Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Great Experiment (J. Barry Vaughn, Christ Church (Las Vegas, NV), Easter Day (March 31, 2013))

The New York Times recently reported that the world has become so wicked that God decided to launch an investigation. The Almighty sent one of the angels (who happened to have a degree in sociology) to do a survey.

The angel returned with the results. "Well, God," the angel explained. "According to our survey, 95% of human beings are wicked, bad and evil. And 5% are trying to be good."

"Only 5%," God said. "It has to be better than that. I'm sending down another angel to do another survey." Because as we all know, when you don't like the results of one poll, just do another.

Well, it wasn't long before the second angel returned with her news. "95% of human beings are wicked, bad and evil. 5% are good, but more troubling still, those 5% are feeling very sad and discouraged."

That troubled God greatly, so God decided to reach out to those good people by sending the 5% an uplifting and encouraging e-mail. And do you know what that e-mail said? What?? You mean you didn’t get one??

The great physicist Albert Einstein formulated his theory of relativity by conducting what he called a “thought experiment.” Instead of going to a laboratory and firing up the Bunsen burner or measuring the velocity of electrons, he simply imagined what would happen to two clocks. One would be on a train that could travel at the speed of light and the other would remain stationary. OK, then, that’s about all I know about Einstein and the theory of relativity. But I like the idea of thought experiments, so let’s conduct a theological thought experiment.

Imagine a world without Easter. In the first book of the Narnia chronicles – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis tells us that Narnia is under the spell of an evil and powerful witch who has decreed that it will always be winter and never Christmas. But instead let’s imagine that it is always Lent and never Easter or simply that there is no Easter because, after all, Lent implies an Easter at the end of forty days.

What would such a world look like?

First, the New Testament would be entirely different. If we removed Christmas from the New Testament, we would lose only 2 or 3 chapters at the beginning of Matthew and Luke. There are no other references to the birth of Jesus. But if we remove Easter, then we lose the ending of all four gospels; we lose most of Paul’s letters because it seems as though almost every other sentence in Paul refers to the resurrection or at least presupposes it; and we lose much of the rest of the New Testament because on almost every page is an idea, a fact, a concept that makes no sense without the resurrection. The gospels make no sense whatsoever without the resurrection. Take the resurrection out of the gospels and what do we have? We have some lovely parables; some pretty exciting miracles (hard to beat that one with the loaves and fishes); some truly impressive moral teaching; and several other very nice things. But Buddhism also has some great parables; Islam tells us that the prophet Muhammad performed miracles; and every other spiritual and religious system in the world has a set of moral teachings that is at least 80% identical to the things that Jesus said.

In other words, without the resurrection, without Easter, the question we have to ask about the New Testament, in general, and the Gospels, in particular, is . . . so what? Why pay any special attention to Jesus of Nazareth? He was an inspiring speaker; he showed remarkable compassion; he may even have worked miracles; but he was not significantly different from half a dozen other spiritual, moral, or religious figures.

Second, let’s take Easter or the resurrection out of history. If we take the resurrection out of history, then we suddenly lose our bearings. In the west, the resurrection is the great starting point. Our calendars begin with the life of Jesus (as I’ve already implied) not because of his parables or miracles but because he died and rose again. The resurrection of Jesus completely re-oriented life. In the Roman world, Sunday was not a day of rest; it was the first day of the work week, but the resurrection of Jesus transformed a working day into a joyous festival.

We worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, rather than on Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day designated as the Sabbath in the Old Testament, because Sunday is the day of resurrection. Worshipping on Sunday, the day of resurrection, reminds us that Christianity is about beginnings, starting over, getting another chance, maybe even being born again! Christianity is a future-oriented faith that invites us to look forward, not backward.

Third, take the resurrection out of the equation and there is no satisfactory explanation for the rise of the Christian church. By the end of the first century the Christian faith had spread as far west as the British isles; as far south as Ethiopia; and as far east as India. Why and how did this happen? What energized the followers of Jesus and gave them the courage to risk their lives in taking the good news to the ends of the earth? What was it about the message they proclaimed that caught the imaginations of people as diverse as the peoples of Britain, Ethiopia, and India? Well, let’s go back to our thought experiment. Let’s imagine that Paul and the other Christian missionaries of the first century had told their listeners the story of a Jesus who had taught people the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son and had healed the sick and even multiplied the loaves and fishes and then had been betrayed and arrested and tried and condemned and executed and then… well, that was pretty much it. Without the resurrection, the life of Jesus is just a tragedy with a sad ending.

