingrained that free-thinking has not been a viable option.
  • Perhaps preconceived notions about what is right and wrong, good and bad, need to be reinforced by an external authority.

Whatever it is that external authorities do for us in the short term, they are ultimately fallible. The sign of their fallibility is their claim to infallibility.

The Pope didn’t become infallible (that is without error) until the 19th century. Protestant fundamentalism which gifted us with the infallibility of the Bible, did not develop until the 19th century. What happened in the 19th century? Science came of age. Biblical criticism came of age. Ludwig Feurbach showed us that the gods we create and worship are projections of our internal needs, fears, and desires.

These doctrines of the infallibility of religious authorities developed as a defense against modern thought. That was the 19th century. Here we are in 2008 and the gods of authoritarianism are still working their voodoo in attempt to keep human beings from thinking for themselves.

I raised the ire of some of my more conservative colleagues when I wrote something on my blog a few months ago. It is still quoted by them, however only partially and out of context. Just this past Friday, our executive presbyter, Rich Fifield, forwarded me an e-mail from an irate person.

“Do you know what John Shuck writes on his blog? He is a disgrace!” He then quoted part of this blog entry that I am going to read to you.

Rich and I have a little ritual. He responded to this person as he responds to all of them: “Yes, I am aware of John Shuck’s blog. Why don’t you contact John Shuck with your concern?” Of course, they never do. They want someone else to punish me. Rich then sends me a copy of the e-mail. I save it to my computer and write back thanking him for keeping me posted. I am getting quite a collection. If I am not careful I am going to start thinking that I am a big deal.

That whole authoritarian mindset is what I am talking about. Someone must punish. Someone must silence any threat to this authority. When someone dares to speak out of his or her own authority, the entire house of cards is threatened.

This past Thursday over 50 people gathered in room #503 of Warf-Pickel on the ETSU campus for our first PFLAG meeting. PFLAG stands for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. It also includes Bisexual and Transgender persons. It was a far larger group than I had anticipated. It was a moving experience for me. Person after person said how glad they were that they could meet in a safe place and know that they weren’t going to be judged and instead would be affirmed and that their loved ones would also be affirmed.

PFLAG is a national organization that exists for support, education and advocacy on behalf of sexual and gender minorities and their families. We have begun a local chapter, PFLAG Tri-Cities for our area. The context for all of this is that we live in a religious culture that says, “It is not OK to be gay and we have the Bible to back it up.”

In other words, the religious culture in which we live says that denying sexual and gender minorities equal rights makes the baby Jesus happy. Many folks, including religious folks do not agree. Science, the medical and mental health professions, and academia tell us that we are wonderfully diverse and that there is nothing wrong with being gay anymore than there is anything wrong with being left-handed.

We don’t even need the authority of science. We really just need to talk to people.

The religious community has yet to catch up. The Bible seems to be the sticking point. We hear about what the Bible says and about biblical values and the authority of the Word of God and so forth.

One of the solutions to what we think the Bible says is to actually read the Bible. It is no easy task. The Bible has a lot words on many topics. It contains varying views on the same topic.

Today I read passages from Nahum and Jonah. After reading them, what is your conclusion? Is God vengeful or forgiving? Nahum votes for vengeance. Jonah, against his wishes, concedes forgiving.

It depends what we are looking for, I suppose. If we want God to clobber our enemies, read Nahum. If we want our enemies to forgive us, read Jonah.

In the end, the Bible doesn’t say anything. We only think it says something because we interact with it and desire it to speak to us. But it is, in the end, a book.

I was looking for a quote that I heard years ago about the dangers of reading one book. I couldn’t find the quote in my internet search, but I did find this other quote in a book entitled The Purity of Blood by Arturo Perez Reverte. It is the story of a thirteen year-old who is held in the dungeons of Toledo during the Spanish Inquisition. The main character, speaking for the author, says:

Later, with time, I learned that although all men are capable of good and evil, the worst among them are those who, when they commit evil, do so by shielding themselves in the authority of others, in their subordination, or in the excuse of following orders. And even worse are those who believe they are justified by their God. Because in the secret dungeons of Toledo, nearly at the cost of my life, I learned that there is nothing more despicable or more dangerous than the malevolent individual who goes to sleep every night with a clear conscience. That is true evil. Especially when paired with ignorance, superstition, stupidity, or power, all of which often travel together.

And worst of all is the person who acts as exegete of The Word—whether it be from the Talmud, the Bible, the Koran, or any other book already written or yet to come. I am not fond of giving advice—no one can pound opinions into another’s head—but here is a piece that costs you nothing: Never trust a man who reads only one book.

