Sunday, July 28, 2013

Lord's Prayer 1: Our Father in Heaven (J. Barry Vaughn, July 28, 2013)

 According to Luke, Jesus’ disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and Jesus replied, “When you pray, say, ‘Father’…” or as Matthew has it, “Pray then this way…”  In either case, the Lord’s Prayer is (if you will) the principal text in Jesus’ school of prayer.   Even if it were not presented to us as Jesus’ own teaching on how to pray, it would be well worth our time to pay careful attention to this prayer.  It has been on the lips and in the hearts of Christians for 2000 years.  Throughout that time it has been said innumerable times every day and in every human language.  Along with “Now I lay me down to sleep…” and “God is great, God is good…” it is usually the first prayer that we learn as children. The Lord’s Prayer begins and ends in God’s heavenly kingdom:  “Our Father in heaven…” and “the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.” But the route it takes away from and back to God’s presence runs through the very heart of human life.  So I invite you to join me in sitting with the other disciples at the feet of Jesus to learn what he meant when he said, “Pray then this way, ‘Our Father…’”


Today and for the next 3 Sundays I will be preaching about the Lord’s Prayer. But today I want to look at four lessons we learn from the Lord’s Prayer:  First, prayer is a skill we need to learn.  Secondly, all Christian prayer is corporate.  Thirdly, the Lord’s prayer teaches us that God relates to us as a parent to children.  And fourthly, we can never go so far from God that he will be unable to hear our prayer.


“Pray then this way…” implies that we do not know how to pray.  How could that be?  Isn’t prayer a universal human impulse?  Why did the disciples go to Jesus and say, “Lord, teach us to pray”?  They were Jews, and at the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jewish faith was over a thousand years old. For over a thousand years the Jewish people had raised their hearts and hands to heaven and called upon the Almighty. Even if they had been Greeks or Romans, they would have known how to pray.  All of the world’s religions have teachings and traditions about prayer.  Doesn’t prayer rise spontaneously from a feeling of gratitude?  I think that all of us have a natural desire to offer thanks for the good things that come to us unsought and unasked for – the startling red of a maple in autumn or the stranger who opens a door for us when our arms are loaded with groceries. Prayer seems not only natural but inevitable when disaster strikes – when a newborn’s fever grows higher and higher and nothing seems to bring it down, what parent in the world does not turn to prayer?  When the crops fail, or the river overflows its banks, or there hasn’t been a drop of rain in months, is there anyone who does not at least yearn to believe that there is a God who will hear and answer our prayers?  And especially at death, don’t we naturally pray for peace for those who have departed this life?


Prayer appears to be a natural human response to both the good and the bad situations that inevitably accompany human life.  And yet, whether we read Matthew or Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus seemed to think he needed to teach his disciples to pray. 


Why do we need to know how to pray?  The Lord’s Prayer itself is the answer.  It is at once both simple enough for a child to learn and understand and also a deep vein of spiritual treasure from which the greatest of saints can mine inexhaustible riches.  To be sure, prayer is a natural and universal human impulse and God hears all prayers.  However, while our natural impulses are all God’s good gifts, they need to be shaped and trained.  It is natural for a child to want to speak, but without hearing her parents talk to her, she will not advance beyond the oooohs and ahhs of infancy.  Hunger is a natural impulse, but a child needs to be introduced slowly and gradually to healthy and nutritious food.  And so it is with prayer.  The spiritual life requires as much training as sports or music.  The Lord’s Prayer is a set of exercises from which both the beginner and the advanced student can benefit.


The first word is the first lesson:  “Our…” By nature our prayers are selfish and individualistic.  We seek to get our own needs met.  But the Lord’s Prayer teaches us that we are not isolated individuals but parts of a greater whole.  As with the Nicene creed, so with the Lord’s Prayer, this is a text for the baptized.  In the early church, those who were to be baptized at the Easter vigil were dismissed from the service after the sermon. They did not have an opportunity to say the creed or the Lord’s prayer. But after they had been baptized, they said the creed and the Lord’s prayer together with the congregation for the first time: “WE believe…” “OUR Father…” Baptism makes us no longer an “I” but a “we” .   


