Sunday, August 25, 2013

Straightening bent backs and giving voice to the voiceless (J. Barry Vaughn, Aug. 25, 2013)

In today's gospel reading, Jesus heals a woman who has been afflicted for 18 years by a spirit that, according to Luke, has left her "bent over and... quite unable to stand up straight."


The poet Miriam Winter says, "Surely / You meant / when You lifted / her up / Long ago / To your praise, / Compassionate One, / not one woman / only / but all women / bent / by unbending ways."


Is the poet correct? When Jesus healed the woman in the synagogue, did he mean to heal "all women, bent by unbending ways"? I think that's what he must have meant to do.


A few years ago, New York Times' columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a book entitled, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Among other things, Kristof points out that "although the world's population continues to grow, the number of women is declining. Already there are 60 to 100 million fewer girls than boys in the world, due to selective abortions, selective infanticide or neglect, and the uneven allocation of basic resources such as food, health care and education to girls. The battering of women results in more injuries requiring medical attention than auto accidents, muggings and rapes combined."


Notice something else about the woman in today's gospel reading: she never speaks. Sadly, this is true of most of the women in the Bible. Someone pointed out that of the 300 recorded prayers in the Old Testament, fewer than a dozen are by women. But do we have any reason to believe that women prayed less often or less fervently than men? Even the Bible leaves women's lives largely invisible and inaudible.


Of course, it is not only women who are "bent by unbending ways." Yesterday the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march on Washington for jobs and freedom was observed with events all over the United States, including here in Las Vegas. Confronting "unbending ways" and lifting up those who were bent by those ways is a pretty good description of what the civil rights movement was all about.


The leader of that movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is often said to have been a prophet. I think that's a good way of describing Dr. King.


Today's Old Testament reading is an account of the call of the prophet Jeremiah, and it reminds me a little of Dr. King.


"The word of the LORD came to me saying, 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.'"


Like Jeremiah, King began his career at a remarkably young age. He was only 25 years old when Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, called him to be their pastor. And like Jeremiah, King was a reluctant prophet.


About 18 months after King came to Dexter Avenue church, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery city bus. The ministers who organized the Montgomery bus boycott prevailed on King to lead the movement, not because he was a political firebrand or an outspoken advocate of civil rights but because he was the newest minister in town and had not yet made any enemies!


To be a prophet is no easy thing.  God says to Jeremiah, "Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."


" pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." It seems like an odd job description for a man or woman of God. These are violent images: pluck up, pull down, destroy, overthrow. Anyone engaging in these activities is bound to encounter plenty of opposition. And that is exactly what happened to Jeremiah.


One of my favorite scenes in Jeremiah occurs when Jeremiah goes to the temple in Jerusalem and says to the people going into it: "Do not trust in these deceptive words, Bet adonai, bet adonai, bet adonai... the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord..."


"Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail.  Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known,  and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, 'We are safe!'" (Jer. 7.8-10)


The people of Jeremiah's hometown tried to kill him; a priest of the temple had him beaten; and royal officials threw him into a muddy cistern and later imprisoned him.


Dr. King's life was not much different. During the Montgomery bus boycott his house was dynamited; he was jailed on several occasions; and finally, he was murdered on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968.


When Jesus healed the woman who had been unable to stand upright for 18 years, the leader of the synagogue took him to task for healing a non-life-threatening illness on the sabbath, a day so sacred that only the work necessary to save and sustain life was supposed to be done.


Jesus responded, "Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?"


I wonder what Jesus would have said when Rosa Parks was arrested? "Ought not this woman, a child of God, be able to sit anywhere she wants to after working hard all day?"


Sometimes the task of a prophet is to "pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow." Sometimes the task of a prophet is to confront people dressed up in their Sunday best on their way to church and say, "What do you think you are doing? Do you really think that going to church will do you any good when God asks you why you didn't do more to feed hungry people or shelter the homeless?"


But sometimes the task of a prophet is to heal, to straighten backs that are bent down by heavy loads.


When I went to Bangladesh a few years ago with my clergy group, we were guests of Archbishop Joseph Marino. Archbishop Marino took us out into the countryside and showed us some of the schools that the Roman Catholic church supports there. At the first school dozens of young students greeted us with applause. They sang traditional songs and performed traditional dances. But as we left, they serenaded us with a traditional American song. I'm sure they wondered why these grown men, these Jewish and Christian, Protestant and Catholic, black and white clergy from Birmingham, Alabama, started to cry as they sang, "We shall overcome."


