Shuck and Jive

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Answering the Call--A Sermon

Answering the Call
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Isaiah 6:1-13
Luke 5:1-11

Did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
All its

It felt the encouragement of light
Against its

We all remain

The way of creativity, the via creativa, is the way of finding our voice. It is waking up. It is discovery. It is answering the call.

Throughout the Bible our heroes and heroines responded to the divine call. In the 12th chapter of Genesis, Abram whose name changes among other things because of his call is sent on a journey:

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

That isn’t the last time Abram who becomes Abraham hears that terrifying summons.

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’

Poor Abraham won’t be the only one haunted by YHWH. Moses, too. He is minding his own business, keeping the flock of his father-in-law when he sees a strange sight. He sees a bush that is burning but not consumed. He makes his first mistake. He goes to check it out.

Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’.

YHWH goes on to say:

The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’

YHWH even picks on helpless children. Poor Samuel is awakened in the night. For every kid who has ever thought there are monsters in the closet, Samuel experiences something even more terrifying, a YHWH under his bed. After being called twice and mistaking it for his master, Eli (who knows by now the voice of that old trickster), Samuel listens:

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.

YHWH calls and then sends those whom he calls to unpleasant tasks. He calls them to bring a word of judgment and change. These are thankless assignments:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew…. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

Oh, bad mistake. But when you are summoned….

And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’

I still don’t understand that assignment. A gloom and doomer forecasting destruction and doing it in such a way that the people won’t listen and change.

Our spiritual tradition has bred all kinds of madness. Self-proclaimed prophets who out of some delusion of grandeur engage in all variety of mindless pursuits.

We may wonder about these stories in the Bible. From a modern vantage point we rightly see these stories as creative fictions. They are ancient projections of the tellers’ own desires and frustrations, grief and hope. Their explanations for why this deity who controls everything cannot or will not stop suffering are for most of us, unconvincing.

We know rationally that there is likely no deity, higher power, or universal force invading our lives with the insistence of telephone solicitors. The gods come and our doubters, skeptics, and rationalists sweep them away. They change shape, don new identities and mythologies and visit us again. The skeptics do away with them again. Again, they return. We can’t seem to rid ourselves of supernaturalism.

Robinson Jeffers in his poem, “Silent Shepherds” suggests that perhaps supernaturalism is necessary after all. He describes the characters he would have in his ideal world.

What's the best life for a man? To ride in the wind. To ride
horses and herd cattle
In solitary places above the ocean on the beautiful mountain,
and come home hungry in the evening
And eat and sleep. He will live in the wild wind and quick rain,
he will not ruin his eyes with reading,
Nor think too much.
However, we must have philosophers.
I will have shepherds for my philosophers,
Tall dreary men lying on the hills all night
Watching the stars, let their dogs watch the sheep
And I'll have lunatics
For my poets, strolling from farm to farm, wild liars distorting
The country news into supernaturalism--
For all men to such minds are devils or gods--and that increases
Man's dignity, man's importance, necessary lies
Best told by fools.

Perhaps that is the best definition for religion we can find:

Necessary lies best told by fools.

Fools who hear and answer a divine calling. Fools who insist that there is some kind of meaning out there. Fools who refuse to wear black and read Nietzsche on a lonely park bench in a random city on a blue planet at the edge of a galaxy that has no purpose.

But listen to the last few lines of Jeffers’ poem:

Science and mathematics
Run parallel to reality, they symbolize it, they squint at it,
They never touch it: consider what an explosion
Would rock the bones of men into little white fragments and unsky
the world
If any mind for a moment touch truth.

There we go again with truth. Reason might not be the only path. The heart has reasons that Reason does not know. So does the holy fool.

In her book, Doubt: A History, the author, Jennifer Michael Hecht traces the history of doubters and skeptics from the early Greeks through to the present day. What is winsome about her book is that she has great sympathy for believers and doubters alike. Both are of the same cloth. She keeps that tension, that dance, between doubt and belief visible.

She writes:

Whether you are a non-believer, or you belong to a religion without God, or you are a believer troubled by dark nights of the soul, we are all part of the same discussion. This is because, whatever our position may be, we all have the same contradictory information to work with. Sometimes it feels like there is a God or ultimate certainty, and it would be a great comfort if such a thing existed and we knew the answers to life's ultimate mysteries: who or what created the universe and why; what is human life for; what happens when I die? But there is no universally compelling, empirical, or philosophical evidence for the existence of God, a purposeful universe, or life after death. Some people may be tone-deaf to the idea of evidence, some may be tone-deaf to the feeling that there is a higher power--we must forgive them each their failing…. Believers value the sense of mystery human beings can feel when they look inward or beyond; nonbelievers value the ability to map out the world by rational proofs. Pp. xi-xii

Perhaps these stories of call, the call of Isaiah and the call of Simon and the sons of Zebedee to leave their nets, point to something--whether within us or without us--that is real and necessary. We get there by the feeling and the nudge that is symbolized in these stories by the divine voice.

