Friday, October 31, 2008

Proper 25 Year A 10/26/08
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46
Love is Power
By Rich Gamble

I recently saw a short news story from 1968. It showed a group of children in Chicago. The kids were playing a new game called “cops and protesters.” In the game, one group of kids marched around saying things like “peace”, these were the protesters and then another group of kids playing the police would come out with pretend nightsticks and beat the protesters to the ground.

The children were re-enacting the police riots during the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in which many protesters did get beaten and kicked and arrested for the crime of demanding peace from a nation at war.

It is easy to see from the children’s point of view that it would be better to be the policeman than the protester in the game or in real life, better to be the man wielding the club than the one being beaten. And for the whole of our civilization that has been the primary perspective. It is better to be on the side of the ones victorious in violence than on the side of the ones bleeding in the dirt. On the whole we are drawn to identify with what we have come to call the winners.

So Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment and instead of giving the top one, he answers with two: Love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself.

This question about the greatest commandment is not how we would phrase the question. We would say, what is the most important thing that a believer in God should do? Love God and love neighbor.

It is important that Jesus doesn’t just give the “love God” answer alone, because that leaves a big hole. We humans, given the opportunity can create for ourselves an image of God that will justify any action we are willing to take. Many of those policemen beating those Civil Rights or Peace protesters undoubtedly believed that they were being true to their God.

To say that our obligation is to love God is to say nothing. It needs the second part, the particular way in which one loves this particular God. And the God that Jesus is talking about is loved by loving ones neighbors as ourselves. It is especially important that we understand that the concept of “neighbor” was not a person in our group but rather a person outside of our group.

The first commandment and the second cannot be severed. The way we love God is by loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Ok, I think y’all get that.

So let’s go back to underlying understanding that goes with this, love is the heart of our calling. Love of God, love of neighbor these are more than the top things on a laundry list of activities. This is the power of God made manifest in the world.

Love is power real power, the power of God. And this love that is the real power of God is reflected in the way we relate to those around us.

We say this stuff all the time without really thinking about the world changing revolutionary nature of this belief.

Love is power.

Our civilization is built on the belief and practice that domination is power and behind domination are the tools of greed and violence.

Those policemen were doing their jobs, following orders, maintaining order. And to do that job, they are issued clubs and guns and the power to deny people their safety and freedom. This is what the world sees as power, the power to make laws, arrest and club people, and throw them into jail. Power is seen as the ability to force others to do our will.

Now imagine a system built on the power of love. Would we issue guns and clubs to people called on to establish a loving environment? What tools would the love police have at their disposal? Perhaps there would be tools to help protect people from those who are violent but clubs and guns would not be used by the love police.

Would we create systems to punish people for their crimes? We might have a place of segregation for those who would repeat incidents of violence. But such places would not be places of punishment. They would be places to help violent people overcome their particular form of mental illness.

Would we have a standing army? Perhaps but not an army of people trained to do violence. We might have a standing peace army of people trained to do conflict mediation and trained to help build schools and bridges. We might have a better funded version of the Peace Corps.

If we turned to the power of love, would we have an economy that was based on profit, which is a system of placing ourselves over our neighbors? What if we took profit out of the equation. Economists of the world cannot envision such a thing. But the authors of the Bible strove to guide us to such a world.

What would entertainment look like in a world powered by this love? Would we be entertained by seeing one person victorious over other people in some “reality” show or one team victorious over another in some sports contest?

Why would need to worry about guarding national borders if we strove to make sure that our nation had nothing more than other nations?

A love based economy may not so easily turn forests into cash, or mountains into cars. Instead there would be an effort to create a sustainable balance between all peoples and between humanity and nature. Americans would have less stuff. The third world would have enough stuff to sustain a healthy lifestyle.

One of the things that some folk complain about when talking about taxes is that it redistributes wealth. Well of course, taxes always redistribute wealth. When pure domination is working the distribution goes from vulnerable people to powerful people and corporations. When love is working it goes from people who have more than they need to people who have less than they need.