Before we left Bangladesh, Archbishop Marino had a dinner party for us. At the end of the evening, Rabbi Jonathan Miller said, "In Jewish services, we bless God for 'raising up those who lie in the dust,' and that is exactly what I have seen the Roman Catholic Church do in Bangladesh. You raise up those who lie in the dust."


When we look around at each other this morning, "prophet" is probably not the first word that comes to mind. We are more likely to think "middle class", "middle aged," "respectable", and so on. But I believe that God is calling us to be a community of prophets.


A prophet is someone who speaks the word of God. It can be a word of rebuke to the powerful. Or it can be a word of comfort to the afflicted. Or it can be a word of healing to the sick and wounded.


But the word of God is never just a way of communicating information. The word of God does something. It accomplishes something. It changes things.


But do not accept the commission to speak God's word lightly, because it can be a dangerous and costly thing to speak the word of God. Just ask Jeremiah... or Martin Luther King... or Jesus.


When you become aware that God is inviting you to be a prophet, you may have the same reaction that Jeremiah had: Who? Me? I'm nobody. I'm just a boy. I'm just a woman. I'm black. I'm poor. I haven't been to college. I'm gay or lesbian.


But God is not looking for the right people from the right families or with the right incomes or with the right education. In fact, I'm not sure that God is looking for the right people at all.


But God is looking for people to tell the story. Do you know the old spiritual, "Balm in Gilead"?


If you cannot preach like Peter

and you cannot pray like Paul

Just tell the love of Jesus

and say he died for all.


Here at Christ Church we have a story to tell, a wonderful story,  the story of Jesus and his love, the story of the hungry fed, the story of the homeless finding shelter, the story of burdens lifted and back straightened.


I know I am biased, but I believe that that is what Christ Church does, too. When we feed the hundreds of people who come to us for food every month, we are raising up those who lie in the dust. We are straightening bent backs.


When was the last time you said to a friend, "I want to tell you about the wonderful things that are happening at my church. Last month we gave food to almost 2000 hungry people. We are sharing our church with a large and growing Latino congregation. We are a part of Nevadans for the Common Good and helped enact legislation that will limit human trafficking in our state. Why don't you come to church with me and get involved?"


If more of us did that, this church would not only grow, I believe that we'd have to add extra staff and clergy and maybe even additional services.


Unlike the woman in today's gospel reading, we not only have voices, we have the the opportunity and the obligation to speak out for those who are voiceless.



Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Lord's Prayer 3 - Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen. (J. Barry Vaughn, Aug. 18, 2013)

This morning I want to finish my series on the Lord’s Prayer by looking at the conclusion of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. The traditional translation is “Lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.” I will also be referring to the contemporary translation: “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.”


The genius of the Lord’s Prayer is that it so perfectly balances the heavenly and the earthly.  Praise and worship bracket the prayer, but at its heart it gives voice to our most urgent needs:  bread, forgiveness, and refuge from evil. 


“Give us today our daily bread” and “Forgive our sins” are prayers we can pray as a matter of course.  But it can be a bit disconcerting when Jesus instructs us to pray “Save us from the time of trial” or “Lead us not into temptation” How could the Father to whom we pray “lead us into temptation” or bring us to “the time of trial?”  Is God a cosmic tempter?  Is God’s good creation full of snares and traps? 


Think with me about the petition, “lead us not into temptation.” In the 23rd Psalm we affirm that God “leads us beside still waters” and in the Lord’s Prayer we pray that God would “lead us not into temptation.”  What sense can we make of the seemingly incompatible ideas that the same God would lead us beside still waters and might also lead us into temptation?


It may help to solve the difficulty if we realize that the path beside the still waters and the way of temptation are often one and the same.  Think back to the story of Adam and Eve.  They lived in paradise.  Eden contained everything necessary to sustain human life, and God invited them to enjoy it rent-free.  God only asked that they refrain from eating the fruit of one of the trees.  Was this fruit evil in itself?  Of course not.  It was the way that Adam and Eve used this fruit that was evil, not the fruit itself.


The lesson we learn from Adam and Eve is that God has given us no gift so good that it cannot be put to evil uses.  The Book of Proverbs tells us that God gave wine to gladden the human heart.  Wine is God’s good gift, but it is also the source of misery to those who misuse it.  Sexuality is God’s good gift but has any other human appetite caused more anguish?  Almost daily we hear stories about the epidemic of obesity in America, and yet God blesses the responsible use of food. 


In other words, we are led into temptation every day.  Every day we are put to the test and face times of trial.  The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to ask for the strength to face these daily trials. But we usually have the strength to turn down an additional martini, or an extra slice of cheesecake. 


