Thursday, December 26, 2013

In the beginning was the Word (Rick O'Brien, Dec. 25, 2013)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The pure poetry of John’s gospel is, in my mind, unparalleled in the entire Bible.  And yet, John is far more than a poet.   John has much to tell us of God and of Jesus Christ, even if it is not like the other synoptic gospels.  For unlike Luke and Mark, John’s gospel has no account of Jesus’ birth.  No angels, no shepherds, no wise men.  No Little town of Bethlehem, no Hark the Herald Angels, no Silent Night.  John tells us nothing of the birth of Jesus, nothing of the Christmas event that we celebrate this morning.  So why then, with all of the other gospel stories we could read, do we have this particular passage from John, on this of all mornings?

It would be a mistake to assume, since he doesn’t mention the baby in Bethlehem, that John has nothing to say to us of the incarnation and divinity of Christ.  Indeed, John helps us to connect the Christmas stories we know so well with the identity of Jesus Christ and helps us to begin to comprehend how he relates to God.

In the beginning was the Word.  Words are powerful things.  The giving of someone’s word is a solemn event and has great import in how we relate to one another.  Once a word is spoken, it cannot be taken back.  Think of the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau.  Jacob deceived Isaac into giving him the blessing instead of his brother Esau, but because the word had been spoken, it could not be taken back.  The word had power and even though Isaac wanted to change his mind, he could not because he had to live by the word he had spoken. 

When I was growing up I was taught that your word is your bond.  How you kept your word spoke volumes to other people about your character, your trustworthiness; indeed your word defined who you are.  Going back on your word was not something that could be contemplated, as your word was literally part of who you are.

Think also about how God created the world.  The book of Genesis tells us that the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.  How did God change this?  Did he strap on his tool belt, head down to Home Depot for materials and start swinging a hammer?  No, of course not.  God spoke into the darkness and said “Let there be Light”, and there was light.  God’s word separated the light from the darkness, created the dry land, and brought forth every living creature including Adam and Eve.  The word of God was the instrument of creation, establishing our reality and all that we know.  Words truly are powerful things. 

John recalls the creation story in Genesis when he tells us, In the beginning was the Word.  And we know that the Word was the instrument of creation.  He goes further though in telling us that the Word was With God, and that the word WAS God.  How can the word be with God, but also BE God?  That would mean that the Word was somehow separate from God, but also part of God.  That would mean then that the word was not something created by God, but instead was an integral part of God himself.  John is telling us that Jesus, the Word of God, is part of God.  Even though we call Jesus God’s son, John is helping us to understand that Jesus is far more than that. 

I am a father and I have three sons.  There was a time when I existed, but my sons did not, as they had not yet been born.  If Jesus were simply the son of God, the same would be true for him.  That would mean that there was a time when God existed, but Jesus did not.  John’s gospel is telling us that this is not the case, that Jesus the Word was with God in the beginning, was part of God, and was the action of creation on behalf of God.

Even though John does not tell us about the birth of Jesus Christ, he is helping us understand that Jesus is more than just one of us.  He is not simply a man sent from God, but he is in fact God himself.  God loves us so much that he gives up his divinity to become like us, to experience the pains and the joys we feel. 

I recently heard a song that said, “Many men have tried to become Gods, but only one God has become a man.”  That spoke to me at a deep level.  History is littered with stories of men who have tried to become God.  Pharaohs, Kings and Emperors have been doing this for millennia, each trying to impose their will upon the world and make it into the image they chose.  Refusing to be satisfied with their humanity, they sought riches and power in a vain attempt to become like God.

Even in our own lives, how many of us want to play God, trying to recreate our jobs, our relationships, our very lives in the image that we would choose?  I thought about this over the past week with the great furor over the mega millions jackpot.  The media was only too happy to cover the story of a chance for life-changing riches.  Enough money to forget about the cares of your everyday life; to remake yourself in whatever image you choose.  Doesn’t this sound like we too are trying to become God?  To have the power to do nearly anything we want?

And yet John reminds us that our God did just the opposite.  God gave all of that up in order to become one of us.  Jesus the Immanuel (which as you know literally means “God with us”) left behind the divinity of God to take on our humanity, coming to earth not as a grown man, not as a wealthy king, but in the frail form of an infant born to a poor carpenter and his young wife in a stable.  Hardly a fitting location for the most powerful human to ever walk the planet, and yet that is what God chose to do. 

And so, as we gather this Christmas morning with the great cloud of witnesses who have celebrated this Blessed event for more than 2,000 years, let us remember the angels, let us remember the shepherds, let us remember the wise men.  But let us also remember the Word, Jesus who surrendered his divinity to become one of us.  For God loves us so much that he was willing to become one of us in order that we might share in his eternal life.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Turning on the Lights (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 24, 2013)

Canadian story teller, Shane Koyczan[1], tells the story of being raised by his grandparents. Koyczan had terrible nightmares, but his grandfather had a unique way of dealing with them. He says that his grandfather had two memorable characteristics. First, he loved beef jerky. That may seem like a trivial fact, but trust me, it will be useful to know later. Second, his granddad had a way with monsters.


