Shuck and Jive

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Change--A Sermon

John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 26th, 2010

Gospel of Jesus 3:11-14
Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar,
The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 23.

As they were going along the road, someone said him,
“I’ll follow you wherever you go.”
And Jesus said to him,
“Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests;
but this mother’s child has nowhere to rest his head.”

To another he said, “Follow me.”
But he said,
“First, let me go and bury my father.”
Jesus said to him,
“Leave it to the dead to bury their own dead;
but you, go out and announce God’s imperial rule.”

9:57-60; Matthew 8:19-22; Thomas 86:1-2

I don't know where we ever got the idea that Jesus was gentle, meek, and mild. If these two sayings are authentic, Jesus is anything but gentle, meek and mild. He is aggressive, rude, and wild.
Let the dead bury their own dead!
You want to follow me, do you? Well, don't think it is all fun and games, pal. No soft pillows and three square meals with me. You'll be lucky if you eat or sleep. Even foxes and birds have a home. Not me, friend. No sir. This mother's son is always on the move, hunted day and night. The likes of you wouldn't last a week.

It's like spending a week in the wilderness with John Malkovich.

No sweet, lovable Jesus is this one.

And there is no way to spin these sayings that will take the edge off of them. These are hard sayings. Black and white. Do or die. In or out.

Civil rights leader Malcolm X once was approached by a white college woman. She was inspired by hearing him speak and asked him what she could do to help Black Muslims and whites get together. Malcolm X told her she didn't have a ghost of a chance. She went away crying.

That is what Jesus sounds like. An admiring fan says:
I'll follow you wherever you go.
Jesus simply replies:
Foxes have dens. Birds have nests. This mother's son has no where to lay his head.
In other words,
Forget it. You don't have a ghost of a chance following me.
Another time, Mark's gospel records an incident when Jesus is approached by a wealthy man who wants "eternal life." A modern way of saying it is that he is looking for a meaningful life.
What do I do? He asks Jesus.
Obey the commandments, Jesus tells him.
Done that.
Jesus says,
Well then, sell everything you have and follow me.
He cannot do that. Very few can. I certainly haven't. Have you? Even biblical literalists who think every passage in the Bible should be taken at face value (especially when they think it applies to someone else) find a way to ignore this story. Or they spin it beyond credibility.

The wealthy man turns away and leaves with a heavy heart, because the text says "he had many possessions."

Jesus is tough. There is no getting around that.

By the way, Malcolm X later regretted what he said to the white college girl. Malcolm X had matured. He had seen white students helping black people. He changed.

I wonder if Jesus ever mellowed. I don't know. He was executed at a young age. I would imagine that he was intense and remained so.
Let the dead bury their own dead.
You know what that means, right? He is telling the man to forget his family obligations. Perhaps like Jesus himself had done. He is telling this man to consider his family as dead to him.

Tough, tough. If this were to happen today, we would say Jesus was some kind of subversive leader and that his followers were crazed radicals. Perhaps not unlike the Weathermen. Remember them? They were radicals who in the 70s blew up buildings in order to call attention to the Vietnam War and other geopolitical and economic issues.

They were important issues, certainly. The times were insane as well. The Weathermen thought that ordinary people would not appreciate the gravity of the world situation unless they did these radical acts. The members of the Weathermen, also called the "Weather Underground," severed all contact with family for years in order to undertake this mission.
Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and declare God's imperial rule.
That is what the Weathermen thought they were doing. They were on a mission to change the United States.

They wanted social justice.
They wanted economic justice.
They wanted racial justice.
They wanted peace.

You get an idea and it grows. It becomes an obsession. It becomes a mission. When does it change from becoming admirable and constructive to demonic and destructive?

The cynical answer to that question is that the change from admirable to demonic happens when you switch sides. The Islamic terrorists of today were the freedom fighters of the Reagan era. If you are with us you are freedom fighters. If you are against us you are terrorists. Like I say, that is a cynical answer.

Are we so postmodern that we cannot decide any truth, any right or wrong, any good from bad? Is it all point of view? Is it all politics? Whatever is good for my tribe is good and whatever is bad for my tribe is bad?

I think there is a way to determine when an idea changes from admirable to demonic. I think there was a time when idealist students changed from peaceful critique and demonstration to destructive action as the Weathermen. The Weathermen warned authorities before they blew up a building so people would have time to be evacuated. But it was still violent and destructive.

Jesus was non-violent. Except for his demonstration in the temple, when Jesus turned over tables, there is no evidence that the Jesus movement was a violent or a destructive one. The turning of the tables was more of a symbolic act. It was the event that likely got him killed.

It was subversive to be sure. He meant to overturn Empire. His political, economic, and social vision was counter to that of Empire and of his own religious leaders. He advocated for economic justice, social justice, and peace between ethnic groups.

But his method was non-violent as best as I can tell.