But that is not the story they shared in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and took to the ends of the earth. To be sure, they told about the parables and miracles and the suffering and crucifixion but what made the story different and caught the imagination of their hearers was the absolutely staggering ending: Jesus did not stay in the tomb; he rose again on the third day.

Let’s take the thought experiment one step further. What difference would it make if we acted as though the resurrection was real? I ask this question because I’m convinced that most of the time we live our lives as though Easter never happened.

We’re great about giving up martinis and Marlboros for Lent but when Easter has come and gone, it’s pretty much business as usual.

What if instead of thinking of Easter as the end of Lent, we thought of it as the beginning of the most exciting part of the year? What if instead of giving up something for Lent, we took up things for Easter? What if we lived as if Jesus really did rise again on the third day?

I believe that Christ Church has been through a long Lent, a Lent of not just 40 days but a Lent that has lasted for several years. Five years ago twice as many people worshipped here as are worshipping now.

Well, I believe that I have a word from the Lord for Christ Church: God’s will for this church is life, not death; Easter, not Lent.  Make no mistake: Resurrection may not happen in a moment, a day, a week, or even a year.  Jesus’ followers waited three days for him to rise again; the resurrection of Christ Church may take much longer.  But I believe it will happen and I believe that the signs of resurrection are all around us – a thriving outreach program, the enthusiastic turn out of people to stripe the parking lot, people assuming new responsibilities, people in the neighborhood once again noticing us and seeking us out, and your willingness to reach out to the Latino community.

Easter makes a difference, the resurrection makes a difference, because it reveals God’s plan for creation. It’s like turning to the back of the book and finding the answers or seeing how the story ends. It tells us that death does not have the last word. It tells us that God longs to gather human life in all its messiness into the divine life and that there is future for flesh and blood beyond death and decay.

How might the world be different, how might we be different, if we took the resurrection seriously? The resurrection of Jesus is the story of a man unjustly condemned to death who is vindicated by God by being raised to new life. What does that imply for us? It implies that we belong on the side of those who have been unjustly and unfairly treated by political and economic systems – the unemployed, the uninsured, the unjustly imprisoned. The story of the resurrection is the ultimate miracle of healing. All healing is a way of pushing back death. The story of Easter tells us that part of our job as Christians is to bring wholeness to a world of fragmentation and death; to bring hope to the depressed and despondent; to seek out the lonely and unloved.

N.T. Wright, formerly Bishop of Durham and now professor of New Testament at St. Andrews, tells this parable about the resurrection of Jesus. Imagine that a wealthy patron of the arts has given a magnificent painting to a church. The congregation is grateful but their church is small and there really isn’t a good place in it for the painting. They try hanging it behind the altar but it’s too tall. They try putting it in the narthex but there isn’t enough light there. They put it in the parish hall but the heat and humidity might damage the painting.

What is this church to do? Of course, they could trim the painting. Cut off a corner here, shave a few inches there. But that would destroy the painting or at least reduce its value. So the little church came to the only possible conclusion – they would tear down their church and build a new one.

We would like to make Christ’s resurrection fit our categories. We would like to cut it down to size, make it not a mystery to be experienced but just a problem to be solved. We would like to tame the story of Easter to fit our belief in a world in which there are no surprises, no miracles, and in which dead men certainly do not rise again. But the resurrection will not be trimmed or modified.

In the Easter story we have been given a thing both surpassingly beautiful and uncommonly strange, so beautiful and strange that it does not fit into our world. We live in a world of death and decay but Easter speaks to us of a world in which death is destroyed, the world is renewed, and we can be born again to lives full of joy and wonder.

So on this Easter Day in the year of our Lord 2013, I am here to tell you that Christ Church’s long Lent is over. It is over not because you have called a new rector but because Jesus Christ is risen. We must not trim the Easter story and make it small enough for our impoverished imaginations. It is time for Christ Church to live out the fantastic truth that Christ is risen and start again to build God’s kingdom in this time and place.


