Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cover Shot

Each week the Sunday bulletin gives Keystone an image that adds depth to the theme of the sermon. This past Sunday the image took hold of me (Brandon) and has yet to let go. Perhaps, because it's a common scene I notice each time I head downtown. Perhaps, because I can relate. It reminds of times I have been too lost in envy to notice the opportunity to love, or the time I was broke and helpless and had to ask strangers for assistance. Whatever the reason this week's cover shot has caught me. What does it bring out for you?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Nickelsville Declares State of Emergency

As this year comes to a close the Nickelsville community is looking to 2010 and what they see isn't good. The community held a press conference today at New Hope Missionary Baptist today to declare a state of emergency in 2010. The conference was well attended with supporters from local organizations and churches. The event opened with a prayer by New Hope's Pastor Jeffrey and featured speakers from SHARE, WHEEL, Real Change, and personal testimonies from Nickelodeons. Below is the statement that was shared by Nickelsville detailing the state of the emergency and what to do about it.


Four years into Seattle/King County’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, our numbers are at an all time high. Our shelters are overcrowded, noisy, at times infested with bed bugs, and often consist of little more than a mat on a floor. We have no place to store our possessions, and so must carry them with us. Pushed onto the street in the early morning hours, we are hidden from sight and forced to stay on the move. We are unwelcome in your public spaces, and are harassed by your police and private security when we stop to rest.

At least a third of us sleep outside, where we are subject to trespass and arrest. Our belongings are routintely stolen and destroyed by government workers who are “just doing their jobs.” When we camp in cars, we are targeted for citations and our vehicles are towed and impounded. When we come together to form safe, dignified communities, we are threatened with arrest and our supports are bullied with threats and fines.

We die, on average, at 48 years of age. Nine of us have died by suicide so far over 2009.

We are the working poor who have been set up to fail. Our low wages, work insecurity, lack of healthcare, overcrowded and unaffordable housing, and unreliable transportation leave us vulnerable to economic disaster.

We are the expendable, the dehumanized, the written off, and the devalued. We are the sick, the disabled, the mentally ill, and the addicted. We are the too poor, too uneducated, too old, and too unemployable to matter. We are the human wreckage of a broken system that denies its responsibility and blames us for our existence.

It shouldn’t be like this. Homeless people deserve and are entitled to the same protections as our housed brothers and sisters: a right to health and housing, freedom from violence and stereotyping, the ability to keep our families and loved ones together, and the tools to move ahead and thrive.

In 2010, worse will come. King County at the close of this year reduced human services funding by 46%. Youth shelter funding was eliminated. Food bank funding was slashed to zero at a time of record demand. The state budget crisis promises disaster. General Assistance for Unemployable, the State Housing Trust Fund, drug treatment funding, and Basic Health Care are all to be eliminated.

Our state of emergency must be recognized. The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness is a fraud. The true causes of homelessness – rent increases, gentrification, evictions, and the failure of the market to provide affordable housing aren’t dealt with measured, or touched. For every unite of affordable housing produced under the plan, three to four have been lost to market forces.

Top leadership of the Plan has tokenized the participation of homeless people, and has fallen deaf to our pleas for safety, shelter, and community. The percentage of homeless people who are sheltered should be a plan benchmark.

We can no longer wait for the expanded survival services we need today while our “leaders” promise housing in the future.

1. EXPAND SURVIVAL SERVICES. Since the Ten Year Plan began, homelessness has grown while emergency shelter supply has held steady and funding for day centers has declined. Stop pretending and meet the need with clean, simple decent shelter.

2. SUPPORT SELF-HELP HOMELESS GROUPS (like SHARE). When we run our own shelters, we cost-effectively offer maximum dignity and community to residents. Stable city funding will help us built [sic] community-wide solutions to meet the growing need.

3. PROVIDE A PERMANENT SITE FOR NICKELSVILLE. We need a site big enough for a non-moving eco village of up to 1,000. There are over seventy sites in Seattle that will work and only one is needed.

4. COMPLETE THE HOMELESS REMEMBRANCE PROJECT to honor people who have died while homeless. The Tree of Life in Victor Steinbrueck Park and Leaves of Remembrance in sidewalks throughout the County [sic] will serve as reminders to us all that homeless lives have value.

5. STOP THE CRIMINALIZATION. Citations for trespass violations, panhandling, and sitting on sidewalks clog our courts and punish the poor with fines and jail time while denying us due process under law.

6. EXPAND TREATMENT. Drug and alcohol treatment services save lives and money. Punitive policies undermine public health goals and deepen the misery and isolation that often underlies addiction.

7. PROVIDE TRANSPORTATION. As downtown gentrification has pushed more services outside the free ride zone, access to bus transportation has become a barrier to overcoming homelessness. Homeless people should receive free bus passes.

8. SUPPORT AFFORDABLE HOUSING. Strategies to cost-effectively increase supply must be prioritized over big-ticket infrastructure projects and sports arenas. Encourage market solutions that don’t let excellent get in the way of good. We need housing. Now.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

New Year Gathering

Let’s celebrate Epiphany (in western churches this day commemorates the visit of the magi) with a potluck and another Holden service. All members of committees (communication, building, social justice) are encouraged to attend so that we can get our ball rolling again. So, let's eat at 6:30, meet at 7:00 or so (we can meet and eat!), and do Holden Evening prayer at 8:00 or so. It's a perfect way to end the Christmas season and begin fresh a New Year!

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Fresh Look at Christmas

Here is a great video clip explaining an alternative approach to the Christmas season from a group called Advent Conspiracy. Check them out at www.adventconspiracy.org

Friday, December 4, 2009

Festival of Hope

For over 30 years there has been a Festival of Hope. This year was no exception. We raised over $9000, all of it will be sent out of Keystone to aid works of compassion and justice throughout the world.

At the Festival of Hope we created a space in which goods could be bought and sold, not for our profit but so that others in distant lands could justly profit from their labors.

We created a space where people could come and donate funds so that others may have food enough to survive.

We created a space in which people could come and learn about issues of justice and participate in the work of advocacy.

If you want a glimpse of the Realm of God, we are always talking about, pause sometime at the Festival of Hope, and look around.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sermon: Different Worlds

Pentecost 25 Year B
John 18:33-38
Different Worlds
by Rich Gamble

The passage today reveals the real confrontation in the Gospels. Jesus has been hauled before Pilot by the Jewish authorities. So here we have a representative of Caesar and a representative of Yahweh face to face. Finally comes the showdown between these two claimants of ultimate authority. This is the scene in the movie where our beefy hero has beaten all the underlings of his archenemy and now they meet face to face. The two enemies throw away their guns and meet in hand to hand combat. The music swells the camera shifts to slow motion and everyone knows that this is the climactic scene of the film.

Obviously the author of John’s gospel didn’t get to see enough action films to understand how such a conflict is supposed to be played out. In John’s confrontation between Jesus and Pilot the two representatives of differing Gods have a confused conversation.

Pilot has a problem, Jerusalem is filled with Jews as the crowds swell during the holy days of Passover. The Jews like most people don’t particularly like having foreign invaders occupying their nation. They are a contentious lot these Jews and Pilot has had run ins with them on several occasions. But Pilot is supposed to keep the peace and Pilot has only a few hundred soldiers in a town bursting at the seams with thousands of Jews. So Pilot is acting out of character and trying to keep the peace. Usually he would just use force but he doesn’t have enough troops to make the people do what he wants them to do.

So Pilot is trying to resolve this messy problem between the Jews. The Jewish leadership wants Jesus dead and they want Pilot to do it.Pilot wants to know why Jesus is such a threat to the Jewish leadership. Pilot wants to know about the claims Jesus has to what Pilot thinks of as power, that being the power to order people around. If Jesus has the power to order people around, then he might raise an army and pose a threat to Roman control. “Are you the king of Jews?” is Pilot’s question.

Jesus tells Pilot that he is not from Pilot’s world, that if he were he would behave like Pilot and place his trust in armed men. Jesus is not a part of that reality. Jesus appears to be uninterested in the title of king, he would rather be known as God’s truth teller.

Now traditionally when we hear Jesus talk about his world, Christians have interpreted this as meaning Heaven. Christians say things like, Jesus is not concerned about earthly things he is concerned about spiritual things. Jesus’ realm is the realm of the Spirit, the realm of the afterlife, the realm of Heaven. But though Christians commonly think this way it is wrong. Jesus is not talking about the afterlife in Heaven, he is talking about the Realm of God on earth. Jesus is not talking about some astral plain but the gritty smelly streets of Jerusalem, of Palestine, of the world.

Both Caesar and Yahweh are striving to claim the world for their empires but that is the only thing they have in common. Caesar wants to dominate the world to force everyone to do his will. Yahweh wants to incorporate the world into God’s love.

In the text today we have the incarnations of these two claimants for ultimate authority sharing a conversation but not a reality. Here again is a primary message of the Gospel, the conflict of worlds.

