Thursday, November 12, 2009

Good advice or good news?

William Inge, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London from 1911 to 1934 said, “The gospel is good news, not good advice… we can find no economic principles in the gospel.” I think Dean Inge was correct and today’s readings give us a great illustration of his observation.

The readings from First Kings, Psalm 146, and Mark all tell us about widows. The widows in First Kings and Mark literally give their entire life’s savings to what they believe to be good causes. Psalm 146 tells us that God sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.”

Let’s update the story of the widows in First Kings and Mark. Imagine that you are a priest and that a woman who is neither quite young any more nor very elderly comes to you for advice. She says, “God has told me to empty my bank account and give it all to Episcopal Relief and Development.”

If you went to one of our Episcopal seminaries, then you had to take Counseling 101 and there you learned the technique of reflective listening, so you try that first, “So, I hear you saying that God has told you to give all your money to Episcopal Relief and Development?” Clever opening, huh? And she says, “Yes, that’s right.”

Then you decide that you need more information. “How much money do you have? What are your sources of income? What are your obligations?” She goes on to say that she is on disability and has a small monthly pension from the company her late husband worked for and has about $3000 in the bank. She pays $400 a month for an apartment that is subsidized for low income persons. And she has a son with medical problems whom she helps financially whenever she can.

Counseling 101 never prepared you for this.

Frankly, if she were my parishioner I would probably begin by telling her that God never tells us to undermine our economic well-being. God certainly never tells us to empty our bank accounts and give it all to Episcopal Relief and Development or Green Springs’ Ministries or even to our parish church. I would tell her that God’s will for us is to be prudent about our financial needs; I would suggest that she talk to someone in the parish who can help her maximize her return on her money and perhaps help her find a better paying job. And I might suggest that she see a good therapist who could help her work through that business about hearing God tell her to give away all she has. After all, we’re Episcopalians and our God doesn’t do things like that.

But then there are those troublesome stories in the Bible. God sends the prophet Elijah to a woman and her child who are only one meal away from starvation and commands her to feed Elijah rather than herself and her child. Elijah reassures her, “The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” Jesus commends another woman for putting “every thing she had to live on” into the Temple treasury.

I have a feeling that Counseling 101 did not prepare me too well for dealing with someone whom God has told to empty their bank account. It certainly did not prepare me to deal with someone who takes Psalm 146 literally.

For the most part, I have put my trust in rulers and children of earth. I have believed and still believe that we live in a world that works pretty well most of the time. I believe that people who work hard and play by the rules will usually experience at least modest success; that our market-driven economy maximizes opportunities for most of us; that our political system provides a stable framework within which people can exercise initiative and reap great economic benefits. Then, a little over a year ago, the international banking system imploded. The pillars of finance, the giants of banking, began to topple. In other words, current events began to resemble the words of Psalm 146.

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them.

Every year at commencement Harvard University bestows honorary degrees upon a dozen or so men and women for their achievements in scholarship, business, politics and other fields. In 1996 Harvard honored philanthropist Walter Annenberg, the founder of TV Guide. It may only have been a coincidence that Annenberg had just given Harvard $25 million but be that as it may, it was probably more significant that Annenberg at that time held the record for money given to American institutions of higher education. However, immediately after honoring Annenberg, the university marshal said, “Mr. President, we have with us today another philanthropist…” The other philanthropist was Osceola McCarty, a black laundry woman from rural Mississippi who had given her entire life’s savings, some $300,000, to an historically black college to be used as scholarships for its students. Annenberg may have given more dollars to American universities but Osceola McCarty gave everything she had. “She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on…”

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying: It is probably not a good idea to empty your bank account and give it to any cause, however worthy, even St. Alban’s! But sometimes prudence and faithfulness are at odds. Sometimes we are called to make some wildly extravagant gesture, rather than to live our lives within the parameters of prudence. The gospel after all is not good advice, it is good news.

Jesus wept

According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus visited Jerusalem only once as an adult, but John’s gospel tells us that he visited it at least three times. If John is correct, then the story of Lazarus makes a little more sense.

Bethany was a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Martha and Mary lived there with their brother Lazarus. It would have been a logical place for Jesus to stay during his visits to Jerusalem. Probably all of us have friends in large cities who have opened their homes to us when we have come to their towns, thus sparing us the expense and bother of staying in a hotel. Of course, in the time of Jesus there was no such thing as a hotel. To visiting Jerusalem or a similar city one had to have a friend who would open his or her home to you.

We know little about Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Luke’s gospel tells us that when Jesus visited Mary and Martha that Mary sat at his feet but Martha was busy with many things. What little we see of Mary and Martha in today’s gospel readings is consistent with that story.

At any rate, it is clear that the two sisters and their brother were friends of Jesus. So it is surprising that when Jesus hears that Lazarus is gravely ill that he hesitates rather than going at once to Bethany.

This is one of the mysteries of John’s gospel. Jesus has one idea of time; the people around him have another. For Jesus, time seems to go backward and forward; sometimes it speeds up, sometimes it slows down. When his mother tells him that there is no more wine for the wedding feast at Cana, he tells her that his time has not yet come. Present and future become one when he tells the Samaritan woman that the hour is coming and now is when all earthly places of worship will become redundant because God requires only that people worship him in spirit and in truth.

