Sunday, April 28, 2013

A New Heaven and a New Earth (J. Barry Vaughn, Apr. 28, 2013)

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away..."


I want to draw your attention to two verses from the Book of Revelation - "I saw a new heaven and a new earth" and "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true" - and one verse from the gospel reading - "I give you a new commandment."


One of the most provocative interpretations of the Book of Revelation is that it was the first work of science fiction, but  I don't buy it. The last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation or Apocalypse ("apocalypse" is a word derived from Greek that means "revelation") is part of the canon of scripture. It is part of God's word or God's way of communicating with us, so I don't think for a minute that it is fictional. But there is no doubt that it is thick with symbols and metaphors, and that all too often these symbols and metaphors are over-interpreted and misinterpreted.


But my NT teacher said that "few writings in all of literature have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation" (Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, p. 512)


On the other hand, there is an interesting correlation between Revelation and science fiction. Revelation is about a journey from this world to another world. It is not a physical journey through outer space, but it is a spiritual journey through inner space. Also, much of science fiction has to do the future. What if this world passes away? What becomes of us?


I want you to think for a moment about how strange the Book of Revelation is. In chapter 21, the author has a vision of a "new heaven and a new earth." The idea of new worlds comes easily to us, but that was a completely new idea in the first century.


A resident of the Roman Empire in the first century knew one world - the world of the Mediterranean basin. That was the world. of the first century. A few centuries earlier, the Greek philosopher Plato said, "Like frogs around a pond we have settled down upon the shores of this sea."


But all that began to change in the 15th and 16th c when European explorers began to venture out to the edges of Africa and Asia and finally crossed the Atlantic to North and South America. Suddenly, Europeans began to think and speak in terms of "new worlds."


In Shakespeare's play The Tempest the character Miranda exclaims, "O brave new world that hath such people in't." She was reflecting the wonder that people of that age felt at the discovery of new worlds. But already in the first century, John the Seer imagined a new heaven and a new earth.


But a new heaven and a new earth mean that this earth will come to an end, and that is a fearful idea.


Well, one person's fear is another person's opportunity to make money, and popular culture loves to play on our fears of world-ending scenarios.


Have you noticed the number of movies and TV shows that deal with so-called "post-apocalyptic" scenarios? What happens if the world comes to an end? The movie Oblivion that just came out deals with this. Forgive me, but I hope that Tom Cruise is not the only representative of the human race to survive the apocalypse! But from zombies to nuclear annihilation to plague, popular culture seems to be fixated on apocalyptic scenarios.


Of course, that is precisely what the Book of Revelation is about. This world that seems so permanent is actually passing away. It is finite. It has a sell by date. So what happens after the worst thing that can happen has happened? What happens AFTER the end?


This is where the Book of Revelation has good news for us. It tells us that the world in which we live will indeed come to an end, but it tells us that this is part of God's plan, that God is in charge, and that although there will be wars and plagues and all kinds of disturbances, God will protect his people, God will bring us through.


Make no mistake: God loves this world, finite and fractured though it is. God created it and declared it to be good and never changed his mind about it. And God gave it into our care and one day will demand an accounting of how well we have taken care of it. And I fear that we will be judged and found wanting for our care, our stewardship, of the earth.


But this world is not permanent. The Book of Revelation tells us that a new earth is coming. It's a bit like a new product roll out: "Coming soon - Earth 2.0 - new and improved!"


This world, we are told, is a "vale of tears." But a new world is coming in which "death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more."


Now, think for a minute about another verse in ch. 21 of Revelation: "Write these, for these words are trustworthy and true."


"...the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." 


"Write this" was a very odd thing to say in the first century because very few people could write. Furthermore, paper or papyrus and ink were very expensive. If you could write, you would write only the most important things.


Presumably, you would only write down something of the highest importance. And perhaps John was commanded to write because it would be easier to believe something written rather than something spoken.


One of the sad tasks of every minister is to write down the names and dates of those who have died in the church register. In doing research for my doctoral dissertation I carefully studied the parish records of a small village in seventeenth century Buckinghamshire. Such records documents life’s joys, to be sure, such as weddings and baptisms, but they also chronicle so much sadness—women who died in childbirth and children who died in infancy.