A movement based on the power of love will not look like one in a domination based society. Look at Paul in this letter from Thessalonians, Paul is speaking as a leader manifesting the power of love. Does Paul sound like the leader of a nation? He talks about being abused not of striking back. He talks of speaking the truth, without flattery, without appealing to greed, without striving to be popular. Does that sound like any politician these days? In our faith Paul is an image of leadership in the power of love. Jesus was even more such a model and no where more directly than when he hung on the cross.

Love is a power which undermines the foundations of our civilization. Those who prosper from domination will see it as a threat, as well they should, and they will strive to subdue it. Not just by clubs, that is the least effective way. The most effective way is make the love of God something that does not extend into political, social or economic systems. Let people love God as long as all that loving God entails is faith in certain dogmas and practicing certain rituals. Those things don’t get in the way of domination. If people strive to bring love into the center of how we live our lives then the proponents of power will first try to smear the promoters of love as being out of touch, dreamers, ivory tower dwellers, unable to proved security and order.

Since adults and children would often rather side with policemen than protesters; since many would rather be wealthy than just; we may not see the victory of love as the universal notion of power for some time yet. Since love moves from the bottom up, since it rarely owns things like publishing companies or television stations, since it is a threat to the Powers that Be, it moves in ways often unnoticed. It gathers in out of the way places like this.

It is important to understand what we are about here. We gather to know our power and practice using it. We gather to celebrate the example of those who bled in the dirt for peace and justice which are expressions of love. We gather to denounce those who stand victorious in a world of greed and power. We gather to soak up the love of God in a world which proclaims the love of domination.

The good news is, that since Love is the power that holds the universe together, that the power of love will never be defeated. Armies may shatter; nations may fall; economies may crash, but the power of love lives on in us and beyond us.

Clean Up

Environments can mirror our outlook. Keystone has, for some time now been a cluttered repository of things that once were important to someone but now its just stuff we trip over. I did not feel empowered to throw what might be someone’s sacred artifacts away, and neither did anyone else.

This is especially tricky when you share your building with so many groups. Finally, driven by the need to store even more stuff, we decided to gather and decide which were the things we needed and which we did not.

Erv’s oft repeated line was in regards to some thing or another “It is not who we are now.”

Throwing out the semi-sacred artifacts of a bygone era became a bit like a exorcism. We were casting out the remnants of the church that was, to make way for the community that is. The more we rid ourselves of the remnants of the never-to-be-used stuff of the past, the more we open ourselves up to the possibilities of the future.

In that way it could be seen as a metaphor for the clutter in our lives.

That said, there are still a pasture full of sacred cows to remove.

I’m looking forward to it.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

All Church Clean Up

Don't forget, this Saturday is the day we clean the church. We start at 10 a.m. Bring your cleaning supplies.

Sermon Sermon Oct. 19, 2008

Pentecost 24 Year A
Isaiah 45:1-7, Matthew 22:15-22
Always Ready
By Rich Gamble

In the reading from Isaiah this morning we find the residents of the former nation of Israel, captive in Babylon. Their nation has been stomped six ways to Sunday, their armies defeated, their fortifications destroyed, their temple and their capital turned into a charred rubble heap. They are the servants of their Babylonian masters forcibly herded away from their homeland.

In those days, gods were seen as rulers of territory and people. The Hebrew people had believed that their God was the real deal. That is why many of their religious leaders had told the people that they had nothing to fear from other nations. Those nations worshiped the wrong gods Their gods were wimps of wood and stone. So it was a real test of faith when Israel was wiped out. How could God be the real deal and yet God’s people get stomped by worshippers of other gods? How could the people of Israel worship the God of Israel when Israel no longer existed and the people were now residents of Babylon? How could a faith system that was built around making offerings at a Temple exist when there was no Temple?

The people of Israel came up with a remarkable response to the disaster. Instead of abandoning their God for the god’s of Babylon they re-examined their faith to understand how it could be that the people of the first rate God could be conquered second class citizens. Instead of abandoning their faith, they incorporated their disaster into their notion of God and faithfulness.