As a child, Koyczan says that his bedroom was full of monsters. His closet was stuffed with long-legged demons who could make it from one side of the room to the other in a single step.  When the demons would get out of the closet, Koyczan would wake up screaming, and his grandfather would storm down the hall and throw open the door to his grandson's room, and say, "All right, you monsters. I swear to God I'm going to turn on the darn lights." Well, actually his grandfather modified "monsters" with a colorful adjective and he didn't say "darn lights", but you get the point.


Koyczan went on to say that no monster has ever heard a battle cry more terrifying than "I will turn on the darn lights". Every night his grandfather took boogie men by the ears and threw them out on their butts. He dragged the carcasses of dead monsters out of his room, grabbed a broom, swept the remains of his grandson's nightmares into a dustpan, emptied them into a trash can, and said, "Sweet dreams, my boy." 


Koyczan said that he learned as a boy that not every hero wears a cape. When he would cry out in the night, his grandfather would suddenly appear in the doorway of his bedroom, ready to wage war, to restore light to darkness, to dismiss shadows.


But these nightmares continued night after night, and Koyczan noticed that the constant nightly battles with dragons and demons began to wear on his grandfather. So he resolved to fight the demons himself. But one night the demons were just too much for him, and he cried out for his grandfather again.


His grandfather came into his bedroom, dispatched the demons in the closet, then stuck his head under Koyczan's bed and said, "What in the world is all my beef jerky doing under your bed?"


You see, Koyczan had decided that he could get a good night's sleep by making peace with his monsters and feeding them with his grandfather's beef jerky.


Sometimes when we believe in monsters, they take up residence under our beds. They may even take root in our heads. But when they get inside us, they grow and grow, and we need to keep feeding them. We may even believe that it is better to keep our fears a secret and not tell anyone about them. Our hearts become like dark tombs. And in those dark tombs, our fears fester like sores, and get dangerously infected. They may even become life-threatening.


What we need is for someone to break down the door of our dark rooms and turn on the lights.


In the eighth century before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah said, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined."


We are the people that Isaiah was talking about, the people who walk in darkness and dwell in a land of deep darkness. Every single one of us knows what it's like to dwell in darkness. We all know what it's like to turn off the lights and go to bed and hear monsters stirring in the closet and demons scratching under the bed. We all long for someone like Shane Koyczan's grandfather to come running down the hall and throw open the door and turn on the lights and throw the boogie men out on their butts.


Most folks take one of two approaches to the problem of the demons in the dark.


Some folks will tell you that it's all in your imagination, that there aren't any demons in the closet or monsters hiding under your bed. They will tell you that they are just projections of childhood fears and fantasies or that you've been reading too many Stephen King novels or something like that.


But don't you believe them. The demons in the dark are quite real. I have seen them and so have you. And many of us, including me, have the scars to prove it.


If the 20th century taught us nothing else, it certainly taught us that there are demons lurking in the dark corners of our hearts and minds. How else can we explain the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis, a regime that came to power in one of the best educated and most civilized countries in the world, the country that gave us composers such as Beethoven and poets such as Goethe and scientists such as Einstein? How else can we explain the Soviet gulag or Mao's cultural revolution or the Rwandan genocide?


Closer to home, how can we explain the murder of 20 children in Newtown, CT, or the Columbine massacre, if there are no demons in the dark?


The other approach to the demons in the dark is to make peace with them, negotiate with them, even feed them. Some people allow the demons to live in just a small corner of their dark bedrooms, just a little subdivision in their hearts and minds. But that doesn't work because the demons want more and more territory, more and more food and drink. They get bigger and bigger, stronger and stronger. So do not make peace with the demons.


There is only one thing to do with the demons - turn on the lights, kick them out, throw them out on their butts. But demons are strong and we are weak. We need help. We need someone like Shane Koyczan's grandfather to help us.


Well, as Koyczan said, not all heroes wear capes. The good news of Christmas is that someone came to chase the demons away. Someone came not only to turn on the light but to be the light of the world.


Like the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem, we are huddled together in the cold and dark, and we know that just outside our tiny circle of light there are demons, there are monsters, there are things for which we do not even have names. But there are also angels; there is a heavenly host;  there is singing, and above all there is light, glorious light, the very first thing that God created. And God's light pushes back the darkness; it pushes back the cold; it pushes back the demons.


And the song that the angels sang to the shepherds, they also sing to us, "Do not be afraid... do not be afraid..."


To the frightened child with the sheets pulled up over her head, the angels say, "Do not be afraid." To the unemployed construction worker, the angels say, "Do not be afraid." To the person with cancer, with AIDS, the hospice patient, the angels say, "Do not be afraid." To the people waiting in line for food from our Epicenter, the angels say, "Do not be afraid." To every single one of us, the angels say, "Do not be afraid." Here is One who is stronger than the demons, Someone who has come to turn on the lights, to throw them out on their butts, to sweep them up and deposit them in the trash can.


"For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord."


Merry Christmas.





[1] Shane Koyczan's story can be heard on the NPR program Snap Judgement:

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Oh, the places you'll go!

