Shuck and Jive

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Reforming Jesus

Thanks to James for posting this (that he got from someone who got it from someone else...)

The Trouble With Sermons--A Sermon

The Trouble With Sermons
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 31st, 2010

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Luke 4:21-30

Last week I titled the sermon, Being a Sermon. It was part 1. The guiding text featured Jesus preaching in the synagogue. According to Luke, fresh from being tempted by the satan in the wilderness, he is filled with the Spirit, returns to populated areas and begins teaching in the synagogues.

He builds up a reputation as a teacher and as a healer. Scholars of the historical Jesus have determined that he was probably a wisdom teacher and a healer of some sort. While miracles attributed to him, such as turning water to wine, raising the dead, and calming the seas would be exaggerated legends, he probably was able to do some kind of psychosomatic healing.

By the time the gospel writers are writing about him, Jesus has achieved legendary, god-like status. It is a challenge to separate what might be historical from what is mythical when we are reading the gospels. Even a story that may seem historically plausible, like offering a sermon, is still part of the larger legend that the author is creating.

So as we read stories of Jesus in the gospels we are reading the author’s version of Jesus. Jesus functions as a character in the various dramas the authors create. It isn’t so much that Jesus did this or said that, but that Luke’s Jesus did this and John’s Jesus said that and so on.

So…after Luke tells a story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by the satan, Jesus begins to preach. The satan is not the red devil with horns or the prince of darkness who develops his own mythology. Here he is the adversary. He is a figure in the heavenly court, kind of like YHWH’s prosecuting attorney. His job is to mess with people to test them. He tests Jesus to test his character.

After successfully passing all the tests, Luke’s Jesus begins teaching and apparently healing around the countryside. Then he returns to his hometown. He is initially well-received. He has made a reputation. He is a hometown boy who has become a teacher and a healer. On the Sabbath, he is given the honor of reading from the scroll and of commenting upon it.

He reads that wonderful text from Isaiah that we heard last week:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Then he rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, sits down, and says,
Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
That is where I ended it last week. Be a sermon. Jesus embodied the good news. He took on as his life’s quest to be on behalf of the poor, the captive the blind, and the oppressed. The story of the gospels and of the Christian wisdom tradition is that we are anointed in that same way. Our baptism is a sign of that anointing, to be a blessing, to be and to do good.

This past week I picked up an interesting book by a man named Greg Epstein. He is a young guy, in his early 30s. He is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. His book is called Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. I am finding it a really good book. He is a nice guy. Unlike Richard Dawkins, Epstein is not hostile to religious people but sees progressive religious folks as allies. He offers a philosophy of humanism. He writes:
The good is that which facilitates human dignity and the health of the natural world that surrounds us and sustains us. The bad, or evil, is that which creates needless human suffering. P. 137.
The passage from Isaiah is a humanist sounding passage. That is probably why I like it. Be a sermon. We are invited to live for the cause of human dignity, to relieve needless human suffering, to promote the health of Earth and of all living things with whom we are in relationship.

So Jesus gives this nice message and everyone marvels.
Isn’t this Joseph’s son? How about that! Our local boy made good!
Then Jesus does something very strange. Rather than enjoy that and get reacquainted with old friends, perhaps do a couple of healings, he turns on them. He tells them that sure they heard of the great things he has done in Capernaum,
...but you aren’t going to get any of that here. Nope, no healings for you. Let me tell you a couple of stories.
He tells them about the famine when there was no rain and Elijah did not help the widows in Israel but the foreigner in Sidon.

And he tells them about the time when there were many lepers in Israel, but Elisha didn’t heal them. Instead he healed the foreign king, Namaan, the Syrian.
So there. Nothing for you.
Jesus comes home and ticks them off. The story says they try to throw him off the cliff but he escapes in some miraculous way and away he goes. You can bet he won’t be invited back. He is one of those guest preachers folks remember. Don’t get that guy.

So what is up with this? I said that this is Luke’s story. This is Luke’s Jesus. Luke who is also the author of Acts wants to communicate that this new Christian religion is bigger than Judaism. It is a religion good enough for the Romans. Luke ends his book called Acts with Paul preaching in Rome, the center of the Empire, unabated. The point is that Jesus is not just a Jewish messiah, but a messiah for the whole world.

Luke’s theological point is similar to that found in the prologue to the Gospel of John,
He came to his own people and his own people knew him not.
So Luke finds stories and themes in the Hebrew scriptures that show YHWH as a universal god as opposed to a tribal god of the Jews. As the Jesus legend grew, stories were told about him to make him appear more cosmopolitan than the historical person ever was.

Unfortunately, these stories were told at the expense of the Jews. As centuries later, Christianity became the world religion, the religion of Empire, the Jewish people were scapegoated as the killer of Jesus, the people God rejected, and so forth. This has fueled the fires of anti-Semitism to this day.

No wonder people write books with titles, Good Without God.

Who was it that said,
“You know you have created God in your image when he hates the same people you do?”
Recognizing that, still is there something we can take away from this story? Can we situate ourselves in it in some way?

We can see this story as Jesus, representing Divine Creativity, provoking us out of our parochialism.

Jesus is the Artist who challenges our tribalism.

Jesus is the Painter who shows us images that take us beyond our comfort zone.

Jesus is the Sculptor who creates figures that are foreign and beautiful.

Jesus is the Composer who writes songs in languages we don’t know yet are blessed.

Jesus is the Poet who crafts lines both exotic and lovely.

Jesus is Creativity that moves us to compassionate action.

One of the traits humans have developed for survival is group selection. Epstein in his book, Good Without God, defines it in this way. Group selection is…
“…the idea that sometimes individuals may sacrifice their own personal success—even the chance to pass on their own genes—and yet still “win” if members of their group have success against members of other groups. This explains a lot about why human beings seem so universally willing to let big groups define them—we give ourselves up for fellow members of our tribe, race, ethnicity, city, state, or nation. P. 24
This is certainly true for religion as well. For some it is the defining characteristic of a religion, although those who define themselves that way don’t realize it. “Jesus is the only way” or “Muhammed is his prophet” is simply another way of saying my group is the best group and the only group that ultimately really matters. We get “saved” and the rest of you don’t.