Do they formulate an escape? No. Do they plan a rebellion? No. This isn’t Egypt. In Egypt when their ancestors had been slaves, the fault was on the Egyptian empire. But this time the people of Israel realized that their situation was their fault. They had aspired to be a top down, domination based political economy. They had been warned that the subsequent injustice would bring doom to their nation. They ignored the warnings. So one day the mighty king of what was left of David’s realm found out that he wasn’t so mighty after all. Those who wanted to be the masters of their neighbors become the slaves of strangers. Poetic justice.

So this time there is no promised land to flee to. There is no safe wilderness to wander in. There is no Moses to lead them. This time they have to make the best of the situation that they believed they brought on themselves. They had gone against God and God had put their nation in time-out.

Instead of a Temple based faith, they formed a literature based faith. You don’t need a fancy Temple for this faith, just a scroll to study, just a poem to ponder, just a tale to tell. Though undoubtedly many chose to become like their Babylonian masters, many chose to remain a people apart, resident aliens. Faithful to a God that did not, by all outward appearances, seem to be in charge. The poets of faith told the people that their exile was part of God’s plan and that there was another chapter in their story.

Then the empire that had swallowed them was swallowed by an even bigger empire. The Persian Empire of Cyrus smashed the armies of Babylon inspiring the poet using the name Isaiah to write this poem about Cyrus. In the poem, the God of Israel tells the King of Persia that the defeat of the Babylonians was part of God’s plan. That’s good propaganda for a weak people caught in turmoil of an empire’s collapse. Those invading Persians are really acting out the will of the God of Israel.

So what are we to learn from all of this? Well let’s acknowledge that the idea the people had about God changed over time. Last week we heard Moses talk God down from genocide. “Just put the lightening bolt down and back away there, big guy. No nation needs to die today.” Well Moses didn’t use those words but that was the gist. God had genocidal intent but changed God’s mind because Moses persuaded God that genocide would give God a bad reputation with the Egyptians. Our notion of God has changed since then.

Over time we have been able to see past our projections onto the divine to see a God that is wholly other. This God operates out of the power of self-giving love. We are still trying to understand how power and self-giving love can be the same, since from the dawn of civilization we have known power in terms of domination and destruction.

This changed concept of God opens up the possibility that God isn’t sitting up on high pulling the strings of fate, controlling who wins the lottery and who gets hemorrhoids. Indeed, if Jesus is right, there are no outward signs of God’s power in the traditional sense. Jesus as the embodiment of God’s love stands on the side of meek, the poor, the oppressed, the sick. Now if God were pulling the strings of fate why wouldn’t the ones for which God has special affinity be wealthy and healthy? Certainly some folks have twisted the faith of Jesus to say just that. They say that the blessings of God are made manifest in the world.

God is………agape…… love. And the will of God is that we create a society which manifests that particular type of love. God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven.

Here we are a small community which proclaims a belief that the divine will is love. We look around and we see that behind all the spin of politicians in need of votes, love is not the model for our nation. Agape love, self-giving does not allow some people to revel in riches while others suffer from lack of necessities. Love does not dump hundreds of billions of dollars into militarism and a small percentage of that for care of those in need. Our nation stands in contradiction to the power of love. And for the most part our Christian churches stand in support of our nation.

Like the children of Israel we have awakened to the reality that we are aliens in this empire. And it is worth examining our options.

One path is that of the exiles of Israel. We accept our status as outsiders. In fact we clearly articulate our differences with the concepts of power and success held by the culture which surrounds us. We live as close as we can in the light of the love of God. We stand with the victims of the false faith in the power of domination. We strive where we can to change the world around us but we recognize that it will take greater forces than we possess to make the huge changes needed.

And when some titanic force jars the assumptions of those who trust the power of domination, we see in that a divinely inspired opportunity. God doesn’t have to be cause of the real estate bubble or a stock market crash or a recession or global warming or… but like the people in the exile in Babylon such a disaster can be an opportunity to change our fundamental beliefs about the direction of our lives and society.

