Shuck and Jive

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Demons By the Finger of God--A Sermon

Demons By the Finger of God
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
October 31st, 2010

Gospel of Jesus 5:1-17

Rising early, while it was still very dark, he went outside and stole away to an isolated place, where he started praying. Then Simon and those with him hunted him down. When they had found him they say to him,
“Everybody’s looking for you.”

But he replies:
“Let’s go somewhere else, to the neighboring villages, so I can speak there too, since that’s what I’m here for.”

So he went all around Galilee speaking in their synagogues and driving out demons. Now right there in their synagogue was a person possessed by an unclean spirit, which shouted,

“Jesus! What do you want with us, you Nazarene? Have you come to get rid of us? I know you, who you are: God’s holy man!”

But Jesus yelled at it,
“Shut up and get out of him!”

Then the unclean spirit threw the man into convulsions, and letting out a loud shriek it came out of him. And they were all so amazed that they asked themselves,
“What’s this? A new kind of teaching backed by authority! He gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him!”

So his fame spread rapidly everywhere throughout Galilee and even beyond. And some in the crowds around Jesus would say,
“He drives out demons in the name of Beelzebul, the head demon.”

Others were testing him by demanding a sign from heaven. But he knew what they were thinking, and said to them:

“Every government divided against itself is devastated, and a house divided against a house falls. If Satan is divided against himself—since you claim I drive out demons in Beelzebul’s name—how will his domain endure? If I drive out demons in Beelzebul’s name, in whose name do your own people drive them out? In that case, they will be your judges.”

Jesus said,
“But if by God’s finger I drive out demons, then for you God’s imperial rule has arrived.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 27, 29. Mark 1:23-28; 35-39; 3:22-26; Luke 4:33-37; 42-44; 11:15-20; Matthew 12:24-28.

Since it is Halloween, I thought it would be a good time to talk about demons.

My daughter and I went to see Paranormal Activity 2 the other night. It was clever. There were several places that incited a good scream. The plot for these films is always the same. No one “believes” in these supernatural demonic agents until they get ya. Then it’s too late.

Some people like scary movies, others don’t. Some people like Halloween, others don’t. I find there is a great deal of ambivalence about Halloween in this part of the country. I personally think it is fun and harmless as long as people are mindful and careful, as in "drive carefully, there are children in the streets." Others, particularly church people, think that Halloween invites “satanic” influences and so on. That should be no surprise. One cannot trust superstitious people to get anything right.

Scary movies are fun because they are movies.

This entire notion of the fear of Halloween by some evangelical Christian people is a good illustration of missing the point. Demons and unclean spirits and what not are a carry over from the ancient world. In the ancient world, or in the pre-modern world, reality is externalized. Gods, angels, demons and so forth were seen as influences upon life. They existed in heavens or in the mountains and forests and what not.

For them what is happening on Earth is being enacted in the heavens at the same time. The spirits of earthly political institutions do battle in the heavens. These gods in turn give favors to mortals if they the mortals do the right sacrifices and so forth.

This was a helpful lecture yesterday by Art Dewey and Brandon Scott of the Jesus Seminar regarding how the ancients conceived of meaning. They projected in outward. We internalize. For us, there are no beings out there. It isn’t a matter of belief. It is where we locate reality. We use psychology and other means of knowledge to talk about what is happening within us or sociology to talk about what is happening between us.

The gospels are written from an ancient perspective. From this perspective, Jesus casts out demons. Others did as well. The Jesus Seminar voted red that Jesus was an exorcist. He cast out what were believed to be demons. Jesus was a product of the ancient world. That is not a worse world or a better world. They are not dumb and we are smart or vice versa. It is a different way of seeing reality and meaning.

While we use the language of psychology, economics, politics, sociology, and so forth, they would use the language of gods, angels, unclean spirits, and so forth. It did not mean that they were superstitious. The superstition is on our behalf when we appropriate something from the ancient world to our world. We distort it.

For the ancients, you didn’t need to believe in unclean spirits, or in the divinity of Augustus for example. These were realities. It was obvious that Caesar was divine, it was written on all the coins. If there was any doubt, he had legions to persuade you. It is not a coincidence that Mark’s gospel has a name for the demon Jesus casts out into the swine. Legion. That is a not so subtle reference to Roman occupation.

When Jesus casts out demons “by the finger of God” he is not engaging in supernatural hocus pocus. This is not the film, the Exorcist. Instead Jesus is empowering people. He is waking people up. He is casting out fear. He is telling them and showing them that the gods are favoring them. Which is crazy. Because everyone knows that the gods favor the top 15 percent of the pyramid not the bottom 85% who exist to serve the top 15%.

No wonder they call him Beelzebul. No wonder they call him crazy. He has it upside down. He says things like the Empire of God is for the poor. The unclean spirits that Jesus casts out are the spirits of occupation, grinding poverty, and hopelessness that have been imposed by the peace of Rome. This peace of Rome is good for the top 15%. It is oppressive and deadly for the other 85%.

At the seminar yesterday, Brandon Scott said:
“There is no middle class in the ancient world. There are the elite and the masses who serve the elite.”
After saying that he quipped that there are folks today who want to turn our country back to that state of affairs.