J. Barry Vaughn. The baptism of Carellen Marie Graham. Christ Church Episcopal, Las Vegas, NV, Dec. 22, 2013.


Today we are baptizing Carellen Marie Graham. I am going to explain baptism to her, but the rest of you are invited to listen, too.


Carellen, I want to begin with a quotation from one of the most important and best-known theologians of the 20th century:



Today is your day.

You’re off to great places!

You’re off and away!


The theologian, of course, is Dr. Seuss. Somehow I doubt that his doctorate was in theology, because most theologians I know would have to write an entire book to say what he says in only four lines. But it’s hard to find a better explanation of baptism than Dr. Seuss’s book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!


You’ll be on your way up!

You’ll be seeing great sights!

You’ll join the high fliers

Who soar to high heights.


You won’t lag behind because you’ll have speed.

You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.

Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best.

Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.


Carellen, today is the day you launch out into a sea of adventure. Or (to repeat what Dr. Seuss says)


You’re off to great places!

You’re off and away!


Don’t let anyone tell you that the Christian life is safe and peaceful. In baptism your ship sets sail and you leave the safe harbor behind and sail into adventure and adversity. That may sound a little scary but remember this: you will never be alone. Look around you. Everyone here is going along with you on that adventure. Today you become part of what someone called “one family with a billion names.” Today you acquire millions of new brothers and sisters on every continent, every nationality, and every race. And especially remember that whether your ship sails into the storm or the calm, Jesus is going with you on your journey through life.


Carellen, we have several gifts for you: First, here is a baptismal certificate. I’ve made it large deliberately. I wanted it to be about the same size as the certificate priests receive when they are ordained, because the most important ordination anyone receives is the ordination all of us receive in baptism. In baptism, Carellen, you are ordained into the priesthood all Christians share. All baptized persons are ordained to proclaim the Good News; we are all ordained to reach out to the lost and lonely, the hungry and the hurt; we are ordained to lift ourselves and others into the healing and transforming presence of God through prayer.


Second, I will take some water from the baptismal font and put it in a bottle for you to keep. Remember, Carellen, that while life is always good, it is not always fun. Or as Dr. Seuss puts it


I’m sorry to say so

But sadly, it’s true

That Bang-ups

And Hang-ups

Can happen to you.


You can get all hung up

In a prickle-ly perch.

And your gang can fly on.

You’ll be left in a Lurch.


You’ll come down from the Lurch

With an unpleasant bump.

And the chances are, then,

That you’ll be in a Slump


And when you’re in a Slump,

You’re not much fun.

Un-slumping yourself

Is not easily done.


All of us go through slumps, Carellen, but baptism gives us the resources to deal with slumps. That’s why I’m giving you some of the baptismal water to take home. When you find yourself in a slump, look at the water in this bottle, and remind yourself that were baptized. In baptism you are given the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit can lift us out of any slump.


Third, we are giving you this t-shirt. This t shirt is the equivalent of the white garment that people in the early church wore for 50 days after their baptism. But on the front of this t shirt it says that you are a Christian, a child of God, an heir of the kingdom of Heaven; a disciple of Jesus; and a member of God’s royal priesthood. All your life, people will try to make you forget who you are. They will try to make you think you are something other than and less than the person God made you to be. Don’t let them do that. A former bishop of Alabama used to say to the people he confirmed, “Remember who you are and what you represent.” This shirt will help you do that.


Fourth, when we go to the font, Bonnie will light a candle from the Paschal candle and give it to you. You’re supposed to burn it every year on the anniversary of your baptism. The candle will remind you of the light that burns brightly inside you. You may not always see that light, but it is always there. All of us go through dark places from time to time, and when you do, light your baptismal candle and remember that God’s light is burning in your heart.


Finally, we are giving you a cross. Most Christian churches have crosses inside or outside or both. There’s a large cross on top of our bell tower and many crosses inside. The cross has many meanings. But the most important meaning of the cross is that it tells us that God can take the worst possible thing that can happen to us and turn it into something glorious. The cross is also a sign that shows us the way to go when we get lost.


Sometimes, Dr. Seuss says


You’ll come to a place where the streets are not marked.

Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.

A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!

Do you dare to go out? Do you dare to go in?

How much can you lose? How much can you win?


And IF you go in, should you turn left or right…

Or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite?

Or go around back and sneak in from behind?

Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find.

For a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind .


There’s a story about a little girl who got lost in a big city. Fortunately, a policeman found her and walked around the neighborhood with her, hoping that she would see a landmark. Finally, they stopped in front of a big building with a cross on top, and the little girl's face lit up, and she said, “It’s OK, officer, this is my church. I can find my way home from here.”


Carellen, when you come to that “place where the streets are not marked” (and all of us find ourselves there from time to time), look for the cross and look for the church. The cross will point you the way, and the church is full of people who will help you find your way home.


You’ll get mixed up, of course,

As you already know.

You’ll get mixed up

With many strange birds as you go.

So be sure when you step.

Step with care and great tact

And remember that Life’s

A Great Balancing Act.

Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.

And never mix up your right foot with your left.