Friday, March 29, 2013

"That blessed dependency..." (J. Barry Vaughn, Good Friday, March 29, 2013)

I do not believe that any other issue presents a greater challenge to the Christian faith, indeed to all faiths, than suffering. We begin Holy Week by walking with the crowd that shouted "Hosannah to the Son of David", and threw their outer garments and palm branches be- fore the feet of Jesus' donkey as he entered Jerusalem. However, that procession takes us to the foot of the cross and leaves us there. It's a difficult place to be, but in a sense, it's where we are all our lives. The cross is woven into the very fabric of life, because the suffering Jesus endured upon the cross, although different from ours in degree and intensity, was much the same as our own suffering. We encounter Jesus at that place where our suffering meets his suffering, where the shadow of his cross falls across our own suffering, our own rejection, our own death.

St. Therese of Lisieux once wrote, "When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is " acquainted with Grief," we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own." Precisely. It is his acquaintance with suffering that binds us closely to Jesus and never more so than on Good Friday.

Yet, what exactly is it that is unique about Jesus' suffering upon the Cross? Years ago one of my students, a Jew, asked me what I thought the difference was between Jesus' suffering and the Holocaust – a difficult question for a Christian to discuss with a Jew for the Cross has too often been used as an excuse for persecuting the Jews.  But after thinking for a minute, I realized that there was a profound difference: the Holocaust was the attempt to destroy an entire people. If Hitler had succeeded, there would have been no Jews left, no one left to remember and tell the story. On the other hand, Jesus' death (looked at humanly) was just the death of an individual. However, after thinking about it over the years, it seems to me that the death of an individual can be just as terrible as the death of a people. There may be a kind of solidarity, of community, if a people dies. One is not alone. But there was a terrible aloneness in Jesus' death.

Theologian Miroslav Volf remarks, "Suffering can be endured, even embraced, if it brings desired fruit, as the experience of giving birth illustrates. What turned the pain of suffering into agony was the abandonment; Jesus was abandoned by the people who trusted in him and by the God in whom he trusted. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15.34). My God, my God, why did my radical obedience to your way lead to the pain and disgrace of the cross?" (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, p. 26)

Perhaps the main reason that the anguish and suffering of the innocent and undeserving is such a challenge to the Christian faith is that it questions our basic sense of fairness. Why~ we wonder. Why does God let bad things happen to good people? We may also wonder why good things happen to bad people, but being the generous souls that we are, that doesn't bother us quite as much.

What if we turned the question around? What if we wondered why is there goodness in the world at all? What if we were as struck, as curious, about the presence of goodness as we are by the presence of evil and suffering? The reason may be that we think that somehow we deserve goodness, but not suffering. And perhaps we do. Yet the existence of goodness, happiness, and joy are as mysterious as suffering. .

Some years ago author Gerald Sittser's wife, daughter, and mother were killed in an automobile accident that was the fault of another driver. Not only did the other driver survive the accident, he was brought to trial and the jury found him not guilty of having caused the accident. Sittser writes,


I did not deserve to lose three members of my family. But then again, I am not sure I deserved to have them in the first place. ...Perhaps I did not deserve their deaths; but I did not deserve their presence in my life either. On the face of it, living in a perfectly fair world appeals to me. But deeper reflection makes me wonder. In such a world I might never experience tragedy; but neither would I experience grace, esp. the grace God gave me in the form of the three wonderful people whom I lost. ...God spare us a life of fairness! To live in a world with grace is better by far than to live in a world of absolute fairness. A fair world might make life nice for us, but only as nice as we are. We might get what we deserve, but I wonder how much that is and whether or not we would really be satisfied. A world with grace will give us more than we deserve. It will give us life, even in our suffering. ("The life and death we don't deserve", Christian Century, Ian. 17,1996, pp. 44-47)


In the very midst of suffering, it may not help to look at life from Sittser's point of view; it may not even help to look at the cross. But if we can sit with the suffering long enough, then we may become aware that we have a Companion, one who suffers with us.

Nicholas Wolterstoff, who taught theology at Yale Divinity School, lost his son in a climbing accident in Switzerland. In reflecting on his son's untimely death, Wolterstorff wrote,


Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it. But I never saw it. Though I confessed that the man of sorrows was God himself, I never saw the God of sorrows. Though I confessed that the man bleeding on the cross was the redeeming God, I never saw God himself on the cross, blood from sword and thorn and nail dripping healing into the world's wounds.

What does this mean for life, that God suffers? I'm only beginning to learn. When we think of God the Creator, then we naturally see the rich and powerful of the earth as his closest image. But when we hold steady before us the sight of God the Redeemer redeeming from sin and suffering by suffering, then perhaps we must look elsewhere for earth's closest icon. Where? Perhaps to the face of that woman with soup tin in hand and bloated child at side. Perhaps that is why Jesus said that inasmuch as we show love to such a one, we show love to him. (Lament for a Son, Eerdmans (1987), pp. 81-82)


I don 't think anyone has more articulately portrayed the crucifixion of Jesus than the poet George Herbert.


