Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Word became flesh (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 30, 2012)

John tells us that “The Word became flesh…” It is a statement that we hear every Christmas. It is especially well liked by Episcopalian clergy, because (as we are often told) the Anglican tradition is incarnational.


But I’d like to step back and look at this idea of “incarnation.” The root Carneus means “of the flesh” or even “not spiritual.” It’s also the root of our word “carnival.” I’m sure you know this but “carnival” is a compound of two words that literally mean “farewell to meat” because carnival immediately precedes Lent and the beginning of the Lenten fast.


But let’s put the idea of incarnation into simpler terms. “The Word became flesh…”


What do you do when you are trying to communicate a difficult and complicated concept to a child? You look for a simple illustration.


In a sense, the incarnation is God’s illustration. God had filled an enormous book with words. It’s a wonderful book, and if you want to know about God, you can hardly do better than read the Old Testament. But words only take us so far.


It’s as though God said, “I give up! I’ve been talking myself hoarse for centuries. I talked to Moses and David and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos, and you still don’t get it. Well, allow me to illustrate…”


And the Word… the WORDS of God… became flesh.


The abstract became concrete


The distant drew close


The invisible became visible


The intangible reached out and grasped our hand


All the words that God had spoken… all the words the prophets spoke… all the commandments that Moses received on Sinai… they all took on flesh and blood.


Jesus embodies all of God’s words, God’s thoughts, God’s love. He is God’s living, breathing illustration.


Forgive this somewhat irreverent illustration, but think about incarnation in this way. The internet is a wonderful thing. I love being able to read The New York Times on my computer and Shakespeare’s plays on my Kindle. But it’s not the same thing as holding a copy of the Times or a leather-bound copy of Romeo and Juliet. And when you receive an important email, it’s not enough just to read it on your computer screen. So what do you do? You print it out. You make a “hard copy.”


In a sense, that’s what the incarnation is all about. Jesus is the “hard copy” of God’s message. He embodies God’s message.


The incarnation was a unique and unrepeatable event. But the principle, the idea of incarnation is all around us.


It’s all very well and good to write love letters to our sweetheart. At least, I hope that people still write love letters! But when we really want them to understand that we love them, we have to look them in the eye, take their hand, and put our arms around them.


English poet Richard Crashaw wrote,


“Welcome, all wonders in one sight !
Eternity shut in a span !

Summer in Winter, Day in Night !
Heaven in Earth, and God in man !

Great, little One ! whose all-embracing birth

Lifts Earth to Heaven, stoops Heaven to Earth !”


That’s what the incarnation means: In Jesus’ birth, God embraces us, literally wraps the divine arms around our humanity, blesses us in all our messy humanity—


Our flesh and blood


Our tears and fears


Our life and our death.


And God invites us to do the same, to be agents of the incarnation by extending its reach, to wrap our arms around those we love and those we don’t love… the whole and the broken… the sad and the happy… the cheerful and the fearful…

Oh, come let us adore him!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

On a day when men were numbered (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 24, 2012)


On Sept. 23, 63 BC, a son was born to a prominent Roman family.  They gave him the name Gaius, but when Julius Caesar adopted the young man, he took the name Octavian.  Elected consul in 43, the Roman senate gave him the title "Augustus" on Jan. 16, in the year 27 BC.


Sometime around 3 or 4 BC, the Gospel of Luke tells us that the divine Augustus ordered "that a census should be taken of the whole inhabited world." (Barclay's translation)


In the distant, backwater province of Judea, men and women descended on their ancestral homes.  Hundreds streamed into Bethlehem, a small, dusty village about 5 miles south of Jerusalem.  Among them were a peasant couple from another dusty village, Nazareth, up north, in the Galilee.  Their names were Yosef and Miriam, or as they have been anglicized, Joseph and Mary.  And again Luke tells us that while they were in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor and their first child, a son, was born.  They named him Yeshua, Joshua, Jesus, a Hebrew name meaning, "God saves".


Like hundreds of others in Bethlehem, Yosef registered himself and Miriam and Yeshua.  The minor Roman bureaucrat who wrote down their names and treated Yosef with the indifference or contempt that the conquerors feel toward the conquered.  Their names were scratched with quill pens on to papyrus, and the required number of copies were made.  Perhaps a copy was kept in the Roman headquarters in Caesarea Maritima, and perhaps another copy was sent to Rome.  However, it is unlikely that it ever came to the attention of the divine Augustus that a Jewish peasant named Yosef and his wife Miriam had a son named Yeshua.