Isaiah saw in the catastrophic collapse of Israel the hand of God. Isaiah saw in the collapse of Babylon, the hand of God. And by helping the community see the opportunity within the seeming disaster, an essential transformation occurred within the life of the people of Israel.

Those communities of faith which have actively or passively aligned themselves to the surrounding systems of domination based politics and economics will fall as surely as the Temple in Jerusalem when those surrounding systems collapse. What will survive will be those of us who have a radically alternative vision.

The change that McCain and Obama offer is largely veneer. They moderate between the liberal and conservative sides of the same fundamentally flawed system of domination based power.

Real change is something very different.

And when the old system wavers there is opportunity for the world to really see at least some of that alternative.

Love is not pulling the strings up in heaven. Love is with those who dare to dream. Love is building a new world on the fragile hopes of hungry people.

But when systems of domination weaken or fall, the articulation of the love based alternative is the power of God. It is not inevitable. Indeed it is more likely that a threatened people will resort to more oppression, more violence. Only an active articulation of the vision can change that. Like the poets of the exile, we are called to diligently put forward that alternative vision, lest the world in fear and despair turn to another Stalin or Hitler.

The good news is that the power of love is real power. The good news is that love of God can change hearts and communities. The Good news is that these fretful times can be times of life giving transformation.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Golden Calf, sermon 10/12/08

Proper 23 Year A 101208
Exodus 32:1-14, Matthew 22:1-14
God is Gold?
By Rich Gamble

Often it seems that the lectionary scriptures perfectly fit what is happening in the world. This week’s scriptures certainly do seem to be especially chosen for this week’s news.

First the story:
Our spiritual ancestors, the Hebrew slaves, have followed Moses away from the murderous grip of the Egyptian Empire. They have several moments of panic when they feared what would happen to them in the wilderness, away the predictability of their lives inside the Domination System. Now Moses has left them to climb a mountain and have a heart to heart with the Almighty. Predictably, in his absence they panic.

Moses for them is the voice of God. Without the big Mo they quickly begin to question the direction of their lives. The Domination System in Egypt was all they knew. Out in the wilderness, they were not sure of the rules, were not sure of where food and water and security were going to come from. The manna based economy of God did not allow them to horde up resources to calm their fears. Their lives were based on the trust that tomorrow’s needs would find tomorrow’s answers. Given the choice between a sack full of food and heart full of trust most of us, when we are worried about tomorrow’s breakfast, will opt for the sack.

With Moses off on some monastic retreat, the people were left to their fears and to quell those fears they turned to what they knew, and that was gold.

Gold is a commodity in the Domination System. It is something that holds excess value in an easily transportable way. Otherwise it’s a shiny piece of metal just a different color and a little more bendable than brass or copper. But when people decide that it has great value then it can be an expression of excess value. The Domination System runs on excess value. And something like gold or diamonds or those pretty little pieces of paper we call money represent that value.

You see in the manna economy of the wilderness there was no excess value. When you needed food you went out and gathered manna, if you gathered more than you needed, it would rot; and anyway, no one was going to buy something that anyone could get for free. If you were too young or old or sick and couldn’t gather the manna someone would get it for you. No charge required, no money required.

Ah but in the Domination System it’s all about excess value. I take advantage of others so that I get more value out of my time, or skills than they get. Then I get a profit. The more vulnerable they are and the more powerful I am, the more profit I get out of any exchange. And that profit is more readily usable if it is in something portable, like gold or numbers in a bank account.

The slaves remember the significance of gold. They took the gold off the Egyptians as they fled Egypt. So they have these baubles, gold rings and earrings and naturally when they lose sight of the God of the alternative order, they turn back to that which provided security in the old order. Surplus value in the Domination System is the source of security. These people felt that they needed security and what better place to find it than the gold on their fingers.