Philosophers have measur'd mountains,

Fathomed the depths of seas, of states, and kings,

Walk'd with a staff to heav'n and traced fountains:

But there are two vast, spacious things,

The which to measure it doth more behove:

Yet few there are that sound them: Sin and Love.


Who would know Sin, let him repair

Unto Mount Olivet: there shall he see

A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,

His skin, his garments bloody be,

Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain

To hunt his cruel food through ev'ry vein.


Who knows not Love, let him assay

And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike

Did set abroach; then let him say If ever he did taste the like.

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,

Which my God feels as blood; but I as wine.


I am tempted to end with the last sentence of the last sermon of 17th century English poet and preacher John Donne's: "There [I] leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross." It is a rich, lovely phrase, worthy of Donne's great poetic gift. But while we must linger long at the Cross and let it sink deeply into our hearts, we must not stay at Calvary for Christ did not stay there. Although there is more than enough suffering in our lives, the last word is not suffering, it is resurrection. Having gone with him from Bethlehem to Calvary, we must continue the journey with him through the tomb and beyond.

Loaf Bread and Jug Wine (J. Barry Vaughn, Maundy Thursday, March 28, 2013)


The conditions in which they ate this last meal together were quite a bit more comfortable than the conditions in which they had eaten most of the meals on their journeys.  A wealthy, secret disciple (a wealthy disciple could hardly afford to go public) had provided them with a well-appointed room in his house in which to eat the first Seder of Passover and recount God's deliverance of his people.


"Let every person in every generation think of himself as a former slave, freed from bondage in Egypt" ran the words from the ancient text which they read that night.  Remembrance is of the essence of Passover.  Peter and James and John and the rest of the Twelve were remembering that night; they were remembering not only God's great acts of deliverance in liberating Israel from bondage, they were remembering other meals which they had eaten with the itinerant, self-ordained rabbi who had called them from their fishing boats with a voice which did not admit the possibility of refusal.  Most of the time their meals had been simple fare shared by the light of a camp fire.  Usually it was no more than some flat, hard dry matzoh and a handful of dried dates washed down with a mouthful of bitter wine.  When they were lucky there was a piece of dried fish, too.  But there had been other occasions, as well.  Some of them had been present at the wedding in Cana at which the wine had flowed as freely as water.  And what wine!  It could have been the nectar of the gods.  There had never been much, but what they had, had always seemed to be enough when they shared.  Somehow when they passed around the matzoh and dates and dried fish there was enough whether there were twelve or twelve hundred or five thousand sharing the meal.  All of them remembered occasions, simple and elegant, which gave them cause for gratitude.  All of them except Judas, that is; Judas had other things on his mind.


Shadows thick and dark seemed to gather around Jesus' head as he presided at the ancient ritual.  In the air were anxiety, apprehensiveness, expectation, danger, much as there must have been on the first Passover.  On this occasion in Jerusalem, twelve hundred years after the night on which God had brought their forebears out of Egypt, none of the participants in the upper room were quite sure why the atmosphere was so thick with apprehension.  Jesus had been threatened with arrest and even death often enough, but hadn't the people of the capital demonstrated their support for him in impressively large numbers less than a week ago?  Who would dare touch a leader with such popular support?  Nevertheless, the uneasiness would not go away.


The meal was beginning. Jesus took the matzoh and over it said the ancient words of blessing:  "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who bringest forth bread from the earth."  And then the disciples could hardly believe their ears when Jesus added to the sacred Hebrew words a sentence in everyday, secular Aramaic:  "This is my body."  The shadows in the room seemed to darken ten-fold.  Jesus and the disciples continued the meal, conversing only in hushed tones.  Quietly they continued the ritual, reciting God's saving acts and sharing the roasted lamb, the boiled eggs, the bitter herbs, and the sweet haroset, a mixture of nuts and dates and honey and wine.  Somehow nothing seemed to taste quite right. Then, after the main course, Jesus lifted the festal cup of wine:  "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who createst the fruit of the vine."  Again he shocked the more pious of the disciples (who after three years with this man should have been shocked by nothing Jesus did or said, however unorthodox) and added another Aramaic sentence:  "This is the new covenant in my blood."