It can happen with political entities. Loyalty to our nation is drilled into us at an early age. We learn mythology of the divine mission of our nation. We learn to die and kill for it. We are taught that its welfare is more important than anything else. In the immortal words of President George Bush the First at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro: “The American way of life is non-negotiable.” President Obama knows the rhetoric as well.

Group selection is a crucial part of our evolutionary heritage. It has helped us to survive, so far. We are also at a point that what has enabled us to survive has the potential to destroy us. Give a number of groups who think of themselves as God’s chosen a divine mission and some nuclear weapons and let’s see what happens.

So thank creativity for the artist. We need you more than ever. As theologian Matthew Fox writes, everyone is an artist. We need the creativity in all of us more than ever. We need the artist in whatever medium is available to her or to him to provide us with images that challenge group selection. Images of the dignity of the individual, images of the wholeness of the human species sharing one Earth, images of sustainability, images of the diversity of the flora and the fauna and the diversity of human cultures.

One of the symbols that should be on every flag and communion table is a photo of Earth from outer space. Our beautiful, blue home.

Paranoid, greedy, power-hungry empires are frightened of the artist. They do whatever they can to silence the musician, ridicule the painter. The reason that the arts are the first to be cut in budget times is not because the arts are not important, powerful, or necessary. It is the exact opposite. The arts are important, powerful, and necessary, so much so that the empire of the day needs to silence them.

You can’t have people painting lovely pictures of mountains when you are trying to convince the populace that you need to blow the tops off of them. You can’t have the radio waves filled with peace and protest songs when you are beating war drums.

The artist shakes us and wakes us out of our stupor. We are pounded day in day out with images of desire, fear and consumption. The artist shows us images of the dark side of that reality. The artist shows us the injustice. The artist also shows us beauty and dignity.

Howard Zinn was an artist. He died this past week. He understood our role in this time. He wrote:
Our problem is civil obedience.

Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war.

Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country.

That's our problem.
It is dangerous business being an artist. Jesus and Jeremiah knew it. It is safe to say that the historical Jesus was an artist. He told his silly little parables, his quaint poems, his pithy sayings. These little stories and his demonstration in the temple probably got him killed. There is no reason to think he led any violent insurrection. He was a poet who told his truth. He challenged the authorities and their group think.

It is amazing that we even have his story. Of course it has been warped and turned into superstition and then into the service of Empire. But nevertheless, the creativity that inspired him shines through.

That creativity is available to each of us.

We need to embrace it more than ever.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

WETS Changes Programming

Beginning Monday, our local NPR affiliate, WETS is changing its programing. It is adding some new programs and moving some others. Here is the story in Johnson City Press:
WETS, the East Tennessee State University public radio station, will stop airing music in favor of news shows on weekdays beginning next month, a major change for the 36-year-old station.
One of my favorite programs, Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman is moving to 1 p.m. from 6 p.m. That kind of stinks. From drivetime to middays is a major demotion, but at least it is staying on the air. It is on the air in this bright red state in part because progressives in our area advocate for it. Check out Democracy Now! Tri-Cities.

Now in the afternoons we will have four hours of (as one of my Facebook friends put it) "All Things Repeated."

Additional programming include BBC World Service, The Diane Rehm Show, and Talk of the Nation. Here is the WETS programming schedule:

Glad to have WETS and kudos to Wayne Winkler for his innovative work bringing a variety of perspectives to the Tri-Cities!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Good Without God

It looks like we are in for a bit of weather in Southtown:
Snow. Snow may be heavy at times. Snow accumulation of 5 to 9 inches. Lows in the upper 20s. Northeast winds 10 mph or less. Chance of snow near 100 percent.

Snow in the morning and early afternoon...then snow likely late in the afternoon. Snow accumulation of 1 to 3 inches. Total snow accumulation 6 to 12 inches. Highs in the lower 30s. Northeast winds 10 mph or less. Chance of snow 90 percent.
A good weekend to settle down with a good book. I picked up (at the Cokesbury Bookstore of all places) a new book by the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, Greg Epstein.

The book is Good Without God: What A Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.

I am finding it refreshing and certainly compatible with where I am on my journey. It is a book about Humanism. Here is what he writes about it:

In short, Humanism is being good without God. It is above all an affirmation of the greatest common value we human beings have: the desire to live with dignity, to be "good." But Humanism is also a warning that we cannot afford to wait until tomorrow or until the next life to be good, because today--the short journey we get from birth to death, womb to tomb--is all we have. Humanism rejects dependence on faith, the supernatural, divine texts, resurrection, reincarnation, or anything else for which we have no evidence. To put it another way, Humanists believe in life before death. P. xiii
Epstein, unlike Richard Dawkins (who is also a humanist), has a more gracious tone toward believers and sees progressive religious folks as allies. He also values communities:
People need community. Not just out of some whiny desire to be hugged or avoid loneliness--we need community because we succeed best in life when we can count on reliable help from a wide range of individuals with a range of skills and talents, all of whom know us personally enough to treat us as their own when we are in need....For most people, it takes a congregation. But it doesn't necessarily take God. p. 24
He answers the insulting question, "Can you be good without God?" Duh. Yes. Then he replaces it with some important ones, why be good? and how do we be good? He also turns the tables: can you be good with God? Answer: Yes and he includes some suggestions for how to include humanists in inter-faith groups and gatherings.

A lot of good stuff here and I am only through the third chapter. Oh, by the way, curious about what humanists believe about God? Here is the answer:

We (the non-religious, atheists, Humanists, etc.) believe that God is the most important, influential literary character human beings have ever created. p. 13-14
Count me in that number.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Superstition at the Superbowl

At first I didn't make much of the concern that Tim "Eye Black for Jesus" Tebow was starring in some superstitious commercial during the Superbowl. I certainly don't agree with the so-called pro-life movement, but hey, if you want to spend two and half million on a 30 second ad, Focus on the Family has as much right to spread its superstition as does Pepsi.