Richard Holloway, former Episcopal bishop of Edinburgh, Scotland, wrote this of his feeling in going through the records of a parish in that city: “I often think  of . . . all those glad lives and dancing feet, all gone down into the grave . . . I grieve for all those lives which are unrecalled . . . As one contemplates the teeming prodigality of human history, one is tempted to meaninglessness at the thought of all that being born and going down into death.” (Holloway, A New Heaven, Mowbrays (London, 1978), p. 61)


Any minister writing down another death in his or her parish register might be tempted to feel as I did searching through 300 year old parish records or as Holloway did in his Edinburgh parish, but in the Book of Revelation, John was instructed to write something different. “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true . . . I am the Alpha and the Omega . . . to the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” (Rev. 21.6)


Finally, consider this verse from today's gospel reading: "I give you a new commandment."


The strange thing about this new commandment is that it was really a very old commandment.


Leviticus 19.18 says, "... you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (19.18)


So what was new about Jesus' "new commandment"? I believe that what was new was the one issuing it and also the way he modified it - "as I have loved you."


In Revelation, the author speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. In John, Jesus gives his disciples a "new commandment." The theme of the Celebration of New Ministry that we will have next weekend is "a new beginning for Christ Church."


I want to be as clear about this as possible: I believe that Christ Church is a healthy parish with a bright future. I would not have come here if I did not believe that. But as I said in the Epilog, there are some troubling signs, and one of them is the fact that we have so few young families with children.


But I also believe that we can grow and be healthy by attracting new members who are middle aged or even older.


I believe, though, that we need younger families with children not just for the long term health and stability of this church, but because we have an obligation to pass on our wisdom, our values, our faith to a new generation. To be perfectly frank, we are part of the world that is coming to an end, passing away. The young are part of the world that is coming into being.


When I speak of a "new beginning for Christ Church" I do not for a minute believe that all that has come before needs to be changed. I love this church's tradition, its way of worshiping God, and its music. But I do believe that from time to time, we need a fresh start, a new beginning.


And I believe that part of the message of the Book of Revelation is that we need not fear the new. We need not fear a new beginning. We need not fear letting go of the past and reaching out toward the new because God is the one who is bringing the new world into being.


I believe that the new world that God is bringing into being will be characterized by the "new commandment" that Jesus gave his disciples: " I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."


To love as Jesus loved is to forget self, to give one's self for others, it is to let go of all that is familiar and be open to the new.


Change is frightening. The older I get, the less I like change. But I took a chance on Christ Church and uprooted myself and moved here to become your pastor, your rector.


I took a chance on Christ Church because I believe in a God who does new things. And I invite you to take a chance on God as we work together for a new beginning for this great old church.


Like the European explorers of the 15th and 16th c. we are on a journey, but our journey is very different from theirs. They traveled from their homes to distant, exotic places. We are journeying from a place of exile to our true home in God.


For in this world, death and sorrow are at home and God is a stranger. But we journey toward a world in which death and sorrow will be no more and God will make his home in our midst.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed (J. Barry Vaughn, Apr. 21, 2013)

At the end of a week in which a small Texas town was almost obliterated by an explosion, two powerful bombs killed three persons and injured more than hundred spectators and participants in the Boston Marathon, and the city of Boston came to a screeching halt for an entire day while police hunted for a terrorist, we need to hear the words of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want… Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil…”


But we need to hear those words not only because of the terrible events in Boston. We need to hear them because (as another song reminds us), “we are poor little lambs who have lost our way… little black sheep who have gone astray.”


The other song, by the way, is the theme song of the Yale Whiffenpoofs, otherwise known (at least at Harvard) as the Yale fight song.


I want you to listen to the words of Psalm 23 once again:


The LORD is my shepherd ;

I shall not want 

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: 

He leadeth me beside the still waters. 

He restoreth my soul: 

he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, 

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;

thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies : thou anointest my head with oil; 

My cup runneth over. 

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: 

and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever .


The King James’ version may not be as accurate as some more recent translations, but it can’t be beat for poetry.


I want to stroll slowly with you through several verses of Psalm 23.


The Lord is my shepherd.


The first thing to notice about Psalm 23 is that it presupposes that we are sheep,

so maybe the Whiffenpoofs were on to something. Maybe we really ARE “poor little lambs who have gone astray… little black sheep who have lost our way.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         But it’s not a very flattering image.


I wish the psalmist had said, “The Lord is my lion-tamer” or “The Lord is my falconer” or even “The Lord is my jockey or horse whisperer.”


It would be much nicer to be a lion or a falcon or a thoroughbred horse. But we’re stuck with sheep.


