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.


Lent 1 Year B
Mark 1:9-15
By Rich Gamble

I believe that it is in the Catholic Church in Marshalltown Iowa, which has this very large stained glass window and in that window is a dove, but not just any dove, not one of those nice little doves that glide on a steep vertical descent from the sky down to Jesus. This dove is flying straight at the viewer, this dove fills the window which fills the wall of this fairly large church. This dove looks you in the eye. This dove has its feet in front of it like an eagle ready to pounce on a victim. This is one seriously intimidating dove. Now maybe I’ve embellished this dove in my memory but that is how I remember it, a giant dove with attitude.

The scripture here says that the Spirit descended like a dove and we imagine a nice little white dove which drifts down from on high to perch upon Jesus’ shoulder. So when later in the scripture we are told that the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness it is hard for us to imagine a sweet little dove driving Jesus out of town. But the great white glassy eyed metaphor depicted in the stained glass of that church could easily drive Jesus’ whole softball team out into the wilderness.

Usually we like to think of the Spirit as our helper, our solace, the giant slurpy machine which dispenses endless giant gulps of warm fuzzy feelings. But in Mark’s gospel today the Spirit is a force that won’t be argued with, it is in charge, it is not our crutch but a bit of a bully.

Jesus is driven out into the wilderness. Now in Mark as in other gospels, geography has symbolic content. The wilderness is not just a place on a map it is a place in our experience. The wilderness is that place that is not settled, it is too inhospitable to set up a homestead. It is the unsettling place, the place that is not under the control of civilization. In the wilderness the things that normally stood you in good stead are of little use. The wilderness does not care whether you are attractive, witty, wealthy, or well connected. The wilderness is the great leveler.

In the wilderness you can get away from the assumptions of civilization. Our psychological landscape is filled with the walls and rules of our human created reality. In the wilderness there is nothing to reinforce the ways of perceiving reality that have been planted into us by our culture.

Now just because it is a kind of blank slate doesn’t mean that the wilderness is a place free from reach of what Walter Wink calls the Domination System or what the Bible calls Satan or the “god of the world.” We carry our assumptions about the world and ourselves wherever we go. And these assumptions have been formed in a culture controlled by the Domination System. This way of perceiving reality is there to tempt us and test us, to lure us back into the safe folds of commonly held ideas about the world, ideas like the necessity of domination, the necessity of violence, the vindication of the drive to secure ourselves at the cost of others. This is what Satan does, he tries to convince us of the sensibility indeed the inevitability of domination and violence. Don’t fight it, he whispers to us, you want to look like a fool, a loser, a dreamer? If you want to make a difference you have to have money, you have to have power, you have to have influence. Existence is about putting yourself over others.

Oh Satan is slick, he’s so slick that we don’t even know that it’s him speaking. It just sounds like the voice of reason, and history. In the city, Satan’s rules are plastered on billboards and broadcast on the air, and experienced in the expectations of our parents and peers. In the wilderness, it is just Satan in your head that you have to deal with, but that is no small thing.

Jesus, like the people of the Exodus, had to spend enough time in the wilderness to cleanse the old values, the old priorities, the old ideas of power and authority out of his system. And like the people of the Exodus he was cared for by God through the angels. The angels served Jesus the text says, the word is the same as the word used when Peter’s mother-in-law served Jesus and the boys. The implication is that the angels provided for Jesus’ needs. Mark doesn’t talk about fasting. Jesus was being cared for in the wilderness. Now if you want to think of angels as being winged creatures, fine. Since I’ve not met any cherubs, that image doesn’t work for me. To me an angel is a messenger from God, so that a messenger of God’s care in the wilderness might be huckleberries, or a spring of cold water, or cozy cave. Let your imagination work with the story but when you imagine this experience of Jesus, don’t put it outside of your context. Don’t use so many special effects that you could never imagine it happening to you. God’s messengers of grace are all around us, and we may miss them if we are waiting for some chubby guy with wings.

Which gets us to today, what does it mean to see our entry into the faith, symbolized by baptism, as cause for our being driven from our routines, driven from our plans, driven from our goals and driven out into a wilderness of re-evaluation, re-orientation to a new way of perceiving reality.

For some this wilderness experience comes not out of their choice to follow the way of Christ but by some other means. If you get cancer or some other illness you may be forced to re-evaluate your way of experiencing the world. Illness, like the wilderness doesn’t care whether you’re witty or beautiful or whether your able to retire early. If you or a loved one becomes ill your world changes and the old values and dreams may not work. If you lose your job and can’t find another, if the stock market swallows you savings, if you become homeless, if your child dies in a pointless war, or is swallowed up by addictions, you may experience an opportunity to question commonly held values, to see behind the curtain of lies our culture creates. These too are wilderness experiences and one outcome may be a choice to move in a new direction, a rejection of the plastic smiling god of the world and an embrace of the path of the crucified and rejected one.

Our faith calls on us to align ourselves with all of those for whom the Domination System does not work. We are driven by the Spirit to the wilderness places of suffering and there along with the victims of the System we may experience God’s care, and an opportunity to find a new way of living our lives.

In the story, Jesus baptized by John, driven by the Spirit, tempted by Satan and served by the angels finds himself back at the beginning. John’s been arrested, Jesus picks up where the prophet left off and the story of Jesus’ life as an embodiment of God’s will for humanity begins.

In our story, the wilderness, the tests, the grace and the ministry are constantly moving in and out of our lives. In truth to choose the path of Christ is to choose to place yourself at odds with the Principalities and Powers which rule our world, who rule in such potent ways as to be almost invisible to us unless we’ve experienced the wilderness. Such a choice will inevitably put us at odds with those around us even friends and family.

The “god of the world”, the Domination System, Satan whatever metaphor you wish to use is so powerful that most of its followers think of themselves as faithful followers of the God of Jesus or Moses or Mohammed or Buddha. They think of themselves as true believers, true patriots, true realists. And they will see any other belief system as irrational or as a threat. The Spirit of God seeks to drive us like some huge menacing dove out beyond religion and nation and genetics, out beyond any rationalization for violence and domination. The Spirit seeks to drive us to the realization that there is another path for our lives and for the world, a path of compassion and love. The Spirit drives us to doubt anyone who wants to make us fearful or vengeful or apathetic to the needs of others. The Spirit is driving us to where the old solutions fail, the common beliefs crumble, and the old measurements for our lives become irrelevant. This wilderness world is neither good nor evil it is merely a place to face our demons and receive God’s grace if we so choose.

The wilderness journey is celebrated in this season of Lent. This wilderness journey is difficult and dangerous, joyous and wondrous.

Welcome to the journey. Watch out for the bird.