Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lenten Study: God's Economy

Join us on four Tuesday nights in Lent for a study of Christian Economics. In the class we will discuss the history of the Jewish people and the central role economics had in the development of their understanding of living faithfully. We will then move on to the teachings of Jesus and the role of economics in the formation of the church. In the course of the class we will develop a lens through which we can view the world economy and our personal use of resources.

March 3, 10, 24, 31
6:30 soup and bread
7-8:30 class

Of Rocks and Radiance

Transfiguration Sunday 022209
2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9
Of Rocks and Radiance
By Rich Gamble

When I was a teenager, I felt the real presence of God in my life. I didn’t pray so much as converse with the divine and in that context of regular communication, things happened that made me feel as if I was involved in an exchange of ideas and not just a monologue.

It was a simplistic relationship with God, the simplicity of a child.

I remember one night I got a call from a friend who was really upset and needed someone to talk to. Unfortunately it was the night before a big test and I always waited until the night before to prepare for tests. I had a choice. Turn down my friend in need and do well on the test or help my friend and do poorly on the test. What would Jesus do? I asked myself.

“OK God, I said, I’m going to help my friend because I think that is what you are calling me to do. I’m going to leave my test scores in your hands.”

I went to see my friend and didn’t get back home until late. Frazzled, tired, I was unable to study and so I went to bed.

When I woke up the next morning the world was covered in snow. While I slept a snowstorm descended on St. Louis and paralyzed the city. Classes were cancelled at my school and I felt the hand of God. Now it takes a pretty naïve kid or a pretty large ego to think that a snowstorm effecting millions of lives was caused by God to help one kid on a test. But I knew it was the hand of God.

Another time, I was upset and in a bad mood. I felt the presence of God telling me to cheer up but I was in no mood to be cheery and in my mind I told God that. But the voice of God in my head persisted. “There is no way you are going to get me to smile today,” I told God as I was walking to my class. Right after saying that, I tripped on a tree root while going down a steep hill. I did a summersault while falling, landing on my back with my books and papers strewn all about me. There I was on my back staring up into the sky and I started laughing like a maniac.

Since then, I have spent time with hundreds of people in crisis, some losing their homes, some losing loved ones, some dying themselves. I have talked with people who were suicidal, and led memorial services for loved ones and teenagers who have killed themselves. I have unsuccessfully struggled to stop wars, end homelessness and open the eyes and the hearts of a nation that seems to care about reality show idols and models than the real people living on the streets around them. Sometimes it is hard to remember the wonder of that relationship with the divine that my child self knew.

The transfiguration story is just that, the breaking in of wonder into the story of Jesus. Mark’s gospel has 16 chapters. In the center of the story, Peter calls Jesus Messiah, or in the Greek: Christ. It is a title with a lot of baggage that Jesus doesn’t want to carry. As a remedy against the domination based expectations of the masses towards a messiah, Jesus talks about the coming suffering he is going to experience in Jerusalem. From that confession of Peter, Mark’s Gospel sets its eyes on Jerusalem and the inevitable deadly confrontation with the Powers that Be.

Along the way, in the midst of the three predictions of his suffering and death by Jesus, we have this story, in which Jesus asks the inner circle of three disciples to join him and climbs a hill. Mark’s Gospel has some special effects but largely it is a story of Jesus healing sick people, Jesus arguing with religious leaders, and Jesus trying to teach some very dense disciples. It is a story with blood and mucus and lepers all of which were signs of ritual impurity to Mark’s Jewish readers, to us it speaks of the modern notion of impurity: germs and dirt. In short it is a story filled with the stuff of life: conflict, sickness, and suffering.

But along the way, Jesus and three disciples climb a hill and for a moment everything changes. The mundane becomes numinous. Jesus’ clothes become radiantly white, and he is surrounded by the long dead Moses and Elijah (note it is not David and Solomon who appear with Jesus, the path of Jesus is not that of domination based kings but of liberation based prophets). Jesus in whiter that white clothes and the prophetic figures in consultation with Jesus, it was all fairly amazing, so much so that Peter wanted to pile up some rocks and make a monument but Mark apologizes for this embarrassing reaction to the mystical, saying that Peter didn’t know what he was saying because he was terrified.

Then the crescendo comes with no less than the voice of God pouring down from a cloud, saying to the disciples, “this is my son, listen to him.”

And then its over, like a freak summer hail storm, the mystical moment passes and Jesus is Jesus once more and they march back down the mountain back to the work and struggle.

The letter from Paul speaks to a community of people working and struggling. Paul places their work in the context of a mystical struggle between the “god of this world” and the god of Christ. Yes the message of Christ, the message of agape love as being the center of our notions of family, community, politics, economics and religion is a light to the world. But describe light to people who were born blind. The god of this world, Paul says has blinded the minds of people who are perishing.

Look at all suffering we cause ourselves and others because our minds are not open to luminous and numinous reality all around us. Blinded by the glare of media, shrouded in the fog of fear, desperately seeking to fill the hole in our hearts with the stuff in our hands we are unable to see the light of life.

Mark’s mountain top story is a moment when the everyday work of Jesus is shown for the mystical experience that it really is. Like that moment when my child self saw beyond the accumulation of frozen precipitation to the wonder of the presence of a loving God.

Had I stayed home and avoided my friend, the snow may still have come, but instead of coming as a benediction it would have come as an indictment. Had the three disciples begged off of climbing a hill, the transfiguration may still have happened but they would have never seen it. If we do not place ourselves outside of fearful self interest and on the path of costly compassion, then we will miss the radiance around us. It is there, in the muck and the mucus, the blood and the suffering, the conflict and commotion, the Holy radiates love and peace

As my child self believed, so I believe still, God waits to enlighten, inspire and trip us up. God calls us to places of pain, and conflict and laughter and grace. God awaits us in the mundane and the messy, and in the indescribable beauty of a maple’s leaf or a child’s laugh.