John’s portrait of Jesus also shows the early church struggling to make sense of the idea that Jesus was both fully human and fully one with God. Sometimes John’s Jesus seems to be an almost unearthly figure without human weaknesses and needs. When the disciples bring him food, he says that he does not need it because for him to do the work of God is food enough.

But the Jesus we see in the story of Lazarus is a fully human being.

At the very beginning of John’s gospel he tells us that Jesus is the very LOGOS of God who has taken human form. Logos means word, thought, reason. In other words, in Jesus the distance between God and humanity has collapsed. God’s inmost thoughts have taken on human flesh and dwell in the midst of us. At the beginning of John’s gospel, the author draws back the curtain and lets us in on the secret that others will discover during the course of the gospel as they see Jesus work miracles and finally be raised from the dead.

So if Jesus is the very thought, the very word of God, the word through which God spoke creation into existence, we expect miracles. Changing water into wine, giving sight to the blind, multiplying loaves and fishes – these should not cause any difficult for Jesus. Even raising Lazarus from the dead… But what we do not expect God’s incarnate word to do is to cry. This is the real miracle in today’s story. The raising of Lazarus from death to life is impressive but what moves me is that Jesus weeps, that there are tears at the very heart of God.

Today is All Saints’ Day. The saints, of course, are God’s elite. We know the saints because they are the ones who exhibit heroic sanctity. Like Mother Teresa they give their lives to serving the poorest of the poor; like Albert Schweitzer they spend their lives working in a tiny medical clinic in Africa while writing great books on theology and editing Bach’s organ works (actually, I think Schweitzer overdid it a bit). Like Martin Luther King, Jr. they risk and finally give their lives as they stand up for and speak out for dignity and justice for all.

This is all true as far as it goes, but I believe that the story of Lazarus tells us something else about real sanctity. Real sanctity, real holiness, also weeps. The saint is one who sheds tears over the death of a friend. The saint is one who shares her grief with others, and lets them share their grief with her.

The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said, “...I am convinced that we should solve many things if we went into the streets and uncovered our griefs, which perhaps would prove to be but one sole common grief, and joined together in beweeping them and crying aloud to the heavens and calling upon God. And this, even though God shold hear us not; but He wold hear us. The chiefest sanctity of a temple is that it is a place to which men go to weep in common.”

Today’s reading from the book of Revelation tells us of a new heaven and a new earth in which death is no more. But it goes on to say that “mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” We all long for a world in which death and sickness have disappeared, in which the hungry are fed and the homeless have shelter. I would change only one thing about this new heaven and new earth: Leave room for tears. I believe that real sanctity is to experience the whole range of human feelings from tears to laughter. That is what makes us human, that is what makes us holy. That is what draws us to one another and also draws us toward God.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

You are what you eat (Proper 13B, Aug 9, 2009)

I constantly hear stories about obesity in the US in particular and the developed world in general. Fast food and processed food bear a large share of the blame for that, plus the constant bombardment of commercials that urge us to eat to excess: We grew up with “umm ummm good”, “where’s the beef?” and “nothing says loving like something from the oven.” We are told that we live in a “consumer culture.” What an apt description! We are not told that we live in a culture of buying and selling, but a culture that consumes.

The obesity epidemic is nothing compared to the epidemic of overspending and overbuying. We have an appetite not only for food but for clothes, car, electronics goods, and for any number of other things called “consumer goods.” We don’t just purchase these things; they become a part of us and we feel deprived if we don’t have them or if they are taken away. Each thing we purchase or consume becomes a part of us.

“You are what you eat”. That famous quotation comes from 19th c. German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach was an atheist and his point was that human beings are nothing more than matter. Our bodies incorporate the food that we consume, but when we die and are reduced to our essential elements, we, in turn, become food for others.

But perhaps Feuerbach spoke more truth than he knew. Jesus also said that we are what we eat, but he offers us a different kind of food: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven . . . the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (v. 51). The heart of today’s Gospel reading is a contrast, “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (v. 58). In other words, your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and died, but those who eat the bread that came down from heaven" will live forever. What is astonishing about this promise is not just the assurance of eternal life, but the fact that Jesus joins the promise of eternal life to the most mundane of human activities: eating.

I would like to look at both the promise “eternal life” and the means to achieve it -- eating the bread that came down from heaven.

First, the desire for life after death seems to be fundamental to human nature, The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume once said, "It is a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist forever," but I am not sure that many people agree with him. Indeed, in 21st century American culture, there seems to be an almost desperate need to believe that there is life after death. Suddenly there seems to be a half dozen TV shows that deal with the idea of life after death and the possibility of communicating with the dead.

Eternal life is not an “unreasonable fancy” — it is at the very heart of the Christian faith. To divorce eternal life from the Christian faith is to render the faith anemic and puny. In today’s gospel reading Jesus reminds us that “the living Father" (v. 57) sent him. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is about life, both here and hereafter. To accept that death has the last word is to accept that Gods power is limited, but that is not what the Bible teaches. Jesus promises that he will raise “raise up” those who are nourished by his body

and blood.

