Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sermon Easter Sunday

Easter Year A 042411
Matthew 28:1-10
By Rich Gamble

This is the biggest day in the Christian year. This is the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as told in today’s Gospel reading. Easter Week is the most fearful and hopeful week of the Christian Calendar. It is the time in which we face the heart of the gospel message in all its capacity to shatter our complacency.

For some this day is the Christian version of the ancient rites of Spring. The name Easter is believed to derive from a goddess of fertility. Ancient cultures often celebrated the renewal of life. Bunnies and eggs are fertility symbols after all, and everywhere you go today you are sure to see bunnies and eggs. For some then this time is about the ancient rhythms of the seasons and the ancient rhythms of birth and death and rebirth.

For some this is the day to celebrate the victory of Jesus over sin and death. For them believing that Jesus literally rose from the dead is central to obtaining the grace that will save their souls from eternal damnation. For them you have to believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus to consider yourself Christian. Many believe this, both those who do believe in the literal resurrection and those who believe that they cannot be Christian because they cannot believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus.

But there are other ways to understand the Easter story. One way is to say that this story is a parable. To say that it is a parable doesn’t deny the claims of those who need to see the event literally. It simply says to them: ok if you want to believe that, that’s fine but what does the story mean? And to those who don’t believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus you can still say ok fine but what does this story mean to you? You don’t have to believe in the literal historicity of a parable to get at its meaning. We don’t need to know whether the good Samaritan actually existed to make the story a source of truth and meaning.

So what does the story of the resurrection mean? Well it means very little if you don’t know the whole story, because this isn’t the story of the resurrection of Joe Shmoe. It isn’t the story of the new flowers springing out of the ashes, it isn’t the story of endless cycles of procreation. This is the story of the life and death and resurrection of one particular person: Jesus son of Mary of Nazareth.

Jesus who showed that sharing the love of God was about standing up for the outcasts by standing against those who profited from an unjust system.

Jesus came to Jerusalem to stand unarmed and unsupported in radical opposition to the combined power of the Roman Empire and his own religious leaders. But more than that he stood against the foundation of their power: fear, greed, violence, and prejudice. In doing so he challenged the fundamental assumptions upon which human civilization is built. It would be like someone running for office and standing against the values of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party and the American people.

In standing up for the love of God for those at the bottom of the social, political and economic order, Jesus earned the wrath of the people who had the power of death on their side.

Jesus did not use the power of death, it was not in him to do so. He used God’s non-violent power of life. Jesus knew that would happen when he went to center of power with his denunciations of that power. His death was as inevitable as any who openly stand in unarmed opposition to brutal tyrants. He didn’t need any mystical powers to foresee and try to prepare his followers for the inevitable. But knowing that arrest, humiliation and death awaited him didn’t deter him. He marched into Jerusalem and boldly spoke up and acted up and kept pushing his truth forward until he could push no farther.

Nailed to a cross, the slow, humiliating painful death suffered by those who questioned the authority of Rome, his journey ended. He died as he lived, embracing outcasts, forgiving enemies. It was an old story in Jesus day: the inevitable victory of violence.

Jesus’ death on a cross wasn’t a unique occurrence. The tragedy is found in its commonality with the experience of so much of humanity. Keep your head down and endure the abuse or stand in opposition and get much worse. And even those of us who are narcotized by the lies of our leaders to believe that those who suffer deserve their fate, even when seek to hide inside the canned laughter of sitcoms, or the acquisition of more unnecessary possession, or drugs, or in the endless preparation of our children to more successfully compete, even then, we know somewhere in the back of our minds that the suffering of others grinds away at our souls.

On Friday last, Good Friday, we paused for just a little while to let the suffering in. In facing the death of Jesus we face the fearful sadness and loss that sits at the heart of our civilization. Vulnerable people are exploited and those who speak up are shouted down or beaten down and the suffering goes on. The myth of the Powers that Be is that nothing changes, abandonment of the vulnerable and escape is the only alternative.