The point I am making is that the Gospels or Jesus or the Bible for that matter, is not about religious stuff. It isn’t about fantasies of life after death, or demons or the existence of supernatural beings. It is about real stuff.

Walter Wink in his very important book, Engaging the Powers, writes:
“…what people in the world of the Bible experienced and called “Principalities and Powers” was in fact real. They were discerning the actual spirituality at the center of the political , economic, and cultural institutions of their day.” P. 6
What is fascinating is that today we cannot even name it. We cannot even be honest with ourselves about our political and economic realities.

Why is the American Empire in Afghanistan?
Why is the American Empire in Iraq?
Why does the American Empire have military bases in virtually every country on the planet?
Why does the American Empire spend more on its military machine than the next 18 countries combined?

To bring democracy to the world?
To fight terrorists?
To bring peace?

At least Rome was honest about its ambitions. They were brutal. But they were honest. The historian Tacitus is writing to a people considering whether or not resist Rome’s domination. He writes:
By the prosperity and order of eight hundred years has this fabric of empire been consolidated, nor can it be overthrown without destroying those who overthrow it. Yours will be the worst peril, for you have gold and wealth, and these are the chief incentives to war. Give therefore your love and respect to the cause of peace, and to that capital in which we, conquerors and conquered, claim an equal right. Let the lessons of fortune in both its forms teach you not to prefer rebellion and ruin to submission and safety. Tacitus, History 4.73-74.
Two choices: rebellion and ruin or submission and safety.

That is what it means to bring democracy to the Middle East.

At least Rome was honest as to what war was about.
Gold and wealth.
We cannot even name it.

There are two numbers that you should tattoo to your forehead.
The mark of the beast.

20 and 8.

Nice round numbers. Approximations really, but helpful.
20 and 8. Think of millions. 20 million and 8 million.
I have said before and will say again,
In oil we live and move and have our being.
Civilization is based on oil. There is no energy source that is anywhere close to providing for us what oil has provided for us. It appears that we have used up the cheap easy to get stuff. Yet we have become accustomed to it. It is the "American way of life", that our former president told the world is "non-negotiable".

The American Empire consumes 20 million barrels of oil every day.
It extracts 8 million barrels.

Where do we get the extra 12 million?

We need to “persuade” the nations that have oil that we deserve to consume a quarter of the world’s supply while having 4% of the world’s population. And we would like it cheap. That is a tough sell. So we persuade them with the presence of the most expensive and powerful military Earth has ever seen.

But that is not all.
China wants some of that oil too.
And they have a few guns.

This is not going to end well.
We are entering the end game.

And we are not even talking about it.

When more people know about Charlie Sheen’s hooker in his hotel closet than they know about Peak Oil, we can pretty well assume that we are in denial.

Those whom we trust to tell us the truth are not doing it.
The President is not talking about it.
The politicians we are supposed to be voting for on Tuesday are not talking about it.
The media, and I am not talking about individual reporters many of whom are incredibly courageous and conscientious, but the media corporations are not talking about it.

It is up to us.

The reason I brought the Jesus Seminar here is not because I am interested in esoteric theories of the Bible or the ancient world. It is not to satisfy intellectual curiosity. They are some of the few intellectuals left within the Christian tradition with any integrity.

At Westar’s 25th anniversary just a few weeks ago, historical Jesus scholar, Dominic Crossan talked about his purpose.

He talked about what he lives for.
That is a good thing to do.
It is good to have both a purpose and a source of identity and meaning.
It is good to have a mythos.
It is especially important to have a mythos that works.

He referred to a book by Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization. This is what Amazon says about the book:
In this delightful and illuminating look into a crucial but little-known "hinge" of history, Thomas Cahill takes us to the "island of saints and scholars," the Ireland of St. Patrick and the Book of Kells. Here, far from the barbarian despoliation of the continent, monks and scribes laboriously, lovingly, even playfully preserved the West's written treasury. When stability returned in Europe, these Irish scholars were instrumental in spreading learning, becoming not only the conservators of civilization, but also the shapers of the medieval mind, putting their unique stamp on Western culture.
Crossan said that this is could be a role for us during the collapse of the American Empire. We need to be able to preserve the wisdom we have gathered so that future generations won’t have to start from scratch. How are we going to do that?

How to plant seeds,
Know how diseases are spread,
how to make a shelter—basic information that will be lost in the collapse.
It is no good to save all that on a disc.

It was refreshing, in fact I think I felt a lump in my throat which I think was grateful recognition, when Crossan said plainly that the American Empire was heading toward collapse and that we have a purpose. There is wisdom within our tradition that we need to bring forth onto the lifeboats that we need to build now.

I realize that it is weird that a preacher says this kind of stuff about oil and Empire when those we trust are silent or soft pedal it so much that there is no urgency or political will to change.

The point is not to scare people.
The point is to encourage you to build lifeboats.
We build these lifeboats not for us so much but for those who will inherit what we leave them.

In addition to practical things we all should be doing,
  • having emergency supplies of food and water,
  • skills in first aid,
  • learning how to live on a fraction of the energy we currently use,
  • learning to grow food,
we also need to find the spiritual resources to help identify the struggle and the hope. We need both a purpose and a mythos. What can we take from our tradition that can help us?