It is just as true, however, that the Christian faith is about life BEFORE death, just as much as life AFTER death; life in the here and now, and not just life in the hereafter. Indeed, there is continuity between life in this world and life in the next. As priest and poet john Donne put it, " . . . all the way to heaven is heaven . . . [the] soul that goes to heaven meets heaven here . . . the true joy of a good soul in this world is the very joy of heaven . . . (Sermon LXVI in Herschel Baker, ed., The Later Renaissance in England, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1975, p. 561). The promise that eternal life belongs to those who eat and drink Christ’s body and blood grounds us in this world. The promise of eternal life is not annexed to some elaborate ritual; we are not askaed to bathe in a sacred river or to offer sacrifices or to repeat a magic formula. Instead, we are invited to a meal.

I imagine, however, some asking, can it be that simple? Can we really receive eternal life by eating and drinking at the Lords table? To answer that question, first, imagine how we come to the Lord’s Table. In the world of Jesus, bathing was relatively uncommon, but if one was invited to a dinner party one bathed and anointed oneself with oil. Similarly, before we come to the Lord’s Table, we are washed in the waters of baptism. Also, to sit down at table in first century Palestine implied that the guests were at peac e with the host and with one another. Jesus admonishes us to be reconciled with one another before offering our gift at the altar (Matthew 5.23-24).

The 16th century Protestant Reformers condemned the mass because the consecrated bread and wine had become isolated from the other parts of the liturgy; they had become ends in themselves. However, when we properly celebrate the sacrament of the Lords table, then we will have met Jesus all along the way. We will have been baptized into his death and resurrection; we will hear him speak in the voice of scripture; we will be reconciled with those against whom we have sinned; we will be nourished on his body and blood; and finally, we will hear him command us to go into the world to do his will.

The late second-century theologian, Irenaeus of Lyons, called the Sacrament of the Lord’s Table “the medicine of immortality.” Jesus did not employ the metaphor of medicine, but he did promise that if we are nourished on his body and blood, we will have eternal life.

Jesus wants us to live in a different kind of consumer culture. He wants us to create and live in and invite others into a culture that consumes the bread of life, in scripture, in prayer, in service to others, and in the sacrament of the altar.

The meal we share with believers on earth is the heavenly banquet in earthly guise. Saints and angels gather around whenever we set the table, whether the sacrament is celebrated with all the pomp and ceremony at St. Peter's in Rome or with loaf bread and jug wine at summer camp, because it is the earthly extension of the marriage feast of the Lamb. Come and take your place at the table. It’s time for dinner.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Too soon to tell - A sermon about the actions of the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church (July 26, 2008)

J. Barry Vaughn. July 26, 2009. A sermon about the actions of the 76th General Convention.

Probably a majority of us here today came to the Episcopal Church from some other church. When you came to the Episcopal Church the priest who prepared you for reception or confirmation more than likely taught you about Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker and the so-called “three legged stool” that he built. You were told that Anglicans believe that while scripture is first and foremost, the Bible must be interpreted by reason and tradition. Please don’t use the phrase – “three legged stool.” It does not come from Richard Hooker,;it distorts what Hooker said; and it is misleading. Hooker borrowed an image from the Bible’s Book of Proverbs and instead referred to scripture, tradition, and reason as “a three fold cord not easily broken.” I have a problem with that analogy, too, but that’s a topic for another sermon.

There is no doubt that Hooker was right. Like Anglicanism, the `Reformation also had three principles: grace alone, faith alone, and scripture alone, but scripture is never alone. It is paramount but it is never alone. Scripture is frequently ambiguous and must be interpreted in light of reason and tradition.

I think that Hooker’s “three fold cord” has another application. It is also a useful model for looking at Anglican history. The first phase of Anglican history was dominated by scripture. Anglicanism, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, is a product of the Reformation. We are one of the Reformed churches, along with the Lutherans, Presbyterians, and so on. The first great leaders of Anglicanism – Bishop John Jewel of Salisbury, Richard Hooker, and so on – were men deeply steeped in scripture.

` But the Reformation principle of scripture alone proved unworkable. The Reformers substituted a paper pope – scripture – for the flesh and blood pope and it did not work. There must be some hermeneutic, some guide for interpreting scripture, and so the age of scripture was quickly followed by the age of reason. The age of reason gave us Jefferson and Franklin and the movement we know as Deism. Deists threw out everything they deemed incompatible with reason, such as miracles, the Trinity, the Resurrection, and so on, and tried to reduce religion to a few simple principles that could be derived from reason; There is a God; religion consists exclusively in ethical behavior; and there is an afterlife when the good will be rewarded and the evil will be punished. But while this is admirable, it is not Christianity.

So the age of reason gave way to the age of tradition. Finding Deism to be pretty thin gruel to nourish a spiritual life, 19th century Anglicans turned back to the early church. They rediscovered the catholicity of Anglicanism. They insisted on the continuity between Anglican bishops and the bishops of the early and medieval church. They rediscovered the practices of the early church – confession, fasting, pilgrimages and so on. Above all they rediscovered the centrality of the eucharist.

Anglicanism has lived in the age of tradition for some time now but I am making a prediction. Please write this down because some day I may be famous for saying this: we may have already entered the fourth age of Anglicanism and I believe it will again be the age of scripture. The church of the developing world is a church of the Bible. And this is the coming church. The world you and I live in, the developed world, is rapidly being de-christianized. So the church of the developing world is coming here to re-evangelize us. Listen carefully to what I say next: A century from now the Episcopal Church you and I know will not exist or rather it will exist but it will be transformed and the transformation will be as complete as the change from caterpillar to butterfly. But I know one thing about the church that is to come: it will again be a church of the Bible.