So Jesus died. And if the story ended there, then we would say oh well, another good guy bites the dust, another opponent of empire crucified. In Jesus’ day thousands shared the fate of the cross. But the story does not end there. The women, the ones who did not abandon Jesus when times got tough, went to the tomb to prepare the body. But there was no body, an absence instead of a corpse. There is instead a mysterious man in white who tells them that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

Well at least that is how Mark’s Gospel tells the story. Matthew reads Mark’s gospel and thinks that he can do it one better. Like remakes of favorite movies the new director has his own spin on the story and Matthew has a much bigger special effects budget than Mark. Matthew has an angel descending from heaven, he has lightning and earthquakes and guards who are struck dumb. And he has a resurrected Jesus. Mark just had an empty tomb and the story of Jesus’ resurrection shared by the mysterious man in white.

But whether you like the big effects of Matthew or the subtlety of Mark the story is the same. The tomb was empty, the body gone, the story has a new and wholly unexpected ending. It is fitting that Easter week is seen in connection to the Passover story. In that story the oppressed slaves flee their masters and find themselves with the army rushing upon them and the sea an impenetrable barrier in front of them. Their slaughter is the inevitable end as are all such attempts to thwart the will of those with the power to hurt and destroy. But then the sea parts and a way is found where there was no way.

On Easter morning we celebrate that the tomb was not the end of the story of Jesus. Death is not the end of the story. A way is found where there was no way. The empty tomb was the beginning of the story of those followers who came to finally understand and emulate Jesus.

It is increasingly obvious that we have missed the essential meaning of this day. I say that because most of the people in this nation think of themselves as Christian and yet, we are mired in a culture of consumption and violence that is harming people in other nations, the planet, the poor and future generations. We have the largest disparity between rich and poor of any of the developed nations, we spend more on militarism than most of the rest of the world combined, we consume far more than our share of the world’s energy and natural resources. We have the largest prison population of any nation in the world. If the United States is an example of what Christianity is all about then Christianity is toxic to the health of this planet and its people.

There is another way of seeing this day and our faith. As Good Friday is our expression of our belief that God grieves and suffers with us. So Easter is our expression that our suffering need not be in vain. When we rise up against the voice of hopelessness that says that nothing we do will change anything; when we rise against the lies of those who laugh at our poverty or ignorance or powerlessness, when we fling our teaspoon of charity toward a desert of despair, our lives, our efforts, our dreams are not in vain.

The meaning of this story is not about what Jesus did for us so we can merrily exploit the planet and other people and still get to heaven. It is not about ancient celebrations of the seasons or earth’s fecundity. It is about a choice: to stand for life and against death or not; to stand with the exploited and against the exploiters or not. And the not can mean actively participating in violent systems or passively participating by standing by and saying nothing.

The meaning of Easter is that there is no meaning if there is no resurrected body and by that I mean us. If this story does not lead us to die to the hold of greed and violence over our lives, then Christ is not raised in us. If this story does not lead us to stand against the sins of poverty and oppression then Christ is not raised in us.

Life is stronger than death. Love is stronger than hate or fear or violence or greed. This is the joyous and scary message of Easter morning. Scary because if we are truly Easter people then we are called to stand up, speak up and act up in defense of the vulnerable. We are called to be that unexpected voice of hope. We are called to boldly march into problems that are too big for us with the clarity of knowing that the most important thing we have to offer is our willingness to offer what we have.

We are called to embrace the belief that a small aging church of struggling believers can change the world and then act accordingly.

Easter calls us to discard our dreams of escape and boldly stride into tombs of poverty, racism, homophobia, sexual abuse, and war with the utterly unrealistic belief that new life… resurrection is possible. The realism of accommodating ourselves to a world of cruelty and injustice dies for us when we can see the life beyond death in the love beyond life.

The meaning of that first Easter morning didn’t immediately sink in for the disciples. It usually doesn’t hit us all at once. It nudges us to empathize and not judge, to act and not look away, to take a step that leads inevitably to another.

