Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Gospel according to Hawkeye

This is a sermon I gave to my little congregation in Moose Lake, MN.

The first thing I’m going to have to do is another one of my little history lessons. I was thinking about that as I prepared and it occurred to me that maybe not everybody was looking forward to me being up here again and giving another history lesson. So, I’m working on being more entertaining, a little more engaging. But something was pointed out to me about this story that really brought it to life. To see what that is, I need to go over the book of Matthew, to the story that comes just before today’s reading. The book of John is very different from the other three, and in this case leaves out some details.

We get up here each week and read these stories as if they are complete within themselves, but of course they are not. In this case we have Jesus and a few thousand followers sitting out in the middle of nowhere with no food. Is this just some setup to tell a story about a miracle? What are they doing out here? Looking just before this story, we have the story of Herod imprisoning John the Baptist. John was Jesus’ cousin, and he did a lot of the work early in this ministry. For people who study Biblical times, not from a religious perspective, John is seen as the early leader of the movement and Jesus only stepped up after John died. And even though we know how it turns out, the people who were following this movement at the time do not. This is the story of how they dealt with this transition.

Herod has John in prison, but here in Matthew 14 it says, “he wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered him a prophet.” So he doesn’t really want to kill him because of his fear of a backlash from the people. This may not sound like the same Herod from stories of Jesus’ birth who had all of the first born killed, and it’s not, that was his father, Herod the Great. Herod the Great was a conqueror and a controversial figure. He had converted to Judaism, but his loyalty was questioned, he definitely made deals with the Romans, but if he hadn’t, the Jews may have suffered even more. When he died, which would have been early in Jesus’ childhood, he passed his throne on to his son, also named Herod.

This Herod Jr. did not have the strength of authority that his father had, but he had a kingdom, and he could throw parties. Continuing in Matthew, he has his niece dancing at his birthday party and he likes that, so he offers her whatever she wants. She asks for John the Baptist’s head. Again from Matthew, “The King was distressed”. He was distressed because he now has to keep the promise he has made or he looks weak to his royal relatives, but he has to do something that will anger the people he is ruling, and weaken his already tenuous authority. And he does it.

In just a few more lines, we move in to today’s story, now knowing that the reason they have all gone out in to the wilderness is to mourn, and not just for anybody, for Jesus this is family, and this is someone who sees the world in the same way he does. Together they had this vision of healing and ministering and building a grass roots movement against these Romans and this sniffling little puppet ruler, Herod Jr, who had come and taken over their homeland. They just wanted to let people know that they are accepted and loved. They no doubt knew there would be trouble. They may have expected to get arrested, but they probably were not ready for this.

So here we are. We have Jesus sitting on a rock somewhere out across the Sea of Galilee surrounded by 5,000 men, all of them in shock and wondering what to do now. And a couple of the leaders, Philip and Andrew come up to him and say, “umm Jesus, we don’t have enough bread, and only two fish.” This is one of the times when I know how I would react. And sometimes I wish the Bible would let us in a little more on Jesus’ thoughts. He did after all come down to be human, and as a human, I would think he would be a bit annoyed at this question.

I recalled a scene from the TV MASH while I was thinking about this. If you remember Colonel Sherman Potter, he was the stronger military Colonel, not the bumbling funny one from when the show started. He would often yell his orders at Hawkeye Pierce and Hunnicutt. In one of the shows he told them to do something and they questioned his orders, Potter shook the stars on his epaulets and said, “you see these, when they give you these, they remove the bone in your head that makes you explain your orders, now just do it.” I can imagine Jesus feeling the same way, thinking, “why are you bothering me with the menu, I’m the Christ.” But of course he wouldn’t say that, because well, he was Christ.

What he does do is show some true leadership. He doesn’t explain, he also doesn’t get angry or scold his disciples for not having faith. There are other times in the gospels when he does that, but this is a funeral. He simply and gently says, have everyone sit down, he gives thanks for the meal, and of course everyone is fed.

I’ll say more about the miracle in a moment, but I want to wrap up what I get from the story, looking at in this light. I think what is being shown here is a contrast. These stories were not written down until a few decades after Jesus died, so the intended audience of them would have needed a little of the history lesson, although they would have been more familiar with Rome and the politics of the time, but as a story, the idea is still the same, find yourself in it, which character can you relate to? Here we have two parties. In one of them there is good food, nice wine, it’s a happy occasion, and you’re hanging out with the people in charge, you can do whatever you want, you want the head of John of the Baptist, you can have it. In the other party, you’re sitting on a rock, it’s getting dark and you’re wondering, where’s the justice and you’re hungry? But then what you do is you share your meager morsels, and all are fed.

Today we are really neither of those. We are neither royalty nor slave. We have an election process. We don’t have fathers passing on their throne to their sons. But we still have to make choices every day about what is right and what is just. We may be several steps removed from the people who make our clothes or grow our food, but our choices at the cash register affect the lives of many people. We can choose to share what we have with others and support each other in time of need, or we can just party.