Reinhold Niebuhr ends his book, Moral Man, Immoral Society by telling us that we need illusions. For whatever you call it, salvation, awakening, redemption, we need a sublime madness of the soul:

In the task of that redemption the most effective agents will be men who have substituted some new illusions for the abandoned ones. The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justice. It is a very valuable illusion for the moment; for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and “spiritual wickedness in high places.” The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done. P. 277

Niebuhr captures that play, that back and forth. We need the madness. We need the crazy poets who listen to divine voices otherwise we are liable to sink into a resigned despair. But we need reason to put some quality control on these voices so we don’t all end up throwing cups and saucers at the Madhatter’s tea party. But we can’t bring the reason out too soon or we may never hear the voice of the fool who had a dream, and in the summer of 1963 told it to the nation:

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

You know that voice. Martin Luther King’s. Where would we be if he hadn’t acted on his belief that the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice?

Thus is born the via creativa. The spiritual path of creativity. This is that feeling, that sublime madness of the soul, that helps us screw up the courage to speak even when our natural instincts knot our stomachs.

This is the feeling that invites us to take a chance on love when the voices of reason and prudence wear on us to keep us safe but lonely.

This is the feeling that invites us to open the door to some creative chaos so Spirit can blow around and shake up our sterile orderliness.

Perhaps most of all,

This is the feeling that embraces us with warmth and light and encourages us to give the world our beauty.



  1. "THOCK!!"

    That's the sound of one being hit out of the ballpark.

    This sermon...."THOCK!!"

  2. Two Words.

    "Sensible Religion"

    Thanks John.


  3. I like the word "myth," which maybe is part 2 of what you said in this sermon. We need myths that speak to the universal realities we know about today so that we can continue to follow that "arc toward justice."

    "Illusion" and "Superstition" are words that to me denigrate our creative tendency toward the creation of myth.

    "Religion," as I have recently learned, stems form a word that means re-alignment. So "religion" that uses myth (see below) to realign ourselves with that "arc toward justice" is far from a superstition or illusion, both words that to me speak more about delusion and a false sense of reality. Like the idea that "god" will save us from the snow storm, (or the terrorist) so we don't keep extra water on hand as a matter of course.

    "Myth" of course does not mean something that is not true (as I know you know), but Myth is a story that points beyond itself to a deeper reality than what we see, touch, hear, taste, or smell. Like what Isaiah was trying to express in that room filled with smoke.

  4. @David @Sara @Steve Thanks!

    @Snad Missed you too!

    @Searaven I thought this sermon probably had something to please and offend both skeptics and believers alike. I am enjoying very much Jennifer Hecht's Doubt: A History.

    Does the arc of the universe bend toward justice? Is that an illusion? Is it a myth? Is it poetry? Is it superstition? Is it true? Is it real?

    Maybe yes to all. Maybe not. I don't know. I am glad MLK believed and acted on it. At times I do as well. I am more a skeptic than a believer but I don't want to be tone-deaf to the poetry and the hope that resides in it.

  5. Does the arc of the universe bend toward justice? Is that an illusion? Is it a myth? Is it poetry? Is it superstition? Is it true? Is it real?

    Maybe yes to all. Maybe not. I don't know. I am glad MLK believed and acted on it. At times I do as well. I am more a skeptic than a believer but I don't want to be tone-deaf to the poetry and the hope that resides in it.

    There's the crux, I think.

    I see the arc of the universe as completely indifferent, but perhaps malleable. WE bend it when we work together to create justice and serve justice. This is why the myth, superstition, poetry, what have you, is important. It is a language that creates the connections between people so that they continue to work on bending that arc.

  6. I see the arc of the universe as completely indifferent, but perhaps malleable. WE bend it when we work together to create justice and serve justice.

    Yeah. If human beings (as far as we know) are the consciousness of the universe. If the course of evolution (without any plan or design) has nevertheless produced us who can talk about justice and have some success in implementing it, then yes the arc of the universe may well bend toward justice as we participate in that bending.

    I am also reading Evolution for Everyone in which he talks about the good as part of our evolution. It could be that what we call good evolution is selecting for in the long run...