Jesus’ own example shows us that we dare not rely on our own strength and that all of us may face trials which will test the limits of our endurance. “Father, let this cup pass from me,” Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.  “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” We will all come eventually to our own Gethsemane.  It may happen as a result of a visit to the physician:  “I’m sorry to tell you but…” It may happen when a relationship fails:  “You’re a really nice person but…” It may happen when we are euphemistically “downsized”.  But the trial will come.  Jesus was nothing if not a realist.  When that moment comes (and it will come for us as surely as it came for him), we are more likely to be able to withstand it if we have frequently and fervently prayed, “Lead us not into temptation” or “Save us from the time of trial.” 


Note also that this petition, like all the others, is phrased in the plural:  “Save US from the time of trial”.  Just as we pray to OUR Father, for OUR daily bread, and that God would forgive US, so we pray that God would save US from the time of trial.  In this there is a note of hope.  We never face trials alone.  Just as we never pray alone, so we never face trials alone.  When trials come our way, we do not face them alone.  As the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, we are supported by a “great cloud of witnesses”.  This petition also reminds us that we are responsible to one another.  The trials that your neighbor faces are also your trials.


“Lead us not into temptation” or “Save us from the trial” leads directly to “and deliver us from evil.”  Bread and forgiveness don’t give us much trouble, but evil is another matter.  We tend to make two fundamental mistakes with regard to evil.  One is to attribute too much power to it.  The other is to attribute too little. 


There are some religious groups who regard evil as nothing more than an error or a flawed way of thinking.  They say that there are no wrong turns, only wrong ways of thinking.  I beg to differ. 


I don’t want to make the mistake of attributing too much power to evil, but if the 20th century taught us anything it taught us that evil is very real indeed.  How else can we explain the fact that the land of Beethoven, Goethe, and Einstein became the land of Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels? If evil is not real and powerful, how can we explain the near-extermination of the Jews of Europe?  If evil is not real how else can we explain the triumph of totalitarianism across two-thirds of the earth in the Soviet Union, its eastern European satellites, and the People’s Republic of China?  And closer to home, how can we explain our own commitment to build an arsenal of catastrophic weapons that could destroy all life on earth? 


On the other hand, it would be a mistake to attribute too much power to evil.  The classic statement of this mistake comes from that great theologian of my childhood - Flip Wilson:  “The devil made me do it!”  Well, no… the devil can’t make us do anything.  Powerful as evil may be, it is never all-powerful.  Evil may have the next to last word, but it never has the last word.  The West defeated Hitler; the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions; and the stockpile of terrible weapons that we built to defend ourselves from the Soviets is slowly but surely diminishing.


The temptations and trials that you and I face will probably be those that come to every human being – failed relationships, financial difficulties, disease, and death.  But when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we make common cause with Christians in every place and every age.  Their trials and temptations become our trials and temptations and ours become theirs.  When we pray “save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil” the powers of death and hell shudder and continue their long and slow but certain retreat. 


And when we pray, “For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever.  Amen”, we anticipate that day when evil shall be finally vanquished and God will reign upon earth as in heaven.


The Lord’s Prayer appears to be circular.  We begin and end by affirming that the kingdom belongs to God.  All appearances to the contrary God is in charge.  But then we add two more words – power and glory.  These make the Lord’s Prayer not a line but a spiral.  We have moved on.  Yes, God is the Ruler, the One who orders all things on earth and in heaven.  But earth is in rebellion against God’s rule.  Things are not as they should be, and we are not as we should be.  So Jesus teaches us to pray and long with all our hearts for that day when God’s Name will be hallowed, God’s kingdom will come, and God’s will is perfectly done on earth as in heaven.  The end of the Lord’s Prayer is a promise that it shall be so.  The Lord’s Prayer, then, is eschatological.  In other words, it gives us a glimpse of what is to come. The Lord’s Prayer is a preview of coming attractions.  “You’ve read the book; now see the movie.” 


How do we understand power and glory in this world?  Free associate with me.  If I say “power”, what comes to mind?  I immediately think of political power.  I think of the White House and the capital building. I think of the President’s fearful power to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. 


Now, glory.  What comes to mind?  I immediately think of athletes and movie stars.  The largest buildings in most medieval cities was the cathedral. Nothing rivaled them for size or beauty. The largest buildings in modern cities are sports stadiums. Tens of thousands assemble to worship at the altar of sports and lift up those demigods… at least as long as they are winning!


Or think of movie stars.  We sit in enormous dark rooms waiting for them to appear and tell us stories.  In the past people waited in enormous dark rooms called churches and venerated images of Christ and the saints and heard stories about them. 