Now the reading goes on to say that the saw this miracle and saw it as proof of Jesus being a prophet. That may have been what a 1st century writer wanted to get across, but as a 21st century man, I have trouble with it, I have trouble with all the miracles, and I’d like to address it in case there are others out there feeling the same way. A previous pastor of mine told of how it was common in these days that people would all carry with them a little pouch with some dried fish and probably. Jesus no doubt knew this and instead of organizing a big gathering of everything, he knew he could count on the generosity of the people there and if he just started passing a basket around, those who had extra would throw it in, and those who did not would take no more than they needed.

Rick has introduced the idea of “non-overlapping Magisteria” before on evolution Sunday. Magisteria being areas of study. Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist put forth this idea that there does not need to be an argument between science and religion. Science can cover what can be empirically demonstrated and religion can stick to matters of meaning and value. At times like this parable, they may seem to overlap, but only if you want to pick that fight. I am satisfied that in 110 A.D. or whenever the Book of John was written, miracles were an important and accepted part of writings such as these. These are not newspaper accounts, this is not a history book and it is not the inerrant word of God. As a United Methodist, we are not called to hold these stories to that level of scrutiny and doing so causes more trouble than it solves.

For this story, whether you claim a miracle occurred, or you call it a miracle of community the value of the telling of it remains the same.

Monday, July 20, 2009

History ain't what it used to be

When I was in 5th grade, our teacher decided to have an afternoon in the library. This would be a time when we could pick anything off the shelf and we didn’t have to report on it. I don’t remember why, but I picked up a book on Columbus. It didn’t sound anything like what I had learned up until then.

I had been told, by teachers, that Columbus was turned away by the King of Portugal because he believed the world was flat and of course Columbus was smarter than that. This book said that Columbus had asked for future royalties from all land he might discover and that he be named “Great Admiral of the Ocean” and appointed governor of whatever he found and all of his descendants would inherit that title. He made a similar proposal to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain and was again rejected twice before being accepted. The extravagance of those offers and the advice of experts on navigation were why he was rejected. He really didn’t know where he was going, or where he was once he got there.

The details of the negotiations that ended with the voyage of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were always glossed over, or completely ignored in primary school. Business negotiations may seem like pretty dry stuff, but in this case, they make the history more interesting, and changing them into a story of Kings and Queens not believing in our hero makes matters worse, not to mention obscuring other history of Greek science and earlier maritime navigation.

Standing there at 11 years old, I didn’t know what to do. I can clearly remember looking up at my teacher from the book as this seemingly terrible truth was revealed to me and she was smiling. I wasn’t sure if she was aware of what I was reading and was happy for my discovery, or if she didn’t have any idea and her look was one of blissful ignorance. I assumed the latter, since she had taught me something very different. I had no one to turn to for answers because it seemed everyone I had trusted up until then was in on the conspiracy. It was difficult to trust any authority from then on.

Never did I hear the story of Columbus being stripped of his governorship when he did not deliver riches that he promised, or of the story of him tricking the natives by saying he would “take away the moon” when he knew that a lunar eclipse was coming. Over the next couple decades more of this story was revealed through the efforts of the descendants of the people who were negatively affected by the arrival of Europeans here in the Americas. Until I read Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen, I didn’t have the full story. That book adds a lot to the history presented in public schools, and does it in a much more entertaining way. It also analyzes why our history text books are so watered down and so out of balance with actual events. I wish it were as simple as a good conspiracy theory, but the dynamics of it involve all of us.

Recently I was looking through the books in my church’s library. It’s actually just two bookcases in the basement, but it’s our library. I came across a book titled The Bible as History, written in 1981. I thumbed through it and found that it did not have the location of Eden. It started out talking about something called the “Fertile Crescent” and how a tribe from the West invaded this area. It said there may have been a man named Abraham who came from that tribe, or the biblical Abraham may be a composite character. I had seen a movie in the 70’s that showed how parts of Noah’s Ark had been found, but this book did not seem to take those accounts seriously. It talked about another book, Gilgamesh, that had been written earlier than the Bible and compared its flood story to the Noah story. They are remarkably similar.

This time I was not confused. I have the context to understand this history book. I know I can talk to my pastor about it. It is not being taught in every child’s Sunday School class, but I know it is in mine, because I’m the teacher. We may never know how all the stories in the Bible developed. Just absorbing all of the historical information that exists today would be impossible for one person. The further back in time you go, history pretty quickly becomes a matter of probability.

In "The Bible as History" book, it tells the story of the discovery of the city of Ur, where the Gilgamesh story was found on stone tablets. It was a pile of rocks in the desert, then around 1850 somebody decided to try to figure out what it was. In the process, they hacked a lot of it away. Archeology has improved since then, but who knows what story they will be telling about us 150 years from now, about how we brushed away a critical layer of history thinking it was just dirt. Let’s hope we do a better job than when I was in grade school.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The world we want

I saw Arlo Guthrie on stage the other day. He was just as good as he was 20 years ago. He stopped in the middle of songs and told stories, just like always. At one point he said, "Ya know, I know it would be great if the world was at peace, all peaced out and love and everything, but have you ever thought if that were how it was, just how far out of your way you would have to go to make a difference? We may live in a time when we have to do less than ever to make a difference in so many other lives."