Easter isn’t the end of the story any more than crossing the sea was the end of the story for those escaped slaves. Easter, if we dare to believe that resurrection is possible for humanity and the planet, is just the beginning of the story. To believe in the possibility of resurrection is to embrace being the bearer of the self-giving love that is the power of resurrection.

The stone is rolled away. The sea is parted before us. An impossible hope awaits.

Happy Easter!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

The Good Friday Service is at 7pm tonight.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sermon Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday Year A
Matthew 21:1-11
By Rich Gamble

The scene is Jerusalem before Passover. Now Passover is one of the most important celebrations of the year. It is a time when the Jewish faithful did their best to go to Jerusalem to celebrate. The population of that town swelled to many times its normal size. Imagine living in small villages or in small communities of outsiders in large gentile cities. In these small communities it is easy to feel powerless to respond to those who lord it over you. But in Jerusalem during Passover, you are part of giant crowd of like minded people. There you are in the majority. In such a settting it would be easy to feel the power of the crowd. Passover is also the celebration of God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from the hand of oppression.

In Jesus’ day the Jewish people are once again feeling the hand of oppression. It is Roman oppression this time. So in the central city of Judaism, with the town packed with the Jewish faithful, comes the celebration of God’s liberation from oppression. It is a revolutionary’s dream situation, a crowded tinder box awaiting a spark.

And then Jesus comes to town. Now Jesus has prepared the scene. He has staged is a piece of political theater. Jesus comes riding into town on the back of donkey. This brings to mind the prophet Zechariah who proclaimed that the King would come to town in just such a manner. And that is how people imagined their Messiah. He was to be a king, like David only better. At about the same time, on the other side of town Pilot is riding into Jerusalem at the head of a column of Roman troops to keep order in Jerusalem during Passover. So Jesus’ entry is seen in direct comparison to the Roman one.

Jesus’ followers have done a good job of getting the word out. When Jesus comes riding over the Mount of Olives the people turn out in droves to wave Palm branches and to shout hosanna. Palm branches were a sign of Jewish identity, Jewish nationalism, Jewish independence from oppressive powers. Hosanna was an exclamation of entreaty meaning: save us. In this case undoubtedly the people were thinking of salvation from Rome.

Jesus as coming king, entering the city of David on the eve of the celebration of liberation from oppression, with people waving symbols of Jewish independence and crying out to their would be king an entreaty to save them from the oppression of Rome. Now that is good political theater.

It must have been a good time for those who threw down their cloaks before the donkey, (or donkeys if you take Matthew’s literalism to heart). Those who cried their hosannas and brandished their palm branches were thumbing their noses at Caesar and Rome. And there, they could get away with this act of contempt for Rome because it was filled with symbols that the Romans would not have understood.

Parades do have power. Protest marches, symbolic actions do have power; especially when it is an oppressed people marching in opposition to their oppressors. Why did Martin Luther King help organize those marches? And why did the white establishment use police clubs, attack dogs, fire hoses and rock throwing thugs to try and stop the marchers? It’s because a people claiming their power to march against their oppressors are going to be emboldened to cease cooperating with the system that oppresses them.

And so Jesus helps the people confront the power of Rome, nonviolently. He helps them celebrate their own identity independent from the one cast for them by imperial propaganda. He helps them see how much power they have to assert an alternative to the Roman idea of how things should be.

But of course they don’t really get it. Zechariah’s vision is that of the victory of God’s people over the forces of violence. Zechariah calls for the breaking of the weapons of war. But the people who turn out to mock Rome through Jesus’ coming to town don’t really see the depth of the revolution to which Jesus is calling them. In the end, when the choice is between the violent insurgent, Barabbas and the nonviolent revolutionary Jesus, they pick Barabbas.

Even those who believe in God, even those who are the oppressed, even those who celebrate Jesus can and do usually get it wrong. We don’t understand the depth of transformation required to achieve real and lasting peace.