But the New Testament has a very different account of glory. The Bible tells us that the glory of God was primarily manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Bible says that if you would see God’s glory you must look to the the torture and execution of an obscure Palestinian peasant crucified by the Romans 2000 years ago. 


And God’s glory continues to be on display in those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus, those  who embrace the poor and marginalized and in doing so exposed the hollowness of what this world thinks of as power and glory.  And in many cases what happened to Jesus happened to his followers, too. 


To see the glory of God, consider the theologian  Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the gallows in Flossenburg Prison; or the brilliant philosopher Sister Edith Stein in Auschwitz; Ugandan archbishop Janani Luwum, machine-gunned to death by Idi Amin’s agents; Martin Luther King, Jr., shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. 


But remember that the Lord’s Prayer is not a circle but a spiral.  It promises us a day when God’s rule will be accompanied by power and glory.  At the end of the Lord’s Prayer we give back to God the kingdom, the power, and the glory that we took for ourselves.  We want to possess the kingdom, the power, and the glory and use them to aggrandize ourselves.  We want people to bow down to us and praise us and do our bidding, but when we pray the words that Jesus taught us we learn that these things do not belong to us but to God.


Finally, we conclude the Lord’s Prayer with a resounding AMEN.  The Lord’s Prayer is God’s word to us.  In the 8th chapter of Romans, Paul says that we do not know how to pray as we should, so Jesus teaches us this prayer.  Prayer is our principal way of participating in God’s work in the world. 


But at the end of the Lord’s Prayer we are given our own word – amen.  Amen means “yes”, “That’s right”, “so may it be”.  When we say amen to the Lord’s Prayer, we are agreeing with God that the world is not as it should be.  We are casting in our lot with those in every time and place who have worked for God’s kingdom and have often paid a terrible price. 


Are you sure you want to say “amen” at the end of the Lord’s Prayer? Think about what you are saying when you say “amen” to the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray.


Do not say “amen” lightly.  It is your assent to what the Lord’s Prayer says. It is your affirmation that God is the rightful ruler of this world, that it is God who gives us each mouthful of food,  that we need to forgive and be forgiven daily, that evil is real and we cannot resist it with our own resources. 


Amen is a powerful word.  It slips so easily out of our mouths but it is our way of affirming that we stand with God and the marginalized against the powers and principalities of this world.  When we say amen to the Collect for Purity -- “Almighty God unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid…” -- we giving God permission to look into our hearts, to do an inventory of all the deceit and selfishness we’d rather no one know about.  When at the beginning of the service we say amen to “Blessed be God’s kingdom, now and forever” we are affirming that only God’s rule deserves the blessing and withholding the divine blessing from all earthly realms.  When on Ash Wednesday we say amen to “You are dust and to dust you shall return” we are affirming that we are mortal but God is immortal and that our only hope in this life and in the life to come is in the mercy and grace of God.


Amen is a powerful, life-changing, and world-changing word and never more so than when we pray the pray that Jesus taught his disciples in every age.  For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, O Lord.  So may it be.  Amen. 



Sunday, August 11, 2013

Faith, hope, love, and suffering (J. Barry Vaughn, Aug. 11, 2013)

Yesterday we buried Robert McLuckie, Carol Mittwede's husband. They were married in this church only 4 months ago. I thought I would interrupt my series on the Lord's Prayer and talk this morning about Robert's death because I know that many of us, including me, were so troubled by his death.


Carol asked us to read 1 Corinthians 13 at Robert's funeral. In St. Paul's great meditation on love, he says, "Faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love."


I would like to talk this morning about faith, hope, and love, and how they might help us deal with Robert's death and with the problem of suffering in general.


First, I'd like to talk about faith.


The author of Hebrews writes, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible."


Robert and Carol were married only 4 months ago. Never in my experience has "I do"  given way to "till death do us part" quite so quickly. The whole experience of Robert's illness and death has left some of us wondering about our faith. What kind of "assurance of things hoped for" do we have? Are there any "things not seen" that can help us make sense of this tragedy?


I want you to know this:  It is perfectly all right to doubt. In fact, I would say that doubt is an essential part of faith, because faith is not the same thing as certainty. Certainty leaves no room for faith. Faith means that we know the destination, but it does not mean that we will be able to see every step of the way. Faith means that we believe that God will guide our steps even though it is sometimes so dark that we cannot see the way, and perhaps this is one of those times.


I would like to tell you that God has a plan and that Robert's death was part of that plan. But I don't like the word "plan". It implies that Robert was some kind of chess piece on a cosmic chess board.


