Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Come get your ashes tomorrow evening, February 22, at 7:30. And please join us for a potluck at 6:30. Soup is always available, and all are always welcome!

Sermon: Of Rocks and Radiance

Transfiguration Sunday    021912
2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9
Of Rocks and Radiance
By Rich Gamble

When I was a teenager, I felt the real presence of God in my life. I didn’t pray so much as converse with the divine and in that context of regular communication, things happened that made me feel as if I was involved in an exchange of ideas and not just a monologue. It was a simplistic relationship with God, the simplicity of a child.

I remember one night I got a call from a friend who was really upset and needed someone to talk to. Unfortunately it was the night before a big test and I always waited until the night before to prepare for tests. I had a choice. Turn down my friend in need and do well on the test or help my friend and do poorly on the test. What would Jesus do? I asked myself.

“OK God, I said, I’m going to help my friend because I think that is what you are calling me to do. I’m going to leave my test scores in your hands.”

I went to see my friend and didn’t get back home until late. Frazzled, tired, I was unable to study and so I went to bed.

When I woke up the next morning the world was covered in snow. While I slept a snowstorm descended on St. Louis and paralyzed the city. Classes were cancelled at my school and I felt the hand of God. Now it takes a pretty naïve kid or a pretty large ego to think that a snowstorm effecting millions of lives was caused by God to help one kid on a test. But I knew it was the hand of God.

Since then, I have spent time with hundreds of people in crisis, some losing their homes, some losing loved ones, some dying themselves. I have talked with people who were suicidal, and led memorial services for loved ones and teenagers who have killed themselves. I have unsuccessfully struggled to stop wars, end homelessness and open the eyes and the hearts of a nation that seems to care more about reality show idols than the real people living on the streets around them. Sometimes it is hard to remember the wonder of that relationship with the divine that my child-self knew.

The transfiguration story is just that, the in-breaking of wonder into the story of Jesus. Mark’s gospel has 16 chapters. In the center of the story, Peter calls Jesus Messiah, or in the Greek: Christ. It is a title with a lot of baggage that Jesus doesn’t want to carry. As a remedy against the domination based expectations of the masses towards a messiah, Jesus talks about the coming suffering he is going to experience in Jerusalem. From that confession of Peter, Mark’s Gospel sets its eyes on Jerusalem and the inevitable deadly confrontation with the Powers that Be.

Along the way, in the midst of the three predictions of his suffering and death by Jesus, we have this story, in which Jesus asks the inner circle of three disciples to join him and climbs a hill. Mark’s Gospel has some special effects but largely it is a story of Jesus healing sick people, Jesus arguing with religious leaders, and Jesus trying to teach some very dense disciples. It is a story with blood and mucus and lepers all of which were signs of ritual impurity to Mark’s Jewish readers, to us it speaks of the modern notion of impurity: germs and dirt. In short it is a story filled with the stuff of life: conflict, spit, sickness, and suffering.

But along the way, Jesus and three disciples climb a hill and for a moment everything changes. The mundane becomes numinous. Jesus’ clothes become radiantly white, and he is surrounded by the long dead Moses and Elijah (note it is not David and Solomon who appear with Jesus, the path of Jesus is not that of domination based kings but of liberation based prophets). Jesus in whiter that white clothes and the prophetic figures in consultation with Jesus, it was all fairly amazing, so much so that Peter wanted to pile up some rocks and make a monument but Mark apologizes for this embarrassing reaction to the mystical, saying that Peter didn’t know what he was saying because he was terrified.

Then the crescendo comes with no less than the voice of God pouring down from a cloud, saying to the disciples, “this is my son, listen to him.”

And then its over, like a freak summer hail storm, the mystical moment passes and Jesus is Jesus once more and they march back down the mountain, back to the work and struggle.

The letter from Paul speaks to a community of people working and struggling. Paul places their work in the context of a mystical struggle between the “god of this world” and the god of Christ. Yes the message of Christ, the message of agape love as being the center of our notions of family, community, politics, economics and religion is a light to the world. But try to describe light to people who were born blind. The god of this world, Paul says has blinded the minds of people who are perishing.

Look at all the suffering we cause ourselves and others because our minds are not open to luminous and numinous reality all around us. Blinded by the glare of media, shrouded in the fog of fear, desperately seeking to fill the hole in our hearts with the stuff in our hands we are unable to see the light of life.

Mark’s mountain top story is a moment when the everyday work of Jesus is shown for the mystical experience that it really is. Like that moment when my child self saw beyond the accumulation of frozen precipitation to the wonder of the presence of a loving God. 

Had I stayed home and avoided my friend, the snow may still have come, but instead of coming as a benediction it would have come as an indictment. Had the three disciples begged off of climbing a hill, the transfiguration may still have happened but they would have never seen it. If we do not place ourselves outside of fearful self-interest and on the path of costly compassion, then we will miss the radiance around us. It is there, in the muck and the mucus, the blood and the suffering, the conflict and commotion, the Holy radiates love and peace.

