Sunday, September 30, 2012

The burden and blessing of being a prophet (J. Barry Vaughn, Sept. 30, 2012)

At our Wed night Bible study last week, Mary Vandagriff revealed something that all of us who know her well already knew about her. “I am a prophet,” Mary said. And Meg Stubbs had the perfect comeback. “So what number should I play in the lottery?”


That’s what a prophet does, right? A prophet tells us what number to play in the lottery so that we can win a million dollars. A prophet tells us what’s going to happen tomorrow, what the weather is going to be next week, who’s going to win the election, and when Jesus is coming back.


No, that’s not what a prophet does. That’s what a fortune teller does… and we don’t take fortune tellers seriously, or at least we shouldn’t take them seriously.


Prophets are not fortune tellers. Sometimes they do tell us what is going to happen in the future, but they only reveal the future to us in general terms. They tell us what God’s plans are, that God desires good for us and never evil.


Prophets don’t foretell what is going to happen tomorrow; they tell forth the word of God.


Today’s story from Numbers is a good example.


Moses was exhausted. The whole trip from Egypt to the Promised Land had been one disaster after another. First, they were pursued by the Egyptians and there had been that whole Red Sea thing. Then the children of Israel began to complain, “Can we stop and get something to eat? Are we there yet?”


Ever wonder why they called them the “children of Israel”? They certainly didn’t act very much like adults most of the time, did they?


So God sent manna. They started to complain that they were thirsty, so God told Moses to speak to a rock and that a stream would flow from the rock. But Moses was really mad, so he hauled his arm back and he took his staff and hit that rock with a great big thwack! God wasn’t real pleased about that and it went on Moses’ permanent record.


Of course, Moses knew that as soon as the people had filled up their canteens with water, the next thing they would complain about would be that he wasn’t giving them enough bathroom breaks.


And then we have today’s story.  "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at."


The people complained to Moses, but who was Moses going to complain to? Moses could only complain to his boss, and his boss was God.


What would it be like to have God as your boss? Just imagine the annual review!


You would go up to the secretary and say, “Uh… I have to see the boss. Is She having a good day? Is She the God of the Old Testament or the New Testament today?”


So Moses went up to the top of the mountain, timidly knocked on God’s door. “Come in, Moses,” God says. And Moses wonders, How does God do that? How does God always knows it’s me? So Moses goes in.


But Moses is prepared. He has a great big scroll with him on which he has written his letter of resignation, and he slams the scroll on God’s desk. So Moses said to God:


“Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,' to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once.”


“They are too heavy for me.” Do you ever have days like that? Do you ever want to tell God that the job God has given you is too heavy?


We all fell like that some of the time… maybe even a lot of the time.


So what does this have to do with prophecy?


What this story has to do with prophecy is the way that God responded to Moses. God told Moses to assemble 70 elders, 70 people whom he knew to be wise and responsible, and to bring them to the tent of meeting. And then God took some of the spirit that was on Moses and gave a portion of that spirit to each of the 70 elders.  And they prophesied.


“They prophesied.” Did they say that he would meet a tall, dark stranger? Did they tell Moses what number to play in the lottery? I don’t think so.


Moses had asked God for help in bearing the burden of leadership, and that’s what God gave him.


A prophet is one who speaks God’s word. But God’s word is not just a vehicle of information. It’s not just a way of conveying ideas.


We have an impoverished idea of words. The Hebrew word for “word” is dabar. Dabar can mean a principle, a thing. God’s word is an event. The word of God does things, changes things.


Remember how the Bible begins? “God said let there be light, and there was light.” God speaks creation into being. Using only words, God creates light and dark, the heavens and the earth, the oceans and the dry land.


But strangely, when God gives his word to the prophets, they all protest that they do not want it.


When God wanted to make Moses a prophet, Moses tried three excuses: Oh, you don’t want me to be a prophet. I’m just a nobody. And anyway, when I come to the people and tell them I’m a prophet, they will say, “Well, who made YOU a prophet?” And anyway, I have this lisp, this stutter, and I’m just a terrible public speaker.


When God wanted to make Isaiah a prophet, he said, “I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”


When God wanted to make Jeremiah a prophet, he said, “I am only a youth… I’m too young…”


But God just ignored their excuses and made them prophets anyway.


When Moses complained that the burden God had given him was too heavy, God gave him 70 prophets. God gave him 70 people who could speak God’s word.


When your burden is too heavy, has someone come along to help you carry that burden? That person was God’s prophet.