I believe there's a sense in which it is true to say that God has a plan.  But I would rather talk about patterns and meaning than plans.


One of the things we know about the world and human life is that we have freedom.


A college friend of mine told me that he lost his faith after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I can see why he would be troubled by those attacks but not why it would cause him to lose his faith. Actually, I believe his faith had been eroding for a long time.


9/11 was the result of human agents. I don't know why anyone would hold God responsible for the attacks on the towers and the Pentagon, even though the attackers claimed to be acting on behalf of God. My friend, Rabbi Jonathan Miller, called them "theological hoodlums."


On the other hand, I can understand why the existence of so-called acts of God, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and diseases such as AIDS and cancer could shake someone's faith. Why would God create a world in which these things could cause such suffering?


But perhaps God did not just endow human beings with freedom. Perhaps the universe itself has a kind of freedom. Theologian and scientist John Polkinghorne says that God made the world so that the world can make itself. When I consider the way that evolution operates or how stars are born, grow old, and die, I think he must be right. 


So part of the pattern of the universe and of human life is that we are free to make both good and bad choices and perhaps even non-human creation has a degree of freedom. Perhaps an element of randomness is built into the universe.


The arts, especially drama and music, also help me understand how human life and the non-human universe can have both free and pre-determined elements. When a musician plays a piece of music or when an actor plays a part, she is expected to play the notes on the page or read the words that the playwright has written. But she also has to make thousands of decisions about how to do so. Should she play softly or loudly? fast or slow? Should she pause for effect? Should she sit or stand? Walk to the front of the stage or exit stage left?


Jazz may be an even better illustration. A jazz saxophonist has an enormous amount of freedom within a general structure. He is playing "Stars fell on Alabama" in the key of E flat major. But within that structure and confined by those chords, he can go off on the most wonderful - or the most awful - solos. And if you add an electric bass, a piano, and drums, then you multiply the possibilities for both delight and disaster almost infinitely.


And that is where meaning comes in. I believe that if there is no freedom, there is no meaning, or at least there is much less meaning. If there is no suffering, then there is also no sainthood or heroism.


The existence of suffering makes possibility the existence of Mother Teresa. It was her response to human suffering that inspired people in every country and of every faith.


Political persecution and repression called forth the heroic example of Mahatma Gandhi.


It was the existence of racial prejudice and oppression that made possible the heroism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that inspired generations to work to undo the effects of racial prejudice and the structures that perpetuated it.


It is perfectly OK to be angry at God when bad things happen to good people. But faith gives us the ability to see the hand of God at work in the lives of those who give their lives to the great work of alleviating human suffering - the Mother Teresas, the Gandhis, the Martin Luther Kings.


Faith gives us the power to see the hand of God at work in taking terrible, random events, things that cause great suffering and weaving meaning into them.


Secondly, what role does hope play in our response to suffering?


Go back for a minute to the analogy of music or theatre. What would be the meaning of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony if we omitted the last movement, the great "Ode to Joy"? What would be the meaning of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream if the spell that bewitched the lovers was never undone? A piece of music or a play makes little or no sense if it is interrupted in the middle.


Similarly, suffering will not make sense unless we believe that our story, the human story, has an ending. The Christian faith tells us that God has already written an ending to our story and it is not just a happy ending, it is the happiest of all endings.


Alabama novelist Vicki Covington writes:


...the ultimate reason for depression and suicide is that a person reaches a point where not only is life meaningless but also there is no mystery about that fact; not only have we failed to be the hero of this story, but in fact there is no story.  And it is the task of Christianity to re-establish belief that there’s a story.  Not that the characters won’t have pain, accidents, or calamity; that the story won’t be sad.  Just simply that there is a story. (The Birmingham News, 1/23/94)


We read our children fairy tales that begin, “Once upon a time...” and that end, “...and they lived happily ever after.”  But between the “once upon a time” and the “happily ever after”, anything can happen.  The heroine may be called upon to slay a dragon; she may have to cross tall mountains and ford raging rivers; she may have to rescue the handsome but incompetent prince from the wiles of an evil witch.  She may be injured or even die.  But we know that somehow it will come out all right in the end.


That is the Christian faith.  Our faith is not that life will be pleasant and easy; we do not hold that if you have enough faith you will not experience pain and suffering.  What the Christian faith teaches us is that there is a story and a Storyteller.  The Christian faith proclaims that although there will be suffering and pain in life, it has a purpose.  We believe that the God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, is still with us, redeeming our pain and bringing meaning to our suffering.


