Shuck and Jive

Sunday, January 31, 2010

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.


  1. Ever notice that Jesus didn't finish reading the sentence in Is. 61:2 in Luke's version? It says, "and the day of vengeance of our God." I suspect there is a connection between leaving that line out and the stories about Elijah and Elisha.

  2. Profound and provocative as usual. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and creativity and vulnerability with us all.

  3. I like Pastor Bob's catch about the rest of the Isaiah passage. We'll never know why Luke left that out, but we can speculate until the cows come home.

    Maybe it was enough to hint at the Elijah and Elisha stories. Luke's community was likely a lot more biblically literate than most folks listening to sermons of a Sunday morning.

    I personally did not pick up on that until I had been studying the lectionary and putting my post-modern mind to it for quite a while.

  4. Matthew does that all the time when quoting the OT. I think it's a practice from the proto-Rabbinical school. They quote the passage but leave the punchline out. You are supposed to recognize the full passage and its context, and taken together they add a whole new narrative layer to the Gospel texts.

    All of the OT references contain secondary messages woven within the messages. It's probably safe to assume that Jesus' listeners understood them well. At least the Gospel listeners did.

    One of the mistakes of 19th century evangelicalism was to virtually delete the OT from their canon. This was a huge mistake causing profound and basic theological errors that haunt us to this day.

    The OT was the bible Jesus and the Gospel writers used. In order to stay in context one must be familiar with the OT in its own right as understood by a non-Christian point of view, and then see what the NT does in re-casting it.

    As Matthew points out, the re-casting is not instead of but in addition to. He puts the principle in the mouth of Jesus when Jesus says "I have not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it".

    And also in Mat 13:52: "And Jesus said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old."

    (I like Matthew because he teaches you how to read his Gospel).

    You can't live without the 'old'.

  5. Thanks Sea Raven. It's always good to have my brilliance recognized. ;) Seriously, I figured that one out on my own.