"The blood will be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you..."  When Jesus had encountered the Tempter in the wilderness, Satan had unwittingly given voice to a prophecy about Jesus which on the night of this meal was in the process of coming true:  "He will give his angels charge of you..."  The shadow which hung over the table where Jesus shared the Passover with his friends was the shadow of the Angel of Death which had hovered over the children of Israel on their last night in Egypt.  God's angels were faithful to Jesus on the night of his arrest and on the day of his death, but the angel who had charge of Jesus was the Angel of Death.  The passersby who mocked Jesus, asking where his divine help was, could hardly have guessed that the Angel of Death hovered over them, too, and once again, the angel saw the blood of a lamb and passed over a people under the sentence of death.


On the night of his betrayal, arrest, trial, and conviction Jesus was not only wrestling with the Angel of Death, he was transforming an ancient Hebrew ritual.  The words which he added to the sacred words of the Passover, "This is my body... this my blood," were so shocking that Christians have never forgotten them.  At times Christendom has stretched and pulled Jesus' life and message almost beyond recognition, but these words we have never forgotten.  They forever transformed an ancient rite of remembrance.  At the Last Supper Jesus showed us once and for all how it is that God works.  At Cana water became wine, but at the Last Supper wine became the very blood of God. The food with which Jesus fed his friends on the dark night of his soul is our food tonight and forever.  Not only do the simple creatures of bread and wine communicate God to our souls and bodies, they knit us into the Body of Christ, a greater transformation than which I cannot imagine.  What is it that gives this feast such power?  Words and thoughts fail to explain, but powerful it is -- whether it is shared with loaf bread and jug wine at summer camp or with all the pomp and ceremony they can muster in a great cathedral.  We have argued for thousands of years about the meaning of the Lord's words at that Last Supper with his friends, and we may argue for thousands more.  But all we can say with assurance is, "Thou art here, we know not how... thou art here, we know not how."


One could almost write the story of God and his people as a story of transformations such as the one which Jesus wrought at the Last Supper.  We take and transform what God gives us, and God takes and transforms what we are willing to give to God. The crowd transformed their praises of "Hosanna to the Son of David" into shouts of "Crucify him!"  God gave us this world, and we have transformed it into a cluster of armed camps.  God gave us our lives and we spend our days finding ways to hide from the Creator's hands outstretched in an embrace of love, eager to tell us how precious we are.  God gives us wives and husbands, children and parents and siblings, and we play Cain to their Abel.  God gives us bouquets of roses, and we turn them into wreaths of thorns with which to crown him. God gives us forests and from them we take trees, hew them with great care, and form crosses on which to crucify the Lord of love.


God's transformations are quite different.  For one thing, God's transformations go deeper than ours.  We apply band-aids; God heals.  God does not simply repair; God renews.  The wine he makes from water for a wedding feast is not a jug of Gallo; it's Chateau Rothschild of the very best year.  God turns a meager meal for twelve into a feast for 5,000.  The lame do not merely walk; they dance.  Not only do the mute speak; they sing.  "Behold, I make all things new."


The meal is over now.  Using an ancient, mournful Hebrew melody they sang one of the Hallel psalms and went out, each to his own fate:  Peter to deny, Judas to betray, and all the rest to abandon him whom they had called "Master".  Judas could never come to terms with the fact that the one he had betrayed was willing to forgive him and, in an effort to escape from that awful love, he hanged himself.  One by one, the others found their way back to that upper room, but they were never the same.  The events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter had unmade and remade them.  But one thing was the same; when they returned to that upper room, someone again took bread, blessed it with the ancient words, and with trembling voice, added the words Jesus had given them:  "...and they knew him in the breaking of the bread."