And will you succeed?

Yes! You will, indeed!

(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)



Friday, December 13, 2013

Off the Top of My Head - Nelson Mandela - Man of Faith (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 13, 2013)

On Dec. 5, the world lost a unique leader who was almost universally admired when we said good bye to Nelson Rolihlahla  Mandela. Mandela's story is too familiar to repeat here. A black nationalist leader and campaigner against apartheid (the practice of not only discriminating against but physically separating different races), he was imprisoned for 27 years and was released in 1990. After four years of negotiations with the white leaders of South Africa, Mandela was elected president - the first president elected by a true majority in South Africa's history.


What is almost never noted about Mandela's story is the debt he and other African nationalists owed to the Christian missionary movement. Like other African nationalist leaders (for example Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana), Mandela was educated at a school founded by missionaries. Mandela's early education was at the Healdtown Comprehensive School, founded by Methodist missionaries in 1845. In 1999, Mandela said, "Without the church, without religious institutions, I would never have been here today..."


There have been four great periods of missionary activity in the history of the Christian faith: The first was from the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus around 34 AD and lasted until the middle of the second century. In this period, the Christian faith spread southward as far as Ethiopia, eastward as far as India (or perhaps even China), and westward to the British Isles. The second occurred in the sixth and seventh centuries when the evangelization of Europe was completed. The third took place in the 15th century during the age of European exploration of the western and southern hemispheres when Roman Catholic missionaries accompanied the European explorers.


The fourth period of Christian missions was inspired by the evangelical movements of the 18th and even more the 19th centuries. The evangelical movement led to the explosive growth of the Methodist and Baptist denominations. Methodist, Baptist, and (to a much smaller degree) Anglican missionaries went throughout China, India, and Africa in the 19th century founding churches, schools, and hospitals. And wherever they went nationalist movements sprang up. They inspired not only Mandela and his fellow African nationalists but also the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat Sen.


Although Mandela was a Methodist throughout his life, he flirted with Marxism in his youth. But when he was a prisoner at Robben Island, he prayed regularly with a group of ministers who visited him there. However, as Mandela himself often said, he was no saint.


Mandela was extremely discreet about his religious beliefs and preferred not to speak about them publicly. He avoided public pronouncements about religion because he wanted to unite all the people of South Africa - Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, and animist. Indeed, our own leaders in the United States would do well to heed Mandela's example and avoid using religion as a tool to advance their own narrow interests. But there is no doubt about his Christian convictions. At a Christian conference in 1994, Mandela said, "The good news was borne by our risen Messiah, who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language,  who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind."


It is difficult not to see the Christian inspiration of Mandela's principles. Emerging from prison after 27 years, Mandela advocated not revenge toward his oppressors but reconciliation of the oppressed with their oppressors. He also avoided the mistakes of other African nationalists and advocated a parliamentary democracy and free markets.


Mandela is sometimes referred to as the "George Washington of South Africa," and I think the comparison is an apt one. Like Washington, Mandela could have been president for life, but he stepped down from office after only one term.


Britain's The Economist magazine says, "For all the humiliation he suffered at the hands of white racists before he was released in 1990, he was never animated by a desire for revenge. He was himself utterly without prejudice, which is why he became a symbol of tolerance and justice across the globe."


And The Economist concludes, "He was, quite simply, a wonderful man."



Sunday, December 01, 2013

Advent memory, Advent hope (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 1, 2013)

Well, it's official... as of today, it's the most wonderful time of the year.


Although every year the most wonderful time of the year starts earlier and earlier... In my childhood they started playing Christmas carols and decorating stores right after Thanksgiving. Then a little later they started decorating the stores and playing the carols right after Halloween. And I believe I saw Christmas things in the stores not long after Labor Day this year, but now I'm in Las Vegas, and I believe you folks do things a little differently here!


But the celebration of Advent and the Christmas shopping season are not the same thing. The Christian church gets to say when Advent begins, not Macy's or Nordstrom's.


Advent is a peculiar season. Is it a season of memory or hope? Does it look forward or backward?


Do we remember the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem or do we hope and pray for his return to judge and redeem us and the world in which we live?


Is Advent a time of preparing for Christmas or a journey into the past?


Does Advent awaken memories of a young woman named Mary, only a teenager, and her husband Joseph... a crowded town... a filthy stable...shepherds watching... angels singing... a star shining... magi bringing gifts... cattle lowing... "The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes"?


Or does Advent anticipate a nearly unimaginable future when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea? Of a time when we shall beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, when there shall be no need to send our troops to Kabul or send F-14 fighter jets over some islands claimed by both China and Japan?


In these weeks before Christmas do we hope and pray that some day God will spread out a banquet for all who hunger and are homeless?


Do we fervently pray for that day when every tear shall be wiped away and death shall be no more and there shall be no more mourning nor crying nor pain?


"Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free..."


So which is it? Is Advent a journey into memory or a time of hope? 


The answer of course is both. 


Advent reminds us that we live our lives in that uneasy and sometimes uncomfortable place between the already and the not yet.