Augustus presided over a period of extraordinary peace, the pax Romana.  An inscription dating from 7 BC states that "it is hard to say whether the birthday of the most divine Caesar is more joyful or more advantageous; we may rightly regard it as like the beginning of all things, if not in the world of nature, yet in advantage; everything was deteriorating and changing into misfortune, but he set it right and gave the whole world another appearance.... The birthday of the god was the beginning of the good news to the world on his account". (IDB, vol. 1, p. 319)


Then, on August 14, in the year 14 AD, something happened to the divine Augustus that is not supposed to happen to gods:  he died.  The Jewish infant, Yeshua, who had been registered in the Roman census in Bethlehem many years before, was now a young man nearly 20 years old. 


Augustus died; Yeshua, Jesus, lived.  He lived and taught and called men and women to follow him and learn from him and worked miracles and, of course, he ran afoul of the authorities, was arrested, given a mock trial, was crucified, and died... and rose again and lives... and lives... and lives.


About 30 years after Jesus died and rose again, an author we know as Mark wrote an account of the life of Jesus.  Perhaps echoing the inscription that honored the divine Augustus, Mark began his account of Jesus' life in this way:  "The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Messiah..."


One Roman emperor followed another and in the course of time, the rule of Rome fell to one Constantine.  Unlike his predecessor Augustus, Constantine did not accept divine honors.  Instead, he honored the divinity of the Jewish peasant Yeshua and accepted baptism in his name.


Constantine raised a great church in Bethlehem over the site of Yeshua's birth, and today a church still stands over the site of Constantine's basilica.


Several years ago the English author Malcolm Muggeridge visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  He was taken aback by the gaudy ornamentation that surrounds the crypt where the birth of Jesus is remembered.


"Who but a credulous fool could possibly suppose that the place marked in the crypt with a silver cross was veritably the precise spot where Jesus had been born?  The Holy Land, as it seemed to me, had been turned into a sort of Jesusland, on the lines of Disneyland.


"Everything in the crypt ‑‑ the garish hangings which covered the stone walls, the tawdry crucifixes and pictures and hanging lamps ‑‑ was conducive to such a mood... How foolish and inappropriate... to furbish up what purported to be Jesus's birthplace with stage effects decking out his bare manger to look like a junk‑shop crammed with discarded ecclesiastical bric‑a‑brac!"


Then Muggeridge began to notice the men and women who descended to the crypt and peered into the shrine where the birth of Jesus is commemorated.


"...each face as it came into view was in some degree transfigured by the experience of being in what purported to be the actual scene of Jesus's birth.  This, they all seemed to be saying, was where it happened; here he came into the world!  here we shall find him!  The boredom, the idle curiosity, the vagrant thinking all disappeared.  Once more in that place glory shone around, and angel voices proclaimed:  Unto you is born this day ... a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord!"  (Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus, pp. 14‑15)


Even though we are in Birmingham, Alabama, and not in Bethlehem, we can, as the Bidding Prayer, said go "in heart and mind... even unto Bethlehem".  We can go because, unlike the divine Augustus, the divine Jesus lives.


His birth was a sharp, bright spark of light in the midst of darkest night.  It was a flame that has kindled other flames, spreading throughout Judea and Samaria, going on to Rome, and out to the ends of the world.  The light kindled by that birth in Bethlehem was "the light that enlightens every one".  "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it". (John 1.5, 9)


The inscription honoring the divine Augustus was wrong.  The birthday of Augustus is forgotten.  Augustus, the bureaucrats who administered his census, and the papyrus on which it was recorded all lie in the dust.  Jesus, though, who proclaimed that his kingdom was not of this world, rules in the hearts of men and women on every continent.  It is his birthday which "we may rightly regard as the beginning of all things... everything was deteriorating and changing into misfortune, but he set it right and gave the whole world another appearance.... [his] birthday ... was the beginning of the good news to the world ..." (IDB, vol. 1, p. 319)


Glory to God in the highest.  Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

To Sing and Pray Magnificat (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 23, 2012)

One of the most interesting and important religious and cultural developments in 20th c America was the birth of the Pentecostal movement. In 1906 at a church on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, William Seymour, the son of former slaves, sparked a revival that resulted in the modern Pentecostal movement and the origin of denominations such as the Assemblies of God, the Church of God, and so on.


The Pentecostal movement was different from other Christian movements in several ways. First and most obviously, Pentecostals claim to exercise the so-called “gifts of the Spirit” mentioned in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, especially the gift of speaking in tongues. Second, the Azusa St movement and many of the groups that sprang from it ordain women and allow them to preach. Third, the movement began as an interracial movement. Not only was William Seymour black but his congregation had both black and white members.


Now, you must be wondering why I’m giving a church history lecture this morning. My point (and I do have one) is that Pentecostalism claims to trace its roots right back to the New Testament, and today’s gospel reading sheds some light on Pentecostalism.


