Thursday, January 29, 2009

That Darned God

Epiphany 3 Year B
Jonah 3:1-5, 10, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-15
That Darned God
By Rich Gamble

Jonah did not like the people of Nineveh. Not surprising, Nineveh is the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, and the Assyrian Empire eventually swallowed up the northern tribes of Israel. Nineveh was a superpower in its day, a malevolent shadow on the eastern horizon of Israel. They were probably pushy people too.

The crime they are accused of in the book of Jonah is violence. Most often that word indicates the violence of the powerful over the weak. Bullies- that is the way we would describe them.

Jonah doesn’t like those pushy bullies from Nineveh and he is more than happy to hear God pronounce dire judgment on them. But when God calls on him to carry the message of judgment to the people of Nineveh, Jonah runs away. He hops the first boat out of town. And well, you probably know the rest of the story. There is a terrible storm at sea; Jonah tells the sailors that he is responsible because God is miffed at him. The sailors chuck Jonah into the sea, a big fish swallows Jonah. The fish vomits Jonah up back on shore where he started. So Jonah goes to Nineveh and tells the people that God will destroy the city (the word used is the same word to describe what happened to Sodom).

God and Jonah do not give the people of Nineveh a chance to change. It is just doom and nothing but doom for them. But the people of Nineveh do change. They repent, they stop eating and wear scratchy clothes and do whatever else they can to show God that they are going to change.

So seeing this, God changes God’s mind. God decides not to scramble Nineveh.

This of course is just what Jonah had feared. He later tells God that the reason he ran away was that he was afraid God would go and forgive the pushy Ninevites and Jonah didn’t want them forgiven. He wanted them scrambled.

Paul in today’s reading just knows that world as he knew it was about to end at any moment. He imagined Jesus would return, blow some sort of cosmic whistle and call game over for old the ways of doing things. And since everything was going to end in a couple of days, people should not get so hung up on the things of this world, marriage, business, all that stuff is so last world. Paul is ready for the new world to sweep in, similar to though much bigger than the recent change in presidents.

God didn’t destroy Nineveh. God didn’t end the world. God can be such a disappointment sometimes. We want God to like what we like, hate the people we hate, act in ways that make us comfortable, and offer us the improvements we are hoping for.

We want God on our terms and instead we find ourselves having to respond to God on God’s terms.

Often people try to use the notion of the divine to inflate their own fears, prejudices, and desires to a cosmic level. They need a God who is utterly inflexible. They need a Bible that is “infallible” so that when they hunt down scriptures that agree with their world view, they can claim with complete authority, that God is in utter agreement with them.

But how can the Bible be infallible if the Bible says that God changed God’s mind? How can an inflexible document confine the will of a God who changes?

Though Paul totally missed the boat on the old end of the world right around the corner angle, he did get the general approach right: don’t sweat the small stuff. We can’t lock God into a bunch of persnickety rules, at best we can say that God is going to call us into a relationship that forces us to grow in our capacity to love others, even those pushy people, even those angry people, even those strange people, even those people of other races, and faiths.

We want God to shake her finger at all the people we love to hate but instead God’s finger beckons us to see the world of hate and fear fading away.

Which brings us to God’s most recent challenge to us here at Keystone, that challenge comes in the guise of one we know: Rob. Most of you know Rob. Rob and Becky are members here. We have comfortably fit them into our community.

Well it turns out that Rob was born with the body of a male and self identity of a female. Rob is transgender.

Remember when we spoke about the vote taken long ago to be Open and Affirming of people who were Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender. Well now we are called on to actually practice what we voted on. We are called on to be open to and affirming of Rob who shall in our presence be called Jenny.

Now this is probably going to be a challenge for some of us. It is not what we are used to and such things can make us uncomfortable. Jenny will be a part of our community and we may worry about saying the right pronouns, we may worry about saying something stupid. We may worry what bathroom she will use. We may worry about what others will think when they find out that we not only tolerate but celebrate a person who is transgender.

To all of these possible concerns our texts today offer us a couple of helpful approaches. We can take Paul’s view that the world is passing away anyway and all of our old fears and hang-ups are relics of the old world.

Or we could take insights from Jonah’s experience, that the love of God pays no attention to our prejudices.

We may want God to obliterate all of those people who are not like us and are unwilling to conform to our world view. Well, if not obliterate, at least vex and terrorize them so that they are forced to change. But God doesn’t play by our rules, God calls on us to grow in our capacity to love.