When Jesus tells Pilot that his realm is not of this world he doesn’t mean that he is from Mars, or from the 7th dimension, or from the realm of spirits. The word translated world here is a form of the Greek word Kosmos. The word means more than just geography it is a word that is used to describe the dominant way of perceiving reality.

Kosmos is the word Paul uses in the twelfth chapter of Romans when he says: "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God."Don’t accept the reality the world hands you. You have the power to change it.

Jesus doesn’t accept Pilot’s world of greed and fear and violence. Domination and manipulation have no meaning in Jesus’ world.The problem is that we are so brainwashed into thinking that the world of domination is the only reality in the here and now. If it doesn’t fit into that way of thinking then it isn’t realistic.

In Jesus’ world people are not forced to join but are invited out of the world of Caesar and into an alternative reality. To step out of Caesar’s world is to step outside of the logic and desires of that world and to step into a whole different reality. In Pilots’ world force is much more powerful than invitation but in Jesus’ world there is no place for violence. In Pilot’s world greed is seen as a powerful motivation, but again in Jesus’ world it is pointless. In Pilot’s world love seems like weakness but in Jesus’ world it is the one real power to transform hearts, minds and nations.

There is no middle ground between Jesus’ reality and Pilot’s. It is a choice to be made not a compromise.

In this week’s Real Change newspaper, you will find an article by me about our experience with Nickelsville. You will also find an article by Rich Lang. Rich’s column in that paper talks about the misuse of our armed forces. I agree with Rich’s condemnation of our nation’s military policy, but Rich starts the article off by saying how he believes in the necessity of the military to protect innocent people from those who are violent. As much as I understand the logic of what Rich is saying, as a fellow Christian I have to strongly disagree with it. When Rich talks about the necessity of maintaining an army, the necessity of maintaining the capacity to be more violent than those who would use their violence to harm the innocent, then I say he is not speaking the truth of Christ.

In our tradition Jesus did not deserve the violence perpetrated on him. In our tradition if ever there was a case for a righteous use of violence to protect an innocent person it would be the use of violence to protect Jesus from the power of Rome and their Jewish toadies. But Jesus did not allow violence to be used in his defense. Jesus forgave those who sought and caused his suffering and death. Jesus called on his followers to put away their weapons and love their enemies. Jesus here says to Pilot: if my followers were from your reality they would be using violence to free me. But my realm is not yours.

Two different worlds. In the realm of love there is no room for righteous violence. In the realm of God there is nothing redemptive about violence.

Every Sunday we pray that God will forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors, but if we really practiced that as a nation our economy along with the rest of the world’s economy would crash. Our economic system is built upon debt.

The Realm of God is not some pie in the sky dream that will never fit on planet earth. It is not some post apocalyptic possibility. It is a radically different way for us to live in the world. Challenging? Yes. Difficult to understand given our indoctrination into the matrix of domination? Yes.Unattainable? No.

This is the last week of the church year. We start a new year with Advent. That says something about the nature of our faith. Our faith begins with a hope. Not an event like Christmas or Easter but a season of hope. This hope is born out of real human suffering. Suffering from vulnerable people caught up in Pilot’s world of greed and violence. Our faith speaks a powerful word of hope to those who suffer. A hope against all hope. A hope for a new world. That hope is entrusted to us. We keep that dream alive by living it to the best of our ability. That is our calling and it is good news.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Who is my neighbor?

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the religious leaders that the heart of the faith is summed up in two statements: love God with your whole being, love your neighbor as yourself.

One who heard Jesus said this asks: Who is my neighbor?

Jesus replies with the story of the Good Samaritan. It is a story about a man who has been robbed and is left naked, bleeding and penniless in a ditch beside the road. None of the leaders in the Jewish community stop to help the man, but a foreigner, a Samaritan does stop and offer aid sufficient to get the man back on his feet.

Jesus asks who is the neighbor to the man in the ditch?

I have received few complaints since the Nickelsville community moved into our sanctuary. The ones I have received have been most civil. But in each complaint I hear the implied statement that these homeless people are not our neighbors.

At such times this story of Jesus and the religious official comes to mind. The man asks who is my neighbor? Jesus asks, who is the neighbor to the man in the ditch?

The question of the neighbor is a question of perspective. For many of us it is border to our sense of equality. A neighbor is someone life us. For Jesus, a neighbor is someone who helps when help is needed, and therefore someone who sweeps away all borders and limits to compassion and equality.

I am thankful that the Keystone community chose Jesus' definition of neighbor when it came to deciding whether Nickelsville could use our sanctuary.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Keystone News

Over a week into our sojourn with Nickelsville and so far so good.

Our broader community of those who use the building has been very supportive.

Some Keystone folks are bringing food. Thanks to them.

If you want to know what to donate to the Nickelsville group, look up their website www.nickelsvilleseattle.org

Feel free to donate to Keystone as well. Our costs for utilities and the like will undoubtedly be increased significantly.


Friday, October 9, 2009

Keystone News

In case you have not heard Keystone is hosting Nickelsville.

They contacted us late Saturday night and asked if they could stay in our building. I told them that all we had that was available throughout the week was the sanctuary and there they would have to be out all day on Sunday. They said that they didn't have anyplace else to go.

On Sunday they presented their request to the congregation and answered questions. After worship the congregation gathered and decided to offer Nickelsville folks the space for 30 days.

On Monday morning I informed the pre-school folks. They had a lot of questions and concerns which we tried our best to address. On Wednesday afternoon Rich met with the board of the pre-school along with two representatives from Nickelsville. The meeting was very orderly.

Nickelsville folks moved in on Wednesday night. Several Keystone folks were there to greet them.

Since then things have been pretty quiet. They have posted what they need as far as donations on their website www.nickelsvilleseattle.org. We don't have a lot of space to store goods so please only bring them what they need. They have access to our kitchen and dining area some times but not all the time so please call ahead if you want to bring prepared food.

The other news is that Brandon Duran has agreed to accept our call to lead our outreach ministry. Brandon was one of the people who were here on Wednesday to greet the folks from Nickelsville. Brandon will officially start on Oct. 21.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Imago Dei

Pentecost 11 Year B
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Mark 15:16-20
Imago Dei
By Rich Gamble

In today’s passage all those that Solomon murdered to get the throne are long forgotten, Solomon is shown to be pious and humble. He doesn’t wish for power, he doesn’t need wealth he only wants a clear head to see the path of good so that he can lead his people well. God is so impressed that God says, Hey Sol, since your request was so humble, I’m going to give you the wisdom you seek but I’ll throw in the power and wealth stuff as well. And sounding a bit like an infomercial host, God even throws in a special bonus offer of long life.

Understand what is being said here. God is moving to shape the world through powerful people. God blesses the people that God likes with power, and wealth, wisdom and long life. Therefore those people who are obtain power and wealth will be seen as wise and blessed by God. Those who are poor and powerless must by this logic be outside of God’s favor.

I just heard about a book and the movement it documents. The book is called The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeff Sharlet. According to what little research I’ve done about the “The Family” it is described as powerful people who, in the name of God seek the power to control the peoples of the world. They believe that the Christian message is about the power to dominate and that God blesses those who have wealth and power and God wants them to use that wealth and power to implement their vision of the world.

I haven’t researched this book or movement so I cannot tell you whether it is all true but there is truth in it. This image of Solomon blessed by God with wealth and power and wisdom is exactly that sort of world view. Solomon was a ruler who centralized power and wealth into his own hands. And those who wrote the passage we read today believed and wanted us to believe that such actions are the way God operates in the world. So those who seek to centralize the wealth and the power into their own hands are only doing what Solomon did and the Bible says Solomon was blessed by God to do just that.

If this were the only way of understanding God found in our tradition, I would be an agnostic or a Buddhist anything other than a Christian. Because I utterly and completely reject the assertion that Solomon the wealthy, murdering, despot represents an embodiment of the will of God. Indeed I believe that such an image is the exact opposite of the will of God. And the reason why groups such as this must understand the threat to our faith and the world such folks as described in the Book of Kings and in the book The Family truly are.
Though it is not our lectionary text I included the passage we read today from the Gospel of Mark describing Jesus.

In this passage Jesus is mocked, beaten and abused and in his lack of power, in his pain and suffering in his vulnerability is the image of God. A leader embodying the will of God does not use violence and wealth to control people; rather such a leader challenges the authority of that system to the very core. Jesus in this passage in Mark is the Christian image of God’s will. He is shown here living in such a way as to link him with the victims of power and violence. This passage de-legitimizes all those who would aspire to be some form of king or queen, general or titan of Wall Street.

God’s chosen one here is not blessed with the goodies of domination. He is a prisoner of the system, tortured, a victim of a kangaroo court, and in the end murdered. The harsh and painful vision of Jesus’ last day on earth is the ultimate protest against a system that uses violence, twists justice and ultimately murders its enemies.

