Sunday, June 30, 2013

Drawing lines and taking big steps (J. Barry Vaughn, June 30, 2013)

There are any number of jokes about the Ten Commandments. For example, when Moses came back to the Israelites after receiving the commandments from God, he said, "I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that I negotiated them down to ten. The bad news is that adultery is still in there."


The Episcopal Church and the Ten Commandments seem to be uneasy companions. Episcopalians are sophisticated people. We are more comfortable with ambiguity than with absolutes. And frankly, we don't especially enjoy being told "thou shalt not" anything. Someone once said that if God had given the Ten Commandments to the Episcopal Church, they would have to be called the Ten Suggestions and there would only be eight of them -your choice.


There are many for whom the Christian life is mainly about rules; there are lots of "thou shalt" and even more "thou shalt nots." A quick glance at the Bible seems to offer a lot of support to this view. Not only do we find the Ten Commandments, but our Jewish sisters and brothers tell us that there are a total of 613 mitzvot or commandments in the Torah or first five books of the Bible. There are plenty of commandments in the New Testament, too. Jesus spoke of the "first and great commandment," namely, to love God and love our neighbor, but there are lots of others.


On the other hand, Jesus sets aside the Sabbath commandment and tells the Pharisees that the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. Even more significantly, in Mark's gospel, Jesus seems to forbid remarriage after divorce altogether, but in Matthew, he appears to allow remarriage for the innocent party in the divorce.


Also, note that today's Old Testament and gospel readings appear to be in conflict with each other. In the reading from First Kings, Elisha's responsibility to his parents takes precedence over Elijah's invitation to follow him and become his disciple. But in the reading from Luke, Jesus rebukes the would-be disciple who wants to do exactly what Elisha did, that is, say good bye to his parents.


In other words, even though there are hundreds or even thousands of rules in the Bible, there is also a great deal of ambiguity, conflicts between one rule and another, situations in which it is not obvious which rule we should follow.


So is the Bible a collection of absolute laws and rule from which we stray at our peril? Or does the Bible offer us a set of general principles that guide us and shape our ability to make ethical decisions but don't establish a rule for every situation that we may face?


Many of us were raised to believe that religion is mostly about rules. We may have been brought up in churches where smoking, drinking, card playing, movie-going, TV-watching, make-up wearing, and dancing were not only suspect but thought to be the work of the devil. We were told that Christians must adhere to a higher standard. It was confusing, because the Old Testament clearly speaks of dancing; David danced before the ark of the covenant. Jesus drank wine, and Paul urged Timothy to drink a little wine to settle his stomach. I know some conservative Christians who were raised to believe told that Jesus and Paul drank only nonalcoholic wine. Oh, really?? So, of course, we couldn’t wait to get to college or out on our own so we could do exactly those things that we had been forbidden to do at home.


So, how are we to live our lives before God? What is responsible Christian behavior? What is the ethical standard for Christians? Is the Christian life a matter of absolute rules harshly applied? Or is the Christian life a matter of the freedom about which Paul writes in today's reading from Galatians: "For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not submit to a yoke of slavery."


Sometimes the set of rules which we were taught as children are inadequate; they conflict with other sets of rules. What do we do when rules conflict?


I was raised to believe in an ethic of rules, and I suspect that most of you were raised in a similar way. Then in young adulthood we began to realize that rules could not cover every situation. We began to experience the tyranny of rules. Many of us adopted a version of situation ethics, although we may not have called it that.


What I want to suggest is that neither an ethic of rules nor an ethic of situations is entirely adequate. What Christianity calls for is something in between.


The stories from I Kings and Luke clearly suggest that rules alone are inadequate. A rule that works today may not work tomorrow. As the hymn, “Once to every man and nation” says, “New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth”. That makes the fundamentalists very nervous. How can a rule that held for my parents not hold for me? But the study of history shows that nothing is more certain than that standards change. Two hundred years ago, most Americans were convinced that the Bible sanctioned slavery.


A few days ago the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, a decision that will allow the federal government to recognize and extend benefits to gay and lesbian couples who marry in the District of Columbia or in any of the 13 states that permit same sex marriage.