Perhaps the greatest and most destructive mistake of the modern West is individualism.  In contrast to human experience from the beginning of time, the women and men of the modern West believe themselves to be captains of their fate and masters of their destiny.  But in John Donne’s words, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main....”  This is even more true for Christians.  Baptism makes us members of the body of Christ and participants in a fellowship that extends throughout time and space.  There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. You have never prayed alone. Every time you pray, you are a part of the great chorus of prayer that goes up throughout time and space. As we say in the Eucharistic prayer, “With angels and archangels and with the whole company of heaven…”.  And this is the first thing the Lord’s Prayer teaches us.  “Our Father…”


The second lesson is about the nature of God.  Without a guide, it would be natural to think of God as remote, removed, indifferent, or perhaps even hostile.  This seems to have been the belief of the Hellenistic religions.  It was assumed as a matter of course that the gods were vindictive and vengeful and so sacrifices were offered to acquire their good will or to avert their anger.  One did not have a parent/child relationship with the gods; at best it was more like master/slave.  But the Jewish faith taught that God freely bound himself in love to his people in a covenant relationship that could not be destroyed.  And Jesus opened the vision of God’s love even more and taught that the relationship that Israel had with God was the relationship that God desires to have with each of us.  And this is expressed in the second word of the prayer:  “Father”.


Before I go any further I have to acknowledge that “Father” is a problematic word.  A few years ago a wit took a jab at our preoccupation with inclusive language:


How shall we sing the praise of Him

Who is no longer He?

Where shall we go to learn

The sex of Deity?


“Father” is problematic for many reasons.  First, it implies that God is male or at least masculine.  But feminists have taught us that masculine and feminine are cultural constructs.  They are categories we impose on each other, but in no sense are they natural or universal.  God is beyond our limited concept of what it means to be masculine or feminine.  The great Catholic feminist Dorothy Day said that God’s love can be “harsh and dangerous”, but God’s love is also soft and yielding.  Love makes God vulnerable. Isn’t that one of the main things we learn from crucifixion? Love took God the Son on a journey from heavenly glory to ignominious death on a cross, from the right of the Father to the right hand of a petty criminal.  Harsh and dangerous are categories many of us associate with masculinity, but vulnerability is a quality often associated with the feminine.  In a sense, addressing God as Father is a subtle way of undermining our assumptions about both the feminine and the masculine, because we see in God qualities associated with both genders.  God is both yielding and resistant, both fierce and tender.  We limit ourselves when we define masculine and feminine too narrowly, but God defies our limits and expectations. 


However, the great problem of addressing God as Father is that it appears to bless a form of patriarchy.  I think the way to deal with this is to acknowledge that it is true.  While I believe that the Lord’s Prayer is a universal prayer that Christians always will and always should pray, it is also a product of a different time, place, and culture.  The Lord’s Prayer came from a world that privileged the masculine and could not conceive of God as other than Father.  Jesus shared many of the assumptions of that world, but in his acceptance of women as his disciples, in his defiance of the conventions that kept women and men apart, and in his choice of women to be the first witnesses of his resurrection he helped lay the groundwork for the full empowerment of women, even though that took centuries and is not yet fully complete.


I sincerely believe that the day will come when someone will compose a prayer addressing God as Mother, a prayer that will catch our imaginations and move our hearts.  Such a prayer will not supplant the Lord’s Prayer but it will balance it.  But that day has not come yet.  However, when we pray “your kingdom come” I believe we are praying for the day when women and men will share equally in God’s work and when we will perceive that all along God has been as much our Mother as our Father.


The last point I want to make to day is about how we locate God.  The Lord’s Prayer addresses God in heaven.  The third and fourth words of the Lord’s Prayer give people almost as much trouble as Father.  To many “in heaven” implies that God is far away and not near, that God is out there instead of in here.  Heaven is infinitely far away.  How, we think, could a God who dwells in heaven be concerned with whether or not we find a job or our spouse’s emotional cruelty or the incessant phone calls from bill collectors?  How, we wonder, could the high God of heaven bend his ears to hear not only our voices but even the silent prayers of our hearts?  That is precisely the point.  By teaching us to pray to our Father in heaven, Jesus is telling us that distance is not a factor with God.  No matter where are and no matter where God is, God hears us.  As Paul writes in Romans 8, “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”, not even the distance between heaven and earth.