Solomon or Jesus stand as polar opposites of each other. Solomon is the image of God blessing the domination system’s leaders with wealth and power and long life. Or Jesus is the image of God’s servant in utter conflict with the domination system, Jesus is blessed because he is willing to suffer poverty, torture and murder in order to non-violently oppose Solomon’s system. Only one is the embodiment of God’s will. Only one is God’s idea of a leader.

This plays out in how we worship and how we vote. It plays out in how we think of the Bible and how we think of our economy. Our choice of ultimate meaning has direct and profound implications on all other choices in our lives. If we are not clear about what we believe, if we are not clear about what has authority in our lives, then our muddled faith will lead to a muddled witness in the world. And in the conflict between clear and strongly held ideas of God as dominator and muddled ideas of God as basically nice. The muddled ideas will lose and Christianity will be defined in the public mind as one in which violence is condoned, wealth is praised, and the suffering of the poor is generally forgotten. That is the case today.

In the town hall meetings across the country we see how fear and lies infect a community and get people to stand against their better interests. It is an eloquent argument about the power of propaganda to twist a democracy into the tool of tyranny.

We are called to know what we believe, proclaim what we believe and live what we believe. Only then can the world see in us and in those like us a vision of God that stands against the Powers and with the poor, a God who offers an alternative to judgment and fear and eternal punishment. Only in the clarity of our faith can the power lies to generate fear be confronted at the most fundamental level.

The fate of the world hangs on what happens here, and in similar places all over the globe. Our image of ultimate meaning will determine future history. Fortunately it’s not all up to us. God’s nurturing Spirit is at work in the world and that is good news.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


The church computer will not let me cut and paste things into the blog account. That is why nothing new has appeared here. I just discovered that if I use a different computer I can paste copied text. So below is last week's sermon.- Rich

God's Real Estate

Pentecost 7 Year B
2 Samuel 7: 1-13
God’s Real Estate
By Rich Gamble

There is a lot of work done by Christian theologians in their attempt to harmonize various parts of the Bible. For some reason many Christians think that just because something is in the Bible it is an accurate reflection upon God. I think that the Bible is an amazing document and the most important document in human history; but it is not of one mind about the nature of God. Though it may be an oversimplification, I see the Bible as portraying two distinctly different visions of the nature of God. And whenever we say anything about the nature of God, we are also talking about the nature of the human community which strives to embody the values of that God.

Today’s text is at the heart of one of those visions of the nature of God. It is called the Davidic Covenant because God is making a covenant with David. It starts with David fretting because he has a nice wooden house and God’s place (where the Ark of the Covenant is) is in a tent.

God says to David (via the prophet Nathan) you are worried about building me a house, I’ll build you a house. God is using a play on the word house, meaning a permanent establishment of David’s lineage in the role of king. And to tie up the deal David’s son will build God a house, meaning a temple.

So David gets a house and God gets a house and the people of Israel get permanent peace. Sounds nice, who would not like a deal like that?

This is one vision of the nature of God. God here is like a king, but God for whatever reason subcontracts out the work of ruling the realm of God’s particular people. God leaves the running of the nation to the offspring of one of God’s favorites. If they are David’s offspring, that is good enough for God. They don’t have to be intelligent, or nice, or just. Their virtue is inherited. And after God, hands over the keys to the realm to David’s kids, God settles into a nice semi-retirement in an assisted living residence that Solomon will build for God. God just pulls up a recliner in the Holy of Holies in the Temple and people come and tell God what a great Divinity God is, and they offer God all sorts of offerings.

It is a good life for a deity.

It is a good deal for David’s kids as well. They get some peace of mind. Putting God in the temple means that they don’t have to worry about God wandering around and stirring up trouble. God is in God’s house, and the sons of David control that particular piece of real estate, indeed they run the whole city of Jerusalem. That is the weakness of tangible things like real estate, they can be controlled by people with money or guns, or in Solomon’s case, swords. The Jews understood this a little bit. That is why in the first covenant the agreement the people made with God was not to have idols. If you invest a statute with a connection to God, well, then the guys with the guns or gold can take the statue and thereby control that access to God. If God is going to be for the little guy, then God must never be linked to something that can be controlled or manipulated by the mighty.

Human beings, being what they are, the Jews couldn’t get by with no object to link them to the divine, so they built the Ark of the Covenant which wasn’t supposed to be the likeness of God, it was just supposed to be God’s throne. As objects associated with the divine, the Ark was not too bad, it could be moved easily enough and for the longest time it was housed in a tent. It moved with the people. But it was a slippery slope. If the presence of God is in even something as portable as a tent, still some people get to go into the tent, and some people end up deciding who gets to go into the tent. And those people can use the control of the tent flap to set themselves up over other people.

David took the Ark and locked it in his town. Solomon took the Ark and locked it in the Temple. So David and Solomon controlled access to God and conveniently here God gives ultimate political, military and economic power to David, Solomon and his kids and their kids forever.

This sort of thinking happens when people start thinking that God is connected to something tangible like a church, or a religion. The people who control that church or religion have access to all sorts of power over others.

There is another view in the Bible. In that view God is tied to no object, ritual or real estate. God ties God’s self to humanity but to all humanity. To be for all, this God is especially for those who are ignored or abused by other people. This God makes no promises to people because of their ancestry or their geography. God rather stands with those in need whoever they are and condemns those who cause or ignore those needs whoever they are. For the sake of the poor and oppressed kings are condemned, Israel is condemned, priests are condemned.

This God cannot be locked into a particular piece of real estate or religion. This God moves about seeking out those who suffer. This God does not utilize the power of greed and violence to dominate but rather uses love to console those who suffer and empower others to put an end to human suffering.

The Bible doesn’t offer us a vision of God to accept or not. The Bible offers us two utterly different visions of God.

One offers punishment if you fail to follow the rules of the religion, and the orders of people in charge. And offers health and wealth and happiness if you toe the line.

The other offers love to share with no guarantees of health, no opportunity for wealth (as long as there are people in need), and the real possibility of conflict with those in power.

I don’t believe that the text today is a depiction of the God I believe in. It deserves to be in the Bible, so that we have a clear view of the choice between the two primary visions of God.

The Bible also shows us how David’s descendents go on to lead Israel to ruin ultimately even to the destruction of God’s house and David’s house.

If your faith locks God into real estate like this sanctuary, or this nation, if your faith locks God into one particular set of rituals or authorized spokespeople, if your faith locks God into a special relationship with people of a particular race or gender, or sexual orientation. Then the God of this text, the God of the Temple, the God of the many rules is the God for you.

Jesus broke rules to heal and feed people. Jesus argued with priests and condemned the rulers of the Temple. Jesus included sinners, rule breakers, and non Jews into the circle of his fellowship. Jesus stripped away the power of domination by calling on people to love their enemies and give away their wealth.

In the last two thousand years there has been a concerted effort to stick the God of Jesus and Mary, Moses and Miriam back into the box of rules, and priesthood, real estate and nation.

Whenever I hear someone talk about God being linked to a particular religion or nation or people who inherit their virtue, I look for who is gaining by controlling the tent flap.

Whenever I hear about someone who is suffering illness, poverty, loss, or oppression, I hear the voice of God calling me to their side.

The Powers That Be have chosen the god of David, and they seek to hide any other choice from our eyes. Thank God for the Bible, for the people who wrote it, and preserved it. For if we look, we will see that we have a choice. The world has a choice. One choice leads us to the fate of the house of God and David. The other leads us down the path of Christ and the promise of new life. That path and promise are indeed good news for us and the world.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Welcome Aboard

Easter 7 Year B 052409
John 17:6-19
Welcome Aboard
By Rich Gamble

John’s Jesus is a guy with a lot to say. Here he says it in an extended prayer. In the prayer you may have noted that the word “world” comes up many times, thirteen times in the section of the prayer we read today.

John uses the word, not as a synonym for planet, although sometimes people think in such terms. It is often interpreted to mean that we Christians are not really meant for this world we are meant for something else, something not of this world, which for most traditional Christians this means heaven. You can understand why some people in reading texts like this would see our corporeal existence on this planet as something to be endured until we can move up and out of this existence.

One loose interpretation of this passage takes the word world and translates to “godless world.” This way of thinking leads to the embrace of such notions as Armageddon, the notion that the godless world has to be destroyed so the god filled world can emerge; or the idea that life is a veil of tears which we must endure for the sake of the joyous life after death. Such thinking can easily lead folks to be apathetic to the destruction of the planet, since the planet is the site for opposition to God. Earth is godless and doomed, heaven is the destination.