Then I discovered that CBS is selective regarding its superstition. It had previously rejected an advertisement from The United Church of Christ. The UCC rightly has asked what is up with that?

Why is only one Christian viewpoint -- the Focus on the Family conservative right viewpoint (opposing gay marriage and women's reproductive rights)-- welcome on the air?
The UCC has a point. But they aren't going to try to buy an ad for the Superbowl. They have a better point:
No, says spokesman Rev. J. Bennett Guess, they'd rather send any millions available to relief in Haiti right now.

What Does History Require of You?

I liked the speech from President Obama last night. But I still don't think he knows what really needs to be done or if he does how to communicate what needs to be done.

What needs to be done is to get serious about downscaling a suburban lifestyle that doesn't produce anything. Energy realities will demand it. Here is a good post Monday from
Howard Kunstler.

The larger underlying reality is that the United States as an entire, integral organism, has got to contract, downscale, and reorganize. The mandates of energy resource reality demand it. We can't maintain our way of life at its current scale and we have to severely rearrange and rebuild the infrastructure of it if we expect to continue being civilized. We have to get the hell out of suburbia, shrink our hypertrophic metroplexes, re-activate our small towns and small cities, reorganize the way we grow our food, phase out the big box retail (and phase in the rehabilitated Main Streets), start making some of our own household goods, and hook up the far-flung reaches of this continental nation with a public transit system probably in the form of railroads. By the way, there are plenty of "jobs" in this process, only not the kind of work we've been used to... sitting in cubicles or assigning tanning booths.

No amount of wishing for techno rescue remedies, or techno-triumphal fantasies, will overcome this basic reality. This is change you have to believe in whether you like it or not. Most of America doesn't like it and doesn't want to think about it and is doing everything possible to prop up the old arrangements. Bailing out the banks is just a lame attempt to keep banking oversized. Bailing out the automobile companies was just a way to avoid the recognition that Happy Motoring will soon be over. Bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was just a way to avoid understanding that suburbia is finished. The "green economy" that so many people idly blather about -- imagining that it will just mean running WalMart by other means than oil -- is actually an economy of awesome stringency. It's nothing like they imagine. It's a world made by hand.

We should be turning our efforts and our remaining resources toward the task of becoming that differently-organized, finer-scaled society.The money that went into propping up the automobile companies could have been used to rebuild the entire railroad system between Boston and the Great Lakes, and the capital squandered on AIG and its offshoot claimants could have rebuilt everything else the rest of the way to Seattle. Is it really so hard to imagine what history requires of you?
Our Thursday study group just finished watching an incredible film: Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People. I highly recommend it. It is about Appalachia for sure, but also about America and the world and the choices we are making or are refusing to make.

Next week we begin Dianne Dumanoski's The End of the Long Summer.

If you are near our Appalachian mountain, you are welcome to join us Thursdays at 10:30.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Discrimination Case Against Johnson City Resolved

In October 2007, 40 men were caught in a sting in Johnson City. At the insistence of the police department, their names, addresses and photos were published in the Johnson City Press.

The day after the publication, one of the men took his own life.

In October of 2008 one of the men, Kenneth Giles, filed a discrimination lawsuit against the city of Johnson City. Giles was represented by Lambda Legal.

Yesterday, Lambda Legal issued the following
press release:
Lambda Legal Discrimination Case Resolved: Johnson City Police Department Updates Policies and Adds Training

"These measures show a commitment to treating all people equally. This is a win-win situation for everyone."

(Johnson City, Tennessee, January 25, 2010) - Today Lambda Legal announces the resolution of a lawsuit against the Johnson City Police Department in Tennessee, on behalf of Kenneth Giles whose photo was made available to the media, contrary to the Department's usual practices.

"We applaud Chief Lowry's decision to use this dispute to examine, clarify, and update the police department's policies, practices, and training programs," said Greg Nevins, Supervising Senior Staff Attorney in Lambda Legal's Southern Regional Office based in Atlanta. "We believe these actions will not only help avoid future disputes like this one, but also lay the groundwork for improved relations between the police department and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in Johnson City. These measures show a commitment to treating all people equally. This is a win-win situation for everyone."

On October 1, 2007, the Department issued a press release that included photos of 40 men arrested in a public sex sting operation. The local news ran the story prominently along with pictures and addresses of the men involved. Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit asserting that it is improper and discriminatory to single out certain groups of people for increased public attention by publicizing their arrest photographs. Lambda Legal reviewed hundreds of news releases issued by the JCPD in the year leading up to the October 1, 2007 release and found that no other release pertaining to arrests was accompanied by photos. Mr. Giles attributed the loss of his job to the enhanced publicity surrounding his arrest.

Johnson City Police Chief John Lowry denied any discriminatory motive, stating that the JCPD's media efforts related to the sting operation served the rational goal of dissuading others from illegal conduct. Even so, Chief Lowry stated that, irrespective of his views on the merits of the lawsuit, both his Department and residents of Johnson City are best served by the Department's adopting a nondiscrimination policy that conforms to the guarantees of equal protection in the U.S. Constitution and updating the JCPD media policy to address the release of arrestee photographs. Chief Lowry announced a program to train JCPD officers on the policies and to recognize and avoid conduct that would violate those guarantees. The training will also be aimed at improving the interactions between the JCPD and members of minority groups, including but not limited to persons whose sexual orientation is other than heterosexual, while the officers carry out their duties in the community.

Greg Nevins, Supervising Senior Staff Attorney in Lambda Legal's Southern Regional Office, handled the case, along with cooperating attorneys John T. Winemiller of Merchant & Gould; and Lisa A. Linsky, Jill Basinger, Molly Logan and Brian Tiemann of McDermott, Will & Emery.
The Johnson City Press posted the story yesterday:
The Johnson City Police Department will clarify and update its policies and practices when it comes to dealing with minority groups — signaling the resolution Monday to a lawsuit stemming from the so-called “man cave” arrests.

One of the 40 men charged in a 2007 city park sex sting filed a federal lawsuit in 2008 against the city and Johnson City Police Chief John Lowry because he says the police department gave his arrest excessive publicity. Each man’s photograph was released at a police news conference about the sting, and later published by area media.