The author we know as Luke not only wrote the third gospel, he also wrote a second volume – the Acts of the Apostles. Luke had a special interest in the Holy Spirit. Throughout both Luke’s Gospel and Acts, the Holy Spirit fills the hearts of believers and empowers them to do and say great things.


Today’s reading is one of the most powerful examples of what happens when the Spirit gets a grip on someone.


Mary, the mother of Jesus, has just learned that she is to be the mother of the one who will redeem the world. Notice that the gospel reading says that “Mary rose and went with haste.” Why the urgency? Mary is running for her life; she is scared to death. Immediately before she gets up and runs to her cousin’s house, an enormously powerful and unearthly being has appeared to her. Just imagine a flying saucer landing in your back yard and its alien passenger giving you a message from beyond the stars. This being told Mary that even though she was unmarried and had never been intimate with a man, she was going to bear a child. Furthermore, her son will be the Son of God and he will inherit the throne of David. That would make anyone get up and run for their life!


So Mary comes to Elizabeth’s house, and when Mary speaks to Elizabeth, Luke tells us that Elizabeth was filled with the Spirit. Then, Mary speaks what can only be called a prophetic message: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my savior…”


And there’s the connection with Pentecostalism – women are the main actors in this story.  Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit and Mary delivers a prophetic message. Another important aspect of the Pentecostal movement is that it originated with and has been most successful among the poor and powerless. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is about God lifting up the poor and bringing down the rich and powerful: Mary sings, “God has cast down the mighty and lifted up those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich empty away.”


Perhaps it has always been like that. Perhaps the poor and those on the margins, such as women, have always been more likely to be filled with the Spirit and to hear God’s message. Perhaps they have always been speaking God’s word and we just haven’t been listening.


I am also struck by another thing in this story that seems to me to have an important message for us at this moment. Mary and Elizabeth were pregnant. They were both preparing to give birth to their first children. I have no idea what that feels like, but I imagine that it is both a thing of great joy and also perhaps a time of some anxiety, perhaps even fear.


There is the fear of childbirth itself and also fear for one’s child. Up until very recently childhood, especially infancy, was a very dangerous time. Children routinely died in infancy and early childhood. Pres. Lincoln lost two children – one before he became president and one while he was in the White House. Nicholas Cobbs, the first bishop of Alabama, lost one of his children after he moved to Alabama. Any of you who have traced the genealogy of your families know that the death of children was extraordinarily common up until the early 20th century.


Even today parents have many things to fear. Childhood is a vulnerable time. And the unspeakable shootings in Newtown, CT, just over a week ago show just how vulnerable children are.


I am not a pacifist, although I believe that Jesus was a pacifist. And I expect some day to have to explain to our Lord why I did not oppose violence the way that he did. But I am convinced that the way to protect our children is not by putting armed guards in our schools. Indeed, I am convinced that that would make them more vulnerable, not less vulnerable.


We live in a violent world and childhood seems to be an especially violent time. The world of childhood is saturated with violence in the forms of video games, movies, and television. We need to do something to reduce all forms of violence.


Parents, teachers, and clergy should do everything in their power to protect children, but we can never protect  them from all dangers and risks, nor should we. Learning how to manage risk and even danger are parts of growing up. Children have to learn how to manage risk from crossing the street to driving cars.


I believe that the way to protect our children is by creating the world that Mary dreamed about in her song, her Magnificat – a world in which the poor are lifted up and the hungry are fed. Will it be a perfectly safe world? No, of course not. God does not promise us safety; God promises us a good world and summons us to join with him in creating it.


So, I invite you to sing and pray Mary’s Magnificat. In particular, I invite you to pray for our children who are still too often the most vulnerable among us.


I want to conclude with a prayer for children by Marian Wright Edelman.

We pray for children
Who sneak popsicles before supper,
Who erase holes in math workbooks,
Who can never find their shoes.

And we pray for those
Who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire,
Who can't bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers, 
Who are born in places we wouldn't be caught dead,
Who never go to the circus,
Who live in an X-rated world.

We pray for children
Who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions,
Who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money.
And we pray for those
Who never get dessert,
Who have no safe blanket to drag behind them,
Who watch their parents watch them die,
Who can't find any bread to steal,
Who don't have any rooms to clean up,
Whose pictures aren't on anybody's dresser,
Whose monsters are real.

We pray for children
Who spend all their allowance before Tuesday,
Who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food,
Who like ghost stories,
Who shove dirty clothes under the bed and never rinse out the tub,
Who get visits from the tooth fairy,
Who don't like to be kissed in front of the carpool,
Who squirm in church or temple and scream in the phone,
Whose tears we sometimes laugh at and whose smiles can make us cry.

