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!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Becoming a Spirit-Intoxicated Prophet of Justice: A Sermon

Becoming a Spirit-Intoxicated Prophet of Justice
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 6, 2010
More Light Sunday

I Kings 17:17-24
Luke 7:11-17

One of the marks of self-awareness, confidence and maturity is to claim for ourselves what we have projected onto others or onto God. There is no point in saying, for example, God is good or Jesus Christ is truth or Buddha is Enlightenment and leaving all those qualities out there attached to those figures alone.

The goal of the authentic life or the spiritual life if you like is to become transformed, born again, risen from the dead, intoxicated with goodness, truth, enlightenment, compassion, and justice. Claim it. Be it.

I am not talking about hubris. I am not saying that we are to claim that we are absolutely and always good, truthful, enlightened, and so forth. Of course not. That is simply a foolish blindness and denial of one's own dark side. I am talking about taking responsibility for the power we already have. We are to be the peace we want to see in the world. We are to be compassionate as God is compassionate. We are to embrace truth and walk in the light.

Nor am I talking about getting on some kind of spiritual treadmill in order to work ourselves into a frenzy of good works in order to earn a special spot in heaven. I don't believe there is any supernatural cosmic judge keeping an eternal list of who is naughty and nice. Spiritual authenticity requires no promise of reward or threat of punishment. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita:
Renounce attachment to the fruits.
A secular translation is to do good for goodness' sake.

A legend about Sufi mystic, Rabiah, tells that she would wander the countryside with a torch in one hand and bucket of water in the other. When asked why she said:
I want to use the jug of water to quench hell. With the burning torch I want to get heaven on fire, so that neither fear of hell nor the longing for paradise will prevent me from loving God alone for his sake.
Rabiah was one of those spirit-intoxicated prophets of justice. Historical Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, coined that label for Jesus.

A spirit-intoxicated prophet of justice.

I think that is awesome.
To a world deadened by the drag of being told what we cannot do or who we cannot be, along comes these prophets, drunk on the spirit of life, calling us out and raising us up. The fourth path of Creation Spirituality is the via transformativa, or the way of justice-making. It is participating in the struggle for life. It is about raising people from the dead.

Our scripture readings feature two stories of raising widows' sons from the dead. Elijah and Jesus both perform this miracle. When we read stories about people coming back to life we know two things.
  • First is that we are in the realm of fiction.
  • The second is that the storytellers really want us to get something important but they have no other way of telling it without resorting to supernaturalism.
What is that something important? I think it is that we are to raise people from the dead. We are to become like Elijah and Jesus and Rabiah, spirit-intoxicated prophets of justice.

The stories of death to life are not supernatural miracles that we are supposed to believe someone performed once upon a time. They are pointers to the reality that life, our lives, your life and mine, and ours collectively as Earthlings can be transformed.

The scriptures themselves tell us these stories are metaphors.

Ezekiel goes to the valley of dry bones and the bones come rattling together before his eyes and sinews grow them and flesh grows on them and the spirit of breath blows through them. This isn't a zombie story. This is the story of a people, of a nation, reforming and starting again after being conquered.

In one of Jesus' parables the younger son returns home and the father needs to explain to the older son why he welcomed him home. And he tells him that his brother was lost and is now found. He was dead and is now alive. Stories of death to life are stories about people changing
  • from futility to joy,
  • from going through the motions to living purposefully,
  • from worthlessness to value,
  • from despair to dignity,
  • from shame to pride.
In June 1969 in Greenwich Village, New York City, at a bar called Stonewall, a few spirit-intoxicated prophets of justice decided that they had had enough. They had had enough of being beaten, arrested, and hassled. They had had enough of being misunderstood, of living in the shadows, of living in secret.

The Stonewall Inn was not a nice place. It was owned by the mafia. It catered to the most marginalized and poorest among the gay community: drag queens, hustlers, and homeless youth. The folks who hung around the Inn were not church going folks. What happened was not pretty or organized. When the police raided the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, a riot erupted. It was a violent riot. It was spontaneous. People were hurt.
It lasted for several days.