This place is not a monument to a past event but place to pause in the midst of struggle, to center ourselves on the wonder that shines forth around us. Just as Peter could not lock the transcendent in place with his monuments, we cannot lock the wonder of God in a place like this. The wonder is all around us, travels with us, is in us if we can but see it. This time is no more sacred than any other, and indeed there is no light here if the path from here does not lead to the challenging and costly work of reshaping the world in the name of compassion and justice. But if we embark on that path, if we strive with our lives to embody the love of God, then this, or any moment may be filled with the light of the Divine.

God waits on mountain tops and cardboard hovels and occasionally even in places like this. And that is good news.

Monday, February 9, 2009


Epiphany 5 year B
Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39
By Rich Gamble

In just a few short sentences Mark gives us a picture of what our faith is all about. Jesus comes home with Simon and Andrew and there Jesus discovers that Simon’s Mother in law is sick with a fever. Jesus lifts her up. She is healed. She gets busy serving her guests.

It’s almost a throw away story, a filler between bigger events, a commercial. But in truth it is a concise depiction of our faith.

We talk about our lives in many ways. Illness is often a cause for concern and conversation in our lives. We talk of health when think about sickness. But in a couple of weeks we will show a movie which has health experts saying that health is much bigger than diet and exercise, medications and surgery. Health is about race, and income, and freedom.

They did an interesting study in the movie. They gave people a cold virus and measured whose immune systems best fought off getting the cold. In studies of a sufficiently large sample, they were able to show that the better your income, the better you were at fighting a cold. In fact it goes beyond our current conditions. People who grew up in households where their parents owned their home were better at fighting off the virus than people who grew up in apartments their parents rented. And people whose parents moved from an apartment to a house while the child lived at home were better able as adults to fight off the virus than people whose family never moved and worse than people who always lived in the house their parents owned. Housing security as a child makes us healthier adults.

Income we earn as adults is a large factor in determining how long we will live. On the whole people who make over $100,000 a year will live longer than people who make $50,000. And people who make $50,000 will live longer than people making 30 and so on.

The biggest impact on our nation’s health in the last hundred years wasn’t all the latest health technology, it was the improvement in the standard of living of folks, and the reduction of the disparity between rich and poor. Unfortunately that reduction in disparity ended forty years ago. We’ve been heading in the wrong direction ever since.

Race is another important factor. African Americans on the whole will not live as long as Caucasians. This has nothing to do with genetics and everything to do with the stress caused by racism.

One of biggest things that we can do to improve the nation’s health is to more equitably distribute our nation’s wealth.

Economic Justice is a leading health factor. To say that makes us think in new and broader ways about health; our physical health is directly tied to the just distribution of resources, power, and equality.

The issue of health is much broader than sickness and medicine. The folks in Jesus’ day knew that, that is why Mark talks about Jesus curing illness and demonic possession in the same breath. Both can be seen as the internalized manifestation of the broader ills of the community. When we see the world through the lens of the Domination System we are internalizing that which is opposed to the rule of the love of God. We see that clearly when one of the demons Jesus encounters calls itself Legion. The demon was the internalized manifestation of the oppressive Roman military which is the only place the title of legion was used in those days.

Those who believe in and support systems of greed and violence are in a sense possessed by those demons.

Those who suffer from the toxic environment of economic, political, or social injustice are made sick as the whole of society is sickened.

If we read these stories as journalistic accounts of healing then they have little to say to us except that Jesus had a gift for healing. But if we read these stories as stories then we can see in the healing of people from demons and illness Jesus was overcoming the internalized world view of the domination systems and the internalized physical effects of that system.

I believe that Mark told this little story to slip in the basic vision of what Jesus was all about. Healing bodies, hearts, minds, relationships, social systems, religious systems, political systems, so that those bodies, hearts, minds, relationships and systems could serve others.

This leads us to looking at our lives of faith in two ways: healing and serving. The thing is that there isn’t a clean, cut and dried, delineation. We are always in the process of working with God to heal ourselves, our relationships and our communities. Part of that healing is found in our service to the call of God to love our neighbors as ourselves.

We are healed to serve. We are healed by serving. We provide healing to others by our service to God.

We are a wounded people. When you get to know a group of folks, you find out that they often are carrying wounds that are not healed. We are wounded by our jobs or lack of them. We are wounded by children or their absence. We are wounded by the violence or uncertainty of our childhood. We are wounded by the pain of those we love. We are wounded by those who build a nation of great disparity in opportunity, resources and power. We are wounded by those who will not try to change the way things are.

For these wounds, for the illness of injustice, the call of Christ is the call of healing. The love of God helps us move beyond the wounds and move towards the solutions offered by service.

So it comes to this. If you are not working to make the world better for someone who needs help, then your health will always be in doubt. If you are waiting to get all the answers, or get brave enough or strong enough or smart enough or healthy enough to reach out to someone worse off than you, then you probably will never make the reach. And without the service, true healing is in doubt.

The Christian faith isn’t expressed in intellectual speculation, or emotional ventilation but in acts of compassionate liberation. It isn’t a faith for bystanders. Like Simon’s mother-in-law we are healed to serve. But more than that, we are healed in serving and we heal the world through our service.

Isaiah’s poetry speaks of how the all powerful God strives to aid the most vulnerable humans. So we, with whatever health we may possess are called to do likewise. And when we do so, we are acting in concert with God who heals us, so that the world may be healed. And that is good news.