Week before last in Anaheim the General Convention made two decisions that have occasioned a great deal of controversy. First, they lifted the moratorium on the election and consecration of gay and lesbian bishops. Second, they took very tentative steps toward developing a liturgy for blessing same gender couples.

Whether you think General Convention was right or wrong, please keep this in mind: the church is not a museum piece. It is not static. We are a pilgrim church, not a church of those who have already arrived. The church is dynamic, not static. We are always changing.

However, the church does consist of both fixed and variable elements. The difficult is knowing what things are fixed and what things are variable. The so-caled Serenity Prayer is very applicable to our situation: “Lord, help us to change the things we ought to change, to accept the things we cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference” And there’s the difficulty – having the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and should change and what we cannot and must not change.

I believe that certain things are fixed: scripture, the creeds, the sacraments, and so on. Consider this: After the Anaheim convention, not a word of scripture has been deleted; not a word of the creeds has been changed; the Ten Commandments are intact; Jesus still tells us to love God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great American preachers of the early 20th century, used to say, “Astronomy changes but the eternal stars abide.”

When we began to ordain women to the offices of priest and bishop, many claimed that we had abandoned the faith, but theologian Paul Avis observed that the baptismal faith of the church was unaffected by the ordination of women. We still confessed that that we believed in God the Father, in his Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. This remained the faith of the church regardless of whether we ordained women or not.

I believe the same is true today. I know that some of you are deeply troubled by the decisions of General Convention. But please remember two things: the baptismal faith remains unchanged. And secondly, remember that the church in general and Anglicanism in particular are ever changing. The church we are today will bear little resemblance to the church we will become in a century. Or to paraphrase what Mark Twain observed about the weather in New England, If you don’t like the Episcopal Church, just wait a minute.

In conclusion, I want to offer a Buddhist parable that may be helpful.

A farmer had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. The farmer went to a monk and complained bitterly about his bad luck. “Too soon to tell,” the monk said. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the farmer exclaimed to the monk. “Too soon to tell,” the monk said. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The farmer again complained to the monk of his bad fortune. “Too soon to tell,” the monk said. The day after that, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The farmer went to the temple to offer thanksgivng and encountered the monk and told him his wonderful news. “Too soon to tell,” said the monk.

It is too soon to tell the effect of the most recent General Convention and its decisions. But we are not asked to get everything right; we are only asked to be faithful and to trust God.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Dancing with God: The baptism of Priscilla Nicole Kottmeyer

Today is not only Trinity Sun, it is also the day we baptize Priscilla Nicole Kottmeyer. Now, I know that all of you have come here to listen to me talk about the doctrine of the Trinity, especially with regard to the contributions of the 4th c. theologian Tertullian, and I have prepared about 45 minutes of notes on that topic. However, important as the Trinity is, Priscilla’s baptism is even more important, so here’s what I’ll do: I’ll meet you back here this afternoon for my talk on the Trinity. And don’t think you’re going to get away. I know who you are and will know if you don’t show up later this afternoon!

But today is Priscilla’s big day, and I want to talk to her. The rest of you are invited to listen in.

Priscilla, first let me tell you that you have picked a great day to be baptized, but I’ll explain a little later why this is such a good day to be baptized.

You have also picked excellent parents and grandparents. Your grandmother Kottmeyer is from Strasbourg, France, a beautiful and historic city. And the Measels are from right here in Bluff Park. But the most important thing about both your parents and grandparents is that they love you very much and today they are making the commitment to raise you in the Christian faith.

Priscilla, I know that you are wondering what baptism is and what difference it will make.

The first thing you may notice about your baptism is that your parents and godparents are answering a series of questions on your behalf. For the next several years, people will be doing things for you that you are unable to do for yourself. Right now, people are feeding you, bathing you, changing your diapers. And in a few years, they will be driving you to school and ballet lessons and soccer practice. Soon you will be doing things for other people that they cannot do for themselves. That is a big part of what it means to be human. None of us is complete in and of ourselves. God made us incomplete. God made us so that we need each other and must seek out each other. In other words, God made us so that we must learn to love one another, and if we fail to love, then we remain incomplete.

Baptism is one of the first examples of how we need each other. Whether we are baptized as infants or as adults, it is something that is done for us and to us. We cannot baptize ourselves.

The second thing you may notice about your baptism is that your parents and godparents promise to reject one thing and to accept something else. What’s that about? Right here at the beginning of your life, why should we ask you to reject anything?

Priscilla, you will find that life is a series of choices. To choose one thing is to reject something else, and it is very important for us to choose well.

Today we ask your parents and godparents to make the most important choice of all on your behalf. We ask them to choose light instead of darkness; goodness rather than evil; life rather than death; to follow Christ rather than the Evil One.

Priscilla, you live in a world that hovers between darkness and light. That sounds a little scary, but there is nothing for you to fear. The darkness falls only in places where we block the light. The light is permanent; the darkness is temporary. The Bible tells us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. There are times of darkness in every life, but if you look for the light, you will find it.