So the Bible supposedly contains a few verses against homosexuals that in turn supposedly sums up the truth of the universe and of the great Creator, YHWH himself and his only son, Jesus, regarding how we are treat other people in the present. If they are gay, condemn them. Thus sayeth the Lord.

If we look to the Bible as authority on whether or not we are OK or not OK or someone else is OK or not OK, we will find that for which we are looking. The Bible is a mirror. It, like any unexamined external authority, mirrors our preconceived ideas.

I do appreciate my moderate and liberal colleagues who examine the passages and painstakingly parse Greek verbs and show that these passages are not as bad as they seem. They work hard. They want to defend the Bible and to defend gays. That is good to do as far as it goes. It is an intermediate step in my view. People who still need the Bible to tell them that they are OK are served by that for awhile.

(Until some conservative publishes a thick book that shows that the Bible really is homophobic and misogynistic and all the other things that some of us deplore and others apparently celebrate).

I have come to the point in which I no longer need to bother. It still plays into the “I am not OK unless an external authority says I am OK.” It keeps me from focusing on the real thing, our shared humanity. If I want to know about you, I don’t need to go to the Bible and look for a passage that tells me about you. I really need to talk to you.

This is why I wrote that provocative post that gets a lot of attention on the internet. At the risk of vanity by quoting myself, here goes:

‘And the bottom line for me is I really don't care what the Bible or Reformed Theology says about this or that or if its opinion on this or that is presumptuous enough to tell me how to live my life. I can make my own decisions.

This means that...

* if even 500 verses of the Bible and

* if Jesus himself proclaimed it on the Mount of Transfiguration and

* if Jesus appeared to me on my back deck in the glory of his resuscitated corpse and

stated to me as clearly as the four p.m. sun is hot…that if I support gays and lesbians in their relationships I would join them in the fires of hell, I would look him in his piercing eyes and say (if I had the courage of my convictions):

"Fine then. Send me to your hell. You are wrong, Jesus."

Why? Because I know Tony and Mike. (Tony and Mike are a couple for whom I officiated at a commitment ceremony). Why do I dare say Jesus would be wrong? Because I know dozens of other couples and individuals and I know who they are and that what they do is as good and sacred as what anyone else does.

When I read the Bible I don't see an external authority telling me what is true or how to behave. Something is not true because an authority says it is true. Authority is earned by the truth it tells. The Bible is a mixed bag.'

I don’t go to the Bible to tell me about dinosaurs or the age of Earth or how to do geometry. Nor do I go there to learn the truth regarding human sexuality.

Now of course, I don’t think Jesus would have condemned gays either, but even he did, I wouldn’t care. That is the point. Eventually, we come to a point in which we do not need an external authority to justify our existence.

The Buddhists have a saying. If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him. The Buddhists are lot more provocative than me, I tell you. The reason you kill the Buddha is because if you see the Buddha outside of yourself, you are projecting reality externally rather than realizing you are the Buddha.

I have heard from others and to some extent have experienced it myself. That is, to move along life’s path, to grow spiritually, if you like, one needs to kill the gods that are in the way. We outgrow them. They become fake. They become idols. Not idols in the sense of sacred statues that are vehicles for devotion, but fake, phony, and false.

It is a loss to do that. It is frightening. It is hard letting go of our gods, even fake ones. No one can tell you how or when to do it. You know it when you know it. It often happens around an issue that we cannot resolve. Bishop John Shelby Spong began his popular book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism with the line: “Sex drove me to the Bible.” It was the Church’s backward and hurtful attitudes toward sexuality that moved him to question other things, including religious authority itself.

I began this sermon by saying that I have been thinking about God this past week. I sure have. I am still trying to figure out how people come up with their various ideas about God and why these ideas are so hard to let go.

Now, we don’t have to let these ideas go. If our concepts of God are making us more loving, hopeful, and aware human beings, then that is good.

I overheard someone say that this congregation is BYOG—Bring Your Own God. I like that. You can conceive of God however you want. You have the authority.

I should say something more. Listening to God, I think, is a good thing. We do that in meditation, prayer, ritual, walking a labyrinth, reading more than one book, and so forth.

Speaking to God is a good thing as well. Articulating our thoughts, needs, fears, joys, and so forth is an important exercise in self-awareness.

It would be good if the church focused on those activities. That is helping people to listen attentively and to speak honestly. Listening to God and speaking to God, I think are helpful things.

It is the speaking for God that makes us dangerous.