Several years ago my friend Rabbi Jonathan Miller and his son Aaron, now a rabbi himself, visited a history class I was teaching. One of my students asked  a question that  she had always wanted to ask a Jew: "Why don't you believe in Jesus?" And so I sat there, red-faced and deeply embarrassed. But Jonathan calmly turned to his son and said, "Aaron, would you like to answer that question?" And Aaron just as calmly replied, "Jews believe that when the messiah comes, he or she will bring in an age of peace, and that hasn't happened yet."


It's a great answer. And also a great challenge.


If Jesus is the messiah, then why isn't the world at peace? Why haven't the lion and the lamb snuggled up together? Why are there still troops in Kabul?


Maybe we all had the wrong idea about the messiah. Maybe Jesus is saying to us, "What are you going to do to bring about an age of peace? What are you going to do to help the lion and the lamb to become friends? What are you going to do to build a world in which troops won't have to go to Kabul or Baghdad again?"


I think those are even better questions than the one my student asked Rabbi Miller. The question is not, "Why don't Jews believe that Jesus was the messiah?" The better question is why don't Christians live as though Jesus really is the Prince of Peace?


In today's gospel reading, the psalmist tells us to "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem," but we misunderstand that psalm if we believe the psalmist is only telling us to pray that there will be no more violence in Jerusalem.


The Hebrew word shalom that we translate as "peace" means so much more than an absence of conflict or violence. Shalom is a positive word. It means well-being, plenty, prosperity, completeness.


"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem" means "Pray that Jerusalem - God's city, the place where God dwells on earth, may be a place of plenty, a place where the hungry are fed and the homeless will have a roof over their heads, a place where the lion will lie down with the lamb, and little children will dwell in security."


In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah says, "In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it."


The "mountain of the Lord's house" is Mt Zion, in other words, Jerusalem. Isaiah is expressing the hope that Jerusalem, the city of God will encompass the whole world, that all the world will know the peace, the shalom, for which the psalmist bids us pray.


Advent is the time when we hope the hopes that Isaiah and the psalmist hoped, when we pray their prayers, and when we work for the future they envisioned.


In Matthew's gospel, Jesus said, "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." Keep awake, watch... These are the key words of Advent.


Each day we must be like Noah building an ark... like a man plowing a field, like a woman grinding grain. Each day, each hour, we must be doing whatever we have to do to build the new world that God wants to build in our world.


So my hope and prayer for you and for all of us in this Advent season is that we will live just a little UN-comfortably, a little UN-easily between the memory of the past and the hope of the future. And that our discomfort and unease will prompt us to build that world in which swords will be beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Keeping it together (Nov. 24, 2013 - Christ the King - J. Barry Vaughn)

Lutheran pastor Peter Marty writes of looking for a childhood photograph in an album in the attic of his home and finding that the glue that held the pictures in place had disintegrated, and all the photos were jumbled up and out of order.


Perhaps you have had that experience. I know it has happened to me. Life has become disorganized. Your high school prom picture is behind the one of you with a bare bottom looking up at the camera with a goofy, toothless smile - the picture that always made you flush red with embarrassment. The picture of you with an arm full of flowers after a dance recital is right next to one of your wedding photos. The picture of you with the other members of your football team is stuck to the picture of you and your wife in front of your first house.


But there is not only a kind of glue that holds the photos of those precious, funny, sad moments of our life in the pages of an album. There is also a kind of glue that holds life itself together, and sometimes that glue also seems to disintegrate.


This last week we observed the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy. For many his death seemed to be a kind of catalyst that initiated a period of chaos or at least disorder. A decade of domestic disorder followed, that included a polarizing war that never seemed to end, young people in many places seemed to delight in flouting long-established customs by experimenting with sex and drugs, and of course, there were the other terrible assassinations that followed in the years after Kennedy's death - Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Kennedy's own brother, Robert.


Our country may be passing through another season of chaos. Two distant wars have seemed endless and there has been very little to show for the terrible losses of life; our political parties appear to be incapable of working together; many journalists have appeared to abandon all pretext of objectivity.


However, as an historian I want to tell you that the United States has gone through other seasons of polarization and conflict. This is not new and it is not unique. I believe that the United States is strong and will not only survive; it will thrive. The issues that divide us are not small, and all of us need to be informed and involved citizens. But the union is strong and will endure.


There is also a kind of glue that holds our lives together. Perhaps you, like I, have been through times when it felt like that glue disintegrated or when the center no longer held - a time of grave illness, a time of divorce, a time of death.


Perhaps when you mentally went through the pictures of your life there no longer seemed to be any order. You may have wondered if that mental picture of your wedding day had any meaning; the memory of holding your child may have been shot through with sadness; you could even have wondered if there would be any more memories of life to cherish.


About ten years ago a two year relationship that I was in came to an abrupt end when the person I loved died of a self-inflicted drug overdose. I believe it was accidental, but I'll never know for sure. For a time I withdrew from parish ministry and moved back to Alabama from Philadelphia where I'd been living, and more or less hibernated in my mother's home for a couple of years.