That is why I find the Jesus Seminar especially helpful. For those of us in the Jesus tradition, who do not want to give it up, we can find a credible Jesus who can help us make sense of Empire and our purpose in its collapse.

The first century gospel critique of Empire and alternative way of living as opposed to Empire is helpful.

When Jesus casts out demons,
he was casting out for those who could see..

...the way of Empire that is based on domination, violence, and power over.

He was casting out fear and panic.
In place of fear, Jesus says,


Trust yourself.
Trust each other.
Trust the Universe.
Trust God.

Not Empire’s god,
but the god of Jesus,
the god of non-violence,
the god of sustainability,
the god of justice, of joy, and hope,


Friday, October 29, 2010

The Wait Has Ended!

They have arrived!

Brandon provided tonight's lecture on "What Is a Parable?" We had a good turnout for the evening lecture, probably about 75 or so.

Tomorrow's workshops begin at 9:30 then at 1:30.

If you join us you will happy like these people!

And these people...

and these people too!!

Here are tomorrow's workshops:


The History and Craft of Parables
To understand Jesus' parables one must begin with an overview of the art of story-telling and the several methods involved in the interpretation of stories, ancient and modern. Participants will examine the ancient craft of parable-making side-by-side with modern examples of transparent poetry and creative songwriting. This workshop will explore not only what a parable might mean, but also how it means to be taken.

Saturday, 9:30 A.M.-Noon

Parables and the Kingdom
Jesus' parables are both a door and a mirror to the kingdom of God. But does the kingdom illuminate the parables (Matthew) or do parables illuminate the kingdom (Mark)? Better yet, do we unravel the parables, or do they unravel us? The parables of the Banquet and Unjust Steward, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Leaven, and the Mustard Seed will serve as the primary texts for this presentation.

Saturday, 1:30-4 P.M.

Snad and Paul Await the Parousia

The Jesus Seminar scholars are on their way as promised. Their chairs are ready.

Here Snad and Paul discuss the art of parable crafting while awaiting the parousia of Art Dewey and Brandon Scott who will then boot Paul and Snad from their respective thrones.

The invitations have been sent

The banquet hall is set.

Now we await the guests.

Will they come or offer lame excuses?

Jesus Seminar Tonight!

The Jesus Seminar on the Road is tonight! No need to pre-register. Pay at the door!

Two big news items:

1) The football game was last night. There is no game tonight, therefore NO parking issues. Whew! Congrats to the Cyclones too for winning! Plenty of Parking!

2) Any seminary, college, or high school student with ID gets in for FREE!! We have scholarships for students.

This is going to be a big deal. This is a rare and unique opportunity to listen to and converse with scholars who have been involved with the Jesus Seminar (the cutting edge of historical Jesus study) for 25 years. Listen to an interview with Art Dewey on WETS.

The lecture is Friday at 7:30. Here is the rest of the schedule.

Come to one, two, or all three events.

Here is the Google Map for the First Presbyterian Church:

From Johnson City, take Highway 321 into to town. It becomes West Elk.

At Pal's turn right on to Holly.

Go past the football field on the left. Then turn left onto West F Street.

We are in the middle of the block on the left, 119 West F Street.

The books are set up for sale. Excellent resources for a mindful exploration of Jesus, the Bible, and issues of faith.


The Authentic Letters of Paul and The Trouble With Resurrection and the latest edition of The Complete Gospels are ready for purchase!


We are setting up the Martin Hall in anticipation of 80 folks or more.


Again, plenty of room. Make a last minute decision to attend if you have been on the fence! Bring a friend.

I'm telling you, you will be angry with yourself for missing this when you hear how great it was!

Check my blog for more information!

Blessed Be,

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Advice to Parents and Teens Regarding Peak Oil

Janaia Donaldson of Peak Moment TV interviews Deborah Lindsay. The challenge is how to talk to parents and teens regarding changes that are underway. This is a conversation from a couple of years ago.

Now that the effects of Peak Oil have begun, what do we do? Peak Moment Television is a great resource to have these conversations.

Here are some
more recent conversations. Check in with Janaia's blog.

I'm curious. Have you had an opportunity to talk about Peak Oil with family, friends, or church community if you have one?

Your midnight movie might help you get the conversation started.

A Crash Course on Peak Oil

This is chapter 17 of Chris Martenson's Crash Course. It is only 17 minutes. It explains Peak Oil clearly and concisely. I recommend watching the entire Crash Course. It will take three hours and twenty minutes, but you can watch it in pieces.

Martenson has been helpful regarding the basics of economics and how money works and tying that to energy and ecology.

Here is a 45 minute summary.

And now the 17 minute section on Peak Oil, your midnight movie:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Building What?

At the end of this post is an ad that will be airing in New York beginning election day. It will run through November 10th.

It is part of the Building What? campaign.