So if you are uncomfortable with Jenny, know that it is your growing edge. Don’t wear out your Bible looking for some inflexible commandment against behavior that makes you uncomfortable. There is only one inflexible aspect of the divine, and that is love. But of course love calls on even God to be flexible in God’s relationship with humanity. Why should we think that the love of God would demand less of us than it does of God?

The love of God pushes us outside our comfort zones. The love of God pushes us beyond our fears, and desires. The love of God can carry us to places of loss and danger. The love of God can carry us to the place where we will receive the hostility aimed at the ones we are called to love. The love of God will poke us, inspire us, lampoon us and embrace us always, always urging us to grow in our capacity to transform who we are, into whom we are called to be: the incarnation of the love of God.

Jenny didn’t choose her identity, but we can choose whether to be the embodiment of a fearful majority in the presence of member of a minority community or the communal embodiment of God’s love.

I have great faith that Keystone will live up to my hopeful expectations and God’s loving nudge.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Prayer from Bishop Robinson

On Sunday, Episcopal Bishop Eugene Robinson offered a prayer as part of the inauguration celebration. Bishop Robinson is the first Gay Bishop of the Episcopal Church. HBO left this prayer out of their coverage of the events.

Opening Inaugural Event
Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC
January 18, 2009
BISHOP EUGENE ROBINSON: O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will bless us with tears, tears for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women in many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.
Bless this nation with anger, anger at discrimination at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Bless us with discomfort, at the easy, simplistic answers we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth about ourselves and our world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.
Bless us with patience and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be fixed any time soon and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.
Bless us with humility, open to understanding that our own needs as a nation must always be balanced with those of the world.
Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance, replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences.
And bless us with compassion and generosity, remembering that every religion’s god judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable.
And God, we give you thanks for your child Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States. Give him wisdom beyond his years. Inspire him with President Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for all people.
Give him a quiet heart, for our ship of state needs a steady, calm captain.
Give him stirring words. We will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.
Make him colorblind, reminding him of his own words, that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.
Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.
Give him strength to find family time and privacy. And help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.
And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we are asking far too much of this one. We implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand, that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity and peace. amen

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Epiphany 1 Year B 0109
By Rich Gamble

While I was walking my dog, T, the other night I thought about how people name dogs as a reflection of their own creative inclinations. It has nothing to do with how the dogs would want to be known. I named my dog, the Emperor Tiglath Pilezer III in reference to a man who once terrorized the known world. No one today remembers that long ago tyrant, except a few historians and biblical scholars. To name my very sweet, friendly and sometimes dopey dog after this guy, is my way of tweaking all of those who think that they are so important. Someday, if your lucky the only way people will know your name is if a dog bears it.

T doesn’t really give a hoot about my reasons for linking his existence to that particular set of sounds. He just knows that when I say it I am talking to or about him. Dogs don’t seem to care about linking their beings with names. Their carry their identity in their smell. When they urinate on something they are leaving their calling card. That smell is undoubtedly unique to them, and since dogs have a sense of smell so much greater than ours they can distinguish between thousands of different scents. Their body chemistry is their identity and it is unique to each canine.

We humans live in a more complex reality. Our identity is tangled up with our parents, with our body chemistry, with the society which surrounds us, with our own vision of ourselves and with our faith. These different ways of defining our identity create a complex and often contradictory identity. We bear not only the hopes and compassion of our parents but their prejudices and fears. We bear the memories of love and the scars left by others. My family was a reflection of their society: generous and compassionate, violent and racist, that odd mix of light and shadow often sanctified as a whole by the popular religion.

We all bear similar marks, left in our psyches from our upbringing. We also bear the marks left by our bodies themselves. Some of us are physically different from that which is called “normal.” Some of us, perhaps most of us differ in our brain chemistry than the common myth of “normal.”

Society would sometimes have us suppress what our brains are telling us is true about ourselves. People with mental illness often lead tortured lives pretending that they are “normal” and fearing to ask for help. In the past, some people who were of mixed race hid part of their heritage to more readily fit into a racist society. Some people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered have felt the overwhelming social pressure to hide their identity.

In the past and still today religion has often been used to bolster prejudices and give divine sanction to certain identities and divine hostility to others. Just before Christmas, the Pope declared that gender identity was assigned by God and humans who did not honor that identity and the roles of that identity were standing against the will of God. This is a logical stand if your god is cast in the role of divine dominator.

The Pope is not alone, many of the religions of the world and most of Christianity cast God in the role of dominator and as such pronounce divine sanction on those who do not conform to their idea of the holiness of the dominant forms.

Which finally gets us to the scripture for today: you probably have heard the story before, John the Baptist, who in his dress and manner is depicted as a prophet invites people to be baptized. Jesus does so and God is well pleased.