As my child self believed, so I believe still, God waits to enlighten, inspire and trip us up. God calls us to places of pain, and conflict and laughter and grace. God awaits us in the mundane and the messy, and in the indescribable beauty of a maple’s leaf or a child’s laugh.

This place is not a monument to a past event but a place to pause in the midst of struggle, to center ourselves on the wonder that shines forth around us. Just as Peter could not lock the transcendent in place with his monuments, we cannot lock the wonder of God in a place like this. To do so would be idolatry.

The wonder is all around us, travels with us, is in us if we can but see it. This time may not be any more sacred than any other, and indeed there is no light here if the path from here does not lead to the challenging and costly work of reshaping the world in the name of compassion and justice. But if we embark on that path, if we strive with our lives to embody the love of God, then this, or any moment may be filled with the light of the Divine.

Coming down from the hilltop Jesus is greeted by people in need. The work continued. The march towards the painful and grace-filled collision with the Powers of Jerusalem continued. But I can’t help but believe that the disciples who climbed the mountain came down different people. The Gospel shows us that they didn’t act any differently at first. It took time for the wonder to set in.

That is my hope for these hours we spend in this sacred space; that by coming together and centering ourselves in the wonder of God’s dream for our lives that we may slowly be transformed by God’s dream, into God’s dream.

The disciples could not linger on the hill, could not build monuments. The monuments to God’s love are lives lived sharing that love with friends and strangers and enemies. God waits for us, waits to break through our fears and needs, waits to beckon us to a new reality hidden by the “god of this world.” God waits to fill our lives with purpose and meaning, hope and joy. God waits on mountain tops and in cardboard hovels and occasionally even in places like this. And that is good news.

Friday, February 17, 2012

William Gough funeral

The funeral for Bill Gough will be on Saturday, February 18 at 11AM at Keystone.

You are invited to come and celebrate the life of a beloved member of the Keystone Community.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Epiphany 4 Year B

Mark 1:21-28


By Rich Gamble


Stories are different than math formulas, cooking recipes, or IRS instructions. Stories do not have to be taken literally to properly understand them. Indeed often, a literal interpretation of a story misses completely the intended meaning.

When Jesus sits a group of people together and tells a story about two brothers, we generally understand that he is not describing a historical event but is using a narrative to convey meaning in the best possible way. Parables are not meant to be taken literally, they are meant to be taken as sources of wisdom. We get that but often we take the other parts of the Gospels as literal history rather than a means to convey wisdom.

Today’s story from the Gospel could be interpreted to be about an historical incident. Jesus comes to a particular place, does some particular things and elicits a particular response from those who were there. Taken literally it is history about Jesus, and has little to do with us.

I think that this is a story. That does not mean that I think it is less valuable than literal history, rather, I think it is more so. As a story, it is not simply about Jesus, it is about us.

Let’s think about Spirits in a different way. Rather than being autonomous, independent entities, imagine Spirits being internalized reflection of our vision of ultimate meaning. This vision of ultimate meaning can be reflected in a person, or a community or civilization.  So we can talk about the spirit of a church, or a nation, or a person. As we see ultimate meaning so we act. The spirit of a person, church or nation is reflected in the actions of that individual or group and in the values reflected in those actions.

To talk about our lens on reality as spirit moves it out of the purely rational lines of thought and into our emotions and passions. This talk of spirit moves our understanding of this lens on reality into our subconscious.  Once we are utterly immersed in a particular reality then thinking along the lines of that perspective does not require conscious choice. It seems natural. It feels right, even when, through the perspective of another spirit it is very wrong.

If looked at in this way, modern reality looks different. We in the modern material world are continually striving to measure ourselves materially. Dribble paint on a canvass and it’s a mess, unless someone is willing to pay a million dollars for it, then it’s a work of art. We win a war when we control the land of our enemies. We win an election when our people control the offices of power. The more we have the more we are worth.

What if this world view was merely the manifestation of a spirit? If we are possessed by that spirit, then that is the way we see the world. There is a cohesive logic to it. Spirit then is not an autonomous external being which takes residence in us. It is how we understand the nature of reality and our lives.

A way of understanding this is to turn your television to the FOX news cable station. Fox news provides a particular perspective on reality and it filters news and opinion through that perspective. All news stations and news papers do the same but because FOX is so extreme it is easier to see. No matter what happens in the world you can count on Fox to look at the news and show us that Big Business is good, labor unions bad, tax breaks to the well off are good, welfare for the poor- bad, enemies are to be feared and destroyed, capitalism good, socialism bad. No matter what happens in the world these maxims will be proven by the news and opinions offered by Fox. When people allow Fox to be their filter, then these maxims will be their reality no matter the course of world events.