However, there is another message in the third and fourth words of the Lord’s Prayer.  To pray to our Father in heaven is an acknowledgement that our world is not yet as it should be and we are not yet as we should be.  We are not yet ready to welcome God’s rule.  Our world is still a place of injustice and cruelty, of deceit and treachery.  The Bible promises that God will one day come to dwell among us, but also tells us that that day has not yet come.  


The Christian faith teaches us that God is both beyond us and within us, both transcendent and immanent.  The Lord’s Prayer expresses the longing that God’s world and our world will one day be identical.  But in this present time we must sadly acknowledge that that is not yet the case.  While present with us by the power of the Holy Spirit, God does not yet dwell fully in our world.


When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we discover that we are not alone, but rather God’s beloved daughters and sons who are invited into a relationship with Christians in all times and all places and that that the deepest desires of our heart are heard in heavenly places.  “Pray then this way…”

Monday, July 15, 2013

Deacon Rick O'Brien's sermon on July 7, 2013

Naaman was a powerful man.  One did not become commander of armies by accident.  He clearly must have had intelligence to be able to develop the strategies and tactics that enabled his army to win battles.  He must also have had strong political skills to be able to win and hold such a lofty rank.  That he did this while being a leper was nothing short of extraordinary. 

A leper was the most undesirable wretch on the planet.  There was a strong social hierarchy at that time.  Kings and royalty held the highest rung, followed by Priests and scribes, the wealthy, followed by the educated class.  Then came landowners, then merchants, then laborers.  After that were those outside of normal society such as shepherds, and bandits. Finally, after all of the classes had been exhausted came those at the absolute bottom of the barrel; those who were unclean.  The unclean were those who could not come into contact with normal society.  Leprosy was the worst disease that one could have, and put a person completely outside of society.

Leprosy disfigured the face and hands, making the victim less and less recognizable.  As the sores grew larger they began to seep a terrible-smelling liquid.  When someone had developed leprosy they had to leave the society.  They were literally forced out and had to live in caves or in a leper house that was well outside the bounds of the town.  If they did come into town they had to wear black and veil their face to prevent people from seeing the repulsiveness.  As they walked, they had to warn everyone by calling out “Unclean, unclean” as they went so that people could avoid them.  They were literally thought of as dead people walking, as the disease was always fatal.  One simply could not be more of a pariah than a leper.

And yet Naaman was the commander of the armies of Aram.  I would assume that he had attained this rank before contracting leprosy.  It is virtually impossible for him to have done so as a leper, since he would have been ostracized.  No, it seems that he was a man of standing and position who happened to contract the disease.  The king was then conflicted.  He didn’t want to lose the services of such a valuable member of his court, and yet he couldn’t maintain a leper either.  The solution was to find a way for him to be healed.  And thus we have this mornings’ lesson.

Naaman goes to be healed, and ultimately finds himself outside Elisha’s house.  And when presented with the means to cure his condition, what does he do?  Rather than be grateful for a way to maintain his health, his position, and in fact his very life, Naaman gets angry that Elisha didn’t come outside.  He is mad that Elisha didn’t develop an elaborate spectacle of the healing.  He is looking for pomp and circumstance, the type of treatment that someone of his station feels is his right based upon his rank and social standing.  And rather than be healed, he makes to depart in a rage.

Wow.  He is presented with the answer to his prayers, and fails to take advantage of this opportunity simply because it doesn’t measure up to his expectations. Think for a moment about his choice here.  He can either do as Elisha suggests, or he can return home.  If he returns home without being cured, he will be condemned to a life outside of society.  Everything that he holds dear will be taken from him.  He will lose his job, his social position, his household.  He will lose his wife and family, his servants, and he will be forced out of society. Ultimately, the disease will kill him.  Despite all of this, he makes to depart.  Not because he doesn’t want to be healed, but because the healing doesn’t measure up to his expectations.