For those who interpret Christianity through the lens of domination, this story is problematic. For them Jesus is God and is sinless and baptism for them is about washing off sins. So why does Jesus need a bath when he isn’t dirty? Matthew sees the problem with this and includes a conversation between Jesus and John in which Jesus says something to the effect of I know that this doesn’t make sense but God wants me to do this so let’s do it.

Mark doesn’t see any problem. He just states that Jesus was baptized. Mark says that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

The domination form of Christianity (and in Jesus’ day, Judaism) focuses on sins. Sins are interpreted as acts which are contrary to the rules of God. Break the rules and you deserve punishment in a domination based system. To have sins in that system is like having a bull’s-eye target painted on your back, you are a walking target for God’s wrath, which in its Christian form means eternal torment. So you want to get those sins off you as soon as possible. In that system, with that God, it makes sense to baptize babies because in that system once you get your baptism you have a sort of Teflon coating when it comes to sins. For Baptists the sins just slide right off, for Catholics you have scrub a little bit with confession but they come off pretty easily.

Domination, order and sin are natural partners in the social order of our civilization, also needed is an approved way to realign yourself in the system if you sin. Now I know that guys with larger vocabularies and a greater command of religious minutia can dress it up to sound a whole lot more mystical but when we do that we sometimes lose sight of the essentials.

There is another form of Christianity and another idea of baptism. In that understanding the focus is not on repentance as feeling bad about a failure to conform to the norm of God, and wanting to do better. It is about changing direction. That change is not about being better at conforming to the dominant ideas but instead turning away from the power behind those ideas.

There is a reason why John the Baptizer is dressed in funky clothes and standing by a river in the back of beyond. He is an outsider. If his role was advancing the cause of conformity, he would have been inside the Temple, dressed in ceremonial robes and flinging water out of a fancy punch bowl. John is an outsider calling on people outside the hold of the domination system.

To be baptized then was not about scrubbing off the ways you failed to follow the holy rule book as dictated by the guys in the big hats and fancy robes but turning away from understanding reality in terms of domination, rules and conformity. It was about choosing a path for your life, choosing an alternative image of God, and ultimately about choosing an identity not governed by the dominant social order.

The ancient Christian metaphor of baptism as rebirth is much more on point in this interpretation of baptism. It is choosing to be born into a different reality, a different understanding of ultimate and therefore everyday reality.

In the past we have flung water at you out of punch bowl here in the sanctuary in order to remind you of your baptism. But this year we won’t do that because baptism is about your choice. Do you choose the radically divergent path of love and compassion over domination and conformity? It is ultimately each individual’s choice.

On this day in this place, the water is invested with the symbolism of choice. Just like the water of the sea outside Egypt for the escaping slaves. Enter into the sea and you can never go back to Egypt. The water of the Jordan river and our symbolic Jordan here in our baptismal font is a symbol of accepting the path of outsider.

It is about choosing to be born into a new reality, a reality based on love. In that reality we don’t ask what is normal, we ask what is our loving response? We don’t look at the world through the lens of the guys in charge but through the lens of the most vulnerable, those who are being oppressed and excluded. We accept that we are flawed creatures who are loved by God and through that love, we are made children of that God called to love all the flawed creatures.

Through our act of choice, we choose an identity which us turns away from our traditional understandings of good order and instead embrace a path of goodness.

Where the Pope and Rick Warren call on us to exclude gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people as outside of God’s order, we choose to denounce those who paint God as excluder. Where those who claim to speak for God call us into violent conflict with people of other faiths or doctrines, we choose instead to stand for non-violent cooperation. Out of the love of God, we can choose to see ourselves as outsiders, standing with the outsiders of the system of domination and exclusion. Out of the love of God, we can choose identities which spring from God’s inclusive love. The world has left its mark on us, but we can choose our identity and our path in life. We can choose to be born into a new reality of love; that choice and that reality are indeed good news.

On the stand on the way out is a bowl of water. It is holy water if you choose to make it so. If you want to affirm your choice to be a child of the God of love and justice, compassion and inclusion that take some water on your thumb and make a small sign of the cross on your forehead. Hindus believe that is where the eye of wisdom is found, scientists believe that is where the prefrontal cortex, our center of judging right from wrong is found. To make the sign of the cross on our foreheads then is a way of saying that the love of Christ is our wisdom, and the basis for discerning right from wrong.