We come to the Lord's Table tonight not only in the hope that God's transformations have not ceased, but with the certainty that they continue.  God in his Son, Jesus, gave visions to blind eyes songs to speechless tongues, made water into wine, and wine into blood; he transformed eleven cowards into an army that turned the world upside down; he turned a wreath of thorns into the crown of the King of glory; and he turned a cross, one of the cruelest instruments of judicial torture ever devised by fallen human ingenuity, into the instrument of our redemption and sign of eternal hope.  If God can take ignominious death and turn it into life, abundant and everlasting, just imagine what God can do with these hard old hearts of ours if we will only give him the chance?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Cleave the wood and I am there (J. Barry Vaughn, March 24, 2013)

Rachel had flour in her hair, on her clothes and all over her arms.  Passover was only a few days away and she had to bake the matzoh, unleavened bread, for her large, extended family.  Timing was crucial; the dough could not be allowed to rise or it would have to be thrown out.  So, when she heard the noise of the crowd outside, she was annoyed.  But in spite of herself, she asked a passerby what the shouting was about.  "It's Jesus," hs said, "He's coming into the city".  "Who?" she asked, "Jesus?  Oh, you mean the prophet from Galilee.  That's just what we need... another prophet... someone else to tell us to repent and grovel..."  And Rachel went back to her baking.


Isaac was etching delicate details into a kiddush cup for a wealthy client when he heard the noisy crowd.  Like Rachel, concentration and timing were crucial.  He had promised that the cup would be ready for Passover, but curiosity got the better of him.  Isaac's shop was near the city wall, so he dashed up the nearby steps and peered out toward the Mt. of Olives.  As the crowd drew near the gate, he recognized the figure on the donkey.  "It's Jesus," he thought, "the one they say works miracles and casts out demons".  And he thought of his young daughter who experienced severe seizures.  "I wonder if he could cure her."  And without thinking again of his client's kiddush cup, he dashed out to meet the impromptu parade.


"Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord!"  "What?" Jacob thought, "What is this blasphemous racket?"  Jacob put down the stylus and rubbed his eyes.  Copying Torah scrolls by the light of dim oil lamps was tedious and gave Jacob headaches, but it was what scribes did.  "Boy," Jacob said to a young apprentice in the corner, "Run outside and find out what's going on."  The boy ran out and quickly returned.  "It's Jesus, sir; the prophet from Galilee."  "Prophet", Jacob spat the word.  "He's no prophet.  They say he eats with thieves and talks to prostitutes.  He's a madman and that's for sure."


Deborah was spinning fine linen.  Her son was to become a man this Passover when he read from the Torah scroll in the synagogue, and she was making him a new cloak.  Their house was near the street that led out to the Lion Gate, the gate that faced the Mt. of Olives.  Deborah heard the shouting and listened while it grew louder and nearer.  She stopped spinning and listened, got up, and went outside.  The crowd came down her street and she stepped back, so that she would not be crushed.  "Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna!" they shouted wildly.  "This is the messiah", shouted one man as he flung his garment before the donkey's feet.  But the man on the donkey had about him an unearthly calm that Deborah had never before seen, a calm that seemed to reach out and embrace her.  "Messiah," she thought.  "God's anointed... I wonder".


Prophet, miracle worker, madman, messiah... all partly true and all partly false. 


A prophet to be sure.  Jesus came to speak God's word, and in his stories and discourses he spoke God's word more truly than anyone ever has or ever will.  But he was more than a prophet.  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God".  Jesus not only spoke God's Word; Jesus embodied God’s word in a unique way.


Miracle worker... even granting for some exaggeration in the telling, the miracle stories in the gospels cannot be dismissed.  The Oxford New Testament scholar, Austin Farrer, used to ask his students, "Just how ignorant was the average first century Jew?"  Men and women of the first century did not know about television and nuclear power, but they knew that the blind usually stayed blind, the crippled usually stayed crippled, and they certainly knew that the dead stayed dead.  But when Jesus appeared, the blind saw visions, the crippled threw away their crutches, and the dead came back from the grave.  "Go and tell John what you see and hear.  The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the poor have good news preached to them".


Mad man... was Jesus mad?  By the standards of the world, one could argue that Jesus was mad.  "Blessed are the poor, those who mourn..."  The poor blessed?  The grieving special objects of God's favor?  Jesus turned the world's wisdom on his head.  If you want to find God, he said, go to the poor, the hungry, the homeless, not to the rich and successful. 


Messiah...  God's anointed... First century Judaism expected a messiah but not this messiah.  They expected a messiah who would put their enemies to the sword, not one who would tell them to love their enemies and do good to their persecutors. 


"Who do they say that I am?"  Jesus had asked his disciples.  Palm Sunday's spontaneous parade makes the question acute.  "Who is this stupendous stranger?"  There were many answers-- prophet, miracle worker, mad man, messiah.  "Hosanna to the Son of David" the crowds shouted, but did they know what they were saying?  Did they mean it?  The speed with which their ecstasy became anger tells me that the adoring crowd of Palm Sun. was as fickle as crowds always are. 