Finally, what is the role of love in redeeming and giving meaning to suffering?


I believe that each of us has a role to play in redeeming suffering and bringing meaning out of the apparently meaningless.


In other words, when a terrible, apparently meaningless event such as Robert's death happens, it is our responsibility to try to bring meaning out of the apparently meaningless, order out of chaos.


What would that look like? I think it would look something like this.


Part of our job as meaning-givers is to respond constructively. We could throw up our hands, pull the covers over our heads, or we could reach out to the hurt, wounded, and sorrowful. We could help those who are hurt reweave the torn fabric of their lives. It could be something as simple as a word, a touch, a phone call. "I'm here... I care... I am with you."


It could be as simple as preparing a meal, writing a note, making a memorial gift. These are all ways of turning the apparently meaningless into something meaningful, perhaps even into something beautiful.


All of us will have moments when the meaning of our lives is disrupted, perhaps even shattered for a time. But the one thing that helps us put our lives back together is love. So it is a good idea for us to put love into practice before those terrible disruptive events happen.


Several years ago Unitarian minister Fred Small wrote a song that included these lines:


You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around,
You can choose one special one
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you're gone."


"The only measure of your words and your deeds

will be the love you leave behind when you're gone."


Robert left behind a lot of love. I hope that I do, too. I hope that we all do.


So faith, hope, and love abide: The faith that there is meaning, that there is a pattern. The hope that the human story, the story of the universe itself, will have a happy ending. And the love that gives us the opportunity to participate with God in redeeming suffering and bringing order of out of chaos.

Monday, August 05, 2013

The Lord's Prayer 2 - Give us today our daily bread and forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us (J. Barry Vaughn, Aug. 4, 2013)

Today I want to continue to talk about the Lord’s Prayer and focus on these two petitions: “Give us this day our daily bread” and “Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”


Both of these petitions deal with what it means to be a spiritual person.


We live in an age of deep spiritual longings.  Right and left, people are turning to prayer and meditation.  There’s a remarkable interest in Buddhism.  The Dalai Lama has become an international media star.  People speak openly and matter-of-factly about encounters with angels.  Daily on network television people consult mediums to learn about the well-being of their departed loved ones.


For the most part, I think this interest in spirituality is a good thing.  I think that only good can come of learning to meditate and pray, and the Dalai Lama seems to be a genuinely good and holy man.


The problem is the way people define spirituality.  People seem to think that spirituality  is confined to the realm of prayer and meditation, that it is about angels or conversations with departed loved ones. 


A second problem with the current fascination with spirituality is that people fail to recognize the dark side of spirituality, that there is darkness as well as light in spiritual places. 


But the biggest problem is that people divorce spirituality from everyday life.  The Lord’s Prayer has the antidote to this in its central petition:  “Give us today our daily bread”. So far everything the Lord’s Prayer has said sounds nice and spiritual:  Our Father in Heaven – that’s good because it puts God in heaven at a safe distance from us and where God cannot interfere too much in our lives.  Hallowed be your Name – that’s also good. We are perfectly prepared to hallow and praise God’s Name as long as it doesn’t get in the way of our pleasure and self-centeredness.  Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven – even this is OK.  Presumably, God’s kingdom will not come and God’s will will not be done any time soon.


And then, the Lord’s Prayer throws a monkey wrench into our plans:  “Give us today our daily bread.”  Suddenly, we’re not praying nice spiritual thoughts.  We’re asking God for something that we really need.  What’s spiritual about bread? 


Here the Lord’s Prayer exposes the fundamental mistake of so much new age spirituality – the dichotomy between the spiritual and the material is false.  It is just as spiritual to hunger for bread as it is to meditate for hour after hour.  It follows that everything we do with our bodies is spiritual.  Thirst is spiritual.  Sleep is spiritual.  Sex is spiritual.  What we do with our bodies matters. 


So much of modern spirituality is Gnostic.  Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy.  The Gnostics taught that spirit was good and matter was bad.  They assumed an absolute division between the spiritual and the material.  But this is not what the Bible and the Christian faith teach.  They teach that God created the world and declared it good and never changed his mind.  To be sure, the world is a mess.  It is broken and flawed. It is the arena for fire, flood, earthquake, famine, and plague, but it is still God’s good creation. 


And so in the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches us to pray for our daily bread.  Bread means bread.  It is not a metaphor or code word for spiritual sustenance.  When we pray for our daily bread, we are praying for nourishment for our bodies, and we are learning that taking care of our bodies is a spiritual act. 