Kenneth Giles, of Bristol, Va., filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Greeneville because he said the city violated his right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, according to the complaint.

Lowry defended his decision to release the photographs, saying it was never the police department’s intention to discriminate against anyone. But, he said, the department did not have a “well-defined” policy to address releasing an arrestee’s photograph.

After consulting with CALEA, the accreditation organization for law enforcement, Lowry has “directed that existing departmental policy be re-calibrated so as to address the issue when an arrestee’s photograph should be included in a press release,” he said in a news release.

“It is very important that law enforcement officers treat all citizens with whom they come in contact in a professional and nondiscriminatory manner,” Lowry said.

“The purpose for the news conference regarding the arrests at the city’s parks was to get the word out that the behavior taking place in the city’s parks would not be tolerated and would be stopped.”

Lowry said the undercover operation started after the police department received citizen complaints about sexual activity taking place at the city’s parks.

Greg Nevins, a staff attorney at Lambda Legal, the organization that represented Giles, said he’s pleased with the resolution that JCPD will address its policies and provide officer training on how to better deal with minority groups.

Lambda Legal, according to its Web site,  , “is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.”

Lowry, in a news release, said the resolution is an “opportunity” for the JCPD to review its policies.

“Even though the lawsuit has been resolved without the payment of any money to the plaintiff, Chief John Lowry sees the lawsuit as a learning experience and an opportunity for the Johnson City Police Department to evaluate its policies and practices when dealing with members of a minority group,” the release said.

Nevins said changing policy and providing education and training for officers was the goal all along.

“That was the goal of the lawsuit — to make sure this wouldn’t happen again and to provide some education and training for the department in a good way,” Nevin said. “It’s a win-win situation. Both sides took a very responsible approach toward arriving at a solution that would be mutually beneficial,” he said.

Giles was fired by letter from his nursing job at the Veterans Administration two weeks after Lowry’s news conference. The termination letter stated that because Giles’ name and photograph were in the newspaper, the “notoriety reflected poorly” on the employer, according to the lawsuit.

Nevins said it was a struggle for Giles to find work, but has found suitable employment.

“I think he really deserves to be congratulated on this. He was willing to step forward after having gone through what he and the others went through,” Nevins said.

Lowry said the department did not meet with any local gay and lesbian groups to discuss any concerns about how the news conference was handled, but meetings did occur between the city and Lambda Legal.

Nevins said the lawsuit was never about money, but Giles wanted to change the way gays and lesbians are treated by law enforcement.

“The fact he was willing to resolve this case in a way to put in (place) the new policiies and training, I think speak very well of him. He is a man of principle and he wanted to” do the right thing, Nevins said.

“It’s better for the LGBT community in Johnson City for the police to say they’ll recognize the equal protection rights LGBT people have and they will put training in place,” he said.

Lowry did not specify exactly what policies might be changed or what training police officers would have in order to follow the terms of the suit dismissal, but Nevins said Lambda Legal will follow the changes.

“Obviously the policies are a matter of public record. We’re going to be offering them information about trainers and materials,” Nevins said. “We’re not concerned about it. Chief Lowry indicated this is something he wanted to do and he felt it would be good for his officers.”

Every law enforcement officer “has a duty to enforce the law even-handedly and without consideration to social status, ethnic background, or a person’s membership in any particular group," Lowry said.

It is a win-win for the city of Johnson City and the LGBT community here. We are working to build bridges between the police department our LGBT citizens.

Thanks to Kenneth Giles, the team at Lambda Legal, and the Johnson City Police Department for agreeing to update its policies.

Dr. Kerry Holland, president of PFLAG Tri-Cities, will release a statement regarding this case.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Leisure Suit High School

One of my high school classmates has put up a website for our upcoming 30th anniversary reunion. She is asking folks to update their profiles.

Aarrggghhh! Not the yearbook photo!

Here I am pimped-out in my leisure suit for my senior picture.

The thing is I don't think I ever looked like that except on the day I had my picture taken. Usually, I sported some sort of mullet.

Embarrassing days.

The website is clever with all kinds of 1980 memories.

A lot of things happened in 1980 including the start of the Iran-Iraq War, the election of Ronald Reagan, the murder of John Lennon, the eruption of Mount St. Helens, and the first official sighting of Elvis Presley on March 20th in, yes, Butte, Montana!

Guess I should do my duty. If you are member of
the Butte Central High School class of 1980 then go update your profile, classmate!

PCUSA Marriage Committee Finishes Its Work

The Committee on Civil Unions and Christian Marriage has finished its work. The Presbyterian Outlook reports:
The committee did not recommend any change in the definition of Christian marriage currently in the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). That definition – that Christian marriage is between a man and a woman – was off-limits to the committee, according to its mandate from the 2008 General Assembly.
This made the committee's work pretty much worthless from the outset. What we need is action. Thanks to Baltimore Presbytery for leading the way. Also thanks to Hudson River for endorsing a similar action recently. Back to the committee...
Nevertheless, three evangelical members of the committee voted against the committee’s recommendations, expressing concern they might lead to some form of local option, and insisting that the church needs to speak a strong message that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong.
At least something in the report had enough substance to alienate the busybodies. What was that something?
Among the recommendations it did approve were to:

- Ask the 2010 General Assembly to encourage presbyteries and sessions to develop resources that are consonant with the PC(USA) constitution, regarding how church facilities can be used for marriages and same-gender union ceremonies, and for clergy participation in marriages or same-gender ceremonies.
That is a start. It is more of a recognition that the wind is blowing. As a recommendation it is rather useless. Sessions already make up their own rules for the use of our facilities. I really don't know why the fundies were fussing over that one.

I did not like the following recommendation:

- Ask the assembly to direct the denomination’s Office of Theology and Worship and the Constitutional Services section of the Office of the General Assembly to provide guidelines and resources addressing the difference between a ceremony of Christian marriage and a same-gender union ceremony.
That language is condescending. It assumes that same-gender marriages are not even Christian! Sorry gay and lesbian couples. Your relationships are simply second-class. Not even Jesus approves.