A prophet is someone who has God’s Spirit and through whom God speaks and when God speaks, things happen. Burdens are lighter. We can see more of the path ahead. And we can see that we are not alone.


Any of us can be God’s prophet.


I love the end of this story. Moses does exactly what God tells him to do. He checks everybody’s credentials and figures out who is best qualified to be an elder. He assembles 70 of his best people in the tent of meeting and God does exactly what he has promised. Then Joshua comes to Moses and says, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Moses replies, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.”


God doesn’t always work through officials channels. God can give the Spirit to anyone. God can make any of us a prophet.


The Israeli poet Yakov Azriel says,


“The word of God hovers beyond our perception

like a radio transmission broadcast from Somewhere,

amidst the static

desperately seeking a receiver

to pick up its message

undetected even by the soul’s ear

until the chosen one is focused

man or woman

farmer or Temple priest

child half asleep in his bed

totally unprepared

or aged prophet meditating in devout readiness

after years of anticipation

suddenly it strikes.”


God’s prophets help us to find the blessing in the burnout. Prophets come along and help us carry the burden. Prophets bring us casseroles. They sit with us in the hospital. They call us up and say, “How are you? No, really, how ARE you?”


God’s Spirit can make any of us a prophet. Being a prophet isn’t easy; it’s a special kind of burden – a burden that carries a blessing. But in the blessing is in the burden because Someone stands beside us to help us carry the load.


The cross is at the center of the Christian faith to remind us that God’s mighty Word took on flesh and blood so that there is no burden we bear that Christ has not borne, no place we go - no matter how dark – where Christ has not been.

(I used some ideas and phrases from "Deliverance and Deli Meat" by the Rev. Bonnie Scott.)

Monday, September 24, 2012

One Hundred Great Anglican Books

I am compiling a list of "One Hundred Great Anglican Books." This is entirely for my own edification and amusement, although I hope it will provoke thoughtful discussion. Currently, the list skews heavily toward white, British, male 19th and 20th century writers, so I am seeking additional authors who are (1) women; (2) evangelicals; (3) from Australia, New Zealand, and the farther reaches of the Anglican Communion; (4) from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centures; (5) from the developing world. I welcome suggestions, however keep in mind that (1) this is completely subjective; and (2) I am the benevolent overlord and my decisions are absolute and final. That said, please send your suggestions to Thanks.

1 Lewis Bayly The Practice of Piety
2 Joseph Butler Analogy of Religion
3 Samuel Taylor Coleridge Aids to Reflection
4 Thomas Cranmer Book of Common Prayer (1662)
5 Samuel Crowther The Bible (Yoruba translation)
6 Joy Davidman Smoke on the Mountain
7 John Donne Collected Poems
8 John Stott & David Edwards Essentials
9 T.S. Eliot Four Quartets
10 Austin Farrer The Glass of Vision
11 Austin Farrer The Essential Sermons
12 Joseph Fletcher Situation Ethics
13 Charles Gore The Incarnation
14 George Herbert The Temple
15 Richard Holloway Leaving Alexandria
16 Richard Holloway Signs of Glory
17 Richard Hooker Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity
18 Susan Howatch Glittering Images
19 Susan Howatch Glamorous Powers
20 Susan Howatch Ultimate Prizes
21 Trevor Huddleston Naught for your Comfort
22 John Jewell Apology of the Church of England
23 Festo Kivengere I Love Idi Amin
24 William Law A Serious Call
25 Madeleine L'Engle Walking on Water
26 Madeleine L'Engle The Irrational Season
27 Madeleine L'Engle A Wrinkle in Time
28 C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity
29 C.S. Lewis The Narnia Chronicles
30 C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters
31 C.S. Lewis The Great Divorce
32 John Macquarrie Principles of Christian Theology
33 E.L. Mascall Words and Images
34 E.L. Mascall The Importance of Being Human
35 Frederick Denison Maurice The Kingdom of Christ
36 Eric Milner-White My God, My Glory
37 Stephen Neill Anglicanism
38 Stephen Neill A History of Christian Missions
39 John Henry Newman Parochial and Plain Sermons
40 John Henry Newman Oxford University Sermons
41 John Newton Thoughts upon the Slave Trade
42 William Cowper & John Newton Olney Hymns
43 J.I. Packer Knowing God
44 J.B. Phillips The New Testament in Modern English
45 John Polkinghorne The Faith of a Physicist
46 John Polkinghorne The God of Hope and the End of the World
47 Michael Ramsey The Gospel and the Catholic Church
48 Charles Raven Creator Spirit
49 Charles Raven Science, Religion, and the Future
50 John A.T. Robinson Honest to God
51 Dorothy Sayers The Mind of the Maker
52 Colin Stephenson Merrily on High
53 John Stott Basic Christianity
54 Jeremy Taylor Holy Living and Holy Dying
55 John V. Taylor The Go-Between God
56 William Temple Readings in St. John's Gospel
57 Anthony Trollope The Barchester Chronicles
58 Desmond Tutu Hope and Suffering
59 Desmond Tutu No Future Without Forgiveness
60 Evelyn Underhill Mysticism
61 Evelyn Underhill Worship
62 Izaak Walton Walton's Lives
63 Charles Wesley Hymns and Sacred Poems
64 John Wesley Journal
65 William Wilberforce A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System
66 Harry Williams Some Day I'll Find You
67 Harry Williams True Wilderness
68 Rowan Williams A Ray of Darkness
69 Rowan Williams Tokens of Trust
70 N.T. Wright The New Testament and the People of God
71 N.T. Wright Jesus and the Victory of God
72 The Bible (Authorized Version)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Greatest in the Kingdom (J. Barry Vaughn)