Such interpretations of scriptures as this one from John have lead us to a bunch of bad behaviors and placed the planet in peril.
The word translated “world” here from John makes much more sense if we see it as John’s reference to what we here call the Domination System. If we used that phrase as the way to translate John’s Greek word cosmos it sounds like this:
17:14 I have given them your word, and the domination system has hated them because they do not belong to the domination system, just as I do not belong to the domination system.
17:15 I am not asking you to take them out of the domination system, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
17:16 They do not belong to the domination system, just as I do not belong to the domination system.
17:17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.
17:18 As you have sent me into the domination system, so I have sent them into the domination system.
The gist of this passage is this. We are in the Domination System. It is the world view of human civilization. It cannot be helped. The Domination System is the default setting for human thinking and acting. No matter how noble the vision, eventually humans will click back to the default setting. We see that in the history of utopian communities. We see that in the history of Israel and in the history of the Christian church. We are in the Domination System and the System is in us.

This doesn’t mean that the system is inevitably going to win out over any alternative. It means that the struggle will be long and difficult and it will never be completely over. We should not be so na├»ve as to think that if we make some profession of faith in the God of the opposite of Domination (what the Bible calls Agape or self-giving love) and go to church that we are somehow immune to the System’s hold on our thoughts and actions. We are not immune, we are carriers of the power of Domination and the power of Agape. Even if we understand the nature of both we still face the constant effort of identifying the spirit of agape in us and acting out of that truth.

The Domination System’s use of violence and greed and fear is hard wired into us and if we are to be free of it we need to first admit it like people in AA admit continually admit that they are alcoholics. The AA model is a helpful one. That model calls on the alcoholic to admit that he is one but that he will not drink today. Tomorrow he will have to do the same.

We are called by God, not to be transported into some perfect society, but to be faithful in the midst of our fallen civilization. We are called to be in the world but not of the world.

To do this we need each other. We need to gather like this, with fellow believers and confess that the System is still in us. We are still motivated by fear or greed. With a carrot or stick, we still want to force others to accept our ideas. We need to take out our ideas hold them up to the light of our faith and examine them to see if they are formed out of the love of God or the fear and desires of the System. We need to come together to figure out how to help others see the System for what it is and see that there is a radical alternative. We need each other for support and for guidance.

We come together here on Sundays to proclaim our truth, celebrate our hope, confess our struggles and experience the support of each other and the God of agape. We are in Domination System and it is in us. Part of the work is to examine our beliefs and feelings to sort out whether it is the spirit of the System or the spirit of agape which stand behind any particular thought or feeling. But our real mission is not perfecting ourselves but transforming the world. Everyday the Domination System causes a world of suffering and the world needs an alternative. We are called to use the tools of agape, to bring about the healing the world needs.

This passage reminds us that when we strive to bring about a change, the System, will hate us, and those who embrace the system will strive to ignore, slander or destroy us depending on how much of threat we become.

We are in the System but not of the System. That is a difficult distinction. All around us, buried within us, the spirit of the System churns away. We are like people paddling against the current of a powerful stream. It takes effort just to stay where we are. John’s Jesus says that we were placed here, to gather up those drowning in the river of greed and violence. God’s love has called us to be different, to paddle against the current, to struggle against violence and injustice, so that the victims may be rescued and so that others may see that it is possible to oppose the current and so be inspired.

We in Keystone are called to challenge hate and fear, violence and greed. We are called to show the world that an alternative way of organizing the human community is necessary and possible. If we are to follow our calling we need to be honest about the presence of the System within us as well as the presence of the power of God’s self giving love. If we are to follow our calling we need to understand that practicing justice and peace are skills to be acquired and practiced and not just thoughts to be thought. If we are to follow our calling we need to understand that we need each other for this work cannot be done alone.

We have the vision. We have presence of the God of agape and we have each other. We have all we need to change the world around us. And that is good news.

Friday, May 15, 2009

God is Love

Easter 5 year B
I John 4:7-21
God is Love
By Rich Gamble

God is love. It sounds like something that should be on a bad Hallmark Greeting Card. But when we say God is love we are saying the most radical thing about the nature of the reality that can be said.

We are the children of the winners in the struggle for resources among human beings. Our ancestors were the ones who were able to win the competition for resources. They won because they were the best at utilizing the power of domination. Our ancestors out traded, out organized, and more successfully utilized violence more effectively than other peoples. The power of domination is the foundation upon which our civilization is built.

So it makes sense that our ancestors would naturally perceive domination as the undeniable aspect of power and they would see God as the very embodiment of that power. Because of our history, we think of God in a certain way, or perhaps because our ancestors thought of God in a certain way they came to dominate history. Either way we end up in the same place. When most people in our world talk of God they are speaking in terms of domination.

Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? The question presupposes that God has the power to control human destiny. But what if God doesn’t have that power? Some people would say that such power is the very definition of God.

On the news the other night, a bystander to an auto accident gave God the credit for the fact that no one was seriously injured. But to think in such ways about God is to also give God the blame when people are injured or killed, or struck down by misfortune. Those who believe in God as dominator want to give God the power to determine each element in our existence which makes sense if God is the ultimate source of that kind of power. People prosper because God wills it, people suffer and die because God wills it. And someday we will come to understand the great mystery of such actions.

But if God is agape love, then maybe God isn’t in control of our destiny. To those who think of God as dominator, to say that God isn’t in control is to say that God isn’t God, or that God is weak or less than what God should be. But if God is self giving love (which is the kind of love John talks about here using the Greek work agape) if God is agape, then the typical ways of thinking about God and power are all wrong.

Another way to think about it is in the metaphor of the parent child relationship, which the Bible uses often. The traditional way of thinking of God is in the relationship of a parent to a small child. With a small child the parent controls the child and manages the world around the child. In a healthy parent/child relationship, the parent disciplines the child, protects the child from harm, and provides for all the needs of the child. The parent controls all of these aspects of the child’s life so that the child will be safe and grow up to be a healthy adult. The parent dominates the child’s life but does so for good reasons.

But in a relationship between a parent and an adult child, the same behaviors would be seen as unhealthy. If the parent watches over the adult child as they would a toddler then their actions could be seen as harmful to the adult child. In a healthy relationship between a parent and an adult child there is no power to force the child to behave in a certain manner and even if the parent had that power, it would diminish the adult child’s freedom to choose and learn and mature.

Adult children make mistakes that their parents could have prevented but the price for that level of control is to keep the adult child from maturing.

Parents of adult children don’t have the power to make their children live their lives in certain ways, and even if they do have that power, it would be wrong to use it. Parent’s of adult children can set a good example, they can warn, they can hope but they cannot force their child to act in the way they would have them act.

A God that is agape, cannot force humanity to act in a certain way, because force is outside the nature of agape. God as agape is not in control of human destiny. God as agape can hope for us, can inspire us, and can support us with loving acceptance. But God as agape cannot, would not control our lives. God as agape cannot, would not punish us with suffering here or in the afterlife.

If the foundational aspect of universal reality (which we imply when we talk about God) is agape, then our notions of social reality change as well. Last week we saw this in terms of economics. John points out that if someone has the world’s goods and sees their brother or sister in need and does not share, they are not manifesting the truth and power of God.

This week John points out that to see God as agape is to do away with fear and hate.

Our nation’s economic system is built on greed. Our nation’s criminal justice system is built on instilling fear of prison in people. Our nation’s military is there to instill fear in other nations who would oppose us. If God is a dominator then these systems make sense. If God is agape, then they stand in contradiction to the power of God.

If God is agape, then the world may well be in our hands, to cherish or destroy. We have tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and we have left the garden of our childhood. We are adult children of a God that is love. It is up to us whether we act in ways which honors God by using the power of love, to create a more loving world or act in ways which reflects the power of domination.

Julia Ward Howe, wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic to inspire the soldiers of the Union army. It was published in 1862. In the hymn she links the will of God to the cause of the army of the Union.

After the war, she had second thoughts about war as a tool for social change. She began to think differently about power and perhaps about the very nature of God. Rather than seeing power as being in the hands of men using the power of domination, she began to call on women to utilize the power of love.

She is seen as one of the founders of the idea of Mother’s Day, which to her, was a day for women to chart a different course for human history. She outlines that direction in her Mother’s Day proclamation written in 1870.

Julia Ward Howe's Mother's Day Proclamation - 1870
Arise then...women of this day!Arise, all women who have hearts!Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!Say firmly:"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,For caresses and applause.Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearnAll that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.We, the women of one country,Will be too tender of those of another countryTo allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up withOur own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."Blood does not wipe out dishonor,Nor violence indicate possession.As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvilAt the summons of war,Let women now leave all that may be left of homeFor a great and earnest day of counsel.Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the meansWhereby the great human family can live in peace...Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,But of God -In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly askThat a general congress of women without limit of nationality,May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenientAnd the earliest period consistent with its objects,To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,The amicable settlement of international questions,The great and general interests of peace.

To think of God as agape love is to think of God in radically new ways. To think of God as agape is to think of our lives, and communities and power in radically new ways.

God as love, implies that God won’t step in and fix all of the things we have messed up.

God as love gives us the power (love) and the vision we need to live our lives as reflections of that love.

