Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sunday Sermons

Below is the written form of the Sunday sermon. I rarely follow the written script exactly. In the preaching I talked a bit more about the bailout.

Today, I met with some other housing advocates. Such conversations cover how much we will have to do try to stave off cuts from programs that are already insufficient. Government revenue is down on the State and County level. At the same time politicians in Washington are burning the midnight oil, not to find the money to end homelessness but to protect the profits of the wizards of Wall Street. Somebody needs to start turning over the tables of the moneychangers and the System that protects them.

Sunday Sermon

Proper 21 Year A
Exodus 17:1-7, Matthew 21:23-32
In God We Trust
By Rich Gamble

We have two texts today. We start with the second, the story in the Gospel of Matthew. In this story Jesus is confronted by the elders. They want to know who gave Jesus the authority to do and say what he’s been doing and saying. Authority is a big thing for the Domination System. Since those in power generally control the lines of authority they want everyone to adhere to them. The elders gained their position to say what they say and do what they do through well known and official means. They, in fact, are the ones who confer authority onto others. So who can speak with authority against them?

By asking about authority they are trying to get Jesus onto their home field advantage. In debates, in sports and in war choosing the field where the struggle will take place decisively impacts the outcome. The Elders wanted to get Jesus to argue with them on the ground of who is officially supposed to speak about God and who is not.

But Jesus is no dummy; he sees this play a mile off and is ready. Was John authorized by God or not? Jesus asks, as the crowd leans in to hear the answer. The elders huddle, well if we say that John was not endorsed by God, the people, who love John, especially after he had become a martyr, will be against us. But if we say he was authorized by God then Jesus will ask us why we didn’t become followers of John’s path of faith. Jesus had set the perfect trap, two answers and neither one would make the elders look good, so the elders choked and said that they didn’t know.

Well if you won’t answer my question I won’t answer yours, Jesus says.

Note that Jesus here has opened up the idea that authority from God does not have to be controlled by a religious structure. If John can speak with God’s authority then any yayhoo can, even Jesus. Also note that in this story, we see that all of the carefully crafted processes and procedures and rituals that convey the authority the elders claim, is only as powerful as the support of the people. If the people don’t buy it it’s not worth a hoot. People in position of power in the Domination System are only in power because people give them that power. If we don’t give it, they don’t have it. They elders knew this, that’s why they didn’t answer Jesus’ question.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Jesus then drags the elders into another question. Jesus starts off with a story about two children. The parent asks the oldest to go work in the yard. The oldest says sure Dad I’ll get right on it but as soon as his father leaves the room he goes back to his video game. Then the parent goes to youngest and asks the same thing. This one says, “Not right now Dad, I’m in the middle of something.” But then he feels guilty and goes off and does what his parent asks him to do. Ok Jesus says, now which one was obedient? The elders say the second child. Right you are, says Jesus and that means that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going to get to the Realm of God before you. They heard John and changed their lives in response to what they heard. You did not.

Note that a second step has been taken in this struggle against the elders. First Jesus gets them to concede the possibility that someone could be authorized by God though not authorized by the authorities. Now in the second step he is saying that it was the one who was outside the control of the officials who truly represented the will of God and not the religious authorities. John the outsider, the prophet was right, the wealthy and powerful religious leaders were wrong. Jesus leads the crowd to two short steps to a revolutionary frame of mind.

Ah but what happens if you follow John or Jesus or Amos or Moses? Does that mean its all sunshine and lollipops?

That’s what today’s story in Exodus explores.

In Exodus the people are thirsty. The Sinai Peninsula is not known for its abundance of water. The people were running out of water and they were afraid. Why did you bring us out here Moses? they asked. Did we come all this way to die of thirst?

The people are afraid. They complain to Moses. Moses complains to God about the people’s complaints to him and God then solves the problem and shuts the people up until the next time that they begin to fear something. It is a cycle that is repeated several times in the Exodus story. After a while we ask ourselves, don’t those complaining Hebrews remember all the times before when God took care of them?

Here’s the thing: the Domination System offers us predictability. Things under the system stink but we know where we stand, at least until the whole system falls apart. The slaves knew where they stood. Their lives were miserable and becoming intolerable but at least they knew the score. They worked for people in power and food came from the people in power. Sure the people in power sometimes beat them or even killed some of them but for the rest, life went on. You knew the score.

