Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Kingdom of Love - Christ the King, Year A - Nov. 23, 2008

“Christ is the King, O friends upraise anthems of joy and holy praise…” Thus begins a wonderful hymn by Bishop G.K.A. Bell of Chichester, England. “King” is a favorite title of Christ employed in many Christian hymns. We sing, “Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne” or “The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now”. And on the last Sunday in Pentecost we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, when in addition to singing about Christ the King, we have to start thinking about what it really means to say that Jesus of Nazareth is king, and that can give us pause.

After the American Revolution there were many who wanted Washington to be declared king, a movement that fortunately failed. But Washington’s vice president, John Adams, suggested that the president be addressed as “his Majesty”; Washington preferred “Mr. President” which has stuck with us to this day. When the portly Adams himself was elected president, they referred to him behind his back as “His Rotundity”.

Kings and queens have mostly disappeared from modern, western countries. Oh sure, we hear a great deal about the “woes of the Windsors”, the British royal family, and it often makes for entertaining reading. But where there are kings and queens, they are usually figureheads, useful for making inspiring remarks and opening shopping centers, but having little real power. We are more comfortable, or at least familiar, with presidents and prime ministers.

However, there remains a fascination with kingship. I share it myself and that’s why I stood for hours on the street in London in 1986 and watched the wedding procession for Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson go from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey and back again. However my most vivid memory from that experience was the day before the wedding, when the Marxists were out on the streets of Oxford selling copies of their newspaper, the headline of which read, “Parasite marries scrounger.”

British journalist Katharine Whitehorn attributes our fascination with kings to the popularity of fairy tales. “Whoever heard,” she asked, “of someone kissing a frog and it turning into a handsome senator?” President Jesus" just doesn't have the same ring as "King Jesus". A trendy, leftist minister once referred to Jesus as "Chairman Jesus", but that won't quite do either. Like it or not, we are stuck with King Jesus. So, on this Christ the King Sunday we are given the salutary reminder that we are subjects of a leader for whom we did not cast a vote; rather we are the subjects an absolute monarch whom we did not choose. Scary? The words “absolute monarch” bring to mind images of dungeons and royal thugs. But keep this in mind: Although we did not choose this King, he chose us. There is one law in this Kingdom and one banner waves in its skies: the law and the banner of love.

But more disturbing than the idea of kingship is the way King Jesus exercises his rule in the parable of the sheep and goats. “The king will say to those at his right hand… ‘I was hungry and you gave me food’… [but] he will say to those at his left hand, …’I was hungry and you gave me no food…’” The righteous sheep are told that they will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”, but the “accursed” goats are told to “depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”.

Applied literally and unimaginatively, this parable would seem to say that we are to give food, drink, and hospitality to everyone who asks. To deny to serve the needs of even one hungry and homeless person would seem to be justification for being sent into eternal torment.

However, note the way the king speaks and the way the sheep and the goats answer him. The king says, “I was hungry, and you gave me food.” And both the righteous sheep and the “accursed” goats reply, “When was it that we saw you hungry?” The king asks in the singular, but both the sheep and the goats reply in the plural.

We are not expected to do the work of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, or healing the sick alone. We are expected to belong to communities that will exercise compassion and mercy. Does this excuse us from individual responsibility? Not necessarily; the community acts through its members, as well as corporately. Unfortunately, not only have all of us, time and time again, passed by the hungry and homeless on the streets, our churches are usually more concerned with maintenance than with mission.

Our budgets and check books are good barometers of our spiritual lives. What percentage of our money do we spend on ourselves and our family and what percentage do we give to the hungry and homeless? We need to examine our your church budgets, too. The great majority of churches that I know anything about give a small fraction of their money to the poor. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory” what will he have to say to us and to our churches? Christ the King Sunday is an invitation to us individually and corporately to let Christ reign in our hearts and lives by serving him in the person of the poor.

An Alabama Episcopalian who lived out the spirit of the parable of the sheep and the goats as well as anyone I’ve ever heard of was Augusta Bening Martin. In the 1920 and 30s Martin ran a mission to the poor whites on Sand Mountain that was sponsored by the Episcopal Church. She wrote regular reports of her ministry to the diocesan newspaper. In one report she reported finding a family of five – a mother and four children - in unspeakable conditions: “…the family had lived for weeks on ears of corn and a few fish and squirrels. The children slept on piles of grass, covered with sacks and rags. . . . All were emaciated. The children had never tasted cow’s milk, had never been to school, had never seen the American flag, had never heard of Christ, and knew God’s name only as part of an oath. . . ." The court committed the family to Martin, who provided them with housing, food, clothing, medicine, and other necessities. The children had their first bath and said their first prayer the evening they were committed Martin.

