Monday, January 21, 2013

Dr. King Remembered (J. Barry Vaughn)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, January 20, 2013

What do you get for the couple who have everything? (J. Barry Vaughn, Jan. 20, 2013)

What do you get for the couple who have everything? These days that’s a lot easier to answer than it used to be. We have online gift registries.


Where would you go to find a truly outrageous gift? The answer, of course, is Nieman Marcus. A friend of mine has a saying, “If I die in Walmart, drag my cold, dead corpse to Nieman Marcus!”


So, Kevin and Krystal, take note, here are some truly outrageous gifts that you can get from Nieman’s.


  1. A $175,000 personalized library full of photography, art, and travel destinations from around the world. Personally, I don’t get that. Why would you want a room full of books that you didn’t pick out yourself?
  2. For only $1.5M you can get “his and hers” dancing fountains like the ones in front of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas.
  3. A $75,000 “yurt”, you know, a Mongoloian tent, resembling Jeannie’s tent in the 60s TV show “I dream of Jeannie”, complete with carpets and a chandelier.
  4. A $395,000 Ferrari that goes from zero to 60 in 3.7 secs. Oh, and it includes customized luggage.
  5. For $30,000 you can get a walk on role in the musical “Annie.”


Do you suppose Mary, the mother of Jesus, was embarrassed that she had not brought a gift to the wedding in Cana? Is that what motivated her to ask Jesus to do something about the wine shortage?


The story in John 2 is mysterious.


Who were the couple getting married? Why did Mary ask Jesus to do something about the shortage of wine? Also notice that the steward compliments the bridegroom on the quality of the miraculous wine. Why compliment him rather than Jesus, the real source of the wine?


This led Bishop John Spong to suggest that the wedding feast was really for Jesus’ own wedding. I don’t find this persuasive b/c at the very beginning of the story we are told that Jesus and his disciples were invited guests. And anyway, I am absolutely certain that there is no way that the fact that if Jesus had been married, there is no way it could have been concealed for 2000 years.


There are some things you should know about John’s gospel that will help make sense of this story.


First, John’s gospel is neatly divided into 2 parts: the book of signs and the book of glory.


One of my favorite tricks for my New Testament students was, “How many miracles are there in John’s gospel?” The answer is none. I don’t mean that Jesus did not perform amazing deeds; what I mean is that John never uses the word “miracle;” instead, he speaks of “signs,” and there are seven of them.


  1. water into wine
  2. healing the centurion’s son
  3. healing the paralytic at the pool of Bethsaida
  4. feeding the 5000
  5. walking on water
  6. healing the man blind from birth
  7. raising Lazarus


A second mysterious aspect of this story is Jesus’ cryptic comment that his hour has not yet come.


The word “hour” or “time” pops up througout John’s gospel.


When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, he says, “The hour is coming and now is when you will worship God neither at Samaria nor at the temple in Jerusalem.”


But in John 12, when some Greeks, that is Greek speaking Jews, say that they wish to see Jesus, he says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”


In other words, at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, he tells his mother that his “time” or “hour” has not yet come. According to John’s chronology, his hour is 2 yrs in the future. But for just a moment the curtain is pulled back and we get a glimpse of things to come, a preview of coming attractions, a vision of God’s glory embodied in Jesus.


Glory is another key theme in John’s gospel. In the first chapter of John, the author tells us that in Jesus “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.”


But what does the miracle or sign of water become wine tell us about God’s glory?


It tells us that God’s purpose is to enhance and deepen our joy, that God’s deepest desire for us is that our joy not only be full but running over like the six jars full of rich wine.


Presbyterian minister and poet J. Barrie Shepherd writes:


"They have no wine,"

the mother said, and did not

realize she spoke for all of us

since then whose lives drink

of those stone cold jars of water,

never seem to taste the rich and ruby wine

made by her son that wedding day.

What happened to that transformation scene?

How could the kingdom broached at Cana

turn into a cross, our festal song

become one long funereal dirge?

Might there be a bridegroom yet, beyond

the graveyard, at whose feast the wine

flows freely and forever, blesses,

kisses every tasting lip with

sweet surprising laughter?


But that brings me back again to my original question, what prompted Mary’s original request that Jesus do something about the shortage of wine? Did she come to the wedding feast without a gift?


Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians reminds us that we all have gifts: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit… To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”


A wedding is just a sprint, but a marriage is a marathon. I imagine that a long marriage may begin to feel like a wedding party that has run out of wine. The joy that was there in the beginning plays out, and the wine of gladness becomes the water of drudgery and the commonplace.