But we are not here to sit in judgment on the faithlessness of that crowd on the first Palm Sun.  For Jesus comes into our midst as surely as he came into Jerusalem two thousand years ago, and the question still has an edge to it:  Who do you say that he is?  Who do I say that he is?


Jesus no longer comes among us as he did on Palm Sunday.  He will not come down Maryland Parkway on the back of a donkey, surrounded by an adoring throng shouting his praises.  He comes among us in unexpected ways.


Jesus usually comes into my life through the lives of others.  During a summer I spent as a chaplain at large general hospital in Birmingham, he came to me in the person of a laborer from the country whom I initially dismissed as simple and uninteresting.  "A typical north Jefferson county coal miner", was how I described him to my supervisor, a description which earned me a well-deserved rebuke.  I was challenged to find out what made this man unique, to find out where, if anywhere, God was working in his life.  But then as I sat with him and listened to the story of how he struggled with a chronic illness and a broken marriage, I realized that God was there not in fullness but in emptiness.  God was there inviting me to experience mystery not in receiving but in giving.  God was there inviting me to experience love as I showed love to another person. 


Where and when does Jesus come into your life?  In your life's companion, your children, your friends and fellow workers.  We know with certainty that he is present wherever there is great need.  "Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me".


Jesus does not play fair; he never overwhelms us.  He always leaves open the possibility of refusal; he always comes to us in disguise and we may not recognize him. 


Ultimately, we can only recognize Jesus if he opens our eyes.  "Unless the eye catch fire, it cannot see; unless the ear catch fire, we cannot hear." (William Blake)


Many years ago I was in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and walked with hundreds of other pilgrims from the Mt. of Olives into Jerusalem.  It was, as Yogi Berra said, "just like deja vu all over again".  It was the route that Jesus had walked, and the other pilgrims, many of them Palestinians, were descendants of the crowd that had shouted, and thrown down their garments, and waved palm branches.  Now as then, Palestine is occupied by a foreign power; Israeli soldiers and their Uzi machine guns lined the route.


One thing was missing on my Palm Sunday in Jerusalem:  a humble figure riding on a donkey.  Or was he missing? 


One of the early non-canonical gospels has Jesus saying, "Cleave the wood, and I am there; lift up the stone, and I am there". 


He was in that crowd in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday just as surely as he had been two thousand years ago.  He was in the Palestinian mother whose son had been shot by an Israeli soldier; he was there in the seeking, questing pilgrims, from Africa, Asia, and Europe, who had brought their prayers and dreams to Jerusalem, hoping for a miracle, a vision, some clue that life has meaning, that God hears and cares for them.  And he was even there in this pilgrim.


And he is among us now, if we only have the eyes to see.  For he comes to us today, as he came among his own two thousand years ago.


You come to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, you came to those who knew you not. You speak to us the same word: "Follow me".  And you set us to the tasks which you have to fulfill for our time.  You command.  And if we obey you, whether we are wise or simple, you will reveal yourself to us in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which we will pass through in your fellowship, and as an unutterable mystery, we shall learn in our own experience, who you are.  Amen.


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Building a new world on the shoulders of giants (J. Barry Vaughn, March 17, 2013)

Frank and Bea Cornet very kindly sent me several books about the history of Nev-A-da. (I promise you that I’m working on my pronunciation of my new state’s name.) Among many other things, I learned that Las Vegas came into being around a kind of oasis or artesian well. In other words, Las Vegas was a lot like the place Isaiah was describing: "I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert."


In many respects, Las Vegas is a unique place, and if the English teachers listening will forgive me for turning an absolute into a comparative, I would also observe that Las Vegas a lot more unique than just about any other place I have lived!


But in another way, Las Vegas is a very typical western city, or for that matter, a very typical American city.


From the very beginning, America has been a place of new beginnings, a place where people came to escape from the dead hand of the past. The Pilgrims of Plymouth and Puritans of Boston came to Massachusetts in the 17th c to escape the tyranny of the Church of England and worship as they believed they should according to the dictates of the Bible and John Calvin. However, I know it's difficult to believe that Anglicans have ever been tyrannical about anything except using the right fork and not wearing white after Labor Day.


Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson fled from Massachusetts to Rhode Island to escape the Puritans, thus inspiring Cole Porter to write the lines,


Times have changed,
And we've often rewound the clock,
Since the Puritans got a shock,
When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
If today,
Any shock they should try to stem,
'Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
Plymouth Rock would land on them.