From this riot a movement coalesced and these marginalized people began to find their spirit and their dignity. Gay activist organizations formed in New York within a few months and a couple of newspapers were organized for gay and lesbian rights.
These prophets said:
No more. We will take this abuse from society no longer.
It was a movement from death to life. One of the participants, Michael Fader described the mood:

We all had a collective feeling like we'd had enough of this kind of shit. It wasn't anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration.... Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us.... All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren't going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it's like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that's what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we're going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren't going to go away. And we didn't.Carter, David (2004). Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution
Since 1969 there has been a great deal of progress and a great deal of backlash and the churches, whether they like it or not, are in the center of this controversy. In 1974, David Sindt held up a sign at the General Assembly that read,
Is anyone else out there gay?
Like Stonewall in New York, that action at General Assembly is the iconic moment of the liberation movement in the Presbyterian Church.

It is June 2010, 41 years after Stonewall and still the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has discrimination written into its official policy. This congregation is one of the many exceptions. We do not discriminate. We are a More Light congregation. That does not mean we have "more light" than others. It is a spiritual posture of humility. As opposed to the idolatry of certainty that we have all the truth, we know we do not know everything. We anticipate that more light, more wisdom, more truth is yet to come.

The church is correct that the issue is about morality. However, the morality is not about sexuality. That is a given. The moral issue is about discrimination, prejudice, and homophobia. That is what is immoral. The choice for each of us in our own setting is to confront this immorality with truth.

We are to be spirit-intoxicated prophets of justice. That is no one else's job. It is ours.

Some may wonder why I care. Certainly there are other issues, injustices, and causes that aren't so divisive. Why advocate for gay rights in the church? Why does a straight guy with a straight family care? Why risk getting church folks upset?

It was in the context of church that I was made aware. My first week at seminary in 1989 at Princeton I sat with other first year students at orientation. Representatives of different organizations and groups spoke and each offered a description of what they were about. This guy stood up and said he belonged to a group called Presbyterians for Gay Concerns and invited anyone straight or gay to come to a meeting.

I obviously have led a sheltered life. I am sure there were gay-straight alliance groups at the University of Washington where I did my undergraduate work. I didn't know about them. They weren't on my radar. I didn't even know (or know that I knew) a gay or lesbian person.

So when this guy said that, I thought, "Huh. That's interesting." But what happened in the room next was the defining moment for me. You could feel the tension. I looked around and saw people were looking down to their laps. Praying? The guy next to me said under his breath but loud enough for me to hear at least:
They shouldn't allow a group like that on campus.
That sentence has been my motivation.
They shouldn't allow a group like that on campus.
Why not? That is who he is. I am embarrassed to say that I never contacted the person who told us about his group or attended the meetings. But I look at that moment as the light going on moment. I was made aware of gay people and of homophobia in the exact same instant and all in the context of church and ministry.
They shouldn't allow a group like that on campus.
Those are fighting words.
They shouldn't allow gay and lesbian people to be ministers.
Those are fighting words.
They shouldn't allow gay and lesbian people to have their relationships blessed and honored in church.
Those are fighting words.
They shouldn't allow gay and lesbian couples to have the same rights, privileges, benefits and responsibilities as straight couples.
Those are fighting words. When I saying fighting, I am not talking about fighting people. The Apostle Paul reminds us that we are struggling not against flesh and blood but principalities and powers. We are fighting injustice and misunderstanding. We are fighting the spirit of death and despair, shame and isolation. To do that we become spirit-intoxicated prophets of justice who say Yes! to life, dignity, and hope.

You are that prophet.
When you accept yourself as you are…

When you correct falsehoods…

When you stand up for yourself and for those who are put down…

When you speak the truth even though you think it would be easier to remain silent…
When you treat others as you want to be treated…

You are that prophet.