Third, your parents and godparents not only reject the darkness on your behalf, they also promise to help you learn how to follow Christ. Starting now, your parents will be bringing you to church every Sunday. I know they will because they promised me they would when I talked to them about baptism, and I intend to hold them to that promise! In a few years, you will start coming to Sunday School and begin learning the story of Jesus of Nazareth. His story is not only one of the most wonderful stories you can learn, it is also the most important.

Jesus lived long ago in Israel. He was not only the son of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, his followers experienced the power and presence of God in him in such a powerful way that the only way they could explain that experience was to say that he was the very embodiment of God, God incarnate, God made flesh, the Son of God. For a short time, Jesus taught people about the nature of God, healed the sick, and confronted the powers of evil and injustice. But the authorities feared him, arrested him, and had him killed. But three days later, his followers found his tomb empty and experienced Jesus not only as alive again but more fully real and alive than he had ever been. So even though Jesus lived 2000 years ago, we believe that he is just as alive today as he was way back then.

Priscilla, the most important story you can know is the story of Jesus. The most important friend you can make is Jesus. And today your parents and godparents are not only promising to help you get to know him, we believe that baptism is also the time when Jesus promises to get to know you, too.

Now, I said that Trinity Sunday is a great day to be baptized, and I would like to explain that. You did not come into the world alone. You came into the world as part of a complex network of relationships. These relationships make you who you are. None of us exists alone. The African word ubuntu expresses this perfectly. Ubuntu means “You are who you are because I am who I am and I am who I am because you are who you are.”

The Trinity is a good example of this. Many years ago a great Christian thinker explained the Trinity in terms of dance. Now the dance he had in mind was not the kind of dancing we normally see today. He was thinking of the circle dances that we still see on special occasions in Mediterranean countries. While there may be many dancers, they are one in the movements they make; they are one in rhythm. So, he said, it is with the Trinity. The Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Spirit; the Spirit is not the Father. But they are one in love; one in power; and one in eternity. The Trinity is the dance of God, a dance that had no beginning and will have no end.

Priscilla, in a few minutes I will pour water on your head in the name of the Trinity. In doing so, I will be inviting to dance with God, and inviting God to dance with you. It is the beginning of an eternal dance, an eternal relationship. Sometimes you will dance boldly and joyfully, sometimes you will dance slowly and sorrowfully. Sometimes you may not think you have the strength to dance at all and God will do all the dancing for you. Sometimes you will hold up others who no longer have the strength to dance for themselves. But the dance goes on in every time and place, when life is joyful and when it sorrowful, when it is light and when it is dark.

Welcome to the dance, Priscilla. Welcome to God’s family.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Human Rights and Religion

About half of my friends disagree with me because I favor marriage equality and the other half think I'm crazy to be a priest because all religions are bad. I have to say that the conservative churches were seriously wrong on CA's Prop 8 and should be ashamed of themselves. What would happen if everyone could marry the person they love with all their heart, even if that person were of the same sex? It's ridiculous to think that somehow that would undermine heterosexual marriages. Is love finite? Are there only so many weddings allotted the human race? Would caterers run out of wedding cake? Would Niagara Falls dry up??

But I'd like everyone to keep in mind that both abolitionism and the civil rights' movement were church-driven and both vastly expanded the scope of human liberty.

Also keep in mind that by far the greatest enemies of liberty in the last century were the regimes that were most antagonistic to religion: the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Pol Pot's Cambodia, and Maoist China. So I am happy to acknowledge the enormous evil done by religious institutions (and this is no small thing): the Crusades, the Inquisition, the wars of religion that followed the Reformation. I have no idea how many were killed or harmed by these atrocites, but I suspect that the number of people killed in religious wars, jihads, and so on is insignificant when compared to the number killed just in the 20th century by the regimes previously mentioned.

Guessing conservatively, the Third Reich killed at least 6 to 10 million people; the Soviet Union well over 10 million; Pol Pot exterminated at least 1 million; Maoist China destroyed at least 10 million lives. In total, at least 30 million lives were ended JUST IN THE 20TH CENTURY by regimes that opposed all forms of religion.

Yes, religion is capable of doing dreadful things, but religion's opponents seem to be capable of doing far worse things.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Bad News of Easter

“And they went out and led from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one; for they were afraid.” (Mark 16.8)