God as love speaks to the hope that the power of love has the ability to overcome fear and hate and greed to create with God a paradise of purpose and plenty.

And that is good news.

Nothing More Radical

Easter 4 Year B
I John 3:16-24
Nothing More Radical
By Rich Gamble

Last Weekend I was in Spokane. I was at the annual meeting of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ.

I have never been a big fan of these meetings. First of all, because I am required to go and anything which requires me to do anything, pushes my “question authority” button. Secondly, I have a hope for what such gatherings could be and that shines a bright light on the bland reality.

On the whole these gatherings are like the denomination, a gathering of pleasant, liberal, aging Christians. The annual meetings strive always to be pleasant. Votes are pro-forma; all controversy has been cleansed from the procedures. It is all very agreeable.

I understand this. I understand how you don’t really want to formulate policy among a gathering of a few hundred individuals. But while I am sitting there, occasionally called on to raise my voting card in harmonious agreement with everyone else, I wonder, brood would be more like it, about what my role is in the Church with a capital C.

I know what my role is when I am here. I do all the things a pastor does, some to the things a secretary does, and some of the things a custodian does. On top of that I help manage this building as a place where justice and peace are practiced and taught.

But sitting in that group of pleasant people, I am just an observer and as such what I see is not that hopeful. Nor should it be. There is much that presses in on us. Tens of thousands of people starve to death every day. The climate is heating up. Guns and drugs are proliferating as a sign of hopelessness. People, when they step away from the myriad of distractions our society is so good at producing, are worried about their futures, about their children, about finding meaning in post consumer society.

Do we have an answer for the world’s problems? It has to be more than educate ourselves, pray and be pleasant. Do we have an answer for the world’s problems? If so we should be striving to get our message out there. If not, then let’s just admit that we are a social club.

Social clubs are not bad things. You go there, meet people you like and know, and you make connections. There is absolutely nothing wrong with social clubs. Unless they are social clubs set in the midst of misery. Then there is something unreal, sad and maybe even sinister about a group of pleasant happy people gathering to enjoy each other’s company surrounded by others in misery.

Sometimes it is good to have a chance to sit back and observe, and what I observed made me want to stand back and look at Keystone. Are we a social club, which prays? Do we have anything to offer the world? If so what? And how are we getting what we have to offer out to those who need it?

In the study of the Bible and economics we saw how the Hebrew people, in thinking about their own identity as former slaves liberated by a unique God, sought to live as children of that God.

In Jesus, our spiritual ancestors focused in on agape love as the key to understanding that God. In terms of economics John simply states the underlying principle of economics which honors the God of love:

“How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”

Here in one simple question John establishes the basis for an economic policy which can relieve the world of much of the suffering it endures. If you have the means to aid someone in need, and refuse to, how can the love of God abide in you?

Beneath this simple statement lies an understanding that the nature of ultimate reality is found in God and the best way we can understand the nature of God according to John is found in the word agape in Greek or love in our English translation. John says later in this same letter: God is love. (1 Jn. 4:8)

God here is not a tribal God for a certain people, but a universal God for everyone. God is the center of ultimate meaning for everyone and everything whether they understand this or not. Therefore love is the center of ultimate meaning for everyone, whether they believe it or not.

Agape love centers in self-giving, not in conserving. It seeks the benefit of all, not just a few. And in order to achieve the best for all, we are called to seek out those in need, meeting the needs of the needy is the best way to ensure that everyone may enjoy the blessings of God’s agape centered universe.

People don’t need just material goods of course. Apart from the basics of water, food and shelter, people also need dignity, and a sense of their own value, a sense of their ability to contribute to and shape the world around them.

So we take the principle of agape as stated by John’s question, and expand on it. John says: “How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” But we could also ask: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has education, dignity, or power and sees a brother or sister without these things and refuses to help?

John’s question helps us look at personal and global economics from the perspective of the one in need. But the principle of agape that John describes extends to social and political issues as well.

And as simple as the basic statement that “God is love” is, it is also profoundly world changing. John’s question about the lack of love found in holding onto wealth when there are people in need, is a challenge to all people of faith. But it is also a way of re-organizing our world.

Imagine a world in which the hording of wealth at a time when people are in need is seen as an immoral act. Imagine lawmakers striving to work out laws which guard people from this immorality. Imagine the power of human creativity striving after love and not profit. This is a vision to guide our world in a radical new direction.

It is a vision the world desperately needs.

Do we have something to offer the world? Yes, we do. We have our capacity for compassion. We have resources including dollars, creativity, and most importantly the love of God within us. And we have the stories of our ancestors and vision of the future these stories impart.

If we keep these things amongst us for our own use, then we are a social club surrounded by a world of misery. As such John’s question questions whether or not the love of God abides in us.

What I did not see at the annual meeting was a group of people who were working out together how to most effectively embody the love of God in a world of need. In that, the folks at the annual meeting were no different than the church in general. What I saw at the annual meeting was what any church can easily become. What I saw was what we at Keystone are, more often than what we would like to admit. The world can ill afford the luxury of social club churches. Paulo Freire says "Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral." Likewise, to talk about injustice but never do anything is to keep things going in the same direction.

This passage in John’s epistle calls on us to focus our energies beyond ourselves. To engage the world beyond our doors in the way that will best embody agape love to those in need. What we do to educate ourselves is not for ourselves alone but for those in need. What we do for the building is not for ourselves but for our mission. What we do for here in worship is to empower ourselves to embody the love of God in the world.

This is our calling. We are the bearers of a vision the world desperately needs.

This is our work. We are the incarnation of the love of God.

This is our faith. And it is good news for ourselves and the world.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Resurrected Community

Easter 2 B
Acts 4:32-35
Resurrected Community
By Rich Gamble

I missed the movies here on Friday night and caught two remarkable shows on television. The first was a report on the series NOW. In that report, the viewers were shown not only the reality of glaciers melting away in our era of global warming but also why that it is a problem with direct and dire consequences. The second show was a conversation between Bill Moyers and the creator of an HBO series called The Wire.

In the show about the glaciers we were taken to the glaciers which feed the mighty Ganges river. That river provides water and irrigation to over 100 million people. The glaciers provide a means of water storage so that water is stored in the winter and slowly released during the summer. In this way the Ganges has a constant flow year round. When the glaciers disappear what will happen to the Ganges and the people who depend upon its waters? Another huge number of people depend on water from glaciers from the same are which flow to China. The loss of these glaciers will likely mean that crops will fail grain prices will rise around the world and more people will starve. This is a crisis bearing down on the world like freight train while we tinker around the edges of vast and growing production of greenhouse gasses.

Bill Moyer’s conversation with the producer of HBO’s “The Wire” was one of those rare moments when someone in the popular media speaks a core truth. David Simon, former Baltimore crime journalist and now producer talked with Moyers about The Wire, a television series which ran for five years and then ended. Simon talks about the utter failure of the war on drugs, how it has filled up our jails, reduced the attention of the criminal justice system to violent crimes, and has not in any hampered the flow of drugs onto the streets of this nation. This much, many of us have heard but Simon then goes on to talk about the large areas of our nation which are inhabited by an “underclass” of “surplus” workers. Large numbers of Americans live in areas which are basically left to rot because we have ceased to need the labor of the people who live there. Unneeded they are discarded, left to grind out their lives in poverty, crime, drugs and few opportunities for real change. The primary response our nation offers such folk is our ever expanding prison system.

In the course of the conversation, Moyers, a true gift to our nation, said: "Over the past 20 years, the elite one percent of Americans saw their share of the nation's income double, from 11.3 percent to 22.1 percent. But their tax burden shrank by about one-third."

Simon went on to diagnose why it is that Americans continue to support policies which are lining the pockets of the wealthy and abandoning the poor. He said that Americans seem to have a “casino mentality.” Like people who sit feeding their money into a slot machine because they see someone else winning and want to be like that person, while all the while it is the casino which is the real winner. We are taught in this nation to identify with the elite and not the poor with the few winners and not the many losers. And so we see our good as connected to rich and not the poor.

And there you have it. While the world is about to endure unknown levels of suffering, developing nations are rapidly expanding their consumption of fossil fuels so that they can enjoy a lifestyle like ours, while here, great wealth shifts into fewer and few hands and larger and larger numbers of people are left behind as unnecessary to the needs of those who rule our economy.

If you believe this, as I do, then there are few options:
Stick your head in the sand of popular media and wait for poverty and global warming to go away.
Stick your head in the sand of the afterlife and wait for Armageddon.
Grab as much as you can and horde it away in hopes of buying your way out of future problems.
Change things.

As indicated, if you want to stick your head in some sand, there is a form of Christianity for you. Unfortunately it is the dominant form of our faith.

But if you want to change things, there is a great resource in an alternative version of Christianity. And our text today is a primary source in that interpretation.