There you have it. Thanks to the committee members for their work and thanks to the progressives on the committee for doing the best they could do.

What I find pitiful, groveling, and bordering on masochistic is the insistence that the denomination stays together. "We must stay at the table," I hear again and again.

The problem is that the gays aren't at the table! The only way the busybodies will stay "at the table" is if they can keep the gays from it. We have to admit that at some point and move on.

The committee didn't help much, but hopefully it didn't hurt. This is what needs to be done and these types of actions need be taken at the upcoming General Assembly:
1. Allow clergy in the six states (and in any future states) that have legalized same-gender marriage to sign marriage licenses and solemnize these marriages in the church.

2. Affirm that clergy may consecrate marriages (in the eyes of the church) for same-gender couples even in those states that have yet to legalize same-gender marriage.

3. Change the definition of marriage from one man and one woman to two people in all relevant documents.

4. Modify the Directory for Worship to create marriage rites suitable for same-gender couples.

5. Advocate for marriage equality throughout the United States.
The full report from the committee will be on the PCUSA website soon.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Being A Sermon--A Sermon

Being a Sermon
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 24th, 2010
Nehemiah 8:1-10
Luke 4:14-21
Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2

Krishna said: Those who lack discrimination may quote the letter of the scripture, but they are really denying its inner truth. They are full of worldly desires, and hungry for the rewards of heaven. They use beautiful figures of speech. They teach elaborate rituals which are supposed to obtain pleasure and power for those who perform them. But, actually, they understand nothing except the law of Karma, that chains people to rebirth….

….When your intellect has cleared itself of its delusions, you will become indifferent to the results of all action, present or future. At present, your intellect is bewildered by conflicting interpretations of the scriptures. When it can rest, steady and undistracted, in contemplation of the Atman, then you will reach union with the Atman.

This is from British born, American poet Edgar Guest:
I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I'd rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way:
The eye's a better pupil and more willing than the ear,
fine counsel is confusing, but example's always clear.
I do like that. I would rather see a sermon than hear one, too.
Even better than to see a sermon is to be one.
The best you get from me today is that you will hear one.

The scripture texts today feature characters who are reading scripture texts. From Nehemiah, we find a ceremonial scene. People are standing and listening as Ezra reads the Law (which if the Law refers to the first five books of the Bible would take a long time) and not only that but there are people explaining and interpreting. According to the text:
So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
On one level, that is good. But it is also risky business. Interpreters twist things you know. Whether they mean to or not, whether they have ill motives or good, people interpret from their own experiences and viewpoints. That is why you should never believe what a preacher tells you. Check it out for yourself.

I have heard a lot of horror stories in my ministry from people who believed what they heard from a pulpit. What they believed about themselves or others or what they were supposed to do often didn’t turn out so well. It is frightening the power that interpreters of sacred texts can have over people.

This last Thursday at our PFLAG meeting we had a guest speaker. His name is Marc Adams. He wrote a number of books about growing up gay in a fundamentalist household. He started an organization called Heartstrong. The organization is to help students whose lives are literally threatened by religion. Particularly gay youth who learn about homosexuality from the pulpit.

Marc told his story how when he was a young boy he first heard a preacher talk about homosexuality. Marc saw himself in this description. Finally, he thought, here is someone talking about him. Then the preacher went on to say that homosexuals will become child molesters and then die from AIDS. Marc went into deep depression as an adolescent because he knew his future would be one in which he would become a child molester and then die from AIDS. His preacher said so. He never thought that he could ever question a preacher.

As it turned out for Marc, he got lucky. He eventually finally found a way to listen to his doubts and to take seriously his questions. His mission now is to help other students who grow up in religious schools, where unlike public schools there is no protection from this kind of abuse—to literally save them from suicide—by getting to them good information.

Of course, this can be about anything. Think of all the damage being done at this very moment from pulpits all around the country. The damage isn’t the content of what is said, it is the authority that comes with it. You should never believe anything your preacher says, and that includes me, of course. Check it out for yourself.

If you grew up in a religious tradition that encouraged free-thinking, consider yourself fortunate. It is sobering to discover how many people are victims of religious abuse.

It might be good to reflect on scripture. What is it, exactly? What makes some texts sacred?

I heard a minister say not long ago as he forcefully patted his Bible:
This is the only book God ever wrote!
I thought it was funny. As if God wasn’t a bit more prolific. I have no idea what it means to say that God wrote the Bible or that God inspired the Bible or that the Bible is the Word of God. To me it appears to be theological speculation bordering on superstition.

I do know that human beings wrote the Bible and the Qur’an and the Bhagavad Gita and the epic of Gilgamesh and everything else that has been written. I am not sure if they were inspired by anything more than human creativity, which is no small thing.

Let’s give humanity credit where credit is due. We are creative. From cave drawings to inscriptions on stone our ancestors communicated their fears and desires in the way they knew how. They told all kinds of stories, made music and created rituals to help themselves cope with life’s struggles. They even created God in their image.

We need to continue to be creative. I don’t know what it means to say God wrote a book, but if so, I think “God” wrote a lot of books. Earth is filled with God’s creative writing. You can read scripture in tree rings or in light from distant stars.

In a few weeks we are going to celebrate Evolution Sunday. It is becoming one of my favorite holy days. The story of evolution is scripture. Scientists might bristle at that, but I am just being poetic. It is a sacred story in that we are reading our history, our deep history, and it rightfully fills us with awe and amazement.

Of course our different religious traditions and their various sacred texts tell sacred, holy stories as well about life and its struggles. I still find myself surprised at how contemporary stories from scripture can be.

For instance in today’s reading from the lectionary, Luke records Jesus’ first sermon. Who knows if it happened like this at all, but it makes a great story.
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Now when we look at the world in our time and in the time of Jesus we know that all the captives have not been released, that the poor still hear crummy news, that the blind are still blind, and the oppressed are not free.