Remember that Naaman was a powerful general.  His king had sent him to Israel with ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.  That is an absolute fortune for any one of us, but to Naaman, it was just pocket money.  He was accustomed to traveling in the highest circles, where money and prestige were just part of the life. 

Naaman was probably not unlike some of our professional athletes or music stars.  People whose fame and accomplishments can warp their sense of self and change their expectations of the way they should be treated, and in some cases, revered.  Especially living here in Las Vegas, we are used to hearing stories of such people making unreasonable demands or behaving badly.

While it may be tempting to think that this is simply a sign of the decadent times we live in, such behavior and expectations have been with us from the beginning.  In roman times, when a general had performed heroic service to the empire, he was sometimes honored with a Triumph.  A triumph was a magnificent parade and ceremony that celebrated the man, and conferred a near god-like status upon him.  He was essentially thought of as equivalent to the emperor that day, and the entire city turned out to honor him.  He rode in a golden chariot while the whole city bowed down to him and showered him with flowers and adoration.  Legend holds that the only concession to his mortality was a slave who would ride next to him in the chariot whispering in his ear, “Remember that you are merely a mortal”. 

“Remember that you are merely a mortal.”  I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time thinking that the slave was very persuasive given all that was going on.  Naaman seems to fit this mold fairly well.  He is outraged that he has traveled all of this way and Elisha won’t even come outside to attend him.  He seems to have forgotten that he too is merely a mortal, and instead expects God to act in the way Naaman would have him act.   

And then his servants intervene and convince him to at least give it a shot.  It is no accident that his servants get it and he doesn’t.  And then he grudgingly does as they suggest and is restored to health.

Does this lesson speak to you the way it does to me?  I see a lot of myself in Naaman.  He is given a multitude of gifts from God and has everything that he needs or wants.  And then trouble comes into his life and he feels sorry for himself.  And then God offers him a way through it, and he balks because it doesn’t come in the manner that he expects it to come.  How often do we reject blessings from God because they don’t appear the way we expect them to? 

This lesson is an excellent reminder that God does NOT work on our schedule.  God has plans and purposes that we don’t see and sometimes cannot understand.  But just because things don’t work out the way we thought they would, it does not mean that God is not with us.  God answers our prayers in many ways, ways that we often don’t understand.

There is an old story about a man whose home is threatened by a flood.  As the waters advance, a neighbor comes by in a canoe and offers to take the man to safety.  The man refuses saying that he is a Christian with a strong faith and he knows that God will save him.  Later as the waters continue to advance a police boat comes by to help, but the man again refuses saying that he knows God will save him.  Finally the man has to climb onto the roof to escape the waters and a helicopter offers to pick him up from the roof, but he again declines saying that God will save him.  Sadly, the man drowns and when he faces God at the pearly gates he says, “Lord I had faith in you and you let me down.  Why didn’t you save me?  And the Lord says to him, I sent you a canoe, a boat, and a helicopter.  What more did you want from me?”

Admittedly a poor analogy, but I hope you get my point.  This man was not unlike Naaman.  He had a preconceived notion of what God would do and was blinded to any other possibility.  The phrase “the Lord works in mysterious ways” is not simply a trite expression; it is in fact, the truth.  We don’t necessarily know how God will act, but we can be very certain of one thing.  It will not always be the way we expect.  If that were true we would have to consider ourselves to be equal to God, and that is just not the case.  We need to remember that God is God and while we are created in his image, we are decidedly NOT his peers.  “Remember that you are merely a mortal.”

Once we realize that we can’t know how God will act, we are then ready to open ourselves to other possibilities.  If we can get out of our own heads and remember that God can and does use other people, and even sometimes us to further his purposes, then we, like Naaman can be healed.  Healed of our narrow mindedness, healed of thinking that the world revolves around us as individuals, healed of the mistaken notion that God is here for us, rather than we are here for him. 