For many, perhaps for some of you, this decision seems to fly in the face of an eternal rule set down in scripture. Others regard it as a triumph for human rights or as the latest development in our continuing interpretation of Thomas Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence: "... all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..."


I cannot agree with those who believe that the Supreme Court's decision runs contrary to the teaching of the Bible. First, there are only  three unambiguous references to homosexuality in the entire Bible. Two are in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, and one is in Paul's letter to the Romans.


In other words, the Bible says very little about homosexuality. It says far more about feeding hungry people, caring for widows and orphans, protecting those who are among us as strangers and exiles, but we get so much more upset about homosexuality than by our failure to care for the poor and vulnerable.


But rather than focus on a few texts, I would like to spend a few minutes talking about how the first century church re-interpreted one particular commandment and what light that might shed on the controversy about same sex marriage.


In today's reading from Galatians, Paul says, "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." What is Paul talking about?


Keep in mind that Jesus was a Jew, as were all the earliest Christian, including Paul. Probably all the writers of the New Testament were Jews.


When Paul traveled from town to town proclaiming the Christian message, he went first to the synagogues. He won very few converts there, but he converted many non-Jews. Before long, Paul was faced with this dilemma: Did the Jewish law apply to non-Jews? Paul concluded that only the moral precepts of the Old Testament applied to non-Jews, not the ceremonial rules. In other words, non-Jews need not be circumcised.


Many disagreed with Paul and taught otherwise. The letter to the Galatians was addressed to a church that was mostly non-Jewish. Someone had gone there and contradicted Paul and taught them that even non-Jews needed to be circumcised. Paul was outraged. His letter to the Galatians is by far his angriest letter. "O foolish Galatians," he wrote. "Who has bewitched you?"


Paul, of course, was right. His decision not to require non-Jews to submit to circumcision allowed the Christian faith to become a worldwide religion. But it raises for us this question: Where do we draw the line between the Old Testament's moral law and its ceremonial law?


It seems obvious to us today that the rule about circumcision is very different from the rules about murder or adultery or telling the truth. But in the first century setting aside the rule about circumcision caused a bitter controversy.


Throughout the centuries, Christians have drawn the line between the moral law and the ceremonial law in different places. Or to put it another way, where is the line between those rules that are products of their culture and time and place and those rules that are eternal and binding?


Another rule about which Christians have sometimes argued fiercely is the rule about usury or loaning money at interest. Leviticus 25.36-37 says, " ...if your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you.  Take no interest from him or increase, but fear your God; that your brother may live beside you.  You shall not lend him your money at interest."


That seems at least as clear as the statements in Leviticus 18 and 20 forbidding homosexual behavior but has not caused nearly as much controversy. I wonder why??


The medieval Catholic church made loaning money at interest an offense that could be punished by excommunication. It wasn't until about the time of the Reformation that the principle of loaning money at interest was accepted, but that involved setting aside the clear statement of the Bible. In other words, Christians re-drew the line between the Bible's eternal ethical principles and its culturally conditioned statements.


Think also of what the Bible says about slavery. The Old Testament orders the people of Israel to be kind to their slaves but accepts slavery as a part of life. Paul urged slaves to obey their masters.


Or think of what the Bible says about women. The Ten Commandments reflect a worldview that understood wives to be the property of their husbands.


Today many believe that it is time to re-draw that line once again and to move the small handful of statements that the Bible makes about homosexuality from the category of eternal ethical truths and put them in the box with the rules about loaning money at interest, buying and selling slaves, regarding wives as the property of their husbands, and other culturally conditioned statements.


Paul draws the line between what he calls "the works of the flesh," and  "the fruit of the Spirit", that is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control," against which he says "there is no law." In other words, a relationship characterized by "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness" and so on can only be a product of the Spirit.


So, back to the question I asked earlier, How are we to live our lives before God? What is there to guide us in ethically ambiguous situations?


During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther was aided by a young scholar, Philip Melanchthon. Melanchthon was terrified that he was going to commit a sin and go to hell. One day, in exasperation, Luther said to Melanchthon. “Philip, sin boldly! But love God more boldly still.”