One can imagine that first century Rome was wonderful for a powerful and wealthy few and less wonderful for many others. It was a plutocracy in which the few with power and wealth made decisions that affected the many. Some have suggested that the United States is becoming a plutocracy. The latest Supreme Court decision could be a sign of that fundamental change that is being made right before our eyes. It isn’t so difficult to see that decisions increasingly are made of, by, and for wealthy corporations rather than the people.

So maybe Jesus or Luke wasn’t telling the truth. Or maybe Jesus and Luke were telling us a different truth. Maybe this sermon was an invitation to be a sermon.

I think Jesus was saying that the creative power in this text is in him.
Not only in him but in his hearers too.
And if we would listen, in us.

This creative power is to live the sermon--to be it.
To be on behalf of the poor in Haiti and Tennessee,
the captive in Guantanamo and in Mountain City,
the blind in both places of power and misery,
and the oppressed everywhere.

And to never, never, never give up.

The text from the Bhagavad-Gita reminds us of another way to be a sermon. Krishna is speaking to Arjuna and says:
When your intellect has cleared itself of its delusions, you will become indifferent to the results of all action, present or future.
This does not mean to be cold, uncaring, or lacking compassion. It is quite the opposite. It means to be pure of motive so we don’t try to control what we have no control over anyway.

It is to be present fully. We are better able to do what we need to without constantly evaluating the profit or loss of what we are doing. To be non-attached from the results of our actions helps us not be so overwhelmed by the mountain of problems we have to climb that we don’t take the first step.

Perhaps both Krishna and Jesus are telling us that amidst all of the forces that are life-denying, humiliating, imprisoning, blinding, and wrenching, that the human spirit is yet present and powerful. We can’t see the future. We can’t calculate the results. We don’t need to do so.

We need to be and trust.
We need to know where we need to be and to live with integrity from that place.
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Today you and I can be this sermon.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The United States is Officially a Plutocracy

In honor of the Supreme Court's recent decision I thought it might be a good time to promote the film, The Corporation.

Provoking, witty, stylish and sweepingly informative, THE CORPORATION explores the nature and spectacular rise of the dominant institution of our time. Part film and part movement, The Corporation is transforming audiences and dazzling critics with its insightful and compelling analysis. Taking its status as a legal "person" to the logical conclusion, the film puts the corporation on the psychiatrist's couch to ask "What kind of person is it?"
Answer: A sociopath.

Gene TeSelle at Witherspoon comments on the decision:

We had suspected it for a long time, but now, thanks to a swing vote by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, the United States is officially a plutocracy. On the dubious and probably perverse principles that corporations are legal persons and that political contributions are "speech" protected by the First Amendment, restrictions on corporate contributions to issue organizations (though not to specific political campaigns) have basically been thrown out.
Gene compares our turn to that of the Roman Empire:
The Republic came to be ruled by a triumvirate of wealthy men, then by Caesar Augustus as emperor (which simply meant commander-in-chief). The Republic and the Senate technically continued to exist (the emperor was simply "princeps," "first citizen"). But the power relationships were drastically changed. And the rich got richer, holding vast estates in multiple regions and expecting to receive official positions in the provinces or at the imperial court.
I don't know if we are going to be able to change the direction our nation is taking or if our future is going to look like a Margaret Atwood dystopia, but at the very least we should name it when we can.

Might be a good time to re-read Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. If you have six and half minutes watch this short film on the Shock Doctrine:

As Naomi Kline says in the above film:
The best way to stay oriented, to resist shock, is to know what is happening to you...and why.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Invite Your Sweetheart to Church for Evolution Sunday!

A wonderful combination, Valentine's Day and Evolution Sunday is on the schedule for February 14th. Celebrating Evolution Sunday is a marvelous way to raise a hackle here in ye olde bible belt and I seldom miss an opportunity to hackle raise.

Check out the Clergy Letter Project for details about Evolution
Weekend (we allow the lesser religions to participate as well). Oh, I am kidding. Stop it.

You will find all kinds of great stuff there including sermons, articles, and other resources to make your evolutionary celebration truly befitting the glory of natural selection. We do need some hymns and liturgy for this new era of cosmological and evolutionary awareness. "God You Spin the Whirling Planets" just doesn't do it. We need hymns with titles like "Ode to the Brachiopod." Check some of these out. This will be a fun week to try out some new tunes and some new poetry.

If you know of songs, hymns, and anthems that are scientifically literate, aesthetically pleasing, and singable, I will be glad to promote them.

You can write new ones altogether or rewrite old favorites, like Amazing Grace:


Amazing Place, so blue and round,
That sets my spirit free.
I once seemed lost but now am found,
Seemed blind, but now, I see.

This Earth has rendered good to me.
And all my fears relieved.
How precious is this Earth to see,
its beauty now perceived.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
we have already come.
'Tis Earth that brought us safe thus far,
and still will be our home.

When we've been here ten thousand years,
bright shining as the sun.
We've no less days to sing Earth's praise
than when we'd first begun.

When 44% of Americans believe the universe is just as God made it 10,000 years ago, we have some work to do. I blather on about it every now and then, like here. Here was my sermon for Evolution Sunday last year. Here is an article in the local paper about Evolution Sunday 2008.

It so happens that this year Evolution Sunday and Valentine's Day share with the church lectionary, the mythical celebration of the Transfiguration of the Lord.

Here is a photo:

Oops, wrong Lord. Here we go.

Religion (including all of its sacred texts, symbols, songs, and stories) is a human-made product not more than a few thousand years old. Earth is 4.5 billion years old.

This 130 million year old fossilized worm is one hundred thousand times older than YHWH (who was created by humans in the first or second millennium BCE).

There is far more evidence that this worm lived than that YHWH did (except in our imaginations). Nothing against imagination, but it seems to me long past time for religious folks to move on and put things in order.

Happy Evolution Sunday!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Meaning of Life, Part 43

When we do not trouble ourselves about whether or not something is a work of art, if we just act in each moment with composure and mindfulness, each minute of our life is a work of art. Even when we are not painting or writing, we are still creating. We are pregnant with beauty, joy, and peace, and we are making life more beautiful for many people.