That is the key. The seeds of violence and destruction grow. They produce bitter, poisonous fruit. It doesn't matter how just the ideal, violence poisons everything for many generations. That is the case if it is done by radicals or by armies.

The way of Jesus was a new way of living and being.

It was an intense movement. Jesus was singly-focused. He meant it when he told his followers that life with him would be dangerous, without comforts, and without contact with family. Obviously, Jesus didn't think everyone would follow him.

It is anachronistic after 2000 years when Jesus has become a mythological figure, the Cosmic Christ, the second person of the Trinity, to say that to be a Christian or a follower today means to become a homeless wanderer as the historical person was. Although, for some that might be what it means.

We can interpret these texts as symbol and metaphor. These texts are texts of change. They are texts of letting go. The Via Negativa or the way of letting go and letting be. Letting go of what? You have to make that decision. It could mean starting something very new.

As a globalized industrial society we are going to be letting go of a way of living that extracts and exploits and destroys our home. At some point we will let it go. It is happening now. We will be relating to Earth and to one another in a new way. We are needing to learn to live with Earth rather than against it. It will be better for us if we are pro-active and conscious about it, rather than just letting it happen.

I think Jesus is going to become an important figure again as we live through this time of change. The stories about him and the stories he told may have a relevance that we may have missed before. There is a radical trust and a sense of purpose about Jesus. He is awake and alive. As Bob Funk says, he lives "without reservation into a completely open future." A Credible Jesus, p. 91

The reason I told some warning tales about the Weathermen, is that this "living without reservation" can be very destructive if it is not grounded in what is right and wrong. It is not enough to have a social, economic or political vision that is just, you must have ethical means that match that vision. For Jesus, it was non-violent resistance to oppression. Resist but do no harm.

It is time for the human race to let go of any illusion that we can bring in good things through violent means. We are not going to bring democracy to the Middle East through military action.

We live in a highly militarized culture. There is a reason for that.

The following two sets of statistics are the most important I can think of to understand our situation.

In oil we live and move and have our being.
Everything in modern society is based on cheap oil.

As Americans, we consume 18-20 million barrels of oil each day.
We extract 6-8 million barrels.
We need to import 10-14 million barrels.
We are five percent of the population and we consume 25% of the world's oil.

You don't keep up that level of disparity without massive bullying. I don’t say that with the intention to offend. I'm just calling it as I see it. That is why we spend more on our military than the next 20 or so nations combined.

Those of us with conscience, those of us who see the need for systemic change have our work cut out for us. All of us need to be involved in peace and sustainability movements at many different levels based on our own sense of what we want to do and can do.

Whether we are taking on mountain top removal mining, or supporting local food growers, finding ways to help ourselves and others reduce consumption, or learning and teaching about what life will be like post-peak oil, now is the time to see this work as spiritual work.

Growing a garden is a subversive, spiritual act.

Not everyone can do that.
Not everything is for everyone.
We find our own way.

When Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead” I think he was saying that there are those who cannot be helped because they refuse to see. As painful as that is, there comes a time to let go and move on with those who do see.

This is a spiritual path, the way of letting go. There is no better guide than the historical Jesus who taught us to travel lightly, to trust Earth, and to take each day as it comes.

We will find that it is a joyful and rewarding path.

In time of change, being awake is good.


  1. That was outstanding, John. Thank you.

    Jesus was indeed a hard ass. But for all the right reasons. He knew that, much like it is in my own household, that giving orders produces better results than begging. ;)

    Of course, He knew He was going to be caught and railroaded into prison and eventually executed. Knowing you have that to look forward to would make all else seem trivial I'm sure.
    He was the greatest dissident in history. He stood against those who use "God" to manipulate others and achieve personal gain. Against those who look upon the less fortunate with derision.

    ...Often there is a certain spiritual elevation that occurs when one has nothing. I experienced this in prison and I came to understand what I believe Jesus meant by sell and follow.
    Though I didn't exactly "sell" what I had, my actions caused me to lose it. (I was not willing)
    But having nothing, literally nothing to call my own beyond a Bible and a roll of toilet paper gave me an acute understanding of what it felt like to be the downtrodden.
    I saw myself as those I formally called "losers" and "bums". I was them. And it was at that time I really understood what social injustice was.
    My spirit soared.

    Thanx again.

    "It's like spending a week in the wilderness with John Malkovich"

    LOL! :)

  2. YAAAAYY!!

    You are without a doubt my favorite heretic.

    If the folks over at The Center for Progressive Christianity don't know about you, they will as soon as I send them a link.

  3. John provides a certain clarity that often defies some of the mythical attributes of Christianity.

    All too many clergy continue to cling to exaggerations that began in the Catholic church. I guess that's what a lot of congregants want to hear in exchange for their tithes.

    I personally prefer logic to soothsaying. No soothsaying at John Shuck's church.

    "The Center for Progressive Christianity"
    Thanx for the heads up, Raven.