Virginians moved south to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to escape the growing abolitionist tide. Abolitionists moved to the midwest to escape the tyranny of slavery. And the slaves very wisely went all the way to Canada!


And those who would escape from all restraints came west and founded Las Vegas, perhaps the most patriotic city in the U.S. because it is devoted entirely to a neglected principle of the Declaration of Independence - the pursuit of happiness.


America is a country founded on the idea of reinvention. Pursued by your creditors? Come to America. Eager to found a new church? Come to America. Want to get rich quick? Come to America.


Humorist Oscar Wilde once observed, "It's an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco." America, in general, and the West, in particular, is a great place to disappear in one guise and reappear in another.


In other words, America is a land of the new and improved. Out with the tired, old ways of religion, custom, and tradition. In with the new, unique, and different. Those are our principles.


But the new has not always been considered a good thing. In the ancient world, progress was considered a bad thing. They believed in a golden age when the world had been perfect and humans had been beautiful, sinless, and ageless. And from that time to this, the world had been in decline. Then in the late middle ages and especially in the Enlightenment, the idea of progress was born, the idea that the human race is getting better, not worse; that the next generation will be better off, and the next even better, and on and on, until we had reach  utopia or the kingdom of heaven comes upon earth.


The fact is that neither the myth of progress nor the myth of decline is true. Sometimes the old is better; sometimes the new.


To a degree, all of us subscribe to the idea of a golden age. We long for the good old days, when men were strong, women pure and beautiful, and children well-behaved, or at least quiet. We long for Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone, "where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."


Well, I have a word from the Lord for YOU! The good old days never existed. Go back even fifty years and you will find a world threatened by nuclear annihilation; a world without a hundred medical marvels that we take for granted; a world in which women and African Americans had fewer rights.


But today's Old Testament reading and psalm powerfully support the idea that the new is better. The prophet Isaiah says,


Do not remember the former things,

or consider the things of old.

I am about to do a new thing;

now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

and rivers in the desert.

The wild animals will honor me,

the jackals and the ostriches;

for I give water in the wilderness,

rivers in the desert,

to give drink to my chosen people,

the people whom I formed for myself

so that they might declare my praise.


Similarly, the psalmist understood that sometimes our tears are nothing but the water that enables the seed of the new to come into being:


Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.


Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.


We worship a God who does new things, who disrupts our lives, who is always creating something out of nothing. And that is a good thing.


If we had our way, we would cling to the old; we would be stuck with old ideas and old ways of doing things. But God, thank God, longs to shake us up.


Part of our problem is a failure of imagination. Consider Judas in today's Gospel reading. When Mary of Bethany pours nard upon the feet of Jesus, an ointment that was imported from India at fantastic expense, he had the imagination of a CPA. "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" In the familiar phrase, Judas knew the cost of everything but the value of nothing.


But Jesus saw a gesture of love, an anticipation of his death and burial. "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."


God wants you to use your imagination, to imagine a better world, a world in which the poor are fed, the homeless find homes, the hungry are well fed, because if you cannot imagine these things, you cannot achieve them. Imagination is God's gift. Often it is the way God speaks to us.


I invite you to join me in imagining a new Christ Church, a church full of young and old, children, families, and single people. Imagine a church that is a dynamic place of renewal for this city and surrounding area. And then work with me to build that church.


We live our lives in the tension between the old and the new, between seedtime and harvest, between the wilderness and the promised land.


Christ Church, Las Vegas, has been through the wilderness. You have  walked a rocky and sometimes desolate path. But I am firmly convinced that God's plans for you are like God's plans for Israel. That God longs to restore your fortunes, make your dreams come true, fill your mouths with laughter and make you shout for joy.


In his novel, The Name of the Rose, writer Umberto Eco has his character William of Baskerville observe, "We are all dwarfs... but dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of giants, and small though we are, we sometimes manage to see farther on the horizon than they."


Sisters and brothers, we stand on the shoulders of giants - Helen Stewart, Mom and Pop Squires, Karl Spatz, Talley Jarrett, Massey Gentry, and I could go on and on. Our job is to build on the foundation they left us, not just to build a new and better Christ Church, but a new and better world.


Our job is to realize the vision of Isaiah and Psalm 26, to let go of all that would hinder us or hold us back, to march forward into God's new world, and to sow with tears that we might reap with shouts of joy.