Once we learn to set aside our preconceived notions of how God should act, we can be open to the idea that God may even chose to act through us.  I have a priest friend who at the end of each service reminds us to “remember the poor in body and the poor in spirit.  For them, the light at the end of the tunnel may just be you.” If we can accept God’s blessings in whatever way they come to us, then perhaps we can also be the instrument of His blessings for other people.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Parable of the Good Samaritan - Which Character Are You? (J. Barry Vaughn, July14, 2013)

As I prepared for my sermon today, I was struck by the sheer amount of resources available for the story of the Good Samaritan. Apart from Christmas and Easter, I suspect that more sermons have been preached about this parable than anything else in the New Testament. Something about this story strikes a chord with us.


I believe that one of the reasons that it resonates with us so deeply is that all of us can see ourselves as at least one, if not more, of the characters in the story – the man set upon by thieves, the priest and the Levite who pass by, or the Good Samaritan.


Let’s try looking at this story from each of these points of view.


First, consider the Samaritan himself.  Keep in mind that Jesus told this parable in response to a question. Luke tells us that a lawyer asked Jesus a question. Now, keep in mind that in Jesus’ time, a “lawyer” was not an attorney. A lawyer was an expert in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. It would be more accurate to paraphrase this is a Biblical scholar or theologian or religious leader.


“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asked Jesus. And Jesus, in good Jewish fashion, answered his question with another question, “What is written in the law?”


Do you know the story about the rabbinical student, frustrated because his teacher always replied to his questions with more questions, said, “Master, why do you always answer my questions with a question?” To which his teacher said, “So, what’s wrong with questions?”


Anyway, the scholar gave Jesus a perfectly satisfactory answer, “You shall love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” “You got it,” Jesus said, “Do that and you will have eternal life.”


Now, the scholar’s next move may seem to be nitpicking. He had another question, “But who is my neighbor?”


It is said that the comedian W.C. Fields asked for a Bible on his deathbed. Fields was known to be a heavy drinker and not known for his interest in religion, so his friends asked why he wanted a Bible. “I’m looking for loopholes,” he replied.


Was the lawyer looking for loopholes when he asked Jesus who his neighbor was? I don’t think so. If we are told that eternal life depends on loving our neighbor as ourselves, then it is only reasonable to ask Jesus to define his terms. What does he mean by love? What does he mean by neighbor?


One of the most provocative interpretations of this parable comes from the late Margaret Thatcher. Something that is not well-known about the late Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s former prime minister, is that she was a sincere Christian. Her father was a Methodist lay preacher, and she herself did some lay preaching while she was an undergraduate at Oxford. She became a member of the Church of England when the Conservatives won the general election of 1979, partly because as prime minister, she would be involved in appointing the bishops of the Church of England.


One of Thatcher's favorite biblical stories was the parable of the Good Samaritan. This strikes some as very odd because she drastically reduced government spending on social services. But Thatcher's interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan was very different from most interpretations.


In a talk she gave at a church in London, Thatcher made the provocative comment that “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions; he had money as well.”


It’s not a bad point, but I think Thatcher missed something. What she missed was the significance that Samaritans had to first century Jews.


Jesus was telling a story about who is our neighbor and what it means to love. And what really shocked the scholar was that Jesus designated a Samaritan as the one to act as a neighbor.


When Jesus had finished telling the story, he asked the scholar, “Which of these three was neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?” “The one who showed him mercy,” the man replied. He couldn’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.”


The Samaritans were a group of Jews who long ago had intermarried with non-Jews. They differed from the mainstream of Judaism on many important points. So the Jews despised and looked down on the Samaritans. But Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero of his story, the one who shows us how to be a neighbor, how to do those things that will bring us eternal life.


Fifty years ago Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., launched his campaign to desegregate businesses in Birmingham, AL, and force them to hire black sales clerks. 


White people in the deep South deeply resented the civil rights movement. They resented even more the way that they were portrayed in northern newspapers. They correctly pointed out that they knew many black people, that black people had worked for their families for generations, that they treated black people with kindness and respect. They had a point. Most of what they said was correct.


The problem wasn't that they weren't treating black people with kindness. The problem was that they did not want black people to enjoy the full dignity of human nature.


Jesus told this parable partly in order to make the scholar question his assumptions about Samaritans and to make us question our assumptions about those whom we regard as inferior to us in some way. The question is not so much, “Are we willing to reach out and help those in need?” Of course we are. But I don’t think that’s all that Jesus was saying. The more difficult question is, “Is there someone that we look down, someone we would not want to acknowledge as our neighbor?” And at times, all of us have felt that way about someone.