We think of power and glory in terms of self-aggrandizement, but the parable of the sheep and the goats reverses our expectations. The king who separates the sheep and the goats lifts up those who choose service over self.

In the dark days of Stalin’s rule, British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge worked for the British newspaper, the Guardian, as a correspondent. Muggeridge went to Moscow fascinated by and greatly enamored with the young Soviet Union, but soon found himself deeply disillusioned. One day while walking in the woods outside of Moscow he came across a small church and noted that someone had given the church a fresh coat of bright, blue paint. Muggeridge writes that he felt that he ”belonged to the little disused church [the painter] had embellished, and that the Kremlin with its scarlet flag and dark towers and golden spires was an alien kingdom. A kingdom of power such as the Devil had in his gift, and offered to Christ, to be declined by him in favour of the kingdom of love. I, too, must decline it, and live in the kingdom of love.” (Malcolm Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time, Vol. 1, The Green Stick (1972), pp. 226-227.)

We, too, are invited to live in the “kingdom of love”, to give to the hungry and homeless, not in order that we might sit among the sheep when the Son of Man comes in glory, but because the King (who is also the Good Shepherd) sought and found us when we were hurt and hungry and lost and alone.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Holy Bible, Book Divine - Proper 28A - Nov. 16, 2008

Holy Bible, Book divine,
Precious treasure, thou art mine:
Mine to tell me whence I came;
Mine to teach me what I am.

So we sang in Vacation Bible School right after the pledge to the Bible.

Today’s collect praises God "who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning" and asks for grace that we may "so ... hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them" to the end "that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life..."

However, what use can men and women at the beginning of the twentieth century make of a book that is between 1900 and 2500 years old? In what sense can we say that the Bible is true?

The Bible is a product of an age that believed that the earth was flat disk and that the sun orbited the earth. The writers of the Bible knew nothing of electricity or nuclear power, of penicillin or heart transplants, of air and space travel.

For some, the meaning and authority of the Bible were forever destroyed by Darwin's theory of evolution, and the controversy between creationists and evolutionists still rages. The state of Alabama's science textbooks contain an insert saying that evolution is just a theory.

Episcopalians still believe that the Bible is the word of God. When I was ordained deacon and priest I had to affirm that I believed "the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation", and I had to sign a declaration to that effect.

I do believe that, and I encourage you to believe the same. Yet, I am a person of my age. I believe that the world was created over a period of millions of years, not in six days. Psalm 19 tells us that God "has set a pavilion for the sun; it comes forth... like a champion to run its course", but I know that the sun does not revolve around the earth but the earth around the sun.

Even more problematically, I know that the Bible was used very effectively to justify slavery. The Bible urges slaves to obey their masters (Eph. 6.5). Women are sometimes urged to remain in abusive relationships because Paul wrote, "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord." (Eph. 5.21)

Furthermore, the Bible does not speak with a single voice about divorce. The Bible reports two conflicting statements of Jesus regarding divorce. In Mark Jesus forbids divorce and remarriage completely; in Matthew he permits divorce in cases of adultery.

So, what sense can we make of the Prayer Book's claim that the Bible is God's word and contains "all things necessary to salvation"?

I want to make three points about the Bible:

First, there are different kinds of truth. There are mathematical truths such as two plus two equals four. These are very useful truths and seem to be universal. But there are also truths that are equally true and universal but can only be communicated symbolically and metaphorically. They cannot be verified in the same way that a mathematical equation can be verified.

There are works of fiction that accurately mirror human life, event though they are not "true" in the same way that a mathematical equation is true. For example, Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist presents a true picture of the horrors of early industrialization and urbanization in England, even though there was no such boy as Oliver Twist in "real life".

When Jesus said, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead", we need not suppose that Jesus is telling us of a real man whom he knew. The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us something that is true about human life.

Similarly, the Books of Job and Jonah are more than likely extended parables, different from the parables of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan only in their length. Yet, Job and Jonah present a picture of human life that rings true.