More than eight years after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, New York Supreme Court Justice Edward H. Lehner was hearing arguments in a courtroom less than a mile from Ground Zero about a ballot initiative to launch a new investigation of the 9/11 attacks. When the lawyer for the plaintiffs sponsoring the initiative explained that the 9/11 Commission report left many unanswered questions, including “Why did Building 7 come down,” the Judge replied quizzically, “Building what?”

Like Judge Lehner, millions of people do not know or remember only vaguely that a third tower called World Trade Center Building 7 also collapsed on September 11, 2001. In any other situation, the complete, free fall collapse of a 47-story skyscraper would be played over and over on the news. It would be discussed for years to come and building design codes would be completely rewritten. So, why does no one know about Building 7? And why did Building 7 come down?

The answers to these questions have far-reaching implications for our society. The goal of the “BuildingWhat?” campaign is to raise awareness of Building 7 so that together we can begin to address these questions.
According to a press release:
The ad will appear on thirteen channels including MSNBC, CNN, Comedy Central, HGTV, Logo TV, Bio TV, Versus TV, MSG, Sports NY, VH1, HLN, CNBC and Bravo. We have “roadblocks” scheduled on Wednesday night from 8pm to 9pm and 11pm to midnight. This means that those of you in the New York area who tune in to Keith Olbermann, The Daily Show, Nancy Grace, CNBC, MSG, The Biography Channel and Versus TV at 8pm, and The Daily Show/Colbert Report, Anderson Cooper, Logo TV, and the Biography Channel at 11pm are guaranteed to see the ad.
I think it is important to get to the truth. That is why I have joined with many other prominent religious leaders including Walter Wink and John B. Cobb as well as a number of Presbyterians in adding my name to Religious Leaders for 9/11 Truth.

Here is my statement:

I think it is critically important for religious leaders to demand a complete and thorough investigation surrounding the events of 9/11/2001.

9/11 still is used as a pretext for continued so-called wars on terror and the demonization of Muslim people.
Here is more about how Religious Leaders for 911 Truth started from the Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 911 Truth.
Just as religious leaders have historically spoken out against previous forms of morally unacceptable practices based on lies, the charter members of Religious Leaders for 9/11 Truth recognize that we cannot acquiesce in a cover-up of the truth about an event that has served as the basis for the "War on Terror," especially when this so-called war has produced so much oppression, including the killing and maiming of millions of innocent persons, the use of torture on detainees, the portrayal of Islam as an inherently violent religion, and the view that Muslim countries have no right not to be attacked.

The charter members of Religious Leaders for 9/11 Truth are now issuing a call for religious leaders from all religious traditions to sign our petition, which ends by "ask[ing] President Obama to authorize a new, truly independent, investigation into the attacks of 9/11."
Maybe you will join us?

And the ad for
Building What?

Jesus Approves Seminar in His Name

Our Jesus Seminar on the Road begins in two days!

Brandon Scott and Art Dewey will present their Friday night lecture from 7:30 until 9:00. You can register and pay at the door, or register in advance.

Walk-ins are welcome!! Come early. Here is the
google map so you can find us.

We have scholarships for Friday night for college and seminary students with student ID.

They will offer two workshops on Saturday. Come for all or part of the weekend.

Plus, we have loads of books for you to purchase for your library from Westar including the two latest books Trouble With Resurrection (Scott) and the Authentic Letters of Paul (Dewey).

Jesus approves:

To what shall I compare the Empire of God? It is a room full of people trying to figure out what in heaven's name I was talking about.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Crude, Rude and Socially Unacceptable

That is what you will be when you talk about Peak Oil.

That doesn't matter.

Because the word needs to get out.

Doing so will save lives.

Here is another midnight movie.
It is Crude Impact and you can watch it in segments right here...

I suggest you buy the DVD and show it at church, for Halloween, and when the World Series gets one-sided.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Is It Pledge Time AGAIN!!?

It is Stewardship time. This is the time of year the congregation asks its members to make a pledge for the coming year. Never have I felt confident regarding this aspect of my profession. I saw a Twitter today that said:
"How do you encourage increased giving for those who can, while knowing others fear they can't afford to go to church?"
I don't have the answer to that, except to say there is no entry fee.

Of course there is the stereotype (perhaps archetype) of the greedy manipulative preacher grabbing for every widow's mite with a combination of guilt, fear, and superstition, promising everything from material success, to a spot in heaven, to a cure for cancer, if you just send in your gift.

Yet I do believe in what we do. I think our community is important. I think that a community that embodies equality, respect, service, and joy is a good thing. And yes, it exists solely because people give to it.

I hope you have such a community where you live. I trust that if you find it worthwhile that you will support it.

Here is the letter I wrote to my folks for the October newsletter.

Dear Friends,

It has been five years already. I became the pastor of FPC Elizabethton in August 2005. I couldn’t design a better ministry than the one I have with you. I remember when I was in seminary I told my colleagues that I wanted to serve a progressive church in the woods. They laughed. Well, here I am.

What a great congregation this is. We are a green church committed to environmental and social justice, peacemaking, LGBT equality, science, art, psychology, religious diversity, great music, play, and food for mind and heart. We are a community that honors everyone’s unique spiritual path.

We are blessed with a talented and skilled staff. Each of them loves this church and is excited about who we are and what we do. Each of them puts far more time, love, and heart into their work here than his or her “job description” requires. They believe in what they are doing here and that makes all the difference.