On Easter Sunday we heard Mark’s version of the Easter story. Mark’s version has no Jesus, no corpse no resurrected body, nothing but a young man to tell the tale of Jesus’ rising from the dead. We saw how this young man was connected to the mysterious young man who ran off from Jesus when he was arrested. The young man is now fully clothed, wearing white, the color of transformation, and no longer running away from Christ but rather staying in one place pointing people to where the risen Christ has already gone.

The only proof of Jesus’ rising is in the testimony of a young man whose life has changed. That in the Gospel of Mark is the sign of God’s presence in the life and ministry of Jesus: a transformed follower.

We would like something more: a larger number of witnesses, video would be nice, a burial shroud with Jesus’ image seared into it, something more than the testimony of one person whose life had changed. But that is all that Mark is offering, that, and the possibility that other followers of Jesus will also be transformed.

In the book of Acts today we have a brief vision into the community of followers of Jesus. Did you notice how that brief passage is structured. The first verse tells of how the community did not claim private property but shared all that they had, everything they owned was held in common. The next verse talks about how the Apostles gave powerful testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. The last verse talks about how there were no needy people among them because people sold their property and gave the funds to the Apostles to be distributed to those in need.

Did you hear it, sandwiched in between two verses which talk about the transformed attitude of the community towards private property and the use of their shared funds to aid those in need, was a statement as to the power of the witness of the resurrection.

It is easy to read today’s passage and see it as two different things. The Apostles share their resources, and share a powerful witness of the resurrection. When we hear it we think of the Apostles taking a break from the mundane actions of redistribution of capital to preach powerful sermons about the resurrection. But it is more likely that Luke is not talking about powerful preaching sandwiched between acts of sharing; rather, Luke is talking about one action. The witness to the resurrection is so powerful because it isn’t just words it is in actions that cut to the heart of difference between the resurrected community and the world.

Jesus’ resurrection is not about one person’s victory over death. It is about a community’s victory over the worldwide system of fear and domination. Not that they toppled the system but they created an alternative to it and showed people like us that it could be done.

What are we to do in the face of an impending environmental catastrophe and ever more violent disparity between rich and poor? Well like those first Christians, I believe we are called to set an example: To stand up against the liars and the misinformed, to stand up for the poor and oppressed, and to live in a way that proclaims our participation in a resurrected life.

God didn’t give us a five point plan, just some examples to learn from and follow. I don’t have a five point plan either, but I know we can grow in our faith and faithful actions. And I know the world needs to hear from those of us who have an alternative vision.

Our story is the story of new life coming out of and overcoming the worst of violence and oppression. Christ’s resurrection from crucifixion is a sign of hope for the world. We are the Body of Christ if we live as resurrected people. If we live as resurrected people then there is hope. If we stick our heads in the sand, hope is not with us.

The choice is ours but only one choice is good news for us and the world.

Easter Sermon

Easter 1 year B 4/12/09
Mark 16:1-8
We Met the Resurrected Christ and He is Us.
By Rich Gamble

The Gospel of Mark is the oldest and in my mind the best of the Gospels. Yes the others add some nice stories and sayings but Mark has a way of moving directly to the challenge offered to the world in the life and death of Jesus. And nowhere is that challenge more powerful than in this final scene in the Gospel.

The ending of Mark’s Gospel was so disorienting, that later editors felt the need to add more to the ending. Today’s reading is how Mark wanted his Gospel to end.

The passage begins with the women. In Mark’s gospel the male disciples consistently get it wrong. They don’t understand what Jesus is saying, they don’t understand the lessons to be found in Jesus’ actions. They are filled with false bravado about how they will never desert Jesus, but when the police come to arrest Jesus, they run for their lives.

While the men are vying for positions of power over others, the women are quietly serving, embodying Jesus’ call for his followers to be servants of one another. When Jesus was crucified it was the women who were there as witnesses to his death, the men were hiding. And it was the women who went to care for Jesus’ body that Sunday morning.

They don’t know how they are going to move the stone which seals the tomb of Jesus but they go nonetheless. When they get there they discover that the stone has been rolled away. The tomb is open. When they peer in they don’t see the dead body of Jesus but the living body of a young man dressed in a white robe seated on the right side.

There are also parts of this story which have more power if we know more about the rest of Mark’s Gospel. First and foremost, Mark is spare in his use of language. He never uses two words where one will do. So when we find some piece of a story that seems to be an unnecessary addition it puts us on alert that there is a reason that addition is there.

There is only one other place where Mark uses the phrase “young man” and that is in an odd little addition to the story of Jesus’ arrest:” 14:51 A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, 52but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

It seems odd for Mark who works so hard to keep the story focused on the essential details, to include this little story about a nameless follower of Jesus. Odd at least until we discover the only other time a nameless “young man” is mentioned.

The young man when he is nearly apprehended is wearing only a linen cloth which he loses in his escape. The only other time the word “linen” is used is in talking about what the naked body of Jesus is wrapped in. The young man in the tomb is wearing a white robe. This brings to mind the only other time the word white is used in Mark and that is in the description of the transfigured Jesus.

So when Jesus is arrested a nameless “young man” wearing a linen cloth runs off but loses his linen cloth and so has the double shame of being naked and a coward. Jesus is wrapped in linen when he dies. Then the women meet the “young man” who is not running, who is not naked but instead is the messenger of Jesus wearing the clothes that remind us of transcendence and not shame.

In the “young man” we see the redemption of those who have turned their backs on the path of Jesus. The linen which was a reminder of the young man’s shame was buried with Jesus. On Easter, the tomb is empty, the shame is gone, and the young man is now a messenger of the good news, which he imparts to the women and charges them to be the first bearers of the good news or using the Greek word, evangelists.

In Mark’s Gospel, not only is death overcome but also the byproducts of death: fear and shame. As the tomb is corpse-less it is also fearless and without shame. The Powers that Be are left stripped of their primary tool: the fear of death.

The power of the Gospel of Mark is found in the utter lack of the resurrected Jesus. We do not experience him in the story. Like the people of Mark’s day, all we have are transformed people who witness to the power of God to overcome shame and fear. Transformed lives are the only proofs we have of the power of God.

We humans want more. We want to add to the story. We want more proof. We want signs and wonders. We want miracles and guarantees of heaven. We want to lock the wonder of God down to post-death sightings of Jesus, with lots of witnesses. We want the wonder to be a past event that when accepted literally becomes the key to our own future life in heaven.

We want the church to be an empty tomb memorializing the life and sacrifice of one man, whose death frees us from the costs of being like him.

Mark doesn’t let us bury our faith with a post-dead savior experienced in the past. He leaves a transformed coward in the tomb to boldly announce that Jesus is back where the story began and if we want to experience life as transformed people we too must begin our stories back at the beginning.
Mark’s Gospel is circular. We follow Jesus from the Jordan to Jerusalem and then are called to make the trek again. This time others will experience the resurrected Christ, when we like that “young man” shine forth in our transformation as we journey from the places of suffering to the centers of power.

No matter how shamefully we have run from the path of Christ, no matter how we have hidden from those in need, turned our backs on the suffering of others, ignored opportunities to get involved in the cause of justice, this story allows us to bury our fears with Jesus and begin a new life in the empty tomb of our fear and shame.

The call of Mark is not to linger at the tomb of past events but to begin our own journey of faith in the ever present now of our lives. Not to demand that people believe in a miraculous resurrection, but to embody a life of fearless love shown in acts of compassion and justice as a sign to others of the possibility of a resurrected life. The call of Mark is not to memorialize the miracle of Easter but to be the miracle.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Seeds of Love

Lent 5 Year B
John 12:20-33
The Seeds of Love
By Rich Gamble

Tom Fox, peace activist, was born on July 7, 1951. He was turned into a peace activist by the events of September 11, 2001. Fox, who was born in Dayton, Tennessee, was running a wholesale grocer in Washington when the suicide bombers struck, had been a Quaker since his youth and spent the next 20 months deeply contemplating how he should react to the attacks. In August 2004 he gave up his job to become a full-time worker for the Toronto-based Christian Peacemaker Teams.

Fox specifically asked to be sent to Iraq and, after undergoing training, arrived in Baghdad in late September 2004. He lived and worked with other CPT activists, taking statements about the abuse of Iraqi detainees by coalition soldiers, meeting Sunni and Shia leaders, working with refugees and children in schools, helping to set up a Muslim peacemaker team and sending back reports on the situation in Iraq to people in the West, especially North America.

A year before he was taken hostage he wrote this:

October 7, 2004. Statement of conviction: “We members of Christian Peacemakers Teams in Iraq are aware of the many risks both Iraqis and internationals currently face. However, we are convinced at this time that the risks, while significant, do not outweigh our purpose in remaining. Many Iraqi friends and human rights workers have welcomed us as nonviolent independent presence. During the previous year, they asked us to tell their stories, since they could not easily be heard, nor could most flee to a safer country. We continue to act as a resource to connect citizens of Iraq with human rights organizations, both local and international, as well as accompanying them as they interact with the multinational military personnel and Iraqi provisional government officials. As Peacemaking Team, we need to cross boundaries, help soldiers and other armed actors be humane, and invite them to refuse unjust orders. We need to help preserve what is human in all of us and so offer glimpses of hope in a dark time.”