Sometimes it is better not to talk about art by using the word “art.” If we just act with awareness and integrity, our art will flower, and we don’t have to talk about it at all. When we know how to be peace, we find that art is a wonderful way to share our peacefulness.

Artistic expression will take place in one way or another, but the being is essential. So we must go back to ourselves, and when we have joy and peace in ourselves, our creations of art will be quite natural, and they will serve the world in a positive way.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, p. 40

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Sends $209 Thousand

The Presbyterian News Service reports that the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has sent $209,000 to Haiti and hopes to raise $500,000.
With the death toll from the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti mounting and chaos threatening in the capital city of Port au Prince because of fractured infrastructure that is making relief efforts difficult at best, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has staff on the ground in Haiti and has already issued $209,000 to provide immediate emergency support to earthquake survivors, including food, water, sanitation equipment, and supplies....

....Immediate funds are being used to help with basic humanitarian relief efforts of providing temporary shelter, food and health assistance. Funds are also being used to provide water and sanitation engineers, and equipment to construct water purification systems. Resources for building latrines are also being provided, as the sanitation situation is critical.

PDA continues to receive Haiti earthquake relief and recovery donations, which can be made online, by phone or by mail:

  • PDA Web site
  • (800) 872-3283, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (EST) weekdays
  • Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, P.O. Box 643700, Pittsburgh, PA 15264-3700.
Please help if you can.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Presbyterian Student Fellowship

As I reported here, while our presbytery searches for an interim youth and campus ministry director, the duties of the recently retired Jim Kirkpatrick have been divided among folks in the presbytery. I am helping the Presbyterian Student Fellowship at ETSU with their Tuesday night meeting.

I am looking forward to this. We meet tomorrow night at 6 pm for dinner and a program to follow from 6:45 to 8 pm. I am going to talk about what the heck Presbyterian means anyway. Any undergraduate or graduate student is welcome! The dinner is awesome. We ask for a $2 donation. Can't beat that.

Beginning January 26th, PSF will begin with dinner at 7 pm and the program from 7:45 to nine p.m. I will get a schedule together and post it and updates on our Facebook page.

Other programs that the students selected will include yoga, black history month, Islam, a Mardis Gras celebration at First Pres. Elizabethton, and the film For the Bible Tells Me So.

We will have a ski day February 2oth and hopefully a mission trip during Spring Break (March 8-12).

Tell your buds and visit Presbyterian Student Fellowship (PSF) at ETSU!

Meaning of Life, Part 42

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist....

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."

Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream."

Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus."

Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God."

And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience."

And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free."

And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ."

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.

Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

--Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Like Water to Wine: A Sermon

Like Water to Wine
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
January 17, 2010
Martin Luther King

Isaiah 62:1-5
John 2:1-11
Excerpt from Letter from Birmingham Jail

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist....But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I am reading the new book by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I am reading it in anticipation for Evolution Sunday coming up in February. He isn’t writing this book without a context and a reason. On the cover panel of his book, the publisher wrote:
In 2008, a Gallup poll showed that 44 percent of Americans believed God had created man in his present form within the last 10,000 years. In a Pew Forum poll in the same year, 42 percent believed that all life on earth has existed in its present form since the beginning of time.
Dawkins writes how frustrating it is to teach when you are constantly fighting this backlash of superstition. His book is great. It shows evidence for evolution. He says evolution is a fact. He writes:
Our present beliefs about many things may be disproved, but we can with complete confidence make a list of certain facts that will never be disproved. Evolution and the heliocentric theory [the theory that Earth goes around the sun] weren’t always among them, but they are now. p. 17
He goes on to say:
In the rest of this book, I shall determine that evolution is an inescapable fact, and celebrate its astonishing power, simplicity and beauty. P.18
Which is the point. It is the greatest show on Earth. Perhaps the greatest story ever told. We should be teaching it and celebrating it in school and in church with religious fervor. We need to sing hymns to the glory of natural selection. I am serious.

Dawkins and number of scientists and theologians wrote a letter to the Prime Minister regarding teaching evolution in school. Apparently, Great Britain is being hounded by the superstitious as is America. If 44 % of Americans believe that God created Earth as it is 10,000 years ago, this should be a problem for church as well as science. While he is happy that enlightened bishops and theologians are writing letters, they need to do more. He writes:
To return to the enlightened bishops and theologians, it would be nice if they’d put a bit more effort into combating the anti-scientific nonsense that they deplore. All too many preachers, while agreeing that evolution is true and Adam and Eve never existed, will then blithely go into the pulpit and make some moral or theological point about Adam and Eve in their sermons without once mentioning that, of course, Adam and Eve never actually existed! If challenged, they will protest that they intended a purely ‘symbolic’ meaning, perhaps something to do with ‘original sin’, or the virtues of innocence. They may add witheringly that, obviously, nobody would be so foolish as to take their words literally. But do their congregations know that? How is the person in the pew, or on the prayer-mat, supposed to know which bits of scripture to take literally, which symbolically? Is it really so easy for an uneducated churchgoer to guess? In all too many cases the answer is clearly no, and anybody could be forgiven for feeling confused.
Dawkins isn’t finished. He pushes his point:
Think about it, Bishop. Be careful, Vicar. You are playing with dynamite, fooling around with a misunderstanding that’s waiting to happen—one might even say almost bound to happen if not forestalled. Shouldn’t you take greater care, when speaking in public, to let your yea be yea and your nay be nay? Lest ye fall into condemnation, shouldn’t you be going out of your way to counter that already extremely widespread popular misunderstanding and lend active and enthusiastic support to scientists and science teachers? Pp. 7-8
That is Richard Dawkins in his book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I hope you will all read it.

I agree with Dawkins and I thank natural selection for him. I am also thankful for religious scholars like Bishop Spong, Robert Funk, Marcus Borg (who by the way is going to be at Lees McRae College in February) and the Jesus Seminar for bringing religious literacy to the public. Superstition is not good for a nation.

I am thankful for Uta Ranke-Heinemann. She was the first woman professor of Catholic theology in Germany; she taught in the theology faculty at the University of Essen. In 1987, the Catholic Church declared her ineligible to teach theology after she pronounced the virgin birth a theological belief and not a biological fact.