We are blessed with a beautiful building and peaceful, green grounds. Many hands and many gifts made this worship space possible. We don’t have to build a new church every year. We only have to keep it well maintained and invest in its improvements so it can be an oasis for years to come. I find that our sacred space is holy ground not only for our members but for the larger community as well.

We are blessed with members and friends of all ages. I am impressed with the wide variety of gifts that are found in this community. Thank you for giving of yourself to this congregation. It is the time and talent that is given freely that makes it work. And it does work. People are blessed here. The church makes a difference in our lives.

Our congregation is growing. We see new faces each week. I hear again and again how much the support and compassion of this community has meant to so many of you. Others have told me that they weren’t in church for years before finding a home here. We have something special here and something vital and something we want to continue. This will require the support of every friend and member.

We will begin our Fall Stewardship Emphasis this month. Our theme is “More Than Enough.” God has given us more than enough and we respond to that gift of life by paying it forward. Within the next few weeks we will be talking about the importance of stewardship. On November 7th we will celebrate Stewardship Commitment Sunday. We will dedicate our pledges for the coming year.

This congregation does important work. It is as an honor and a privilege to be part of it!

Blessed Be,

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A "Generous" Man? -- A Sermon

A “Generous” Man?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 24th, 2010

Jesus used to tell this parable:

Heaven’s imperial rule is like a proprietor who went out the first thing in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for a silver coin a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

And coming out around nine a.m., he saw others loitering in the marketplace and he said to them, “You go into the vineyard too, and I’ll pay you whatever is fair.” So they went.

Around noon he went out again, and at three p.m. he repeated the process. About five p.m. he went out and found others loitering about and says to them, “Why did you stand around here idle the whole day?”

They reply, “Because no one hired us.”

He tells them, “You go into the vineyard as well.”

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard tells his foreman: “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with those hired last and ending with those hired first.”

Those hired at five p.m. came up and received a silver coin each. Those hired first approached, thinking they would receive more. But they also got a silver coin apiece. They took it and began to grumble against the proprietor: “These guys hired last worked only an hour but you have made them equal to us who did most of the work during the heat of the day.”

In response he said to one of them, “Look, pal, did I wrong you? You did agree with me for a silver coin, didn’t you? Take your wage and get out! I intend to treat the one hired last the same way I treat you. Is there some law forbidding me to do as I please with my money? Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?”
Gospel of Jesus 4:4-21

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 27, 29. Matthew 20:1-15.

You may have seen a series of commercials regarding a certain bank.

In one particular commercial a man is sitting at a children’s table with two little girls.

He says to one:
“Would you like a pony?”
She smiles and answers,
He pulls out a toy pony and gives it to her. She smiles. She is happy. She has a toy pony. To the second girl he asks,
“Would you like a pony?”
She also smiles and answers,
He makes a sound, clicking his tongue, and in walks a live pony. The camera stays on the first girl while we hear the man say to the second girl:
“Here you go this is for you.”
says the second girl.

The first girl says,
“You didn’t say you could have a real one.”
The man answers,
“You didn’t ask.”
While the camera stays on the first girl as she narrows her eyes, the narrator says:
“Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.”
So is the man with the pony generous or is he holding out?

Technically, the guy is right. The first girl didn’t ask for a real pony. Not only that, she was perfectly happy with her toy pony. It was only when the second girl received a real pony that the first girl saw that it seemed unfair and gave the man the evil eye.

Only then was she filled with envy.
Only then did she begrudge his generosity.
She should just buck up right?
They are his ponies, after all.
He can do what he wants.
The first little girl is just greedy and spoiled.
She is self-righteous.
She doesn’t appreciate the grace and generosity of the man who owns the ponies.
Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
Is the owner of the vineyard generous or is he holding out?

Technically, the owner is right. Those who worked from 6 a.m. on did agree on the bargain they had made with the owner. They seemed OK with that agreement. He didn’t go back on his word. He paid them what they had agreed upon. It was only when they saw that those who worked less also received the same pay that it seemed unfair and so gave the owner the evil eye.

Only then were they filled with envy.
Only then did they begrudge his generosity.
They should just buck up right?
It is his vineyard. It is his money.
He can do what he wants.
Those who worked all day are just greedy and spoiled.
They are self-righteous.
They don’t appreciate the grace and generosity of the owner of the vineyard.

That is how we are supposed to read this parable. It is an allegory for grace we are told. God is as gracious to the deathbed convert who throughout his life ignored his religious duty and spent every Sunday morning in idleness, debauchery and pleasure as God is to the faithful church mouse who sat on a hard pew each and every Sunday morning after long Sunday morning, and always paid her tithe and always did the dishes after every potluck.

In the end it doesn’t matter. Everyone gets to heaven. God grades on the curve. Works are irrelevant.

It is all about God’s grace as David Buttrick in preaching on this parable writes:
Look, in God’s world everything is grace, amazing grace. You can’t earn grace, you can’t deserve grace, you can’t be moral enough to merit grace. Grace is handed out free to sinners, while the self-righteous who won’t accept “bleeding charity” take their pay and go." Speaking Parables, p.117
There you have it.
What looks like injustice…
What seems like injustice… only so because we are not looking at it through God’s benevolent and generous eyes. It’s not fair but it is the way God works, so just buck up. Hallelujah.

Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
Then we have this other complication. Not only does the landowner give the late hour laborers a little extra cash because he is generous, he does it in front of everyone, paying the late hour workers first.

What could possibly be the point of that except to make a point?
What is the point exactly?
That because he owns land he can do whatever he wants?
Does he do it to shame these first hour workers?
Does he do it to make a show of his generosity?

The owner says:
Is there some law forbidding me to do as I please with my money?
Actually there is. It is called the fair wage law. Of course, they might not have had such a law in first century Palestine, but they knew about fairness and wages. The Hebrew prophets talked about justice to the poor on a regular basis. Jesus did too.

The landowner says:
Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?
say the workers.
“It is not because you are generous that we are giving you the evil eye. It is because you are arrogant and a grandstander. You think it is fun to play with people’s lives. You make a spectacle of us. You devalue our labor.”
The owner might reply:
“Now wait a minute. I am concerned about the late hour workers and their plight. If it weren’t for me they would have nothing. I have been moved by compassion at their condition and I offer them more than they have earned. Out of my own pocket I put food in their stomachs. I have created a social safety net. Isn’t that what you left wing socialists are all about? Don’t hate me because I am a generous capitalist.”
And thus the question we have to answer.

Is the landowner just and generous or not?
Before we go further with that, we should say a couple of things about parables. We tend to interpret them as allegories or as illustrations that make a moral or theological point. In this case, the landowner is a stand in for God and the moral of this parable is God’s amazing grace for the undeserving.

I suggest that parables in general including this one are not allegories. They are open-ended invitations to view the world differently than previously we have viewed it.

Whenever Jesus tells a story about landowners, judges, kings, and those with authority and power, we should be very skeptical that that character is a stand-in for God.

If we see this landowner as God, we will have to engage in a great many gymnastics to make sense of it.

We don’t have to see the landowner as God. The landowner could be just a landowner. The meaning, the empire of God, could be within the text of the parable or outside of it.

Is the landowner generous? He says he is.

However, a silver coin or a denarius a day will make no one rich. Whatever agreement he made with the workers you can bet it was for a subsistence wage. He apparently had plenty of landless peasants available to work his vineyard. If one won’t work for a denarius, ten more will.

Now we should start asking some questions.

Why are there landless peasants?
Where did they come from?
Who owns the vineyards?
Who profits from the harvest and the marketing and the taxation of this fruit of the vine?
Finally, who gets to drink it?

We don’t know.
We can be sure that Jesus knew and
his landless peasant audience knew, and
the vineyard owners who were listening in knew, and the
compromised religious authorities knew, and the
political authorities who eventually executed him knew.

You can bet that none of the landless peasants enjoyed the fruit of the vine. You can also bet that they all knew the words of the Hebrew prophets such as Micah who when speaking about the great day of the Lord said:
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; (Micah 4:3-4a)
Everyone shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees.

That is the empire of God.

The empire of God is not getting a denarius a day if you are lucky harvesting someone else’s vine. That is the empire of Caesar.

In early first century Palestine, as Herod built his mini-empire he had to fund his projects. You don’t fund massive projects by dealing with individual people and their puny little vines. You bring in agribusiness. You find whatever means you need to drive those inefficient people off their land and give it to large landowners who can then turn a profit.

This is the context for our parable.

The parable is a fiction but the setting is a real as a hungry child.

The hearers of these parables would recognize a landless peasant hoping to get hired to work in a field that used to be his daddy’s.

At the end of the day what the landowner has succeeded in doing is to pit the laborers against each other. It is similar to the huge coal companies in West Virginia, Kentucky and Southwest Virginia who pit people against each other. They say the same thing all the time,
"Mountain top removal mining creates jobs."
That is not true of course. Mountain top removal mining uses far fewer workers than conventional mining. A small number of people have these jobs. Others do not. The people who live there are embattled and embittered against one another. Meanwhile, mountains are destroyed forever and billions of dollars flow into the pockets of energy companies.

I am starting to meddle, aren’t I?
I am not talking about religion anymore, am I?
Religion is about Jesus dying for your sins so you can go to heaven.

You know, Jesus talked about two things more than anything else.
These two things were NOT abortion and homosexuality.
They were economics and something he called the empire of God.
Money and Power.

The empire of God is not an empire anymore than the school of hard knocks is a school. The empire of God is a metaphor for a way of seeing actual empires. One of the things we need to see is the empire of Caesar in all of its manifestations.

Empire loves spectacle. It loves to demonstrate its power and to spin itself as benevolent power.

I think this is what Jesus is illustrating in this parable.