Secondly, I want to point out that the Lord’s Prayer exposes the terrible fragility of human life.  David Read, a great Scottish preacher who was for many years the pastor of Madison Ave. Presbyterian in New York, was a prisoner of war during World War II. In his autobiography he tells the story about sitting down to a beautifully prepared French meal in a small country restaurant in Normandy in the summer of 1940. Ten days later he was a prisoner of war begging for bread.  Read goes on:  “When in our first camp the ration for the next day was issued every evening – one loaf to be divided among eight men – the words ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ took on new meaning…. If I were to ask God for anything at all at that time, my first thought would be bread. It was the immediate need for us all.  Lofty thoughts about not considering material things and asking only for spiritual strength.were, I confess, not in the picture. This was a need, a desperate, all-consuming, really humiliating need.” (Holy Common Sense, p. 51)


Human life is terribly fragile. And if we needed to be reminded that life is fragile, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, taught us that lesson anew. But we could already have learned from the Lord’s Prayer not to take anything in life for granted, even our daily bread.  The day could come as quickly for us as it did for David Read when there would be only one prayer on our lips--“Give us today our daily bread” – and we might find ourselves praying that phrase with a fervor we’d never known before.  For that matter, we might find ourselves praying for water or even the air we breathe. Life is God’s good gift, but the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that it is indeed a gift.


Finally, think carefully about what we are praying for.  Jesus teaches us not to pray for MY daily bread but for OUR daily bread.  Praying to “Our Father” reminds us that we never pray alone, so praying for “our daily bread” reminds us that we never eat bread alone. “Bread is a communal product…. The farmers in Iowa, the bakers in New York…” The drivers of the trucks that deliver bread to Smith’s or Albertson’s make bread a corporate endeavor.  None of us eats or lives alone. (Willimon and Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us, p. 76) 


One of my favorite prayers is a table grace by Samuel Howard Miller, a former dean of Harvard Divinity School:  O God, if we thank you for bread and meat, for home and family, for work and friends, for comfort and security, and have no pain of heart, no anguish that others are homeless, helpless and starving, then leave us without your blessing until we learn the ways of mercy.  Deliver us from the sin of indifference and bless to us what we now enjoy by the courage and kindness with which we share it.”  It is a false spirituality that would teach us to pray for bread for others without actually doing anything to provide that bread for them.


Have you heard the story about the man who dropped into an Episcopal Church one morning just as the congregation was reciting the words from the General Confession?  “We have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have left undone those things which we ought to have done…” And he exclaimed, “These are my kind of people!” 


Well, they are our kind of people, too.  Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”


I want to make three points about this petition:  First, what is this sin for which we are seeking forgiveness? Secondly, why do we pray for the forgiveness of OUR sins rather than MY sins?  And thirdly, is Jesus telling us that forgiveness is conditional on forgiving others?


We usually don’t have much trouble admitting that the world is not as it ought to be and we are not as we ought to be.


But we have a problem with the word sin.  It  has an unpleasant, off-putting, old-fashioned sound to it.  It is something we associate with fundamentalists who seem to almost revel in cataloging sins, usually others, not their own.  Do you remember the now infamous remarks made by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the days following Sept. 11, to the effect that the terrorist attacks were God’s punishment for the sins of abortion, feminism, and homosexuality.  In other words, the Christian fundamentalists Falwell and Robertson were pretty much agreeing with the Islamic fundamentalist Osama bin Laden on that point.


However, at its heart sin is more than an infraction of a divinely created list of rights and wrongs.  Sin is the state of alienation and estrangement from God, from one another, and from our deepest and truest selves. Sin is a network in which we are all involved from the moment of birth. 


My friend Rabbi Jonathan Miller and I have an ongoing friendly argument about original sin. I believe in it; he doesn’t. Now, by original sin, I do not believe in original GUILT.  I don’t believe that we are all guilty of some crime or misdeed committed by our original ancestors.  But, I do believe that all of us are part of a web or fabric of alienation and estrangement. 


I remember hearing ministers in the church I grew up in challenging us to try to spend a single day never doing anything wrong – never going over the speed limit, saying an unkind word, lustfully desiring an attractive woman or man.  That might be a useful exercise, but I think it would be more instructive to try to spend a single day loving God with all our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  For that matter, we might even try to spend a day loving ourselves as we should – exercising, eating healthy food, and getting enough sleep.  I feel pretty sure that none of us can spend an entire day either doing those things which we ought to do nor refraining from those things which we ought not do.