Today’s gospel reading is one of the most touching stories in all of scripture. Jesus says,”’Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”


And we all say a collective, “Awwww… isn’t that sweet?”


I have a small confession to make: One of the highlights of my week comes when Brian and Stephanie bring Brooke to the altar and Kevin and Krystal bring Sydney to the altar and I get to bless them. They are adorable. When I make the sign of the cross on them and tell them that God’s blessing is upon them and they look at me with those sweet and innocent eyes, I go a little bit gooey inside.


But we need to remember the context for this story about Jesus and the little child. It begins in a very different key. “"The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”


Betrayal… violence… murder… fear…


The catalyst for this story about the little child is a quarrel among the disciples. “What were you arguing about?” Jesus asked them. And then there was that embarrassed silence.


You know what an embarrassed silence is like. You’re telling a joke. It might be a little off color or it might be a joke that stereotypes people of a different race or religion or gender. We all know jokes such as that, and if we’re honest, we have to admit that we’ve told jokes such as that. So you’re telling this inappropriate joke and your boss walks in or your wife or husband or maybe even your priest.


So the disciples are quarrelling about who’s the greatest, the best, and all of a sudden, Jesus pulls the car over to the side of the road and turns around and looks into the back seat and says, “OK! Stop it! What’s all the fuss about?” And there’s complete silence for a very long, embarrassing minute.


Then one of them speaks up. I’ll bet it was Peter. “We were talking about… uh… well, I mean it was really John… and he said you liked him best… and I said, ‘Nuh uh!’ He likes me best…”


So then Jesus sees a school about a hundred yards up the road on the right. And they drive up there. And there a bunch of kindergarten kids in the playground. And he scoops one up in his big, calloused carpenter’s hands and puts the little girl on his shoulders and says, “Do you see her? She’s the greatest. If you want to be great, then be like her.”


And the disciples look at the little girl’s face. She’s been playing kick ball and there’s some chocolate on the side of her mouth, so she needs to wash her face. But she’s completely adorable.


But remember what the disciples were arguing about. And remember what Jesus was saying about his own death before the argument.


Jesus wasn’t saying that children are great because they are innocent. He was saying that the disciples were arguing about the wrong thing. They thought that Jesus’ kingdom was just like every other kingdom in the world. They thought that Jesus’ kingdom would be about power and glory.


But Jesus and his kingdom are not about power. They are about loving and serving others. He picked up the child because the child was completely powerless. The greatest in the kingdom is not the most powerful but the least powerful. The kingdom is about the powerful serving the powerless. It is about the strong serving the weak.


Jesus picked up a child because his day and our day are a lot alike. Both in his time and in our time, children are powerless and vulnerable.


NYTimes’ columnist Nicholas Kristof has a particular interest in the plight of women and children in the developing world. In June he wrote a column about Katum, a 28 year old mother in Sudan who had just lost a 2 year old daughter to starvation and who feared that her 4 other children would starve, too.


Children are vulnerable in Sudan because a civil war is going on and the government is bombing its own people. Children are vulnerable in China because in traditional Chinese culture, there is a bias against girls and because China’s one child policy means that parents sometimes practice selective abortion to eliminate female fetuses or even abandon girl babies.


And children are even vulnerable right here in America. Last year Sesame Street ran a one hour special about a little girl named Lily who sometimes went to bed hungry. The Dept of Agriculture estimates that 1 in 5 American children is at risk of under-nourishment.