God and Moses took them out to the wilderness and instead of the predictability that comes from participation in the Domination System there was only trust in God.

We know the people in power. They are like us or at least like some part of us. They take advantage of weaker people for their own gain: and because of the evil of the system, many of us do the same. We may not like it but we do it. We would prefer the person who makes our shoes or sews or clothes or picks our bananas would get a decent wage but are we willing to pay more to make that happen? The slave knows the master because the slave identifies with the master. The slave knows that given the right set of circumstances they would be the master and someone would be their slave. That is the power of the Domination System, it controls us because we identify with it. We see in it an internalized top down world view and that means predictability.

God calls us to a whole new way of living on the planet which is unlike what have come to call civilization. What will this new way look like? How can it possibly work?

Yes the stock market has little to do with most of the people on this planet. Only about half of people in this country own stock. We know that the people who run our economy through the stock market are doing great harm to planet and are running a system that is hugely unjust leading to ever greater disparities between the rich and the poor. But we are told that if those people lose their wealth we will all suffer. We have to mortgage our nation’s future so that we can free the wealthy from the downside effects of their greed. Any of us who are against a bailout of fatcats are called naive.

What authority do we have to speak so? We need to honor the elders of our society who run the nation, who run the banks, who run Wall Street. They have money. They have power. They have authority to decide how God’s creation should be managed.

The scriptures today call on us to question authority and withdraw our consent from those who are not doing the will of God. And if enough of us withdraw our cooperation, we will find that the power these guys think they have will disappear in an instant. They get their power from us after all. Gandhi and Martin Luther King both spoke about how non-cooperation with evil was just as important as cooperation with the good.

If we go in a different direction from that of the Powers that Be, we loose the comforting complacency of getting along and going along. We don’t know what the world would look like if we did not bail out the rich but used our resources to help out the poor. They speak of the horrors of the Great Depression to scare us into throwing ourselves into deeper national debt. But remember how we have talked here in the past, how debt was viewed by the authors of the Bible as as a tool to enslave. Remember how our nation took advantage of people in the Third World by having their leaders sell their people into debt. Once a nation was in our debt then they could no longer afford public health care or education. They could no longer refuse to hand over their labor and their natural resources to us for the pittance we were willing to pay. Our nation used debt to control/enslave other nations and now we are the target for those who want to place an even greater burden of debt upon us.

Is it a coincidence that the administration which has thrown us into deep debt with the war that came from the fear of terrorism is now wanting to throw us into much deeper debt with the fear of the Great Depression? Naomi Kline calls this “Disaster Capitalism.”

As followers of Christ we are called out of the Domination System and into the Realm of God. In that journey we will find that we will more likely be joined by what the Powers that Be call “losers.” We will be joined by the homeless and hungry, the prostitutes and the tax collectors. They will be our allies. Don’t expect any Senators to lead the way to the Realm of God.

As people who yearn for a world of peace and justice we are called to understand that as much as we are called to challenge the System, just as Jesus did in the story today, we are not called to see our salvation from within the System. Our hope comes from outside the values and ideas about power and success that we have always known. If we are to change to world we must free ourselves and if we are to free ourselves we must first stop identifying with Domination System. I would be willing to go so far as to say that if the authorities tell us the direction to go north then we should assume that the real direction is south. If they tell us the solution is to bail out the people who own banks then most likely the faithful solution is to bail out the people who have no money to put into banks.

How do we run an economic system that doesn’t use debt to enslave and control? How do we participate in an economy that is built on compassion and not greed? How do we have a nation that sends out armies of doctors and engineers and not armies of people trained to kill? How do we live without all the comforts injustice buys? Like the Hebrews the journey away from the comfort of the Domination System is fearful. The dollar says “In God We Trust” but in general we place our trust in the dollar and not God’s call to create a domination-free system.

The good news is that whenever the time comes for us as individuals or communities to turn away from giving authority to the authorities, God will be ready with a direction of hope. It will require a great amount of trust but the promise is that if we follow, we will be truly free.