What brought me out of that cold and dark time was becoming re-engaged with the church, finding that I still had something to say that spoke to the hopes and dreams of people in the pews of the Episcopal Church.


The author of Colossians tells us that there is indeed a kind of glue that holds life together, a sun around which our lives revolve: "...  in [Christ] all things hold together..." "In Christ all things hold together..."


Christ Church has been through a time of chaos, disorder and polarization. People have left and gone to other churches, or they have just left. Period. Friends have become estranged from each other. It may have seemed that the center no longer held, that the glue holding the life of Christ Church together was disintegrating.


I have heard some of you say that what you needed was to call a new rector. Well, I hope that I can play a part in holding this great church together, but everything you needed to hold you together was already here. All you had to do was to come into the church and look at the figure behind the altar.


Our Christus Rex reminds us of what holds us together. It is Christ on the cross. The Christus Rex reminds us of the magnificent paradox that it is in the midst of his suffering and death that the very glory of God shone out through the life of Christ. It reminds us that Christ is present in the midst of our own suffering and death and will never leave us. The Christus Rex reminds us of what holds us together.


Dividing and separating and leaving should be options only when all other possibilities are exhausted, and I believe that there are always other possibilities because I believe in a God who is endlessly creative.


Last week Bishop Dan spent a little time with the vestry following the 10.45 service. One of the vestry members asked the bishop what he believed was the biggest issue facing Christ Church. In his quiet, wise way, the bishop said that the biggest issue that faces us, the one that will destroy us if we let it, is the way we deal with conflict. What we have to do is to learn to disagree with each other without leaving, to agree to disagree. In a sense, I believe he was telling us that we have to learn exactly that lesson that successful married couples learn - we have to learn how to have an argument.


I have long believed that Episcopalians are not very good at arguing. We turn arguments into personal attacks: "You're only saying that because you're a woman or a man. You're only saying that because you're young or old. You're only saying that because you're Anglo or Latino. You're only saying that because you're gay or straight."


What we must learn to do is to have a knock down, drag out fight with each other, and at the end pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, embrace, and say, "But Jesus is Lord."


Because he is and that's the only thing that matters.


An old friend of mine, a Presbyterian minister in another state, recently took his church out of the Presbyterian Church USA because they voted to ordain gay and lesbian clergy and bless same sex relationships. I still love Mark and consider him a friend even though we disagree sharply over this issue. But I am deeply saddened by his decision to withdraw from his denomination over this issue, because I think that we can still believe that Jesus is Lord, still be joined together in Christ's fellowship, and have different opinions about that issue.


Lutheran pastor Peter Marty goes on to say, "When chaos strikes, people seek strategies for putting life back together. The challenge for us is to make the Lordship of Christ more than just words. We don't need more talk of making Christ first in our lives. The world is full of religious talk. What we need is  to live as if Christ were indeed the head of the body, and not some extra equipment we strap on.... Colossians tells us that everything that is God is present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Though God once was content to dwell in places like Sinai, Zion or the Temple, now God is in present in a person. Everything that God is, and cares about, now resides in Jesus Christ. Christ is the face or the image of the invisible God." (paraphrased from Peter Mart, "Super Glue", The Christian Century, Nov. 16, 2004)


From time to time we have all heard of people who have seen the face of Jesus on the side of a barn or on the side of a mountain or even on a piece of toast or a taco. But we can see Christ all around us every day. He is present in every human heart. Colossians says that Christ "is the image of the invisible God." And Genesis tells us that every single one of us is made in the image of God. If you would see Christ, look within. If you would see Christ, look at your neighbor, as well as yourself.


The way to reorder jumbled lives and hold things together in the face of chaos and the way to put this great old church back together is to cherish the fullness of God dwelling in Christ. He is the image of the invisible God, the one who holds all things together.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Off the Top of My Head - Four Anniversaries by J. Barry Vaughn

November 22, 2013, is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It is also the fiftieth anniversary of the death of writers C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley. And it comes at the end of a week in which we observed the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.


At first, there doesn't seem to be any connection among the four anniversaries. Some have described Kennedy's assassination as a "tectonic shift," that is, a moment when the very continents on the face of the earth moved. It was certainly tragic in the classical sense of the word, and everyone my age and older still remembers where they were when they heard that it happened. But Kennedy had been president for barely a thousand days, and except for his wise handling of the Cuban missile crisis and his helpful response to Dr. King's Birmingham campaign, he did not have a great deal to show for his presidency.


At the time of his death, C.S. Lewis was little known outside academic circles, but in the years since his death he has become (pardon an overused word but in this case it seems absolutely essential) an icon of evangelical Christianity. His books, especially Mere Christianity, have influenced millions of lives for the better.


Aldous Huxley's intellectual heritage was impressive. His grandfather, Thomas H. Huxley, was the principal defender of Darwin's views and allegedly coined the term "agnosticism." Aldous was a prolific author and is best known for Brave New World, a brilliant and bitter critique of the dehumanizing potential of technology and unbridled capitalism.


Lincoln's Gettysburg Address lasted only about two minutes, but apart from the Bible, it is one of the best known and most frequently quoted documents in the world.