And we pray for those
Whose nightmares come in the daytime,
Who will eat anything,
Who have never seen a dentist,
Who aren't spoiled by anybody,
Who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
Who live and move, but have no being.

We pray for children who want to be carried and for those who must,
For those we never give up on and for those who don't get a second chance.
For those we smother ... and for those who will grab the hand of anybody kind enough to offer it.

Let’s pray for the children and give them all a better world. Amen.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Keeping a hopeful Advent (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 2, 2012)

Several years ago First Baptist Church of Hayden, Alabama, the church in which I grew up, got its first Advent wreath. But it had five purple candles, not the usual four. Why are there five candles, I asked? And I was told that this year there were five Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas!


But Advent is not the Thanksgiving to Christmas shopping season. Advent does not begin on “black Friday” and end when the stores close on Christmas Eve. In a sense, Advent is really not about Christmas at all. Advent is its own season, and it has a message which is at odds with the message we usually associate with Christmas.


What makes Advent so different is that at the beginning of Advent we run right smack into the prophets. On the first Sunday of Advent, here comes Jeremiah, right on time. And behind him comes another prophet – the apostle Paul.


The prophets don’t tell us anything about Santa Claus and reindeer or sleigh bells and snow. Jeremiah says, “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “May God so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”


And on the first Sunday of Advent, the prayer book borrows words that Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans and bids us pray  that God will “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…”


How different this is from the message that we are getting all around us. God will execute justice and righteousness… Jerusalem will live in safety… the coming of the Lord Jesus with all his saints… the works of darkness… the armor of light…


In other words, get ready… be prepared… the darkness is closing in… look for a place of safety…


The message of Advent is a message of hope, not optimism. The difference between hope and optimism is partly a matter of prepositions. Optimism is optimism THAT. We are optimistic THAT  we will get a job, THAT the doctors will find a cure, THAT the pretty girl we talked to at a party will return our call.


Don’t misunderstand me: Optimism is a good thing.  Psychologists tell us that although pessimists have a better grasp on reality, optimists are more likely to act to improve their conditions and look for solutions to problems.


Hope is something else all together. We do not hope THAT; we hope IN. We hope IN God. We also hope DESPITE the circumstances.


Optimism pretends that it is always Christmas and never Advent. Optimism pretends that it is always sunny and never dark, always summer and never winter. But Hope (as Paul says in his letter to the Romans) knows that the hour is late and that “it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed;  the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day…”


Hope knows that it is precisely when the darkness is deepest that the day is at hand and the light draws near.


So what makes the message of Advent so different from the conventional message of the Christmas shopping season is that Advent offers us hope, not optimism. Advent acknowledges the darkness. Advent is honest with us. Advent tells us that we are facing tough times, that the fight will be long and hard. Advent does not hide the suffering that is a part of human life. While the rest of the world is humming “Santa Claus is coming to town,” Christians who keep Advent are singing


Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:


Hope knows that we cannot have Easter without Good Friday, resurrection without crucifixion. Hope is not a utopian vision of the future. Hope recognizes that history is complicated, difficult, and sometimes tragic.


Once again, Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Lo, he comes with clouds descending,” helps us understand Advent. Hope knows that just as the Risen Christ still bears the scars of his crucifixion, we also bear the scars of our struggles, the wounds that life inflicts on all of us.


The dear tokens of His passion
Still His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!


But Advent also teaches us that those scars can be redeemed and those wounds can be transformed into sources of strength. Hope walks into the future on legs that were once paralyzed by fear.


In Paul’s letters, he often brings together faith, hope, and love. For example, in his first letter to the Thessalonians from which we heard today, he says, “We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”


The most famous place where Paul speaks of faith, hope, and love is in the 13th chapter of First Corinthians: “These three abide – faith, hope, and love – but the greatest of these is love.”


In other words, hope abides. Hope lasts. Hope is eternal. You can’t say that about optimism. Eventually, optimism runs out of steam; it hits the wall of our mortality, our finitude. But not hope. Hope goes on and on because to repeat what I said before, we do not hope THAT; we hope IN. We hope IN God.


An eclipse of the sun occurred during a meeting of the assembly of one of the 18th century American colonies. Some members of the assembly panicked, believing that the end of the world was at hand. One of the delegates moved that the assembly adjourn so that the members could return to their homes and prepare for the end. But one of the delegates spoke up and said, “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. But if it IS the end of the world, then I choose to be found doing my duty. I pray you, sir, let candles be brought in.”


In Advent, Christians bring in candles. We bring light into the dark world around us. In fact, the world IS ending. It has always been ending and always will be ending. But we have hope – NOT optimism – because we believe in a God who does new things and who is with us even to the end of the world.