A few years ago I participated in a seminar with clergy of several different denominations. In a discussion of the passion narratives of the four gospels, the pastor of a large Presbyterian church said, “I think we are embarrassed by the crucifixion.” After a moment of thought, I challenged him. “I don’t think the crucifixion embarrasses us as much as the resurrection. After all, we’ve all seen what the world does to brave people who speak out – they become martyrs. But what we haven’t seen is anyone rise from the dead.” We haven’t seen it; we don’t expect it; and maybe we would not only be embarrassed by it, we might even prefer that it didn’t happen.
Why would that be? Why might we wish the dead to stay dead? Well, for one thing, it’s much safer for all of us if the dead stay safely in their graves. We all admire Dr. King for raising his brave voice against discrimination and prejudice and leading the fight for civil rights. Does anyone not get teary-eyed when they hear his “I have a dream” speech? The nation mourned when he was assassinated in Memphis, and we designated a national holiday in his honor. But could there be just a tiny corner in most hearts that is relieved that he is silent? What might Dr. King have to say to us today? Would he speak out against the terrible disparity between rich and poor? Would he challenge our policies in the Middle East? Our indifference to the AIDS crisis in the developing world? We are familiar with martyrdom; we mourn when the good and the brave are cut down and silenced – the Dietrich Bonhoeffers, the Martin Luther Kings – but would we really want them to come back to challenge our complacency and indifference?
Could it be that Jesus’ disciples felt that way? The gospels tell us that on the morning of the resurrection, the women took spices and other embalming supplies with them to the place where Jesus had been buried. Of course, they were performing the last kindness that one friend can do for another – to prepare his body for its eternal rest. Of course, they were grief-stricken because their friend and teacher had been given a mock trial, tortured by the police, and put to death on the cross. But could they also have been a tiny bit relieved? Could they have thought, “We will miss his stories of good Samaritans and prodigal sons, wise maidens and unjust judges, lilies of the field and seed sown among the rocks and thorns. Who will restore sight to the blind and cleanse lepers, free the possessed from demonic power and .... but neither will he again challenge us to take up the cross, to lose our lives for the sake of the kingdom, to be glad when we are reviled and persecuted. Life is hard enough without that.”
But when they arrived at the tomb, they found it empty. How did they react? Did their hearts leap? Did they dance a jig or burst out in laughter or song because he had risen? The gospels tell us that their reaction was fear. What did they fear? They may have feared the challenges that Jesus had set before them and sets before us -- the challenge to be poor in spirit, to embrace mourning, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to seek service rather than self-aggrandizement. Life is so much easier without these things. We want comfort, not challenge; ease, not adventure.
By and large, we want life to be stable and predictable. However, we worship a God of surprises. We worship a God who brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly; who feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty; who promises us that life abundant and everlasting is to be found not in safety but in risking our lives for the sake of the gospel.
Life is so much easier when we have three meals a day; when we know that General Hospital is always on at one o’clock in the afternoon; when school is out at three and mom or dad comes home from work at five-thirty; when there are drinks at six and dinner at seven. But when a stranger barges into our lives and commands us to drop our nets and follow him; to put down our knitting needles or hammers or turn off our computers and plunge into the great adventure that is God’s plan for the universe –no, that’s a little too much for us. We want to know who will pay for our medical insurance, who will feed the dog or cat, how we will pay the Visa bill, who will pick the kids up after school. Thanks for the parables and miracles; they’re lovely and we’d like to keep them, but we can do without the resurrection.
But surprise, disruption, and resurrection has been God’s plan from the beginning. To be sure, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt; they moaned, they complained, they cried out and God heard them and raised up Moses to lead them out of bondage. But what happened as soon as they were free? “Why have you brought us out of Egypt only to let us die of hunger and thirst in this wilderness?”
Have you heard of Stockholm syndrome? Stockholm syndrome is the tendency of the captive to identify with the captor. It’s the reason that Patty Hearst assisted her captors in robbing banks and other terrorist activities. We saw a shocking example of it a few years ago in the case of Elizabeth Smart, the 14 year old Utah girl who was kidnapped and held for more than a year. When the police finally found her and arrested her kidnappers, she seems to have denied that she was the missing girl, not once but several times.
Captives identify with their captors because it is safer. We naturally assume that we are less likely to be harmed if we blend in, fade into the background of our environment, mouth the ideology of those with power over us. Perhaps this partly explains the reason that many in Russia say that the murderous Stalin was a wise and effective leader or why many Iraqis preferred life under Saddam to their new-found freedom.
We want life to be predictable, and the older we get, the more predictable we want it to be. But God finds ways to surprise, upset, and disrupt us. We prefer the sofa, the television, the internet; in short, we prefer the tomb of our own safety and comfort. But we worship a God of the living, not of the dead, a God who calls us out of the tombs of our own making. We worship a God of resurrection.
Much scholarly ink has been spilled over the ending of Mark’s gospel. There are at least three possible endings for Mark’s gospel, and all of them are well-supported by ancient manuscripts. However, the most likely ending of Mark is also the strangest. More than likely, the last four words of Mark’s original ending were: “and they were afraid”. What an odd, even bizarre ending! Why would the women who went to the tomb, saw an angel sitting there, and heard the outrageously good news of the resurrection flee in terror?
I think we know why. Resurrection seems too good to be true. We do not want to be hurt or disappointed. We want our lives to be safe, predictable, , boring, dead. I know I do!! But God has other plans for us. God’s plan for us is resurrection, surprise, amazement, joy incomprehensible and full of wonder. So lose your fear, forget about comfort, embrace God’s adventure, drop your net and make a mad dash after the mysterious stranger who invites you to participate in God’s magnificent, surprising, and unpredictable plan for your life. Sing, shout the Easter alleluia, dance a jig, for Christ is risen. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dr. King Remembered - Jan. 18, 2009

I grew up in Alabama in the age of the civil rights movement. I was born in 1955, the year that the Montgomery bus boycott catapulted Dr. King to national prominence. I was eight years old in 1963, the year of Dr. King's Birmingham campaign and the horrific bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which resulted in the deaths of four little girls who were waiting for Sunday school to begin. 

I would like to be able to tell you that I have vivid memories of these events, but I don't. I remember some fear and anxiety in my family over the demonstrations that were going on in Birmingham. I am embarrassed to admit that I remember seeing separate drinking fountains and rest rooms and being told by my grandmother not to drink from the so-called "colored" drinking fountain. I remember that I was not allowed to take swimming lessons at the newly-integrated Birmingham YMCA because of fear of … well, I'm not really sure what the fear was about. And I remember being nervous when my elementary school was integrated, although I am certain I was not nearly as afraid as the black children who suddenly found themselves in a room full of white children. 

