Friday, May 29, 2009

Welcome Aboard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 15, 2009

God is Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is good news.

Nothing More Radical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a vision the world desperately needs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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