Understood in this way, reality is something we can choose. There is a conflict of Spirits out there and if we are aware enough we can exchange one for another.

Interpreted in this way, the man who speaks up to Jesus is not a guy with demon who is causing him problems, but a spokesman for the whole society which has taken on a world view in opposition to the world view borne by Jesus. In healing this one man of the evil spirit, Jesus is showing us the real nature of his work, to heal the world of the spirit which is leading us to lives of pain, isolation, fear and violence.  

Please note that this guy with the demonic spirit did not have a problem until Jesus showed up. He was fitting in just fine in the Synagogue and in his community. Mark here is pointing out that the Spirit of Domination was quite at home in the day to day world of the people of that town. Throughout the Gospel of Mark and the other Gospels as well we see the leaders of the community of his day responded to Jesus with the same anger and concern as this possessed man. His possession is symbolic of the possession of the whole community.

Note that this is the first act of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Mark. His first act is to confront an evil spirit inside a synagogue. At the end of the Gospel, Jesus’ ends his ministry by confronting the men who run the Temple. From evil spirit in a man in a synagogue to the men who do evil in the Temple which governs the faith of a people, the work of Jesus is primarily confronting the spirit of his people. Jesus was engaged in a struggle but not in the terms of the world view of the domination system. His victory would not be marked by killing his enemies, or by becoming fantastically wealthy or powerful. He was engaged in a struggle to replace the spirit of domination with the spirit of agape love. Measured by that Spirit Jesus’ campaign, though it ended in his death, was a stunning success.

The man who spoke up reflected the spirit which controlled most of the people alive in that day. By driving out that spirit, Jesus was showing us the nature of the struggle. It’s not about turf or wealth or gaining the power to harm or destroy. It is about changing the spirit which guides the way our world understands itself and ultimate reality.

What does this mean for us? It is what we are called to do and be. Our work is to free ourselves, our neighbors and our world from the “spiritual forces of evil” quoting Paul. That means that we are called to see ourselves involved in a struggle for the hearts and minds and souls of our community. We take actions in the world yes, but our goal is not defined by the spirit of domination. 

First we strive to chase the spirit of Domination out of our hearts. We see it when it calls on us to be fearful of other people, to hate others, to place ourselves over others. We see it in our community in the subtle and not so subtle messages that tell us to consume, and to place a lesser value on outsiders than on insiders.  

Externalized messages can become internalized world views, and we can unwittingly be controlled by the evil spirit of domination. That is what FOX news does audaciously and other news sources do more subtly. That is what advertising does, movies do, novels, cereal boxes, state budgets all reflect and convey a spirit.

Once awakened to this, we realize that our job is to convey a different spirit, a different understanding of ultimate and therefore present reality.

The man who spoke up in the synagogue spoke for the world around him. In chasing out that spirit, Jesus showed that the journey of faith is about a spiritual struggle in a material world. Jesus showed us our calling. In acts of love, in compassion and justice we confront the spirit of apathy and fear and domination. We name it, not for being ultimate reality but being a festering evil, and we plant a new vision.

That’s our work: to name the evil on FOX news and in the budget of our state, and on cereal boxes and in our hearts. We are enlisted in a struggle for the spirit which governs our lives, our church, our faith, our nation, our planet. Instead of guns we use truth. Instead of bombs we use humor, instead of hate we use love, instead of fear we use hope. Instead of trying to gain positions of power and privilege, we strive to align ourselves with the outcasts. In this work, we must not lose sight that this is ultimately a spiritual struggle. It is measured by our ability to help people see and live out of the truth of God’s alternative spirit.  

Thursday night while most of our neighbors of King County were sleeping safely in their warm beds, I joined hundreds of volunteers who participated in the annual One Night Count of people who are homeless outside. Eight hundred volunteers found 2,594 people sleeping on the streets, under bridges, in their cars, on public transit, in temporary shelters and in makeshift campsites. This is 152 more people than volunteers counted one year ago.

The world is facing a hunger crisis unlike anything it has seen in more than 50 years.

925 million people are hungry. Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes. That's one child every five seconds. And though it would take about 30 billion dollars to end world hunger, the world spends over a trillion a year on its military. 

 These people are hungry and homeless not because there aren’t enough resources in the world to feed and house everyone but because the spirit of Domination has caused the world to see great disparity in wealth, the necessity of violence and the subsequent suffering of poverty as natural.

The guy in the synagogue and the men running the Temple, were not in and of themselves evil. They were doing what was right in accordance with the spirit that controlled them. Jesus sought with his life and death to liberate them and the rest of us from the hold of the spirit which closes our hearts and minds to the love of God.

We are called to awaken to the spirit of God, and once awakened to help others do likewise. That is our calling and that is real hope and good news for the world.