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.