The second thing to notice is who is doing the shepherding, and I’d like you to notice what Psalm 23 does NOT say. It does not say “God is my shepherd.” If you read this psalm from the King James’ version, you will notice that the word “Lord” is in capital letters. The psalmist used the divine name; he addressed God by name.


The psalmist’s God has a name and he invites us to address him by name. The other side of this is that the Good Shepherd not only has a name, but he also addresses us by name.


If we go back to the beginning of the 10th chapter of John’s gospel from which Marguerite read this morning, we would see that Jesus said, The Good Shepherds “calls his sheep by name…”


We worship a God who knows our names and who calls us by our names.


He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: 

He leadeth me beside the still waters. 

He restoreth my soul: 

he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 


Why do we need the Lord to make us lie down in green pastures and lead us beside still waters? Isn’t that just common sense?


We need God to lead us and guide us because, as psychologist Rollo May says “Humans are the strangest of all God’s creatures; they run fastest when they have lost their way.”


We need God to guide us because we have not only lost our way, we are running as fast we can in the wrong direction.


Now, most of us do not look lost. On the contrary, we look as though we have our act together. Most of us have jobs, money in the bank, and friends who care for us. But at some time or other, we have all known what it means to be lost.


It may have happened when the doctor’s office called with the results of a blood test of biopsy; we may have felt lost when we were “downsized” or whatever euphemism was used to explain the fact that we were being fired; it might have happened when we hesitated before signing the divorce papers. But we all know how it feels to be lost.


If you are feeling lost this morning or if you have ever felt lost or if you are afraid that some day you will feel lost, then I have some good news for you.


The first piece of good news is this: Look around you. This church is full of good shepherds. There are people here who will love you if you will let them, who will do their best to find you if you get lost. I have not been here very long, but that is something I already know about Christ Church, Las Vegas. You do a good job of shepherding. This is a place where you can not only find your way; it is a place where you can be found – you can be found by God and you can be found by this community. So let the people of Christ Church be good shepherds to you.


Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, 

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;

thy rod and thy staff they comfort me


Psalm 23 is profoundly realistic. Right after we walk beside still waters and through green pastures, we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death. Isn’t that what happens in our own lives? The valley of the shadow of death is right next door to the still waters and the green pastures.


Psalm 23 does not tell us that life is perfect, that bad things only happen to people who deserve them.  It tells us that beauty and terror are next door neighbors, but that we are not to fear because God is on our side. And that’s enough.


I want to believe in a loving God, but when terrorists blow up the spectators at the Boston Marathon or an explosion takes the lives of half the volunteer fire department in West Texas or there’s a massive earthquake in China, I wonder. How can you believe in a loving, compassionate God allow this to happen. Perhaps even God’s heart breaks over these tragedies.


Psalm 23 doesn’t promise us that there will be no death but promises us that God walks with us through the valley of death’s dark shadow.  It doesn’t say that we will have no enemies but assures us that God is with us in the presence of our enemies.


I want to conclude on a personal note. Jesus is the good shepherd, not me. But you have asked me to be your shepherd, and I want to be the best shepherd I can be.  I don’t want to let you down, and I certainly don’t want to betray your trust. But I know my own limitations, my weaknesses. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed and frightened. Sometimes I feel lost, too. So I’m going to ask you to bear with me, to understand that I don’t have all the answers and can’t do it all.


But I promise you this: I will do my very best. I believe that I can be a good shepherd for you, not because of my own abilities but because I know the Good Shepherd and I will do my best to let him lead me so that I can lead you.


We need shepherds because wherever there are sheep, there are also wolves. Sometimes the wolves are disguised as sheep; sometimes they are disguised as shepherds. Make no mistake: Just as there is some sheep in all of us, there may also be some wolf in all of us.  But I will do everything in my power to guard the sheep from the wolves.


I want you to notice one last thing about today’s readings. The 23rd psalm begins beside still waters and leads us through the valley of the shadow of death. But the reading from the book of Revelation takes us beyond the valley of the shadow into heaven itself. And what do we find in John’s vision of heaven?

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
The shepherd who prepared a table for us in the presence of our enemies and led us through the valley of the shadow of death goes before us into heaven. But the shepherd who led us has become the Lamb of God who died for us, who takes away the sin, the brokenness, the lostness of the world.
Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love You sought me,
And on Your shoulder gently laid,
And home, rejoicing, brought me.