Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sermon: Foolish Faith

I was asked to post this sermon:

Epiphany 7 Year A
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 1 Corinthians 3:18-23, Matthew 5:38-48
Foolish Faith or Foolish World
By Rich Gamble

Using the lectionary is sometimes a challenge for me; it can be hard to find something to preach on in the texts given for that particular Sunday. Then sometimes, like this Sunday, the texts are so full of important insights that there is way more than one sermon’s worth of material. In fact there are at least 4 sermons worth of material here.

But all of this material centers on the idea that we are called to a particular set of behaviors by virtue of our peculiar belief in the God of Moses and Jesus and Paul. In Leviticus the people are called to be Holy. We think that Holy people should glow with divine radiance and spout deep wisdom but in this passage Moses says that holy people leave part of their crops to be picked and used by the poor. Holy people don’t cheat or steal or lie. Holy people don’t take advantage of others. Holy people refrain from hating. Holy people love their neighbors as they love themselves. To be holy then is not something for sages and mystics but something everyone can do. We do it, Moses says, because of the nature of the God we choose to follow.

In other words, to choose to follow this God, to choose this particular path of faith, leads directly to certain values, and those values lead to particular behaviors which have direct implications on how we live our lives, how we use our resources, how we structure our communities.

These implications make little or no sense in the logic of the world that does not believe in this God. Let’s take that command to leave behind crops in the fields for those who are poor. In the logic of the “World” as Jesus and Paul use the word, or the domination system as we often use here, it makes no sense to leave behind your crops, grown on your land, through your effort for someone else to harvest. If you can make a lot more profit by cheating your workers, say by cutting out their benefits, or sending their jobs to more exploited people who will work for less, then it is logical to do so. Indeed the logic of our current systems almost compels employers to squeeze ever possible concession out of their workers. That way you make more profits and have more money and more power and resources. But Moses here says that you are to treat the other guy with the same concern as you give to yourself. Our whole economic system is based on placing our self interest ahead of our neighbors.

Matthew’s Jesus here moves the conversation to violence which like greed is foundational to the World.

In the first part of this statement Jesus teaches his followers how to use non-violence to oppose violent systems and people. Yes don’t be confused by that line “Do not resist an evildoer.” That word translated resist is better translated: violently oppose. Jesus is not telling his followers to be passive in the face of oppression, he is showing them how to actively oppose violent folks like the Roman soldiers who marched down their streets, or those greedy people who took advantage of them economically. The way you oppose these people is to help them to recognize you as an equal. Turn the other cheek is Jesus way of showing people how to stand up to those who tried to put people “in their place.” It was permissible for a person to strike an underling with the back of their hand. That was how a small amount of violence to show people who was boss. The person struck was supposed to shrink off and submit to their betters. But Jesus tells his followers to stand their ground and turn their cheek.

Now in that world at that time you didn’t use your left hand to strike people, the left hand was not even used to gesture. So you used your right. Ok lets get a couple of volunteers up here. Lets say you are a master and this person is your inferior. Using your right hand how can you strike them on their right cheek? That is what Jesus says, if someone strikes you on your right cheek. It is a backhand blow right? Not a blow meant to cause great injury but one meant to humiliate and demean. Ok so now turn your other cheek. What options does the violent person have? They can give up or then can punch you using their fist but to strike someone in that time that way was to treat them as an equal. Jesus isn’t teaching us to be passive but to actively oppose violence with non violent tactics.

The same is true for that thing about the law suit: “and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” One way that a person could try to force someone to pay a debt was to sue them for their outer garment. But debts were and are a tool by the powerful to exploit the vulnerable. What do you do? Well Jesus advises people to give up their underwear as well. This paints a laughable picture of a guy handing over his underwear. Nakedness in that society brought shame on the ones who looked so this idea would create havoc in the court and shame the proceedings.

Roman soldiers had the “right” under Roman law to make someone carry their pack, which, given their armor was often quite heavy. But they could only legally make someone carry it for one mile. Jesus here says take the pack a second mile. Imagine a soldier running after a peasant to try to retrieve his pack before his superior realizes that he has broken the law by having the peasant carry the pack more than a mile.

In all these forms of resistance there is no violence. In all these forms of resistance the person resisting pays a price, a punch received, losing their underwear, carrying a heavy pack farther than necessary. But in all these forms of resistance the peasant teaches the dominator to see them as an equal.

The logic of the world says that when it comes to conflict there is either fight or flight, violent opposition or surrender to evil but Jesus offers us a third way of resisting the evils of oppression by non-violent opposition.