Even though I don't personally remember much about the Birmingham campaign, the Selma march, and so on, I had the good fortune many years later to know some persons who did know a lot about these events from their personal experience. At two different universities in Birmingham I taught a course on religion and American history. Each of the three years that I taught the course, I invited a speaker to the class who had been personally involved in the movement. The first speaker was the Rev. John Porter, pastor of the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, who had been Dr. King's associate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. The second speaker was Rabbi Milton Grafman, the rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El, and the third was David Vann, who had been city attorney for the city of Birmingham during the Birmingham campaign. 

The most illuminating speaker by far was Rabbi Grafman. A good and gracious man, Rabbi Grafman led Birmingham's Temple Emanu-El wisely and well for many years. However, he will forever be remembered as one of the seven white clergymen who wrote to Dr. King urging him to delay his protests in Birmingham. Dr. King replied to them in his best-known essay, "A Letter from a Birmingham Jail". When Rabbi Grafman and his colleagues urged King to wait, he replied, "To the Negro, 'wait' has meant 'never'. We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights". Rabbi Grafman came to my class and gave my students and me a very persuasive explanation for why he urged Dr. King to wait. After he had left, I asked my students to tell me who they thought had been right: Rabbi Grafman or Dr. King. Every one of the students in my class was white, middle-class, and southern, and unanimously they said that Rabbi Grafman had been wrong and Dr. King had been right. 

Undoubtedly, Dr. King's greatest accomplishment was his role as a leader in the civil rights' movement and a catalyst who must be given a large share of responsibility for the civil rights' legislation of the 1960s. However, I want to mention two other accomplishments for which he should be remembered. 

Dr. King came to national prominence in the late 1950s. We remember the 50s as the age of Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and "I like Ike". Historian of religion Mark Noll argues that complacency characterized American religion the 50s: "Conservative evangelicals... translated the gospel into forms of entertainment that looked as much like versions of youthful diversion as alternatives to it. Mainline Protestants… were also busy creating a religion of the lowest common denominator with less and less that was distinctly Christian". (Noll, p. 441) And then suddenly, in this decade of complacency, Martin Luther King appeared. 

One of King’s greatest accomplishments was to be a "public Christian". What I mean is that Dr. King brought the teachings of the Christian faith to bear on public issues, especially the most important issue of the 50s and 60s, full and equal civil rights for African Americans. In doing so, Dr. King gave new credibility to the Christian faith. Many American intellectuals thought of the Christian faith as intellectually bankrupt and as having little or nothing to say about the great issues of the day. Dr. King never spoke simply as a politician; he spoke as a prophet. That is to say, he spoke as one who could see God's hand at work in human history and who gave voice to God's demands upon human life, both individual and corporate. In his very first public statement as leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, he said, "We must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all of our action." The protestors must not hate their white opponents, but be guided by Christian love while seeking justice… "Love is one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation". (Garrow, p. 24) 

At the same time that Dr. King gave new credibility to the Christian faith to those who regarded it with suspicion and skepticism, he also provided a model for Christians to speak out on the great issues of the day. His example inspired and encouraged any number of other Christians to apply the Christian faith to the great issues of the day, especially the anti-war movement. In other words, Dr. King stood on that blurry line dividing the sacred and the secular, the church and the world. He reminded the world that God is active in its history, whether the world recognizes God's presence or not, and he reminded the church that God created and loves the world and calls us to engagement in the world on behalf of the poor and the powerless. 

Enough of history… the purpose of celebrating Dr. King's life should not be just about praising a great man. Charles Willie, one of Dr. King's classmates at Morehouse College, said, "By idolizing those whom we honor, we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves. By exalting the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr., into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity - his personal and public struggles-that are similar to yours and mine. By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise". (Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 625) 

I am certain that Dr. King himself would urge us not to dwell on his accomplishments. Ever a Baptist preacher, King would invite us to turn our attention from the messenger to the message and to invite the God whom Dr. King served to work as redemptively and powerfully in our own lives as God did in Dr. King's life. 

What I take away from Dr. King is this: God has a mission for each of us. It will often be a mission that is difficult to bear, but God will give us strength. Dr. King put it better than I could. He said, "I pray that recognizing the necessity of suffering we will make of it a virtue…. To suffer in a righteous cause is to grow to our humanity's full stature. If only to save ourselves, we need the vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transform ourselves and American society…. We have … a responsibility to set out to discover what we are called to do. And after we discover that, we should set out to do it with all of the strength and all of the power that we can muster…. One knows deep down with there is something in the very structure of the cosmos that will ultimately bring about fulfillment and the triumph of that which is right. And this is the only thing that can keep one going in difficult periods." 

Several years ago I read A.N. Wilson's biography of the English writer C.S. Lewis. It was a very controversial biography because it revealed many of Lewis' weaknesses and failings. However, I came away from it with greater respect for Lewis, because I discovered that he struggled with many of the same temptations that plague me. I feel much the same way about Dr. King. Did Dr. King have feet of clay? Of course, he did. Do all of us have feet of clay? Of course we do. But the message of Dr. King's life, as St. Paul reminds us, is that "God's strength is made perfect in weakness." Dr. King accepted the burden, the mission, that God gave him, even though the cost was great, even though it led to death. It was God's power in Dr. King's life that made him great, in spite of his weaknesses. And so it is in our lives. Our weaknesses are the very stuff which God uses to build a new world. 