So they panicked and Aaron (the kind of religious leader who would rather be popular than faithful) organized them into manufacturing a god of gold. We all want our god(s) to be a source of security and we also want our god(s) to be readily accessible. We want them to love us and hate the people we hate. We want God to give us what we want and on our schedule. The God of Gold can do all of that. Idols don’t ask us to go through the difficult process of transformation. They just rubber stamp our prejudices and desires. A good idol will always be on the side of our nation, our race, our religion, our culture, our economic system. A good idol will bless us with wealth and health and security or at the very least eternal life and never ask us to make a fundamental change. In the Golden Calf, our spiritual ancestors got the security of gold along with the divine malleability of an idol. The Golden Calf was never going to ask them to do what they didn’t want to do. The Golden Calf was never going lead them where they didn’t want to go. The Golden Calf would only go where they carried it. Now that’s a convenient God.

This sounds so much like today. Suddenly the American people are panicked. We have no spiritual leader guiding us away from the tyranny of our own desires. Long ago we as a people traded our faith in the real God of Jesus for a golden cross that we can wear around our necks. But our God of gold seems to be failing us. And so the high priests come and say that we have to turn throw future generations in debt so that we can appease the mystical god of the market. (The modern day equivalent to sacrificing babies) We common mortals don’t understand how heaving money at banks is going to help us but we do it because we don’t know how this thing called an economy works. We are told that the market lost 1.2 Trillion dollars of value in a single day. Lost? Where did it go? When I lose my glasses I have a fair idea where to look. Where do we look for the 1.2 trillion? All of a sudden this idea of excess value doesn’t seem so normal and easy to understand. Basically in a single day 1.2 trillion dollars of value was lost because a group of people lost faith.

Suddenly our economy isn’t about real values like food for hungry people. It’s about faith. Our whole economic system could collapse because people have lost faith in that system. Suddenly the curtain is pulled away and we see the awful truth. The system which pays a CEO 275 times the salary of average worker functions only because we have faith in it. A system which allows billions of people to go hungry, keeps running only because we have faith in it. It has never been about faith in God and the common sense world of business. It has always been about competing faith systems. One built on excess value gained through taking advantage of our neighbors. One based on having only enough and making sure the same is true for everyone else. What we call faith has tangible economic, social and political implications. What they call economics and politics is built on a mystical faith in excess value and domination. It is all about choosing which faith system to live in.

That’s why the people didn’t want to go to the party in Matthew’s parable; they didn’t want to put on the party clothes. God’s party is for everyone but everyone is called on to put on the right clothes, which is a metaphor for changed lives. That transformation is costly for those who have accrued a great deal of excess value or status in the old system. In the realm of God, they are called to part with the excess acquired in the world of false gods. That’s why “successful” people don’t want to come to God’s party. And that is why we are called to cease thinking of successful people as successful.

In God’s economy we all have what we need and we share any excess. Those of us willing to put on those clothes are ready for God’s party.

In terms of the world, we may be seeing a hiccup or a collapse or the beginning of a dreary downward spiral. Whatever it becomes, undoubtedly it will be the vulnerable who will suffer most. Our work to aid the afflicted will increase but our opportunities will increase as well. We have been given an opportunity to see past the curtain of lies and to see the fracturing faith that holds up the Powers. A faith that we once thought were as solid as a bank.

We have an opportunity when there is a crisis of faith in the Golden God. We have the opportunity point out that, as appealing as such gods seem, they only lead us to slavery, dissolution and disaster. The Golden Calf is not a benign bauble, it is a malignant repository of our faith in greed and violence, the age-old ideas that built our civilization. As old certainties disintegrate an opportunity arises for the world to see things differently. A hurting and fearful world may yet turn to the God of love and justice.

Most of all, we have the kind of value that can’t be given away by Congress, or frittered away on Wall Street. Our excess value is given over to God in the form of acts of charity and justice for our neighbors. And because God holds that value it can never dissipate. The recipient doesn’t have prosper or to be thankful for our efforts to have meaning. For the meaning is in held in God.

Ours is not a god of gold. Our God does not measure us by the size of our salary or the value of our investments. Our God does not erode when we lose faith. If we have faith in the God of Moses and Jesus then we need not fear what comes. For the source of real value for our lives will never abandon us.