One of the things that upsets me is the popular image of religion. People seem to have the idea that religion is other worldly, out of touch with reality, and unconcerned about the real world. Well, maybe sometimes that’s true. Sometimes we do close our eyes to the real world and sometimes the music of our hymns drowns out the cries of hungry children.


But the Bible is realistic. If we read the Bible and really hear what it is saying, then we will get a big dose of reality.


Listen to Psalm 54:


Save me, O God, by your Name; *
in your might, defend my cause.


Hear my prayer, O God; *
give ear to the words of my mouth.


For the arrogant have risen up against me,
and the ruthless have sought my life, *
those who have no regard for God.


Behold, God is my helper; *
it is the Lord who sustains my life.


Render evil to those who spy on me; *
in your faithfulness, destroy them.


Save me… defend me… hear my prayer… give ear to the words of my mouth…


These are the words of someone who is desperate. This is what that 28 year old mother in Sudan would say to God.


“For the arrogant have risen up against me… the ruthless … those who have no regard for God… have sought my life…”


I’m glad that we read from the Psalms every week. And I’m especially glad that the congregation gets to say the words of the psalm. The psalms are the prayers and praises of Israel.


But there are different kinds of psalms. Last week we read Psalm 19. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows forth his handiwork.”


Psalm 19 is a magnificent psalm of praise. It has the cadence, the rhythm, the vocabulary of the Book of Common Prayer.


But not all the psalms are so stately. Some of the psalms are pleas for help from people who are in desperate situations.


Think of Psalm 22: “My God, my God… why have you forsaken me and are so far from the cries of my mouth?”


Psalm 54 was not composed by a monk in a cell or a seminary professor who spent all her time in a library. Psalm 54 comes from the heart; it comes from the gut. Psalm 54 is fortissimo, not pianissimo. It is composed in dark E flat minor, not sunny C major.


But perhaps the most difficult verses in Psalm 54 are these:


“Render evil to those who spy on me; *
in your faithfulness, destroy them.”


“Render EVIL to those who spy on me… destroy them…”


How can we say these things, much less pray them in church?


Remember that the Bible is profoundly realistic. Jesus did NOT say that we would have no enemies. He told us to love our enemies. He did not say that it would always be sunny and mild with the temperature between 75 and 80 and with no humidity.


Jesus told us that we would have enemies. He said that he would suffer and die and invited us to follow him and take up our cross and that what happened to him would happen to those who followed him.


When the disciples were acting like a bunch of high school boys in a locker room, he picked up a child and said, “Look at this little girl. If you want to be great, then be like her.”


To make sense of the psalms, we have to remember that before they were printed on on gold edged paper and bound between leather covers, they were the prayers of people who sometimes faced hunger and violence and were in desperate circumstances.


The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it like this: “The words of men to God have become the Word of God to us.” In the Psalms, we are allowed to listen in as Israel prayed, and we find that they were just like us.


They were astounded by the beauty of nature: “like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and there is nothing hid from its heat.


They overflowed with the praise of God: “God is in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his exceeding greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with timbrel and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!”


And they even longed for God to kill their enemies: “Render evil to those who spy on me… destroy them…”


The Reformer John Calvin said, “The Holy Spirit has here drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated."


So let’s be honest: sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, we want God to destroy people. There are one or two people… well, maybe even more than one or two… maybe a whole lot of people whom we think really deserve God’s wrath. We think God should really let ‘em have it.


But remember the disciples? Remember what they were quarrelling about? Remember the little child?


You and I are not powerless. No one here is going to be hungry tonight. And if you are, then there’s something you can do about it. This is a congregation full of genuinely caring people.


The psalms give us permission to tell God what we really think. The psalms give us permission to tell God that we’d like him to hurl a thunderbolt at our boss or at the neighbors who don’t cut their grass often enough.