First of all, in Jesus’s world you give to charity without a big show. This is Jesus speaking just a few chapters earlier in Matthew 6:1-4:
“…when you give to charity, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so your acts of charity may remain hidden.” Matt 6:3-4
And yet in our parable the landowner has a big show at the end of the day in which he pays the late hour workers more than they deserved and then tells the early hour workers how generous he is. His point is to grandstand. He is demonstrating both power and phony generosity. He is giving away ponies to some and not to others.
Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
Just a few verses after today’s parable in Matthew 20:25, Jesus tells James and John who are fighting over power, about how things work in the empire and in contrast how they should behave:
‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you…”
In our parable, the landowner lords it over them:
“Is there some law against my doing what I please with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous.”
It reminds me of the television commercials for British Petroleum. The commercials are all spectacle about how great BP is. They show local folks working hard day and night processing claims. BP is creating spectacle. They are creating image. They want to be seen as generous, honest, and caring, when in fact, they are doing everything they can
  1. to conceal and downplay the destruction,
  2. to take the least amount of responsibility for it as possible, and
  3. to pay little as they can get away with paying.
BP is a corporation. That is what corporations do. We think it is all perfectly normal. Yet...
Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
I read this parable as Jesus exposing an unjust system shrouded in spectacle.

This spectacle of spin--this show of “generosity”--is what those who control wealth and power do all of the time. Jesus exposes this spectacle with this anti-Empire parable.

Where is the Empire of God in all of this?

As Jesus said elsewhere it is among you, within you, and outside you.
  • Perhaps it is in the discussion we have within ourselves and with others about justice, fairness, stewardship, generosity, and our daily bread.
  • Perhaps the Empire of God is about opening our eyes to how power works and how money works.
  • Perhaps the Empire of God is asking whether or not the way power and money works is the way it must work or should work.
Perhaps the Empire of God is asking how it could work.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Jesus Seminar on WETS

Wayne Winkler of our NPR affiliate, WETS, interviewed Arthur Dewey and me regarding our upcoming Jesus Seminar on the Road.

You can listen to the 15 minute interview here

and catch it tomorrow (Saturday October 23rd) on the
WETS Community Forum.

The Roller Girls will be on first at 7:30.

Followed by Jesus at 7:45.

In the interview Art talked about the parables as that is the focus of the upcoming seminar.

There was not enough time to discuss his new book,

The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul's Rhetoric and Meaning.

We could have a seminar on that. This is a fascinating book.

Paul, as we all have learned, is an obnoxious, obfuscating, misogynist homophobe.

But after being worked over by the Jesus Seminar he turns out not to be such a bad guy after all. From the Introduction:

This man is a thinker and rhetorician, a visionary and prophet, whose experience of God was so profound that he re-imagined the conditions of existence. This is a man who was alert to the world about him, able to use metaphors that both speak to and challenge his world. This is a utopian thinker who joins in the cultural debate of his time over what constitutes the value and meaning of humanity. This is a man who has glimpsed what it means to live beyond tribal or ethnic boundaries. This is a man who can imagine those considered outsiders as equals, a man who has found freedom and meaning in the rag-tag communities of "nobodies." p. 1.
How is it that we get from Paul the champion of superstition, gay bashing, prudery, and slavish obedience to dictators, to a "visionary and a prophet"?

The question should be asked in reverse. How did a visionary and a prophet of radical equality and justice become the Paul only Charles Colson and the LayMAN could love? It is because the church did the same thing to Paul that they did to Jesus.

Both Paul and Jesus were framed.

They were turned into caricatures of themselves and became cartoonish stooges of Empire (ie. notice the irony of the depiction above of Jesus in royal garb).

What Art Dewey and the Fellows of Westar have done is offer a fresh translation of Paul's seven letters. They regard Acts as a fiction (part of the framing story of Paul) and the other letters traditionally attributed to Paul as impostors. The Westar Fellows are not unique in this. We all learned this in seminary. Furthermore, some of Paul's letters have junk in them (interpolations) that Paul never wrote. And some of the letters are out of order or are a combination of more than one letter. The
Authentic Letters of Paul straightens all that out for us.

What is especially exciting is the new translation that changes the "churchy" words and concepts such as law, grace, sin, faith and so forth into language that helps locate Paul's thought in his context and provide a fresh interpretation (what all translation is) of his ideas and passion.

Will the book be controversial? No doubt. Folks will have legitimate disagreements with some of their decisions. Yet it will be an important contribution to the discussion on Paul and biblical literacy in general.

However, next weekend (Oct. 29-30), it will be the parables of Jesus with Art Dewey and Brandon Scott, world-class scholars on the the historical Jesus right here in Appalachia.

The Roller Girls and Jesus.

It just doesn't get any better than that. Check it out Saturday morning on WETS--89.5 FM.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Coming Out Day at ETSU

It did my heart good to read this in the East Tennessean:

A candle-lit crescent shone in front of the Sherrod Library on the night of Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day, commemorating departed friends and celebrating diversity.

The candlelight vigil, organized by the Department of Multicultural Affairs in cooperation with ETSU's LGBTies and several other groups, honored individuals who had faced adversity or death for their sexual orientation.

"In the past three weeks there have been five suicides related to homosexuality," LGBTies co-president Kendall Standridge said. "Those are just the ones that have made the news.

"Beyond that there have been several people like Matthew Shephard and Brandon Tina, a sort of martyr in the gay community, who have died for their orientations."