All four anniversaries are united by the power of words. There is no such thing as "mere words." Words can change the world. The Gettysburg Address helped shift people's perception of the Civil War. From being a war to save the Union, Lincoln's address at Gettysburg recast that conflict as a war to save democracy and promote it throughout the world. Our "forefathers," Lincoln said, "brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." The Confederacy, on the other hand, was dedicated to the proposition that all men (and women) were most certainly not created equal.


In President Kennedy's inaugural address, he memorably challenged his listeners to "ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for you country." And in response the Peace Corps was created which has done incalculable good throughout the world.


Huxley warned us of the potential of technology to dehumanize. In the "brave new world" which he envisions, children are engineered and reproduction has become an industrial process.


C.S. Lewis's works of theology and fiction have brought many of us (including me) to faith (or at least renewed faith) and have delighted generations of children.


Words are powerful and can do great good or great harm. But we knew that already. The most powerful words in the world are in the Bible. From beginning to end, the Bible informs our understanding of the world and human nature. The words of Israel's prophets have inspired social change wherever they have been read: "Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an everflowing stream." (Amos 5.24)


Above all the words of Jesus, who, we believe, was himself the Word made flesh, have shed an entirely new light on the world: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."


Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley - may they rest in peace. And may we be careful of the words we say and write, for words not only describe the world - they can also change it.


Sunday, November 03, 2013

Saints and Sinners (J. Barry Vaughn, Nov. 3, 2013)