Now consider two other characters in this story: the priest and the Levite.


Consider for a minute the priest and the Levite. It’s easy to get worked up about them because here are two professional religious figures who see a man, bloodied and beaten, lying in a ditch, and they pass by on the other side of the road.


Many years ago, Clarence Jordan, a renegade Southern Baptist preacher, retold this story in a humorous way.


Once upon a time, he said, a man was going down from Atlanta to Albany, and a bunch of robbers beat him up and stole his money. In a little while a revivalist drove by in his big Cadillac. He had to be in Albany to preach a revival at the Assembly of God’s Holy Love in Christ that evening. He saw the man in the ditch but he was afraid that he might get the seats in his Cadillac dirty if he stopped to help him, so he just slowed down and said, “God bless you brother,” and sped on by.


A little while later, the man who was leading the singing for the revival also drove by. He saw the man in the ditch but was afraid he would be late for the revival. He didn’t stop either but did sing a chorus of “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” as he drove by.


But let me say a good word for the priest and the Levite. The priest and the Levite were on their way to Jerusalem to perform their duties in the temple. Contact with the man’s blood would have rendered them unclean and unable to perform their duties in the temple. They did not necessarily do anything wrong by avoiding contact with the man in the ditch.


But I suspect that Jesus had a subversive reason in including them the story. He was asking his listeners to evaluate their priorities. What is more important? Observing the letter of the law or caring for someone in need?


It was a good question then, and it’s a good question now. When have we hid behind a screen of rules instead of reaching out to someone in need?


Finally, consider the man in the ditch. It is easy, though uncomfortable, to see ourselves as the priest and Levite passing by someone in need. It is also fairly easy to think of times when we have acted the part of the Good Samaritan, going out of our way to help someone, spending our own money for the sake of someone who has no claim on our kindness. But it is probably rather difficult and uncomfortable to think of a time when we have found ourselves in the ditch.


But I think that may be the very point of this story.


The 4th c. theologian St. Augustine provocatively retold this story like this:


Adam himself is the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho; Thieves are the devil and his angels. Who stripped him, namely; of his immortality; and beat him, by persuading him to sin; and left him half-dead, because in so far as man can understand and know God, he lives, but in so far as he is wasted and oppressed by sin, he is dead; he is therefore called half-dead.   Samaritan is Jesus himself; The binding of the wounds is the restraint of sin. Oil is the comfort of good hope; wine the exhortation to work with fervent spirit. The inn is the Church, where travelers returning to their heavenly country are refreshed after pilgrimage.


Notice that most of the parable is taken up with the actions of the Samaritan: bandaging the man’s wounds, treating them with wine and oil, lifting him on to his animal, taking him to the inn, paying the innkeeper, and so on.


Jesus is not giving us instructions in first aid; he is inviting us to let him care for us; to feel him soothe our wounds with the oil of his love, cleanse our sins with the sharpness of the Spirit’s fire, to let him carry us into the presence of the Father’s love. Or as one of my colleagues says, to let him check us into the Hotel Compassion, all expenses paid.


“Before we ‘go and do likewise’ or go and do anything at all, we are meant to know the care and compassion of the stranger who finds us abandoned, lifts us up and provides hospitality for us. The actions of the Samaritan open a window for us to recognize nothing less than the care and compassion of God. The parable tells us who we are, tells us of our deep need for God’s love. And that was Augustine’s point. The traveler is Adam, that is to say, he is each and every one of us; the Samaritan greeted with suspicion and even hostility is Christ; the inn is the church where broken travelers may rest and be refreshed.” (Patrick Willson, “Who we are,” The Christian Century, July 26, 2007)


We don’t really need this parable to tell us that we are responsible for the well-being of others. We already knew that we were meant to be our brothers and sisters’ keepers. What we need is to know that when we were in the ditch, when we had been beat up by life, when we had been abandoned by everyone, that God sent a Good Samaritan named Jesus to bind up our wounds and take us home.