The opening chapters of Genesis are more problematic. In my opinion, they are myth. The events of Genesis 1-11 tell us of events that no human being could have witnessed: the creation of the sun and moon, the forming of the earth, the origin of all plants and animals and human beings. Yet, the stories of Genesis are profoundly true. They tell us of God's care and love and that God's judgment on creation and on human life is that it is very good indeed. Indeed, the stories of Genesis tell us something that can only be communicated in story, parable, and myth. Some truths can only be communicated in poetry; prose will not do.

On the other hand, the account of the reigns of David and Solomon in Jerusalem plainly rely upon accounts of eyewitnesses. I would also argue that the gospels, too, must rely upon eyewitness accounts. Although an historian reading 1 and 2 Kings and the gospels might question the accuracy of some details, no responsible historian would say that David or Jesus never existed.

Secondly, there are existential truths. These are truths that we cannot know until we engage with them. Sometimes we have to stake our lives on them to find out if they are true. A simple example of existential truth is when a man says to his wife, "You are the light of my life". She cannot know whether or not he is telling the truth without entering into a relationship with him.

Similarly, if we just read the Bible as a story or textbook, we will not fully appreciate its truth, but if we engage with it, if we risk our lives upon its truth, then we will find it to be a solid foundation upon which to live our lives. If we take up our cross and follow Christ, we will find that he is the Lord and Savior of the world. If we deny ourselves, and give sacrificially, then we will find that God abundantly meets our needs. If we read the Bible carefully and faithfully do what the Bible tells us to do, then we will find that it mirrors the real world, even when we are reading Genesis or Job or Jonah or the parables of Jesus. If we are faithful to the Bible and the God revealed in the Bible then our lives will make sense and our lives will make much more sense than if we tried to live our lives without the Bible's guidance.

And that is the kind of truth we can only know by experience. It is a kind of truth that we cannot know just intellectually or abstractly. It requires personal engagement, risk.

Third, the Bible is a living document because through it the voice of the living God speaks. This last point is the most difficult to convey. To say that the Bible is a living document seems to suggest that it says one thing today and another thing tomorrow. That is not quite what I mean. The Bible does not change; God does not change, but we do. And because our situation changes, we need different messages from the Bible. Our view of what the Bible says about women and slavery has changed completely, and yet the underlying message of the Bible is the same.
Harry Emerson Fosdick put it well: “Astronomies change but the stars abide is a true analogy of every realm of human life and thought, religion not least of all. No theology can be a final formulatin of spiritual truth."
So is the Bible true? Is it true that if we "hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest" the Bible that we will have "the blessed hope of everlasting life"? Yes, absolutely, without question.

Finally, I would say that if we are reading the Bible faithfully, then it will not only comfort us, sometimes it will also disturb us. Mark Twain said, "I'm not bothered by the things I don't understand in the Bible; its the things I do understand that bother me."

For the Bible says not only, "Come unto me, all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you"; it also says, "Depart from me, you cursed... for I was hungry and you gave me no food..."

Father of mercies, in Thy word
What endless glory shines!
For ever be Thy name adored
For these celestial lines,

Here may the blind and hungry come,
And light and food receive;
Here shall the lowliest guest have room,
And taste and see and live,


Here the Redeemer's welcome voice
Spreads heavenly peace around;
And life and everlasting joys
Attend the blissful sound,


Divine instructor, gracious Lord,
Be Thou for ever near;
Teach me to love Thy sacred word,
And view my Saviour there.

Anne Steele, 1717-78.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The View from Mount Nebo

J. Barry Vaughn. St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL. Oct. 26, 2008. Text: Deut. 34.1-12.

One of the stock situations in the Peanuts comic strip was Lucy’s offer to hold the football for Charlie Brown to kick. He was always reluctant to accept the offer because she invariably pulled it away just as his foot was about to connect with the ball, and he always landed on his backside. However, somehow she always persuaded him that this time she really meant it, but he always ended up flat on his back.

We might almost think that God is a little like Lucy. God promised Abraham and Sarah a land to call their own and children as numerous as the stars in the night sky. They waited for years and finally one child was born to them. But just as soon as Isaac born, God demanded that he be offered as a sacrifice. Then when Abraham and Sarah died, the only land they owned was their burial place. “C’mon, Charlie Brown. Kick the ball. I’ll hold it for you.”