Fred Craddock, professor of preaching at Emory, tells this story about his boyhood. When he was a youngster, he lived on a farm, and his family had one old cow that would get out through the fence and run off. And it invariably ran off to the town cemetery. Fred’s job was to go into the cemetery to retrieve the family cow, and he was afraid of the cemetery. “Mama,” he would say, “I don’t want to go get the cow”. “Go get the cow”. “But I have to go through the graveyard.” “That’s all right, it won’t bother you, go get the cow”. “But what if I step on a grave?” “Well,” Mrs. Craddock would say, “I’ll tell you what; when you go through

the cemetery just take big steps. That’s the best we can do”.

In the end, that may be the best thing to say about how we should live as Christians. Take big steps. In Martin Luther’s words, “Sin boldly, but love God more boldly still”. Take risks. Fall down. Pick yourself up again. That’s the best we can do.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Sitting at the feet of Jesus (J. Barry Vaughn, June 23, 2013)

When I was a student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland I preached occasionally at a small Church of Scotland parish in the village of Anstruther. Anstruther is a fishing village on the North Sea and is about 9 miles from St. Andrews.  To get a sense of Anstruther, it’s helpful to have a picture in your mind’s eye of the area around St. Andrews. St. Andrews is in the Scottish county of Fife, a small peninsula with the firth of Tay on the north, the firth of Forth on the south, and the North Sea on the east. By the way, a firth is an old Scots’ word for a bay or inlet.


My point in giving you this geography lesson is to explain a bizarre incident that happened the first Sunday I preached there. During the service a man entered the church and somewhat furtively and quickly took a seat in a back corner of the church. Something about the way he moved struck me as odd.


After the service one of the elders told me that the man wished to speak to me. The man who had come to church late and sat in a back corner began to tell me a bizarre story about how Satan was trying to read his thoughts but was prevented from doing so by the roof of the church. I quickly realized that the man was mentally ill and probably schizophrenic.


It was the kind of thing we experience quite a lot in large cities but not so often in rural places such as Anstruther. But it turned out that a local mental hospital had been forced to release some patients it deemed not a danger to themselves or others because of government cutbacks.


I wonder if Anstruther was much like the village in which Jesus exorcizes the demoniac in today’s gospel reading. Like the village in today’s gospel reading, Anstruther was a quiet, rural place. No one is quite sure of the location of the “country of the Gerasenes” where Mark locates this exorcism story. All we can know for sure is that it was on the east side of the Sea of Galilee.


The story of Legion is one of the most fascinating miracle stories in the gospels. To understand this story we need not believe in literal demons but we do need to believe in evil. Evil is real. There is something abroad in the world and in our hearts that would draw us away from God and from goodness, away from what is truest and healthiest and best in our own hearts.  And the story of the Gerasene demoniac offers us a perfect illustration of what happens when evil gets the upper hand.


Luke tells us that the demoniac wore no clothes and lived among the tombs. In other words, he was completely isolated, estranged from others. He had turned away from life and embraced death. The story of the Gerasene demoniac is an Easter story. Jesus raises this man from death to new life.


I know from personal experience that when I am depressed, I isolate myself from others, even though that is one of the worst things I can do. God created us to live in community. We need to be in relationship with others to be healthy, to be the people that God intended us to be.


Genesis opens with God’s repeated insistence that the world and everything in it is good. God declares light to be good. God declares the day and night to be good. God declares the sea and the dry land to be good. God declares human beings to be good. And then finally God declares something to be not good. Do you know the first thing God declares to be not good? After God has created everything and declared it to be good. After God has created the first human and placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, God declareds, “It is not good for humans to be alone.” Genesis 2.18.


God made us social creatures. The word ubuntu from the Zulu language of South Africa means “I am who I am because you are who you are” and “You are who you are because I am who I am.” I believe that is why God said it is not good for us to be alone. We need each other to be the people God created us to be.


But evil wants to drive us apart. Evil isolates. But God longs to have a relationship with us and for us to have healthy relationships with each other.


I am impatient with people who tell me that they don’t need to go to church because they can be a Christian just fine all by themselves. That’s simply not true. Christianity is not a solitary enterprise. We need each other.