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Tall Tale - Epiphany 1B - Jan. 11, 2009

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’ “ (Mark 1.9-11)

Several years ago Alabama author Daniel Wallace wrote a novel entitled Big Fish. It's a terrific book and was made into a much better than average movie by the same name. Big Fish is the story of a father and a son that begins and ends at a river.  The father, Edward Bloom, is larger than life.  On the day of his son William’s birth he catches the biggest catfish in Alabama’s Blue River.  The catfish is so big that… well, it’s so big that it furnishes the material for stories that Edward tells for the rest of his life, including the night of William’s engagement party when he makes himself the center of attention rather than his son and his son’s fiancée.  
William comes to believe that his father’s life has just been one big fish story, and when Edward lies dying, William becomes determined to know what his father was “really like.”  But whenever William asks his father a question– about his childhood in tiny Ashland, Alabama; his college days; how he met his wife, William’s mother; how he got his start in business – his father responds with another tall tale.  
In a sense, the gospels are also the story of a father and a son that begins at a river.  The gospels tell us that Jesus went down to the river along with the crowds drawn by the preaching of John the Baptist.  And at the river, something happened.  Something happened that sounds a bit like one of Edward Bloom’s tall tales.  Some say that the Holy Spirit took the form of a dove and descended upon Jesus and that a heavenly voice spoke, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  
The Bible might be regarded as a tall tale, and indeed some scholars look at it that way.  Water into wine?  A handful of loaves and fish multiplied to feed five thousand?  Sight restored to the blind?  The lame leaping and walking?  The dead raised?  Impossible, they say.  The products of naïve, unsophisticated and primitive people, or else willful distortions of the truth.  
Perhaps they are right.  What would we have seen and heard if we had been present at the baptism of Jesus?  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record that there was a dove that descended upon Jesus and a heavenly voice that announced that he was God’s Son, the beloved one.  
What if we had been there and had seen and heard nothing?  What if years later someone told us this story of the Spirit taking the form of a dove and God’s voice resounding like thunder?  Would we be like the son in Big Fish?  Would we dismiss the impossible story and say, “No, tell me what REALLY happened?”  Or would we understand that sometimes a tall tale conveys the truth more effectively than the who, what, when, and where of a so-called factual account.  
A scene in the novel Big Fish but not in the movie tells of the day that people heard that Edward Bloom was dying and began to gather in front of his house.  First just a few and then more and more until dozens of people were in the front yard – treading on the shrubbery, trampling on the monkey grass.  Finally, William’s mother tells him to ask them all to leave.  As they leave, one man says to William, “We all have stories, just as you do.  Ways in which he touched us, helped us, gave us jobs, lent us money, sold it to us wholesale.  Lots of stories, big and small.  They all add up.  Over a lifetime it all adds up.  That’s why we’re here, William.  We’re a part of him, of who he is, just as he is a part of us.”  
Like the friends of Edward who gathered on the lawn when he was dying, we, too, have stories to tell about One who helped us.  “Ways in which he touched us… Over a lifetime it all adds up… We’re a part of him, of who he is, just as he is a part of us.”  We have been incorporated into a story that sounds an awful lot like a tall tale.  A father blessed his son and sent him out on a great quest.  He had adventure after adventure along the way:  the angels sang at his birth; mighty kings brought rich gifts to him; a wicked ruler tried to slay him; at his word plain water became rich wine; his touch brought sight to the blind and raised the dead to life again; although he was a simple man the wise and learned marveled at his words.  He undertook great trials and surpassed all expectations.  Finally, a close friend betrayed him; he was given a mock trial and executed.  But then the greatest marvel of all happened.  He outwitted even death itself.  And he returned to the father, having completed the quest, and his father and all his household rejoiced once again over the beloved Son with whom he was well pleased.
In a sense, our stories, too, are about a Father and a Son and they begin at a river, or at least they begin with water.  As children or as adults we were brought to the water, and just as the Spirit descended upon Jesus, so the Spirit descended upon us.  And just as the Father announced that Jesus was his beloved Son with whom he was well pleased, so the Father announced that we were his beloved daughter or son and that he was well-pleased with us, too.  Does that sound like a tall tale to you?  Is it easier to believe that your parents dressed you in a christening gown that had been handed down from great, great, great, great Aunt So-and-so and brought you to church where a doddery old man held you over a stone basin, mumbled a few words, and splashed water on your head?  So be it, but personally, I prefer the Bible’s tall tale and believe that there’s more truth in it than in a “just the facts, ma’am” account of what happened.  
The Bible’s tall tale is our story.  You are the Father’s beloved daughter or son; he loves you and is well-pleased with you.  And he has sent you out to have marvelous adventures and accomplish great tasks:  to love your enemies, to return good for evil, to bring wholeness to the sick, to stand up and speak out for those ignored and despised by others – the poor, hungry, and homeless.  And at the end of the quest you will have such stories to tell.  “You’re not going to believe this, but let me tell you about the time…”