Shephard's and Tina's names were mentioned several times from the podium during the event, as well as the names of others who have died.

After that, the crowd was encouraged to call out the names of loved ones who had died due to orientation/gender discrimination.

Individuals were named, heads were bowed and candle flames danced brilliantly as an honorary moment of silence ensued.

Though heartrending, the ceremony was not without smiles and good times. A Johnson City band, The Squash Blossoms, kicked the activity off with an acoustic jam that included Old Crow Medicine Show's Wagon Wheel, and an after-party of sorts convened at the Presbyterian campus house.

Carly Manning, president of ETSU's American Society for Microbiology student chapter, attended with members of her club who were taking up donations for the support of HIV/AIDS patients.

"Dr. Powers, our faculty adviser, is also the president of HIV Network, the organization I was responsible for collecting donations for," Manning said.

Manning collaborated with Standridge to set up a booth informing participants about HIV/AIDS.

"HIV/AIDS is extremely prevalent among the homosexual population," Manning explained. "Not only were we there to collect donations, but also to raise awareness."
Standridge also explained the purpose of LGBTies.

"LGBTies is a gay-straight alliance on campus," Standridge said. "We serve as a safe haven for students who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, as well as anyone questioning their sexual orientation. We are an open-minded group who want to be about more than just sexual orientation and gender identity."

When asked about the relationship between the heterosexual and non-heterosexual populations on campus, Standridge stated that the biggest issue between the two was "a simple gap in understanding." Without mentioning names, she referenced some straight acquaintances who avoided situations with gay individuals because they were afraid of offending them.

However, she assured that she would answer any questions anyone might have to help bring about a better understanding of who she is.

"Any exposure helps us show the straight community that we aren't entirely different from them, and that is the goal."
It was an honor to participate in the sharing of stories at the Presbyterian Campus House. More than one story had to do with stigma because of religion. Gratitude was expressed that the Presbyterian Campus House was a spiritual place of welcome. It was a sacred time.

I am very proud of LGBTieS and the Department of Multicultural Affairs for putting this together.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Presbyterian Business: Equality, Bullies, and Pensions

The homophobians are foaming at the mouth regarding teh gay. The LayMAN has its groupies writing letters to the Board of Pensions on behalf of those essential Jesus qualities, namely, greed and prejudice.

"Don't want any queer folk gettin' any benefits. That's our money."

I am sure that is what Jesus would say.

Folks at the Covenant Network say we should write letters too and tell the BOP that they should grant the benefits that the General Assembly approved this summer. You can send a letter to corporate secretary Andy Brown or to any of the people on the list that the LayMAN has provided.

But you know, I have to think that the good folks at the BOP are not idiots. The General Assembly already voted. If the BOP is so compromised that letters from unhinged homophobic nutcases would keep them from doing the right thing, then is there is any hope at all for us? I mean, really.

So BOP, consider this my letter. Do the right thing.

Now for the rest of you, ahem, LayMEN, who think that people should be denied health care coverage because they don't fit your warped sense of morality, all I have to say is

if he were here...

In related news, the voting has begun on equality. So far, the good people are behind two presbyteries to none.

The Presbytery of the James tied, which means lose. I'll wager that someone at that presbytery is feeling sheepish for skipping the meeting.

The Presbytery of Alaska also voted no.

Anti-equality presbyteries like to get out the vote early in an attempt to make a trend. For instance, my presbytery (which usually votes 3 to 1 against equality) votes in early December. But I and other equality-minded folks will get out there anyway and give folks a chance to do the right thing.

Make sure you bookmark the Yes on Amendment 10-A blog.

Finally, More Light Presbyterians invites you to go purple on Wednesday, October 20th

"to honor the memory of the LGBT youth hurt and pushed by bullying to suicide."
Good idea.

Bullies are a problem.
I preached about them on Easter. Childhood bullies do grow up. Some actually reform.

Others end up writing for the LayMAN.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Gustav Niebuhr Speaks at Westar

Here is a photo of John Dart of the Christian Century interviewing John Dominic Crossan at the 25th anniversary of Westar.

This afternoon Gustav Niebuhr is presenting on Religion in America in 2035. He is pictured below on the left. To the right of Niebuhr are Westar Fellows, Glenna Jackson and Charles Hedrick.

Niebuhr is the author of Beyond Tolerance: How People Across America Are Building Bridges of Tolerance. He is speaking today about our future--the future of religion, of the United States, and the future of the Jesus Seminar or Westar.
In politics, demographics and technology, widespread and remarkable changes have distinguished the last quarter century in the United States. Similarly, profound shifts have affected American religion, many driven by national currents within politics, demography and communication. Considering the various trends in religion that have arisen, accelerated or died out since the Jesus Seminar’s establishment in 1985, what might we expect to be discussing about that subject in 2035, when the seminar marks its 50th? Saturday, 2 to 5 p.m.
He is a journalist and has reported on the Jesus Seminar in both the New York Times and the Washington Post. He said that Westar is responsible for the publishing boom of religious literature.

He says that as Westar has reached its 25th anniversary, the question is where will it go from here? He said that Westar's goal is to be an advocate for religious literacy. That goal is never more important than it is today.