Notice what happens to the demoniac when Jesus casts out his demon. Luke tells us that when the people of the town “came out to see what had happened… they found the man from whom the demons had gone out sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” In other words, he has not only been restored to community, he has become one of Jesus’ disciples. To “sit at the feet” of a teacher is the traditional posture of a student or disciple.


Several years ago Harvard professor Robert Putnam  wrote a book entitled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam’s research shows that since World War II Americans participate far less in community organizations such as churches, synagogues, PTAs, Rotary Clubs, and even bowling leagues.


The result of this declining participation in groups is that our stock of social capital is dwindling. Social capital is defined as the social benefits derived from cooperation with others. Study after study shows that the number and quality of our relationships is an important index not only of mental health but even physical health.


Do you remember the old TV sitcom Cheers? It was a place “where everybody knows your name.”


The first question Jesus asked the demoniac was “What is your name?”  There was a theological reason for that question.


In the biblical world, names were powerful. Again, Genesis is a good example of the power of names. As God creates each component of the world, he gives it a name.


“God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night… God called the dry land Earth, and the waters… he called Seas…” God gives Adam the privilege of naming the animals. The Namer has power over the things he names. So Jesus asserts power over the demon by demanding his name.


But there was another reason for Jesus’ question. Both mental illness and evil can destroy our identity.


The demoniac replied to Jesus’ question, saying that his name was, “‘Legion,’ for many demons had entered him.”


The nature of evil and the nature of mental and emotional illness is to fragment. In schizophrenia the different parts of our personality split off and manifest themselves as visual and auditory hallucinations.


All of us are composed of a multitude of parts. When we are healthy, these different parts work together. I can be upbeat one day and sad the next but still recognizably myself. You can be angry some of the time and warm and loving at other times, and still be the person I recognize as my friend and parishioner. But when we are the victims of mental and emotional illness, these different parts of ourselves take on a life of their own. We become angry all the time and the anger becomes destructive. Sadness takes over our life and saps our energy.  Sometimes anger and sadness get such a hold on us that we become self-destructive and even suicidal.


And what is true of individuals is sometimes true of whole nations and cultures. Think of Nazi Germany. Hitler channeled the anger that the Germans felt about their defeat in World War I into a hatred of Communists and Jews. The Jews became the embodiment of all that was evil, and the Nazis conceived of the Final Solution– the murder of 6 million Jews. In the camps their identity, their names, were taken away and replaced with numbers tattooed on their arms.


One of the most moving parts of the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem is the Well of Memory. After walking all the way through the museum, you come to an enormous circular room. In the floor is a deep well cut into the rock of the mountain on which the museum is located. Above it is an enormous circular chamber that goes up at least 2 or 3 stories. The chamber is lined with boxes that hold the names of 4 million of Hitler’s victims. The names of 4 million have been restored but the names of millions of others may be lost forever.


I have to confess something to you. Before I came to Christ Church I had many conversations with Bishop Dan about the history of conflict at Christ Church. I was afraid that conflict had become a way of life here, that conflict had taken on a life of its own, and I did not want to get caught up in it. He assured me that that was not the case, and now that I am here, I know that he was correct.


Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing, and there is such a thing as healthy anger. They only become destructive when they take on a life of their own and become disconnected from their sources. It is perfectly all right for us to argue and debate. It may even be OK for us to be angry from time to time. But it is not OK to stay stuck in conflict and anger. When that happens, we need Jesus to remind us of who we are, to assert his authority, to come to us and say, “What is your name?” Our name is Christian, Child of God, not Legion.


The power of God is always drawing us closer to God and closer to each other. If we find ourselves pulling apart and becoming isolated, then we can be certain that evil, not God, is at work among us.


From time to time all of us have strayed, wandered from the embrace of life and love. We may even have found ourselves in a place of death. We may have forgotten for a time who we really are. But there is a place (and I don’t mean Cheers) where we are known and named and loved. And it is that place where the Gadarene demoniac found himself at the end of the story – at the feet of Jesus.


Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.


Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

One Hundred Great Anglican Books

I am compiling a list of "One Hundred Great Anglican Books." This is entirely for my own edification and amusement, although I hope it will provoke thoughtful discussion. Currently, the list skews heavily toward white, British, male 19th and 20th century writers, so I am seeking additional authors who are (1) women; (2) evangelicals; (3) from Australia, New Zealand, and the farther reaches of the Anglican Communion; (4) from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centures; (5) from the developing world. I welcome suggestions, however keep in mind that (1) this is completely subjective; and (2) I am the benevolent overlord and my decisions are absolute and final. That said, please send your suggestions to Thanks.
1 Lewis Bayly The Practice of Piety
2 George Bell The Church and Humanity
3 George Bell Christian Unity
4 Joseph Butler Analogy of Religion
5 Samuel Taylor Coleridge Aids to Reflection
6 Thomas Cranmer Book of Common Prayer (1662)
7 Samuel Crowther The Bible (Yoruba translation)
8 Joy Davidman Smoke on the Mountain
9 John Donne Collected Poems
10 John Donne Collected Sermons
11 John Stott & David Edwards Essentials
12 T.S. Eliot Four Quartets
13 Austin Farrer The Glass of Vision
14 Austin Farrer The Essential Sermons
15 Joseph Fletcher Situation Ethics
16 Charles Gore The Incarnation
17 George Herbert The Temple
18 John Henry Hobart Parochial Sermons
19 Richard Holloway Leaving Alexandria
20 Richard Holloway Signs of Glory
21 Richard Hooker Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity
22 Susan Howatch Glittering Images
23 Susan Howatch Glamorous Powers
24 Susan Howatch Ultimate Prizes
25 Trevor Huddleston Naught for your Comfort
26 John Jewell Apology of the Church of England
27 Samuel Johnson A System of Morality
28 Festo Kivengere I Love Idi Amin
29 William Law A Serious Call
30 Madeleine L'Engle Walking on Water
31 Madeleine L'Engle The Irrational Season
32 Madeleine L'Engle A Wrinkle in Time
33 C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity
34 C.S. Lewis The Narnia Chronicles
35 C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters
36 C.S. Lewis The Great Divorce
37 John Macquarrie Principles of Christian Theology
38 Henry Martyn Diary
39 E.L. Mascall Words and Images
40 E.L. Mascall The Importance of Being Human
41 Frederick Denison Maurice The Kingdom of Christ
42 Eric Milner-White My God, My Glory
43 Stephen Neill Anglicanism
44 Stephen Neill A History of Christian Missions
45 John Henry Newman Parochial and Plain Sermons
46 John Henry Newman Oxford University Sermons
47 John Newton Thoughts upon the Slave Trade
48 William Cowper & John Newton Olney Hymns
49 J.I. Packer Knowing God
50 J.B. Phillips The New Testament in Modern English
51 John Polkinghorne The Faith of a Physicist
52 John Polkinghorne The God of Hope and the End of the World
53 Michael Ramsey The Gospel and the Catholic Church
54 Charles Raven Creator Spirit
55 Charles Raven Science, Religion, and the Future
56 John A.T. Robinson Honest to God
57 Dorothy Sayers The Mind of the Maker
58 Samuel Schereschewsky The Book of Common Prayer in Mandarin
59 Vida Scudder The Church and the Hour
60 Vida Scudder Christian Simplicity
61 Colin Stephenson Merrily on High
62 John Stott Basic Christianity
63 Jonathan Swift A Modest Proposal
64 Jonathan Swift An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity
65 Jeremy Taylor Holy Living and Holy Dying
66 John V. Taylor The Go-Between God
67 William Temple Readings in St. John's Gospel
68 Anthony Trollope The Barchester Chronicles
69 Desmond Tutu Hope and Suffering
70 Desmond Tutu No Future Without Forgiveness
71 Evelyn Underhill Mysticism
72 Evelyn Underhill Worship
73 Izaak Walton Walton's Lives
74 Charles Wesley Hymns and Sacred Poems
75 John Wesley Journal
76 William Wilberforce A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System
77 Harry Williams Some Day I'll Find You
78 Harry Williams True Wilderness
79 Rowan Williams A Ray of Darkness
80 Rowan Williams Tokens of Trust
81 Charles Williams Descent of the Dove
Williams Descent into Hell
83 N.T. Wright The New Testament and the People of God
84 N.T. Wright Jesus and the Victory of God
85 The Bible (Authorized Version)