Jesus was after something more. His sights were set not just on ridding Judea from Roman domination but ridding the world of the desire to dominate. He was about creating a revolution against domination itself. And to do that, his people, the ones who celebrated God’s siding with the oppressed; his people, the ones who had a long history of being under the heel of some empire; his people, the current victims of the latest global empire: his people, had to do more than dump the Romans, they had to change their own values, beliefs, and practices.

They were being called, as we are called to give up the concept of my (family, nation, possessions) and embrace God’s claim to all things, and God’s rule over all of our lives. We are called to look past the mindless acceptance of the way things are and the simple solutions of hate and greed offered to us by those who want to use us for their cause. We are called to sacrifice our expectations of cozy luxury so as to respond to a world of need. We are called to measure our lives not by what we have accumulated but by what we have shared. We are called to see past the blinders that let us go on day after day in the same old way while the earth withers in our pollution, and the poor grow in ever greater numbers and desperation. We are called to see that it is not enough to sing hosannas from the sidelines. It is not enough to wring our hands. It is not enough to vote for the latest incarnation of Barabbas.

Not in the victory parade or in the embrace of the adoring crowds, but alone on the cross, stripped of every possession, even his life, Jesus becomes the ultimate protest against the Powers that Be, Jesus becomes the challenge that strips away our smug self-certainty, Jesus becomes the boundless saving love of God, Jesus becomes our messiah.

That is the wonderful point of this day. The people on that day came out to mock the Romans by celebrating Jesus as their rightful king. Later in the week, when he failed to be their idea of a king they turned on him. Not imperious, lacking an army, forgiving his enemies, calling on the rich to give up their wealth for the sake of the poor. No wonder they picked Barabbas, we would never elect such a guy president.

Jesus is God’s idea of a leader. That is the challenge of our faith. Not to force God’s ideas through sieve of our notions of the way things should be but to change our ideas to align with God’s.

So often we get our ideas of things from the world around us and then we expect our faith to align with our ideas. We say that the church is a family and we think we know what family means because of our upbringing. Family is a group of people who are more special to us than other people. They are more dear to us. And so we say, if church is family then the folks who are in the church are more dear to us than those who are not in the church. And we use that same tool of thinking of one group as more dear to understand community nation and faith.

But God calls us to see family in a new way. Family as defined by God is everyone especially the stranger, especially the enemy. To enter into the mystery of our faith is to walk through the looking glass of our expectations and enter a new world, where we are redefined by God not as consumers or voters or workers but as beloved. In that reality the world is not something to fear, or conquer or exploit but a place to cherish, and our time is not something to measure our success or failure but an ongoing opportunity to embody the transforming love of God.

Hosanna Christ. Save us. May your path be ours, and ours together be the path of salvation for the world.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

A New Possibility

We have had a good run with our Associate Pastor position. Brandon was able to bring us a web site, new logo, a sign, some good preaching and some laughs. We celebrated his ordination in a superb ceremony that both Keystone and the Taiwanese Church could share in. Sophie taught a class, helped the building and communications committees and was also a wonderful alternative voice in the pulpit. We have been blessed to have the opportunity to work with good people they have been blessed by the generosity of folks at Keystone in their support and praise.

With Sophie leaving in March, I asked Peg to temporarily increase her hours at Keystone for the next few weeks. She has more time now that her internship is over at Broadview. Soon she will be graduating seminary and this poses a real opportunity for us. I would like you to consider offering Peg a half-time position as Associate Pastor at Keystone. Were we to call her, we could continue to enjoy her leadership and add to the work she could do with us. Were we to offer her a position as Associate Pastor we could also celebrate her ordination here at Keystone and that seems right.

As you know, for years we got by with only me working half-time but since we have started hiring associate pastors, I have had more time to work on issues of justice within the regional UCC, with the Washington Association of Churches and in expanding circles.

We can go over the numbers at the annual meeting but I believe that we can support a half-time associate pastor with our current income. It will be close but with God’s help, doable.

So think about it. Feel free to ask me any questions and let’s plan on talking more about calling Peg as an Associate Pastor at Keystone.