A few years ago, Rabbi Jonathan Miller and other members of my clergy group and I had the remarkable opportunity to visit the Mother House of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India.
Mother Teresa's tomb is on the first floor of the Mother House and while we observed many people praying for short or long periods at many places in the room. The members of my clergy group and I prayed. I believe that even Rabbi Miller prayed!
On the second floor of the Mother House is the tiny room where Mother Teresa lived. It is deeply moving in its simplicity. It contains a bed, a chair, and a desk. That's it. No television, no stereo, computer, no microwave or mini-fridge, not even a radio. When she died, Mother Teresa, like every other member of her order, owned only two saris or habits and a pair of sandals.
Several years before her death, Harvard University gave Mother Teresa an honorary degree, and my friend, Peter Gomes, the university chaplain, acted as her host. Peter told me that he was excited to meet this remarkable woman. Peter could talk to anyone about anything for as long as they cared to listen, so he went on at length about his admiration for Mother Teresa and her accomplishments, but she said nothing. Finally, Peter shut up, and Mother Teresa simply said to him, "It's all Jesus."
I bring up Mother Teresa because today is All Saints' Sunday, and if there is a saint for our time, then surely it is Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
But Mother Teresa also creates a problem for many of us. She sets the bar impossibly high. How can we possibly measure up to her example?
Listen to me carefully. I want to make this as clear as I can. God calls very few of us to be Mother Teresas. God calls most of us to marry and have children, to have jobs and mortgages. But God does call us to participate in the kind of work that she did. We participate in that work through our prayers, through volunteering in our free time, and above all through our contributions and offerings. Do not forget that as we move into stewardship season! Your pledge is your principal way of participating in the kind of work that Mother Teresa did.
But there was another side to Mother Teresa. After her death, when Mother Teresa's letters were published, people were startled to learn that she had been plagued by profound doubts, sometimes even doubting the existence of God. She had felt a sense of spiritual desolation and a disturbing sense of God's absence.
She wrote, "In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not existing.”
What are we to make of this? What are we to make of the fact that this modern day saint who embraced the poorest of the poor experienced such profound spiritual darkness and even doubted the existence of God?
The story of Mother Teresa gives me pause. It makes me question what it means to be a saint. But maybe the problem is with the way that we define the word "saint".
Who are the saints? Well, the answer is obvious, isn't it? Those guys up there. By the way, have you noticed that none of our stained glass windows in the nave depict women? Aren't they the saints? Aren't the saints the spiritual superheroes and celebrities?
But the story of Mother Teresa gives us pause. She makes us stop and reconsider what we mean by the word "saint."  If you judge saintliness by good works, then surely she was a saint. But if you judge it by deep faith, then perhaps not.
Let's look first at the New Testament's definition of a saint.
In today's New Testament reading, Paul says, " I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints." (Eph. 1.15) Paul is NOT saying, "I have heard of your love toward the spiritual superheroes of the faith" because there weren't any of those when he was writing. He was saying, "I have heard of your love toward your sisters and brothers in Christ."
Almost every one of Paul's letters begins with a reference to the saints. Romans 1.7 says, " To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Or 1 Corinthians 1.2: "To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints ."
In the New Testament “saint” means simply any baptized person, any Christian.  The word translated as “saint” in the New Testament is hagios or its plural hagioi, a Greek word that means “holy”.  The saints are the holy ones, not holy because of anything intrinsic to them, but holy because of the holy presence of Christ within them.
A second, more common, use of the word “saint” is to denote one of the heroes or heroines of the Christian faith.  Thus, we speak of St. Peter or St. Francis, St. Mary Magdalene or St. Clare. 
How do you suppose Jesus would define the word saint?
For a long time I was puzzled about why the gospel reading for All Saints’ Day was the Beatitudes from Luke or Matthew.  However, I think I know why that is.  The Beatitudes are, if you will, Jesus’ definition of a saint.
[i]"Blessed are the poor." Poverty of some kind is almost essential if we are to know blessedness or saintliness. If you want to meet a saint, look to the poor--those who have little that gets in the way of their experience of God. There is an emptiness in every human heart. The saints are those who learn to live with that emptiness, who do not fill it with anything other than God. The saints have little pretense or deceit. The purity of their hearts allow God to be present in a startling way.
It is not just the radiantly holy and the astoundingly wise who are saints. Poverty and poverty of spirit are the reasons that infants and children can be saints, too. The newborn child, hungry and curious, has such an enormous capacity for God. If we have eyes for it, infants can show us the mystery and wonder of God. The sick, too, can be saints, and also the elderly; they show us the mystery and wonder of God.
Jesus also says, "blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh”.  We live in a world where feelings, in general, and sadness and depression, in particular, are suspect and not exhibited in public. Men, especially, are schooled to show little expression and feeling. 
We also live in a "feel good" culture.  "Drink Budweiser, eat Doritos, drive a Mercedes, and you will feel good and be happy".  Fairy tales end "and they all lived happily ever after", but that isn't the way life works.
What if the ability to feel deep sadness is a prerequisite for feeling great joy? 
The saints are complete persons who feel the full range of human emotions.  The saints are those who can "weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice".
Finally, according to Luke's version of the Beatitudes, Jesus says, "Blessed are you who hunger, for you will be filled." But in Matthew, the Beatitudes are different. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."
This is one of Jesus' most outrageous statements. Jesus was a Jew, and to a Jew, righteousness, zedeqah, meant something very specific..  Righteousness was literally "to do right by", especially to do right by the poor and hungry, widows and orphans.  So when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, he was literally saying, "Blessed are those who long for the hungry to be fed and the homeless to be housed, for in the end, they will not be disappointed".  Of all Jesus' claims, this may be the most extraordinary.  Righteousness is not at home in the world in which you and I live, but Jesus announces the coming of a new world of righteousness and justice.  The saints are those who long for the appearing of such a kingdom, who never lose heart and are never satisfied with anything less.
Another definition for saint that I want to offer involves a very concrete example of holiness.  In the early part of this century, Henry Joel Cadbury came to teach New Testament at Harvard Divinity School.  Cadbury was one of the great New Testament scholars of our century and was at work on what became the Revised Standard Version of the Bible when World War I broke out.  A pacifist, Cadbury would not fight in the war but instead volunteered to work with the Quakers caring for the wounded and dying on the battle fields of Europe.  In the midst of the war, one of Cadbury’s students came across his professor bandaging a wounded soldier.  “Dr. Cadbury,” the student exclaimed, “Why aren’t you back at Harvard translating the New Testament?”  “I am translating the New Testament,” Cadbury replied.  He was translating the New Testament not from Greek into English but from the printed page into human life.  I think that may be the best definition of saint.  A saint is one who translates the New Testament into a life of love and service. 
Finally, I want to offer the devil's definition of a saint, or at least the definition from The Devil's Dictionary by 19th century American humorist, Ambrose Bierce: "Saint - A dead sinner revised and edited."
Unfortunately, that is the definition of saints that we get most of the time. We get the saints revised and edited. We get the expurgated and abridged version. That's the version of Mother Teresa we would have gotten if someone had not defied her own wishes and published her private letters and journals. But I'm so glad that we learned of her doubts and struggles, because I struggle with the same things, and I know that many of you do, too.
I have moments of profound doubt and uncertainty. Am I good enough? Is God listening? Why is there suffering and evil? Why aren't my prayers answered?
Mother Teresa's story reminds me that the saints struggle with the same things that I struggle with. She reminds me that the church is not a museum for spiritual celebrities; it is a hospital for poor sinners just like me.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote, "…that the saints in heaven rejoice over their sins, because through them they have been brought to greater and greater understanding of the endless endurance of God's love, to the knowledge that beyond every failure God's creative mercy still waits.” (A Ray of Darkness, p. 52)
All Saints’ Day exhausts and unsettles me.  However, you define saint, I find it difficult to imagine myself among those “saints triumphant [who] rise in bright array”.  More often than not, I choose self-aggrandizement over service; my heart and mind go in a thousand different directions, rather than being fixed on God’s kingdom; and if my life is a translation of the New Testament, then it must be in an unknown tongue.  But I have to keep reminding myself and keep reminding you that sainthood is not our accomplishment; it is God’s gift.  We follow where Christ and the saints lead, knowing all the while that we will stumble and fall.  You see, the Devil’s Dictionary had it partly right: Some saints are dead sinners revised and edited, but all saints are forgiven sinners, just like us.  The saints remind us of what we are capable of if we will only open ourselves to the power of God who makes all things new and raises us from death to life abundant and everlasting.

[i] The next two paragraphs are paraphrased from "Saint Carlton is lowest" by the Very Rev. Sam Candler.