And to top it all off Jesus calls on his followers to love their enemies. Love their enemies. This command, along with the command to give our wealth to the poor are the most direct challenges to logic of the World. How could we love our enemies? Imagine a world where we took this command seriously. We would have no military. We would have no armed security forces. We would not seek to strike back, as was the response to 911. We would not be spending trillions on weapons systems and soldiers.

To take this command seriously would be to set ourselves up for the derision of those around us. Most Christians do not see this as an idea to take seriously.

But Jesus did. And Jesus called on his followers… calls on us… to live this.

It doesn’t make any sense in the world in which we live. It seems foolish. But it was just as foolish in Jesus’ day.

Paul tells the Corinthian church: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”

Our faith leads us to proclaim a counter intuitive, ridiculous reality called the realm of God. To do so we need to understand the principles and tactics of non-violence, we need to understand the hold that fear has on us and the ways in which this fear leads us to the path of greed and violence. We need to understand how our brains work and how the messages of domination get so ingrained in us that it becomes “common sense.” We need to figure out how to embody this radical, ridiculous, world changing way of seeing and experiencing reality so that others may see it and choose it and live it.

Why? Because God is God. And if this God is God then it is the World that is foolish. It is the economics and politics of self interest that is unrealistic.

Look at the world: starvation, global warming, pollution, sickness, violence, hate, fear. These things are not aberrations of our systems of domination based thought and practice, they are the logical outcomes of policies based on the utilization of greed and fear as motivators. The logic of the world is ruinous for humanity and the planet.

We are possessors of the alternative reality that can save the world. But it only works if we believe it enough to live it. It only works if we believe it enough to speak up, stand up, act up in the name of the ultimate reality (God) of love. Love in the form of justice for the poor and oppressed, love in the name of non-violence, love in the name of peace.

It isn’t that the dream of the God of Moses and Jesus has been tried and has failed. The dream has largely been co-opted to serve the logic of the gods of fear and greed.

Like Jesus we are called to choose this path for ourselves, to challenge our fellow believers to abandon the co-opted version of the faith and embrace the foolishness of God’s alternative logic.

We are not called to run away to a “spiritual” interpretation of these commands. We are not called to subordinate our truth to the logic of fear. We are called to stand up to those who would turn our God into a tool for greed or fear or domination. We are called to stand up to those who would turn God’s creation into a source of wealth for some and deprivation for others. We are called to be creative, non-violent resisters to all that is not love. This is the hope the world needs. This is living presence of God’s love. This is good news.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Yay Peg

It is time to celebrate. Yesterday Peg Faulmann passed her final ordination interview. This means that she has been approved for ordination by the duly authorized representatives of the United Church of Christ. This was a big event in Peg and Erv’s lives and a big event for Keystone.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Giving away our money

Recently several folks have asked me about giving away money. We see people almost every day asking for money. They call us on the phone. They knock on our doors. Often they are people with signs standing beside the road. Sometimes it is closer to home. Should we give money to someone simply because they ask us to?

From the perspective of our faith tradition, the resources we have are not ours but God’s. I find that a helpful way of thinking about it. The question then is: what is the best way to use the portion of God’s wealth that is in our hands?

Knowing that God has priority concern for those who are most vulnerable, we are called to examine where we can live simply so that we have more to share with those who are in need. But also when we are giving money it is part of our calling to use the money where it will do the most good. Giving money to a friend might make us feel better than giving it to a more desperate stranger but it isn’t about our feelings, it’s about God’s priorities. Giving money to a person who says “thank you” may feel better than sending it off to an agency or a stranger we will never see but giving to the agency or stranger may be the most faithful use of our funds. Just because someone calls us on the phone or knocks at our door doesn’t mean that their need is the highest priority. And sometimes giving money to someone isn’t going to help them do anything more than continue their self-destructive behavior.

Jesus counsels his followers to give to anyone who asks but I don’t believe Jesus meant this to be interpreted as inflexible law but rather as reflective of a particular principle. I interpret this saying to mean that we are called to give freely and generously to people in need. It is the need that is the reason to give not the act of someone asking.

For example, I have known several guys who panhandled to get money. It was nice that they had money to spend on the things that thought they needed but I knew those guys because they came into the homeless shelter where I worked. The shelter provided them with food and shelter, community and counseling. From my perspective, giving money to keep the shelter open was more important than giving money to the guy with the sign. And since shelter is not a solution to homelessness but simply an emergency response to a dire need, resources spent on shelter should also be matched with resources given to overcome the inability of our nation to provide a sufficient quantity of affordable housing.

Having said all of that, if we make a mistake or get taken advantage of, we should extend to ourselves the forgiveness of God’s grace.