You can’t make this stuff up. This is where we are.

She transferred to history of religion and continued to teach until her retirement at the College of Essen. This is what is says on the back of her book, Putting Away Childish Things:
When Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven was published a few years ago, it was immediately condemned by New York’s Cardinal O’Connor, who likened it to “scrawling dirty words about the Church on bathroom walls.” The uproar that ensued made Ranke-Heinemann’s devastating critique, in which she accused the Church “of degrading women and undermining the sexuality of believers”, the most controversial religious bestseller of the 90s.

In this comprehensive new book she goes much further and dismantles virtually all of the Church’s doctrines as a distortion of Jesus’ real message and of authentic Christian faith. She shows how the Church requires its members to remain lifelong children and to believe without questioning that mythic tales about Jesus are literal historical facts.
Her book is Putting Away Childish Things, how the myths behind the Church’s key doctrines--such as the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the empty tomb--distort Jesus’ real message.

So...energized by a good dose of rationalism by Dawkins and Ranke-Heinemann, what do we make of Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine?

The author of John’s gospel says it was the first sign that Jesus performed. There are a number of these signs in John that are numbered. They probably come from an earlier collection of miracle stories attributed to Jesus from which the author draws.

David Friedrich Strauss called this a luxury miracle. It didn’t really help people in need unless as Heinemann put it: “it’s genuine human distress when people who are already drunk have nothing left to wet their whistle with.” P. 80.

Although theologians have spent much time and spilled much ink over the meaning of this story, it really means little more than the story in the infancy gospel of Thomas where the child Jesus turns clay pigeons into real ones. Both are amusing fables.

Turning water to wine is a miracle story that was invented and attributed to Jesus. Heinemann writes:
Incidentally, some people are disturbed that Jesus snapped so rudely at his mother in this episode and even refused to call her Mother: “O woman, what have you to do with me?” But anyone fretting about this can rest assured that Jesus never did anything of the sort.” P. 81
The Jesus Seminar colored nearly all of the Gospel of John black in terms of whether or not the historical Jesus said or did the things attributed to him. Red meaning definite yes, black meaning definite no. This story is representative of the Gospel of John—complete fiction.

Where did it come from? This story appears in the lectionary around the time of Epiphany which means appearance. On the feast of Epiphany, the church has used three stories to celebrate the divine revealing—the arrival of the wise men, Jesus’ baptism, and the wedding at Cana. The common lectionary spreads these stories out over successive Sundays.

Epiphany is January 6th. Another god celebrated his divine epiphany on the 6th of January, the god of wine, Dionysus or Bacchus for the Romans.

The feast of Dionysus to whom legends of turning water into wine are also attributed celebrated his epiphany to the world. According to Heinemann:
On his feast day, Dionysus made empty jars fill up with wine in his temple in Elis; and on the island of Andros, wine flowed instead of water from a spring in his temple. P. 82
The religion of Dionysus would have been popular when the Christians decided that January 6th would be a good day to read the story of Jesus turning water into wine.

What we have here is an ancient one upmanship or one upgodship. Our god is better than your god. Jesus is better than Dionysus. To put it simply, in the words of the great New Testament scholar, Rudolph Bultmann:
“No doubt the story [of the marriage feast at Cana] has been borrowed from pagan legends and transferred to Jesus.” P. 82 Heinemann
Now we might say even if it is fiction that it still can have value. We can still have fun, right? Well sure, I don’t doubt that. Let your imagination run as wild as the wine. Jesus is a party god. Celebration, joy, marriage, love, all are blessed by the Cosmic Christ. Instead of ‘our god is better than your god’ we can celebrate that our religions are all inter-related and they all have roots and common symbols. The symbol of wine, the fruit of the vine, is a reminder to take notice of the pleasures of life and to enjoy what we can when we can.

On another day I might have left it there. To reflect on that story today seems rather shallow. We can’t read the scriptures without also reading the news. Haiti is in the news. The people of Haiti need a real miracle of real water and real food and real medicine and real shelter and real healing. They need it quickly and they will need it for a long time to come. Are we up for participating in that kind of miracle?

I don’t take much stock in miracle fables attributed to Jesus. Those who argue for their reality, I say, so what then is the miracle-working Jesus doing for the people of Haiti? Or did he just do all those tricks in the past that we are supposed to believe and then call it a day? Then you get all kinds of theological backtracking and often bizarre and callous comments like those that come from the lips of televangelist, Pat Robertson.

However, if Jesus whether the historical person or the divine legend that humans created, can inspire compassionate action, then I am all for him. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we honor this weekend, was inspired by Jesus. King’s letter from Birmingham Jail was a piece of genius in the way he showed his hypocritical colleagues what Jesus was about. King took the stories about Jesus as models for ethics and action. The hatred of prejudice needed a miracle to overcome. King’s creative extremism was exactly that miracle. Like Jesus, King wrote, we need to be extremists for love.

Maybe water to wine can be a symbol for creative extremism.

Probably more than anything right now, the people of Haiti need the help that comes from relief agencies. You know as well as I do the agencies that are out there. I personally vouch for the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. It doesn’t just help church people. It doesn’t stop helping once the news organizations have stopped reporting. PDA has already been working in Haiti in response to the hurricanes. If you would like to give to them, instructions are in the bulletin.

To inspire your giving, in addition to the plethora of Jesus stories, I offer this story from the Buddhist tradition. This story to my mind captures the true spirit of religion. This is from a wonderful little book called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones:
Tetsugen, a devotee of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the Sutras, which at that time were only available in Chinese. The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an edition of seven thousand copies, a tremendous undertaking.

Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him a hundred pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. After ten years Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task.

It happened that at the time the Uji River overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the funds he had collected for the books and spent them to save the others from starvation. Then he began again his work of collecting.

Several years afterwards an epidemic spread over the country. Tetsugen again gave away what he had collected, to help his people.

For a third time he started his work, and after twenty years his wish was fulfilled. The printing block which produced the first edition of sutras can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.

The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and the first two invisible sets surpass even the last. p. 35