Here is Arlo's granddaughter. He performed the middle song, "Take Me to Show and Tell" (for the first time ever) at the festival.

A festival like this brings many people together, including a few yet unborn and a few in wheel chairs. It becomes a place not just for enjoying music but for exploring. I overheard a small group of college kids discussing their futures, it brought back great memories. That is so far in my past, it’s hard to even recall being in that state of mind. Now it just seems cute.

It is pretty rare that I see or do something anymore that affects me in any profound way. But as soon as I start thinking that I have reached some sort of completion, some sort of conclusion, something comes along to remind me that there is no end. At one of the first small stages, where several bands take turns performing, there was one song, it was so good, it made me want to go sit in a cheap motel somewhere and just think about life for a while.

I knew I would want to find the lyrics and memorize them and recommend people who play guitar learn it, and tell poets and poetry lovers just to hear it and tell the next generation about it. I knew I would spend a lot of time searching for the lyrics and hoping to find a recording of that live performance. What would have taken a decade a few years ago, now can be done in a month. Here’s the YouTube,

You can see my comments on a song from the same stage asking the guy with the camera to post this one. That song is “Star of Bethlehem”, a Neil Young cover. The above was performed as the second song for the "Song Remains the Same" workshop by C. R. Avery. I can't find any other reference to it, so I'm trying to transcribe it. I'm sure I'm way off in many places.

The wind is a speed reader
It is violently flipping through the pages of a glossy pages
of the magazine's ripped manuscript,
Absorbing its wet words like a dry humored sponge.
Seattle grunge is face down in the toilet bowl
Rock and Roll in a bird feeder,
But before it rained the wind was a speed reader

In this cherry blossom grave yard the microphones don’t work
One has a cool distorted tone like a faded bed cover
The other is a cordless
In an English plain it would never see the ocean crash against the rock.
Unanchored and unorthodox it cannot handle the beat box

These microphones watch too much television
That’s why I need to stand and sing against the library of the wind
To carry my voice over the drums and the crowd
Like a Hummingbird that hums aloud to pay his rent
Against my better judgment, I have let money drive my car
Left with the scar of a fatal accident, bent out of shape bad, scraped bad
Bent and smoking on the side of the highway while I vent

In a town where they use your name to fill a bar room
Music usually means less than beer
But it was a musician, who first said,
Let’s just play it by ear
If I die today, bury me on Highway 16
In between the split city of many seasons church and rocky’s garage

I devote the sons of the splash, to the clouds of cock’s back
Along with the…cold, which the weather to bury the dead

but sing This land is your land, this land is my land
but rewrite the words to say what needs to be said
And if you can’t make it to my final highway rest stop
Stick a harmonica out the window of a vehicle moving at high speed,
This go slow read is when you hear the wind

2:14 Harmonica until 3:04

Now with sweaty palms I answer the sub
Just like the sadness and disappointment in the waitress and patrons eyes
That came that night in to the bar to be inspired
If I said I’m perspiring it means they leave empty handed
To be candid this is an apology in the form of an unsung telegram
I’m sorry sometimes I watch too much TV and let the swing door slam
But one day the world is going to turn all fast chains in to second hand book stores
And the world will be well read
But in the valley of the dead, you can’t hold your breath before death
I’m going to be a literary obscene green lizard with my tail curled up like a garden hose
Between my teeth a wild rose,
A gray dawn, I drop a crayon and I draw it back
And I let water colors run and I smear it with beads of sweat
Behind a cigarette in the garden of good and evil, this is hobo erotic hip-hop
Let our bodies work be more diverse than the vinyl in a new and used record shop
Into the barroom floats a mischievous breeze and I’m flipping through a
Flipping through a dime store paperback novel
Leaning against the jukebox
That reads "like the fox I run with the hunted
And though I may not be the happiest man in the world,
I’m surely the luckiest man alive"
In this cherry blossom graveyard, renewing my vows
Following a northern star
The wind is a speed reader
Before the rain came
But regardless, the song remains the same

Monday, July 6, 2009

How to Read

I know my titles sound remedial, but check out this link and see what goes in to studying religion. I guess that's why I enjoy it, I know I'll never be done. Or I'm a glutton for punishment.

Critics of the Bible

I had been thinking about writing something like this, but then I came across this article and he says it better than I could have. I would left out the harsher criticism, so you can skip past that to the bullet list. He does have a point, many people do a basic reading and don't consider that the translation they have might be incorrect, or at least their meaning has changed since they were written, and certainly the context.

I'm sort of on summer vacation, I'll be back with my own original works soon.