When Abraham’s descendants found themselves enslaved in Egypt, God brought them out with signs and wonders, but they wondered if God had just brought them out into the wilderness to let them starve there. So God let them wander and wander and wander… ten years… twenty years… thirty years… The generation that left Egypt died still wondering if God was going to keep his promise of bringing them into a land of milk and honey.. “I really mean it this time, Charlie Brown. Kick the ball.”

And in today’s reading God brings Moses to the top of Mt. Nebo overlooking the promised land. “….the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea,3the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4The Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes…”’” At last, the promise was going to be fulfilled. Moses was as close to the Promised Land as Sarah Palin was to Russia; he could see it with his own eyes. Then – bang! – God pulled the football away and Moses ended up flat on his back just like Charlie Brown. “…you shall not cross over there.”

Everyone of us has a Promised Land, a goal, something we have sought and longed and worked for. Sometimes it’s marriage; sometimes it’s a job or a career; sometimes it’s something as basic as physical health. Sometimes we achieve it; sometimes all we can do is look longingly at it as Moses looked at Canaan from the top of Mt. Nebo.

The story from Deuteronomy tells me two things: First, it tells me that no matter how hard we work, the achievement of our goals is God’s gift. Now, make no mistake: we have to show up, do the work, and put in the hours. But we all know deserving people who have worked every day of their life to get to the Promised Land and haven’t made it. They are good people; they should have been successful but things just didn’t work out.

And that’s the second thing I take away from the text: sometimes no matter how hard we try, we just won’t get to the Promised Land. Sometimes all we can do is enjoy the view from Mt. Nebo.

Two distinguished, honorable, intelligent, and capable men are seeking to become President of the United States, and in a week one of them will be elected and the other will not. Someone once said that there are no second acts in American public life. That’s not quite true, but more than likely the loser will not get a second chance to try for the Oval Office. All he will be able to do is to watch as the other takes the oath office and becomes the most powerful man in the world. The view from Mt. Nebo is beautiful but it can also be tormenting.

There’s a further lesson that I take away from the Old Testament reading: There’s always a Promised Land further down the road, a goal we will not achieve. In every life there is incomplete and unfinished business. No one looks back over his or her life and says, “I achieved everything I set out to do. I have everything I wanted.”

So how do we live with the tension between promise and fulfillment? What can we do if we know that we can enjoy the view from Mt. Nebo but will never make to the Promised Land?

First, we can resolve every day of our life to enjoy the journey. We do not know exactly where the journey will take us, nor do we know how long the journey will take. But we will find if we are attentive that every step of the way can be meaningful. At every moment there are opportunities to serve. And if all we are doing is looking for the vista from Mt. Nebo, then we will miss the less spectacular but equally beautiful sights along the way.

We can also appreciate the people who are making the journey with us. We can remember that they, too, have goals that they will not realize, that they, too, may only get to enjoy the view from Mt. Nebo, that they need us and we need them.

We can also remember that our goals may not be God’s goals, that our purpose may not be to get to the Promised Land but to enable someone else to get there. Today’s Old Testament reading also tells us that Moses laid hands on Joshua, that is, he transferred his power and authority to Joshua who then leads the Israelites into the Promised Land.

Perhaps the most famous use of this story about Moses on Mt. Nebo was in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s very last sermon. “I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life…. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” That was on April 3, 1968; the next day Dr. King was murdered.

King lived long enough to see the view from Mt. Nebo, to look over into the Promised Land. But perhaps God’s purpose for him was like God’s purpose for Moses and for many of us; God used King as he used Moses: to enable others to make it to the Promised Land.  Perhaps even Dr. King did not know all the ways that God would use his work.

During the coup by hardline Communists in the waning days of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s mayor, Boris Yeltsin, literally faced down tanks in the street in front of the parliament building. Someone asked Yeltsin what gave him the courage to face the tanks, and he said he had been inspired by Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement in Poland. When Walesa was asked what gave him the strength to organize Solidarity and defy the Soviets, he said that he had been inspired by Dr. King. And when Dr. King was asked what inspired his leadership of the civil rights’ movement, he said that he had been inspired by Rosa Parks’ defiance of segregation on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Could it be that the Soviet Union fell (at least in part) because a black seamstress refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery?

So, learn to appreciate the journey, cherish the people who are making the journey with you, accept the fact that you do not fully control your destiny, do not despair when you realize you will never achieve all that you seek to accomplish. And if you can do those things, then you may find that the Promised Land is not on the other side of Mt. Nebo but is right here and now. All we need to do is to open our eyes and look around.