What happens when she discovers that he snores? What happens when he discovers that she can’t boil water to save her life? Paul reminds us that no one of us has all the gifts, that the spiritual gifts are something that we possess together as the body of Christ.


And John reminds us that even the water of the ordinary and commonplace can once again be shot through with the glory of God when we remember and realize that in and through Christ we have married into God’s family.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Jesus' baptism and our identity (J. Barry Vaughn, Jan. 13, 2013)

Last spring I had the opportunity to stand beside the Jordan River and talk about Jesus’ baptism to the Christians and Jews from Birmingham with whom I went to Israel.  I had been to the Jordan before, but I’d never had the opportunity to stand there, to touch the water, to read aloud the story of Jesus’ baptism, and to reflect on its meaning.


The baptism of Jesus is a story that we tend to skip over lightly, but for the early church the baptism of Jesus summed up the whole mystery of salvation.


First, the baptism of Jesus helps us understand the forgiveness of sins.


The baptism of Jesus is a difficult story. If John the baptizer is proclaiming a “baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” then why is Jesus being baptized? Surely, he was sinless, so Jesus could not have been going to the Jordan to receive forgiveness. So the fathers and mothers of the early church reasoned that Jesus was baptized not in order that HE might be forgiven, but so that WE might be forgiven. One early Christian writer said that Christ imparted his sinlessness to the water so that we might receive it when we are baptized.


Second, Jesus’ baptism begins to heal the damage done by sin.


In Romans 8, Paul tells us that “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”


Genesis 1 tells us that the Spirit hovered over chaos and was the agent by which God imparted order, so the Spirit descends on Jesus in his baptism and once again brings order out of disorder. Through the Spirit, God turns chaos into creation.


Third, the baptism of Jesus is a decisive event in God’s war against evil.


Have you ever noticed that at the beginning of the baptismal service, we ask the person being baptized or the parents and godparents of the child being baptized to renounce evil three times. What’s that about?


The ancient world and the ancient church had a much more vivid sense of evil than we do. They saw the presence of demons and evil spirits everywhere. And evil spirits were especially associated with water. When Jesus exorcises the Gadarene demoniac, he sends the evil spirits into the sea of Galilee because water is their natural dwelling place.


The writers of the OT had a love/hate relationship with water. On the one hand, it is necessary for life, but on the other hand, water is destructive. You can sail your boat on it, but you can also drown in it. Water cannot be contained forever. Unlike stone and metal, you cannot impart a form to it.


So in baptism, Jesus was declaring his power over darkness and evil. He went down into the water just as on the cross he went down into death. And in both cases, he met and defeated evil.


Finally, Jesus’ baptism is the moment when his identity is established and revealed to the world.


Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree that when Jesus was baptized, a heavenly voice said, “This is my Son, my beloved…”


Only Luke tells us that the angels revealed Jesus’ identity to the shepherds. Only Matthew says that the magi knew who Jesus was. But they all agree that the baptism of Jesus is the declaration to the whole world of Jesus’ identity.


But what does this have to do with us?


We are sinful people who live in a sinful world. Let’s change the word “sin” to “broken.” We are broken people and we long for wholeness. The baptism of Jesus tells us that we can find wholeness, that Jesus imparted a power to the water of baptism to heal us and make us whole. The gift is there for the taking.


The baptism of Jesus tells us that the gift of wholeness is not just for us; it is for the whole of creation. Now, that’s good news. We live in a time when the created order is staggering under the weight of the damage we have inflicted. The baptism of Jesus reminds us that God loves the WORLD, the cosmos, the created order, not just puny little human beings, and that God will be our partner in healing and restoring the created world.


And above all, Jesus’ baptism tells us who we are.

We live in a world that tries to define us. Every TV commercial, every newspaper or magazine ad, every “pop up” on the internet tells us that if we eat this, wear that, or buy the other thing we will be happy, young, good looking, and sexy. In other words, they tell us that we are deficient, that we lack some essential ingredient of happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction. We live in a world that defines us as a cog in an economic machine.


But Jesus’ baptism reminds us that we are God’s beloved children, that we are God’s daughters and sons. Jesus’ baptism reminds us of God’s original blessing on the world: “And God saw all that had been made and behold it was very good indeed.” Did you hear that? God declared creation to be good, not perfect. And that’s what we are: God’s beloved daughters and son… good but not perfect.