It is just water in the bowl. You make it holy with your choice. You make your choice holy with your life.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Christmas 2 Year B
Jeremiah 31:7-14
By Rich Gamble

Through all of Advent we celebrated hope and anticipation. Last week we talked about the light of the Christmas story cast against the shadow of Herod’s slaughter of innocent children.

Today’s scripture from Jeremiah is a song of salvation to an exiled people. In that both the salvation and the exile are important, just as the light and shadow of the Christmas story.

The people who lived in exile in Babylon had little about which to be hopeful. They were the remnant of a non-existent nation. They were followers of a God who didn’t stand up for them. Without religion, nation or place to call their own, the people living in captivity were lost and without hope.

Then comes this song of promise. God promises the people home, security, and prosperity. They are going to participate in a giant homecoming parade, and this parade is not just for the young and strong but for the vulnerable and weak as well.

This homecoming and happy life comes to the people of the exile not because they are good people, or sufficiently chastised, it comes because that is the way God wants it. As such it is not tentative but an assured promise.

In our world exile is a good description of the place we find ourselves. If ever we think that we are running the show then something like our economic crisis happens to remind us that we are not. When our economy started to take a nose dive the first thing that happened was that citizens were taxed 700 billion dollars so that bankers could continue to live extremely well. Half of that 700 billion is spent and no one seems to be able to answer the question, what did we get for the money?

350 Billion dollars could have ended homelessness in America and fed all the hungry people in the world to boot. Instead it just disappeared. Investors got their dividends, managers got their bonuses but poor and working class people got zip.

The car makers who ignored the need to build economical and environmentally sound cars went into overwhelming debt and our government doesn’t want to bail them out so much that it gets in the way of those companies to use the power of the bankruptcy laws to reduce the benefits owed to the workers. Greedy and careless bankers get bonuses but rank and file car makers can’t be allowed to get decent retirement benefits.

More and more of the “boomer” generation is going to have to continue working into their 70’s because retirement is no longer an option.

Most of us want a meaningful job, a decent place to live, a safe community, good education for our children, safe food, clean water, decent healthcare. We want to have time to spend with our children, time to care for our parents, and time to enjoy a retirement. We want to leave the world better for our children. People all over the world hunger for these simple pleasures and instead most of us have few of these things and our children will have less.


We are told that the answers are complex. We are told that the forces in charge of things are creating the best of all possible worlds but the immigrants, the terrorists, the people of some other religion, the people of some other nation, the “evil doers” are gumming up the works. We are told that if we kill more evil people, work longer hours for less pay, give the wealthy people more money, pump oil in more pristine areas, tax our children even more (debt), we may not be happier but we will help secure ourselves against something worse happening.

In other words, we are not in charge. Not only can we not get what we want (healthcare, retirement etc…) but have to sacrifice more to hold onto what little we have. We are exiles.

To quote a professor at the University of Southern California:

The top 10% have 85% to 90% of stock, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and over 75% of non-home real estate. Since financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets, we can say that just 10% of the people own the United States of America.

If we are not part of that 10%, and I think it is safe to say that no one here is, we are exiles.

Being an exile and being defined by that experience are too distinctly different things and that is the point of today’s reading.

The people in exile in the empire of Babylon are even more exiles than we here in today’s empire and yet, Jeremiah’s proclamation calls on them to see themselves not a victims of forces beyond their control but as people on the threshold of a journey of liberation.

As bad as things are, and it is important to see clearly the suffering of the world, the light of love and not the shadow of greed and violence is what defines us.

We are children of the promise and we are made so, not because we are Christian or Americans but because we are children of God. Humanity is being called to a homecoming.

Salvation in this text is not for the dead but for the living and the yet unborn. Salvation is found in being at peace with our neighbors and in having an abundance of the good things we need to have a good life.

Salvation is about being at home in the world. It is about laughter and contentment and hope for the future based on the joy of today.

We are not to be defined by the ever shrinking horizon of helpless exiles in a world ruled by the 10%. We are to be defined by the boundless possibilities found in a God who seeks joy for the most marginalized among us.

Salvation for us is a community in which everyone invited to shed their identity as exile and be embraced by the love of God, expressed in the tangible terms of housing, food, healthcare, acceptance of our differences, and peace.

This image of a joyous celebration of inclusion and plenty is what defines us as we journey away from the shadow of domination.

And that is good news.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Shadows and Light

Christmas 1 Year B
Matthew 2:1-16
Shadows and Light
By Rich Gamble

Only Luke and Matthew talk of the birth of Jesus. Only Matthew tells of the wise men. Only Matthew speaks of Herod’s slaughter of the male children in Bethlehem. In fact the only account that exists of this slaughter of the baby boys of Bethlehem is found in Matthew.