Tom Fox was taken hostage on November 26, 2005 along with three other members of the Christian Peacemaker Team. His body was found in Baghdad on March 9, 2006, he had apparently been shot in the head by his kidnappers. He was 54 years old.

Now many people, no doubt think that Tom Fox foolishly put himself into harm’s way, and that by so doing lost his life for no good reason. To go unarmed into a war zone does seem insane. People are supposed to preserve their lives at all costs. But we are told that if you enter a war zone in a uniform and carrying a weapon, you are not insane you are patriotic. To risk death to kill the enemy is noble but to risk death to show love for the enemy is crazy. That is what we are told.

The problem is that what we are told is all wrong. It is so very wrong that it is hard for us to even begin to see the truth that is obscured by the lies we are told.

That is why, the words of the Bible sound so strange to our ears at times. Jesus here in John’s Gospel talks about glory and being lifted up but what he is really talking about is being tortured to death on a crucifix.

Jesus it seems walked unarmed into the land of his enemies the Roman Army of occupation and the religious leaders who aided the Romans with the intention of opposing these powerful forces. And not only does Jesus do this unnatural act of placing himself in harm’s way, but he calls on his followers to do the same. That is what he meant when he talked about hating your life. He is not talking about hating existence; he is talking about the call to his followers to turn their backs on all of the lies that have formed the framework of their lives prior to meeting Jesus.

Some of those lies, which are the same as the lies we are continually fed include: personal survival is everything, violence is essential to maintaining the human community, take care of number one first and foremost, the more you own the more you are worth, people who suffer generally deserve what they get.

These basic lies form the foundation for our social order and the social order in Jesus’ day. But lives built on such a foundation are lives cut off from the eternal spirit of the Holy. They are lives lived in fear of violent people, sickness, poverty, unpopularity, powerlessness, homelessness etc…

And when we fear we are easily manipulated to condone and even participate in acts of violence against a perceived threat. When we are afraid we often decide to turn our backs on those who need our help.

Jesus here in John’s Gospel is looking at his own death and refusing to be intimidated into changing his course, refusing to escape into the lies. In so doing he shines a light onto the lies. As he says: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.”

In his choice to move forward, even at the cost of his own life, in order to embody the light of truth, Jesus defeats the fear and the lies that have imprisoned humanity for thousands of years. He defeats it not in that the lies disappear but that people are shown an alternative and given a choice. And each and every time one of us breaks down a barrier separating people, reaches out in love, refuses to be motivated by fear, each time, we too become the light for others.

Tom’s death was not in vain; for he died as an embodiment of the truth. He died while breaking down barriers of hate. He died to show the world another way live in this world, another way to face those we call enemies. Our world wants to belittle those who enter conflict unarmed as crazy and those who enter conflict armed as heroes. Those who seek to kill the enemy as honorable and those who want to transform enemy to friend through love as unrealistic dreamers.

Such beliefs show how blind we are to the truth of Christ.

I speak of two men, one who died nearly four years ago and half a world away and one who died nearly 2000 years ago; undoubtedly they seem so far from our lives here. We are trying to cope with the challenges that face us here and now. But the challenges of which Jesus spoke are here and now. The fear is out there if we let claim us. The lies are part of the social fabric which surrounds us.

One way of reading this passage is as if it were a cruel joke on humanity. If you hate your life you get to live it eternally but if you really love your life you will lose it. But John is pointing to lives lived in the midst of the domination system.

This passage in John’s Gospel proclaims that the death of our old sources of security, our values and maybe even dreams is the path towards the new life in the light. If we fear losing our possessions, our status, the very things which defined us in terms of the old violent system of domination then we will be possessed by that system. But if we can stop measuring ourselves by our possessions, titles, income, or education, if we can instead embrace our new identity as bearers of the love of God to a hurting world, then we have job security, we have status enough, we have purpose, we have direction. We have hope.

Tom Fox like Jesus left his old secure life, to take on the risky role of bearing the alternative message of justice and peace to places where violence reigned.

He wrote: “We must come from a spirit of love and compassion to help our leaders and many of our fellow citizens come to see that if we truly love God then we must make a drastic change of direction in the course of our country. The only way we will gain respect is by showing it to others, even those we disagree with. The only way we will gain love is by giving it to others, even those we disagree with.”

It is remarkable to see fellow human beings who walk in the path of their convictions. It is heartbreaking to see such a person die as a result. Whether the death of Tom Fox and Jesus have any meaning rests with people like us and the choices we make. Amen.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Faith and Economics Class

6:30 Soup
7:00 Class
Jesus, Church and Now

Luke 4.14-21
Mark 10.17-27
Luke 6.17-25
Luke 14:12-14
Luke 16.19-25

Acts 2:43-47
Acts 4:34-35
James 2.1-7

In a Clown's World

Lent 3 Year B
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
In a Clown’s World
By Rich Gamble

I can’t remember the movie but I remember this scene in which there is this sea of people in clown makeup, all walking along a sidewalk; and in the middle of this sea of clowns, walks one person without any clown makeup, an average person, but given their surroundings they look like the odd one.

Ever heard of a “Potemkin Village?” During the reign of Czarina Catherine the Great in Russia the members of her court wanted to free her from any misgivings she might have about the way things were going in her nation. In her court there was astounding opulence. She had great wealth, the people around her had great wealth. From Catherine’s perspective, things looked great in Russia. But occasionally Catherine would like to travel through the countryside outside of her protected world. This posed a problem for her ministers. If she traveled the roads of her nation she would see villages ravaged by poverty. Perhaps she would have doubts about the way things were being handled in her nation.

So a plan was arrived at. The ministers would find out which way Catherine was to travel and then along the way the signs of poverty and suffering would be erased and the fronts of clean and prosperous villages would be built and people playing happy well off peasants would play their part as Catherine’s coach rolled by. Behind the facades of these happy villages the ugly face of poverty would exist untouched but in Catherine’s world everything seemed rosy.

Here in America, the leaders of banks loaned money to all sorts of people who could not pay it back. The banks got lots of money from the fees charged to the people for the loans they could not pay back. Loaning money to people who would not ordinarily qualify for a loan meant that more people could enter into the real estate market, and with so many people buying houses, the prices of houses went up and as long as the prices of houses went up everybody made money. But anybody with a couple of spare brains cells could have predicted that the time would come when this house of cards would come crashing down. But the lure of fast money blinded the captains of finance to what would be obvious to most of us common people.

Our government is now giving tax dollars to the institutions which, through their shortsighted greed brought down our whole economy. We are spending trillions of dollars that someone will theoretically have to repay without any sign that anyone has any idea of how that money will be repaid.

And the goal of all of this chicanery and shortsightedness is to regain, achieve and maintain income levels that are beyond the capacity of our planet to support. There are not enough raw materials, for the world to live at our level of consumption. The air and water and soils of the planet cannot absorb that much pollution. So we either have to figure out how to live on a lot less, or figure out how we can keep the rest of the world from challenging our level of consumption of the world’s resources.

Did Catherine the Great build the fake villages? No. Did the bankers know they were destroying the economy Perhaps not. Did the Congress understand the danger of trying to keep the American economy at its past levels of greed and consumption? Maybe not. Maybe they all believed that the false reality that was created for them was really true. As long as they didn’t bother to look too closely at the world that was presented to them, they could all live happily.

In Russia peasants died from poverty. In America people have lost their jobs, their retirements, and their homes. In the world people continue to die because of the violence of our economic system and the violence needed to maintain that system.

Of course we all live in a manufactured reality. If we, like Catherine, the bankers and Congress want to enjoy our relatively well off place in the human community there are plenty of people out there offering us comforting rationales. We can feel good about our lives, our destruction of the environment isn’t that bad, our goods which come from sweat shop labor are supplying poor people with jobs, our quiet complicity with war is an expression of our faith in the democratic system. And there is always a preacher out there to tell us that God is after all Christian and American. Our Potemkin Village glows on in our homes. Television and the internet entertains, distracts and sedates us, showing a vision of a world of consumerist glee. It is a fake front over a tortured planet.

In the novel Catch 22 the hero would be chided for his actions. “What if everybody acted like you?” some self-righteous person would ask. “Then I would be a fool to act differently.” He would respond.

Those who spoke up against the injustice in Russia, were ignored, imprisoned or killed. Those who spoke up against the practices of bankers, lost their bonuses or their jobs. Those who speak up against war and greed here in this country are told that they are unpatriotic and ignored.

If everyone thinks that things are ok then you would be a fool to think otherwise, right? Why pay a price to be different?