Under the conditions of human life as we know it, sin is a permanent condition.  Therefore, in the midst of the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  Traditionally Episcopalians have prayed “Forgive us our trespasses” and our neighbors at First Presbyterian have prayed “Forgive our debts”.  The New English Bible translated the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive the wrong we have done as we have forgiven those who have wronged us.”  “Debts” is closer to the actual meaning, but modern liturgists have settled on “sins”. 


Like the prayer for bread, the prayer for forgiveness brings us down to earth and grounds us.  Praise and worship bracket the Lord’s Prayer:  First we bless God’s Name and implore God to rule on earth as in heaven, and at the end we acknowledge the divine glory:  “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours.”  But in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer Jesus reminds us that we are not angels but creatures made of the dust of the ground.  We need bread, we need to forgive and be forgiven, and we need to be protected from evil. 


Secondly, why do we ask to forgive OUR sins, not just MY sins? From first to last the Lord’s Prayer is the prayer of a community, not just an individual.  It is a prayer we pray with others, even when we pray it in the isolation of a hermitage.  We pray to “Our Father”; we pray for OUR daily bread; and so, too, we pray that God would forgive OUR sins.


We do this because sin is inescapably corporate. It is not just about cheating on our taxes, being unfaithful to our spouse or partner, or saying four letter words.  We do plenty of wrong as individuals, both those things of which we are aware and those casual cruelties we may do unconsciously.  But the truly enormous wrongs are those we do corporately, with or without conscious awareness.


In the 1930s Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the classic account of corporate evil in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society.  Niebuhr’s point was obvious but it bears repeating.  Good people with good intentions can do very bad things indeed.  Individually, most of us are pretty good.  We try to raise our children with advantages, take care of our elderly parents and lend a hand to our neighbors. 


In the Review Journal this morning I read of the investigation of a couple of foster homes in Las Vegas. When we hear terrible stories of children being mistreated or abused, we think, “How awful! How can people do things like that?” 


But think of this.  These foster homes are located in the middle of our neighborhoods. They are surrounded by other homes. Did no one in these other homes wonder about how the children in these foster homes were being treated? Have we become so isolated that we nothing of the lives of the homes right next door to us? And what of the foster care system?  Did its representatives fail to give adequate oversight because their budget had been cut?  You and I are not personally responsible for foster children being mistreated, but we are responsible for a system which allows such evil to take place. And if that is the case, what is that but alienation, estrangement, or, in a word, sin? 


Sin is never just an “I” problem; it is always a “we” problem.  The best example is probably slavery.  Slavery was never just a Southern sin.  The railroads transported goods produced by slaves.  Even the endowments of Harvard and Yale are founded on fortunes amassed by families who benefitted from slavery.


Thirdly, when Jesus tells us to ask God to forgive our sins as we forgive others, is he saying that forgiveness  is conditional?  Is he saying that God will forgive us if we forgive others?  In our more realistic moments we know that no one would ever receive forgiveness if forgiveness were conditional.


Why then the apparent condition?  I don’t believe that God’s forgiveness is conditional, but I believe that it is terribly difficult to receive forgiveness, maybe impossible, if we stay stuck in our anger, our inability to forgive others.


Forgiveness is hard, terribly hard.  In his book Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, C.S. Lewis remarks, “Today I succeeded in forgiving someone I have been trying to forgive for twenty five years.”  I can identify with that.  At my 25th college reunion a friend who had hurt me deeply asked me for my forgiveness.  I had been unable to forgive him, so his offer of reconciliation felt like receiving a “get out of jail free” card.  Another story in the gospels tells us that Peter wanted to know exactly how many times he had to forgive his brother before he could finally let him have it.  Thinking he was being magnanimous, Peter asked, Would it be enough to forgive him seven times?  Jesus replied, “No, Peter, but seventy times seven.”  God has forgiven us seventy times seven trillion.  Do you think we might eventually learn to forgive each other at least a couple of times? 


The great theologian Karl Barth once remarked that too much Christian preaching speaks about an obligation which must be met in order to receive a gift, whereas the real message of the New Testament is about a gift which then leads us to an obligation. (quoted in William Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, p. 23.) But “Jesus told us about a God whose love contains no "ifs" at all.” (Willimon, p. 27)


The rhetoric of sin is one of the things that makes the church such a strange place.  Someone has been spreading the rumor that the church is a bunch of good people who want to do nice things for others.  The Lord’s Prayer teaches us otherwise.  The Lord’s Prayer teaches us that we are so destitute that we must beg for our daily bread, that we are in a state of alienation and estrangement from God and our neighbor, and that without divine aid we would be overcome by the darkness around us.


Our Father in heaven… give us today our daily bread and forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.