Here are my guidelines for giving:
• It is better to give haphazardly than not at all.
• It is better to give strategically than to give impulsively.
• It is better to give with God’s priority for those most in need over our priority of those who are closest to us.
• It is better to give with an eye to addressing both the immediate need and the injustice that is often the cause of the need.
• It is usually better to talk with people who are familiar with the broader picture before you give.

Please feel free to use me as a resource if you have questions.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

March Reminder Newsletter

Reminder Newsletter
March, 2011
Keystone United Church of Christ

From Sophie

It is hard to believe, after all the winter weather we’ve been having, that March is in fact here and spring is around the corner. Along with March comes the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, and later, the spring Equinox. It is naturally a period of transition and change. As my time here comes to a close, officially at the end of March, I am aware that it is an auspicious time to reflect on the past and begin something new.
First, I have felt honored and blessed to be part of the forward-moving energy of this congregation. I noted in the January Reminder the numerous ways I see this congregation continuing to embrace the future, not only for this community and the physical Church, but for our state, country, species and planet. It is inspiring to see a congregation able to work for justice in the world while also tending to the needs of their neighbors, and conversely able to tend to the needs of their neighbors without losing the vision of a just and peaceful world. If anything, we need to hide our light under our bushel basket less. Together with the Communications Committee I have helped set in motion a plan to increase our visibility in our neighborhood through improved signage (both permanent and weekly) and PR efforts in the community such as posting more flyers and even door-to-door promotion! Part of this work also includes creating our first photo directory, to make us more recognizable to one another and to newcomers, now in its final stages of production. The Communications Committee will also be collaborating with the Building Committee on improving the appearance and of the church building exterior when the time comes to update our paint job
Other projects I have been working on have included, briefly, spending some time myself and with our bookkeeper organizing Church files and getting to know the many faces and decades of Keystone’s history. I hope that this organizational work will make accessing Church files and documents a little easier for everyone in the present and future. Perhaps more importantly though, several of your names have “popped up” on the archival documents; it might be fun to continue one of your traditions of sharing each other’s stories, either in this monthly newsletter or in congregational gatherings. Many here probably have not heard much about the history of the church from those who have been here a long time and would enjoy hearing what you have to say!
I also enjoyed getting to know some of you better during the series I offered in Battson Hall earlier this winter. For those who were hoping to get a taste of what I was offering but were unable to come I will leave a copy of the handouts that I used in the Church office in a place where they should be easily accessible should you ever want them. If you want me to email them to you, I can put you on a list of recipients for when I have finished “touching them up.”
Lastly, thank you all again for being such a generous, flexible and forgiving congregation while I have tried out my legs co-leading and solo-leading Sunday worship. I have always felt that each Sunday gathering was a time of genuine, authentic sharing that made very real the presence of God in our lives and world. May each of you continue to be blessed, and share your light with the rest of Creation.
For the remainder of my time here I have offered to help the Building Committee check off some of their list items in terms of preliminary research, budget figures and project scenarios. This will exercise some of my project management muscles as well as (hopefully) leave behind something concrete that will help this committee move forward into the future. If any of you have anything else you would like from me in my final weeks here, I hope you will let me know!
My next steps career-wise are to work on my ordination process, something Peg has been working on this year as well, and further discernment about my call. I hope to stay in touch with you all!

Ash Wednesday Lenten Prayer
Mark you calendars for March 9!
The Lenten season is a time for somber reflection on Jesus' wandering in the wilderness and the ways in which we ourselves wander. Lent is an opportunity for us to re-examine our thoughts and actions and the ways in which they bring us nearer to or separate us from unity with God and the rest of creation.
Earth Ministry and Washington Interfaith Power and Light invite us as people of faith to make our Lenten focus a time in which we can reduce our carbon emissions.
March 9th is Ash Wednesday, the 1st day of the Lenten Season – a perfect time for us to gather as a community to pray, to recall that we are people born of the Earth, and to learn a bit more about how we can further reduce our carbon on a personal level and through our government, using the resources that Earth Ministry and Washington Interfaith Power and Light provide.
So come on March 9th to our sanctuary. At 7:00 PM. We will discuss and provide materials for our Lenten focus. At 7:30, we will have an Ash Wednesday prayer service.

See the Upcoming Schedule for Friday Night Meaningful Movies:

Scripture readings
6 March Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; Mt 17:1-9
13 March Gen 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matt 4:1-11
20 March Gen 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17
27 March Ex 17:1-7; John 4:5-42

Reader/usher schedule
3/6 Steve Bauck/Rita Peterson
3/13 Betty Sabo/Marilyn Wall
3/20 Erv Faulmann/Gloria Bollens
3/27 Nell Townley/Betty Sabo

Keystone Anniversary!
Keystone Congregational Church was incorporated on March 23rd, 1901. Keystone Church turns 110th this month!