Since the Jewish historian Josephus wrote a long history of Herod and does not mention the incident, some scholars conclude that it never happened. It is true that the absence of evidence does not make for the evidence of absence, there is some reason to doubt whether this did occur.

If it did occur it is unlikely that the slaughter was very large. Bethlehem was a small village and the surrounding population was sparse. So some scholars think that if this did indeed occur, the number of babies killed was probably less than 30 and likely less than 20, not the thousands or tens of thousands later attributed by Christian writers. Not to say that the murder of even one person is not a crime of immense proportions but it helps to put this into perspective.

Historians do not try to paint Herod as a nice guy. He did kill some of his own children. They were adults at the time but still they were his own kids. Herod accused them of trying to take the throne away from him, and had them executed. Perhaps that is where Matthew got the story. For the story in Matthew is about Herod killing children to protect his hold on the throne.

As you know, we don’t approach the Bible literally here. If this incident in Matthew never happened it doesn’t make it any less true. Fiction can often speak truth more clearly that journalism. Poetry can speak more truthfully than history. Our primary concern here is the truth in the story.

So what is the truth that Matthew seeks to impart with this story of Persian Astrologers, Herod, the babies of Bethlehem and Jesus?

Luke’s gospel cuts across class lines. Mary, Joseph and the Baby are seen as homeless and visited by shepherds, one of the lowest rungs of that social order. Luke wants to place Jesus in the work of God to overturn the powerful and lift up the poor and oppressed. Matthew starts by making he story cut across the lines of nation, religion, and race. The Magi or wise men come from outside the race nation and religion of Israel and yet, they see the birth of this child as an important event in their lives and for their world. This birth is not just for the Jewish people it is for the whole world.

But Matthew is also aware that the truth that Jesus brings to the world will be rightly perceived by those in power as a threat to their hold on power. The ones who hold power will use the tools at their disposal to deal with any threat and the primary tool of one who holds political power is violence.

From the very beginning of the story we are made to understand that the truth that Jesus brings is for every nation and race and it is dangerous. From this beginning we are not surprised to hear Jesus command his followers to spread his truth to everyone, and we are not surprised that this truth gets him killed by the Powers that Be.

This story in Matthew is a solid cure for anyone who wants to boil Christianity down into a means of obtaining personal salvation as more conservative forms proclaim or as a spiritual self-help practice as the more liberal side says. To follow the truth of Christ may lead us to the salvation of our souls and may improve our inner harmony but at its heart, this story proclaims that the truth of the Christ is a world changing, power disrupting truth that shines a light on the violence and fear of the systems of power which then and now rule our world.

If our faith isn’t making the defenders of Domination uncomfortable, if not homicidal then perhaps our form of Christianity differs from that of the Gospel writers.

In Matthew’s story, Herod didn’t just happen to kill babies in Bethlehem, he did it to end a threat to his throne. If Jesus was a threat to Herod and his truth is to be (as Matthew proclaims in the last chapter of the Gospel) to the whole world, then isn’t this truth a threat to all those everywhere, who sit enthroned in the power of domination?

Matthew’s Gospel has this story to show us that this isn’t just a story for us but for the whole world. And it isn’t just a spiritualized story but one with direct social, political and economic consequences.

To believe in the truth of this story is to believe that the life of faith is a life of conflict with all those who seek to oppress and exploit others. You cannot truly care for the poor without ending the conditions which create the suffering of poverty. You cannot alter the conditions that create oppressive poverty without challenging those who prosper from that system. This is not a story about good people and bad people, it is a story about the way out of systems of injustice and violence. It isn’t just that Herod was a bad guy who killed children; it is about the fact that no one should have the power and authority to kill anyone. In Matthew’s Gospel Herod fades away but the systems which cause murder and misery remain. Even Jesus’ own death does not end those systems. It is left up to his followers to carry on the struggle.

Our challenge then, in this pleasant little community of faith in this pleasant neighborhood is to find ways to care for those who are impoverished and oppressed but also to challenge the systems which create poverty and oppression. Doing such work will, according to the Gospel, be good for our souls.

This story speaks of life and death surrounding the truth God speaks to the world. God brings life, Herod Death. Our faith is about life and death matters in the world.

In the coming year, how will we promote life and challenge those who deal in death? How will we promote justice and challenge those who profit from injustice? How will we follow the call to extend ourselves to the world and risk ourselves for God’s love?

If we dare, if we risk, if we give, if we speak out, if we reach out as embodiments of the love of God, then we will have entered the story and become the good news.