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.