But fools are what we are called to be. Paul says that the God we worship calls us to stand contrary to the way of the world. The painful truth of God may seem ridiculous in the world of the happy lie but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Compassion and love and not fear and desire are the things a family, a community, a nation and a world must be built upon.

“Love your enemies” sounds insane in a world complacently accepting an unending war on terrorism.

Jesus’ call to abandon wealth makes no sense in the world of gadgets and glamour.

So we are called to stand firmly behind the denunciation of the accumulation of wealth and firmly behind the call to love our enemies. It may seem like insanity to the world but that just goes to show how insane the world is.

Once we have experienced the truth of Christ we cannot hide behind the excuses of Catherine, the bankers and Congress. We cannot say, O gosh we didn’t know. Christ has come. An alternative as been asserted, a light has split the darkness.

Our call is not just to awaken to the radical alternative love offers in our lives, but to figure out ways to open other people’s eyes to this truth as well. To do this we have to be creative. We cannot simply accept that gathering under a cross on Sunday makes a statement about this truth. Most of those who gather under this symbol use it to adorn their personal Potemkin Villages. We can’t simply bandy about the name of Jesus and assume that people understand what a radically different personal, political and economic life the path of Christ entails.

In this time of hardship, there is need and opportunity.

It’s time for us to wipe off the clown face and start looking like holy fools.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

No Class March 17th

Our Lenten study class about faith and economics will not meet on March 17th. It will meet again on March 24th at 6:30. See you then.

Preconceived Notions

Lent 2 Year B
Mark 8:31-38
Preconceived Notions
By Rich Gamble

I had a conversation with a nice young man this past week about better utilizing this sanctuary to benefit the community. He had been a part of doing just that with a church in Fremont and hopes to write a case study about churches that have done such things.

He had some recommendations for what we might want to do: paint the outside of the church, change the entryway, pull the pews, change the flooring… Most of these are things that we have talked about. Some of the things he suggested hadn’t been part of my thinking about the church. He suggested getting rid of the crosses, the white one on the front of the church and this one in the sanctuary. With that he suggested that we change the name of the building. An off the top of his head suggestion was Keystone Place. He also suggested that we form a community board to administer the use of the space.

In other words, his suggestion was that if we wanted it to be of greater use to the community then we needed to purge its identity as a church.

I understand the logic of this. If we want the community to claim this space as theirs then we have to step back from our claim to it. If it is a church then some people will be turned off from coming because of their preset notions of what a church does. If we claim it as ours, then others will not invest the time and energy to making it a community center.

These are important things for us to consider but behind these concrete decisions sits a more fundamental question as to our identity. Who are we and what are we called to do?

Most of us and most of the world have a notion of what a church is and does. A church is a community gathered together to praise the God of Christ and to live lives in faithful response to the will of that God. Though we can’t argue with that general idea, it is in the specifics that such an idea takes shape. Crusaders riding around Palestine bashing non-believers over the head with swords believed they were living in a faithful response to the will of the God of Christ. Dominican monks torturing people during the Inquisition would claim the same thing. Deeds define words and symbols. Though we may share the same words and honor the same symbols as Crusaders and Inquisitors we stand in utter opposition to their deeds.

People who are put off by the presence of a cross on a building believe that they understand and disagree with the meaning of the symbol. But I doubt that they understand the meaning of the cross in the same way that we do. What they don’t like about church may well be the same things that we don’t like about the church. They may think that to oppose such things means they are against the church itself, we proclaim that to oppose such things is the work of our faith.

It is Mark’s belief that Jesus was the Messiah or in Greek: Christ. He says so in the first sentence of his Gospel. But in Mark’s day and in ours the term carries a lot of undesirable freight. The words Messiah and Christ both translate to “anointed.” That implies being chosen by God to be a leader of God’s people. Kings were anointed. Most of the people in Jesus’ day yearned for another King David to liberate them from the hands of their oppressors. They envisioned the Messiah to be one like David who would rise up and lead the people to war against and victory over the invading Romans and those who collaborated with the Romans.

Peter in his revelation which sits at the center of the Gospel of Mark, proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah. We know from the first line of the Gospel that Mark agrees that Jesus is the Messiah but not the Messiah that Peter hopes for, not the Messiah that the people wait for.

So when Peter gets it absolutely right here in the pivotal center of the Gospel, he is also completely wrong. And that is what leads to the argument between Peter and Jesus in our reading of the Gospel today which occurs after Peter has his breakthrough insight.

After Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus then goes on to say that he is going to suffer, be rejected and killed…and then rise again. Jesus even goes so far to distance himself from the popular notion of Messiah that he calls himself the “Human One” or in some translations “The Son of Man.” Imagine if President Obama had said in one of those overflowing pep rally gatherings before the election that he was going to win the presidency and then be arrested, tortured and murdered. That would have put a damper on the event. No, Presidents take power and run the country and make their agendas happen. And a Messiah was much more powerful in the minds of Peter and the people of his day than our notion of a president. No, the Messiah doesn’t die, the Messiah becomes a king even more powerful than Caesar. That’s what Peter believes, that is what the people want. So Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him, strong word rebuke, it is the same word that describes what Jesus does to demons.

But then Jesus turns and rebukes Peter and tells him "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Or as we say around here, Jesus told Peter that he was speaking the lie of the domination system and not the truth of God.

Satan, human things, the domination system are ways of talking about our common understanding of how things work. He who has the gold rules. Power comes from the top down it is enforced with violence and enhanced with greed. This is the way civilization has worked and the way Peter expects even the Messiah to work. The Messiah will be the Jewish version of Caesar.

But Jesus sees the role of Messiah completely opposed to the worldly, system of domination. He sees power as self giving love, coming not from forcing people to do your will but by empowering people to themselves practice self-giving love.

That is why Jesus goes from his suffering to the hard truth that if we want to be followers of him we too are called into this difficult and dangerous work of manifesting the power of love to bring about a revolution in power and principle.

He tells the disciples and the crowd "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Jesus didn’t come to suffer and die so that his followers wouldn’t have to, Jesus came to show us that creating a world of true peace and true justice requires us all to take on the costs of love. For if we seek to preserve our lives as defined by the domination system, if we seek to hang on to whatever status, what ever advantage, what ever security an unjust and violent system offers us, then we will preserve that system and prevent true life from happening for ourselves or others. But if we step away from the benefits of domination and risk our security for the sake of those we do not know and even for those we do know as enemies then we will gain in that moment the freedom that is true life.

If we allow ourselves to be defined and controlled by a system of death, greed violence and fear, then we are not truly living. But if we can step out of that system for even a moment, then we will know true life in that moment. And the knowing is in the doing. You can’t meditate yourself into this place of love, not if you see Jesus as your leader. You can and should meditate to clarify your direction but Jesus here calls on us to walk the walk. To deny ourselves, to place the needs of the most vulnerable over our own security, to take up the cross, to challenge the Powers that Be even when they threaten us with the worst forms of retribution and to follow Jesus.
Jesus was the Messiah but not on the terms of popular thought, and so he didn’t even use the title and he told his followers that he wasn’t going to do it for us, he was just going to show us how it is done. Its up to us.

So why not take the crosses down? They speak these days, more about the popular notion of Christ than what Jesus had in mind. As Jesus avoided the title of Messiah, so maybe we need to find another way of calling ourselves Christian, because we don’t follow the popular idea of Jesus as a human sacrifice for our sins. We don’t follow the popular idea of Christianity which says we are going to heaven and those who do not believe like us are going to hell. We are not trying to gain domination authority so that we can force others to behave the way we think they should.

We stand against torture whether it is practiced by an evil despot or a Christian soldier.

We stand against war whether it is to advance the tide of tyranny or proclaimed as a holy crusade against evil.

We stand against poverty and against the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few.

We stand against oppression, whether it is practiced by a powerful elite or a democratic majority.
We stand for the peace that comes from the presence of justice.

We stand for the love that breaks down barriers and borders.

We stand for a vision of a world where everyone has not only their basic needs met but also their higher needs to learn, create, and participate in the decisions that impact the world.

The cross should say all of that but no longer does. No symbol is to be trusted, no words alone can define. Words and symbols can be managed and manipulated. If we are not practicing love for stranger and enemy then we are not following Christ. If we are not using what little power and resources we have to stand up for the vulnerable we are not following Christ. No symbol hung around our necks or over our sanctuaries will do. No doctrine or dogma, no hymn sung or sermon endured will do. Christ is not a brand name we wear, Christ is path we walk. If we walk the path of justice then the walk is our proclamation. If we don’t, the cross around our necks or over our sanctuaries means nothing. Lent is the season in which this awareness sets in. The longed for savior did not save us with a past event or future promise but with an example for how we are to live in the present. The meaning we long for is not a gift but a choice: the path of popular reality or the path of self giving love. Only one offers true life. And that path of love, as difficult as it may seem, is the path of true life, and it is good news.