But when we do that, we need to remember the little child. The terrible verses of the psalms really belong to her, to the truly vulnerable and powerless. And when we call down the wrath of God on our boss or the mayor or the guy who cut us off in traffic, then we should stop and think about who really deserves the wrath of God and who really deserves the mercy of God. Then we should pray about what we can do for the mother in Sudan with four hungry children … and maybe even for the family down the street.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Good girls, bad girls, and the cost of discipleship (J. Barry Vaughn, Sept. 16, 2012)

From beginning to end the Old Testament is full of loose and dangerous women. You  know who I’m talking about. They’re the ones your mother warned you about. The kind who lurk in dark door ways and smoky bars and whose voices sound like Lauren Bacall.
Think of Eve. “Here you go, Adam. Doesn’t this apple look delicious? And you won’t believe the way you feel after you take a bite.”
Or Delilah. “Short back and sides and a little off the top as usual, Samson?”
Or Jezebel. Do you remember her? The queen of Israel, the northern kingdom, in the 9th century before Christ? She and the prophet Elisha were on different sides of the whole church/state debate. She worshiped the god Baal, and Elisha worshiped the God of Israel but she and her husband Ahab were overthrown in a palace revolt and she was unceremoniously thrown out of an upper window.
But there are plenty of other women in the Old Testament.
The prophet Deborah led Israel to victory against the Canaanites.
Or Hannah, who longed for a child and when God gave her Samuel, she consecrated him to God’s service in the tabernacle.
Or Esther, the Israelite woman who became a power to be reckoned with in the court of the Persian king Ahasuerus, and who saved Israel from the evil Haman’s plot to exterminate them.
But today the Book of Proverbs introduces us to one of the most important but least known women in the Old Testament – Lady Wisdom.
The Hebrew for wisdom is hokmah, a feminine word. So when the Jews pictured wisdom, they saw her as a woman.
The books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job are part of Israel’s wisdom literature. The wisdom tradition tells us that if we live our lives according to certain basic principles that can be discerned from the created order, then we will (to quote Mr. Spock from Star Trek) “live long and prosper.”
In other words, we should avoid extremes and live moderately and treat others with kindness and justice; we should heed the counsel of our parents and teachers and be diligent in our work; avoid too much strong drink; above all, we should attend to God’s word. And if we do all these things, then we will find life to be satisfying;  we will be content, and life will be worth living.
But the strange thing is that although we know all this to be true, we know from our own experience that wisdom really does offer the key to a happy life, we do not heed wisdom’s call.
So Lady Wisdom goes out into the streets and says,
"How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.”
In other words, the problem is that so many of us have heeded not Lady Wisdom but her sister Lady Folly. You know what they say – good girls go to heaven but bad girls go everywhere!
Although Lady Wisdom calls to us, even though we know that she is correct when she tells us to live moderately and avoid extremes, to listen to our parents, to brush our teeth, and say our prayers, so few of us do that. Lady Wisdom may be right, but Lady Folly is a whole lot more fun.
However, today’s readings include another summons, another invitation.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus, like Lady Wisdom, takes his place before his followers and says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
On the face of it, Jesus’ invitation appears to be exactly the opposite of Lady Wisdom’s. She invites us to lead a long, full, and happy life; to do everything in our power to preserve and extend life. But Jesus invites us to throw our lives away, to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel.
Jesus seems to say that we have a choice – either him or the world.
Although Lady Folly may be a lot of fun to take to a party, her sister, Lady Wisdom, is a whole lot better for us in the long run. If we choose Lady Wisdom then we will do well in our careers, we will have money in the bank, and we will be respected in our communities.
But Lady Wisdom is also worldly wisdom. Jesus offers us something completely different. Jesus tells us that there is more to us than our bank accounts and our careers, that there is something even better than gaining the whole world.
Jesus invites us to an adventure, but make no mistake – it is dangerous. He invites us to to give up everything and follow him.
So why does the Bible present us with these two radically different choices – the invitation of Lady Wisdom to lead “sober, honest, and godly” lives and Jesus’ call to be his disciple? How are we to make a choice between these two very different invitations?
Lady Wisdom really is right. Follow her and listen to her and we will live happy and long lives, and most of the time, that is exactly what we should do. Lady Wisdom offers us good, practical advice for daily life.
The problem is that the time comes when that is not enough. The time comes when we have to pay the cost of discipleship.
The cost of discipleship means telling the truth even though it will cost us our job. The cost of discipleship means giving someone a hand even when we are tired and have already worked a 12 hour day. And sometimes the cost of discipleship may mean giving up our lives for the sake of the gospel.
The great majority of the time Jesus and Lady Wisdom go down the same path, but sometimes they part company. Sometimes wisdom summons us in one direction, but Jesus invites us to follow him in completely different direction.
So when we stand at that crossroads, when wisdom beckons us one way and Jesus a different way, when wisdom goes the way of safety and prudence and sobriety but Jesus goes the way of risk and uncertainty and adventure, then we need to follow Jesus. It may not be wise in the eyes of the world but it will lead to life abundant and everlasting.