Monday, September 30, 2013

Turning barriers into bridges (J. Barry Vaughn, Sept. 29, 2013)

"There was a rich man..." Where have you heard those five words before? They are exactly the same five words that began the parable we heard in last week's gospel reading, the so-called, "Parable of the dishonest steward." "There was a rich man..."

 

There are numerous references to riches in Luke's gospel and they are almost all negative. Near the beginning of Luke's gospel we have Mary's song, the Magnificat: "God has filled the hungry with good things, but the rich he has sent empty away." And then there is Luke's version of the beatitudes, which contains a series of "woes" along with the blessings: "But woe to you who are rich for you have already received your comfort." And the parables are just as bad. There is the so-called "parable of the rich fool," last week's parable of the dishonest steward, and today we have perhaps Jesus' strongest indictment of the corrupting power of wealth - the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

 

The rest of the Bible is just about as hard on wealth. Consider the words of the prophet Amos in today's first reading:

 

Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,

and lounge on their couches,

and eat lambs from the flock,

and calves from the stall;

who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,

and like David improvise on instruments of music;

who drink wine from bowls,

and anoint themselves with the finest oils,

but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!

 

Today we might paraphrase Amos in this way:

 

Alas for those who decorate their homes from Pottery Barn

and adorn their dwellings with items from Restoration Hardware;

who eat sushi with chopsticks

and dine on endangered Chilean sea bass;

who buy Bose stereos

and have to download the latest mp3s;

who drink champagne imported from France

and the best beers that the microbreweries have to offer.

 

And finally we have Paul's advice to his young friend, Timothy: "...the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil..." That is often is misquoted as "MONEY is the root of all evil" but Paul is not saying that money itself is evil. That is impossible. Money is neither good nor evil; it is simply a tool with which we can do good things or bad things.

 

This might be a good moment for me to remind you that our fall stewardship campaign is just around the corner!

 

But what's going on? Why is the Bible so hard on the wealthy? This is a little difficult for us to understand, because the Bible was written in a pre-capitalist age. In the world of the Bible, economics was a zero sum game. If I have more, then you must have less. This wasn't universally true, but generally speaking, in the world of the Bible, wealth was regarded as a kind of theft.

 

When you hear the words "rich" or "wealthy"? What comes to mind? Bill Gates? Warren Buffett? Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II?

 

The fact is that you and I are infinitely wealthier than the wealthiest person in the Bible.

 

The story of the rich man and Lazarus is one of Jesus' most intriguing stories. Listen to the way it begins: " There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores."

 

At the very beginning, Jesus sets up a contrast between the rich man and Lazarus.  The two could not be more different. First, they are separated by economics: one is rich and the other is poor. Second, they are separated by what they wear: The body of the rich man is covered by "purple and fine linen" but Lazarus is covered by sores. Third, they are separated by what they eat: The rich man feasts "sumptuously every day" but Lazarus eats only the food that that rich man throws away. Finally, they are even separate in death. Jesus says, "the poor man died" but "the rich man died AND WAS BURIED." In other words, the rich man is given a proper burial, he has a tomb, more than likely there were professional mourners, or perhaps he really was mourned. We have no reason to think that he was not a valued and even loved and respected member of the community. But Jesus simply says, "the poor man died." No tomb, no mourners, no service, nothing. He disappears as though he had never existed as have the poor in every place from time immemorial.

 

The rich man and Lazarus were different in every way except one: They both died. Death makes us all equal.

 

Then, suddenly, there is a great reversal. The rich man who had routinely visited the vineyards in Sonoma and had eaten only gourmet cuisine prepared by Wolfgang Puck, who had worn Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger, who had been buried from the cathedral and whose service had been presided over by the bishop himself, now finds that he is in a place of fiery torment. But Lazarus who had had to wait for hours to get treated in the emergency room, who had lined up day after day to get food from Christ Church, and whose body had been thrown into a common burial pit, now finds himself at the very side of Abraham.

 

Do you wonder what has happened? Well, I will tell you what has happened: The rich man has gotten his wish. Go back to the beginning of the story and note two little words: "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus..." The two little words I want you to notice are "his gate." Poor Lazarus, covered in sores, lay every day not at the town gate but at the rich man's gate.

 

Gates have two functions. They allow some to enter but they keep others out. Lazarus lay at a gate the rich had been built. It allowed him to enter his elegant home, but it also excluded people like Lazarus.

 

In other words, the rich man was not only separated from Lazarus by his wealth, his food, his clothes, and the manner of his burial; he was also separated from Lazarus by a gate he had built for that very purpose.

 

The rich man discovers that the gate that had separated him from Lazarus in life, in death has become a great abyss, a chasm, separating him from Lazarus and Lazarus from him. The chasm is so vast, Father Abraham says, that "those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us."

 

It reminds me of that marvelous moment in Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge his own grave, and Scrooge cries out, "These are the chains I forged in life!"

 

But unlike Scrooge, the rich man in Jesus' story doesn't have a moment of enlightenment even in death. He thinks he's still in charge. He thinks he can still order Lazarus around: "...send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue..." And even when Father Abraham tells him that the distance between them is so vast that Lazarus can't cross it, the rich man persists in trying to order Lazarus to do his bidding: "...send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment."

 

What really interests me about the story of the rich man and Lazarus is that it nowhere tells us that the rich man lived an immoral life or that Lazarus lived a particularly virtuous life. According to Jesus, the rich man's only misdeed was that he was interested only in his pleasures and ignored the plight of poor Lazarus lying at his front door.

 

An exercise I like to use when I prepare my sermons is to ask myself, "What is the Bible NOT saying here?" Let's try it: What does the story of the rich man and Lazarus NOT say?

 

It does NOT say that the rich man did anything dishonest to gain his wealth. It does not say that he was cruel or unkind to anyone. It may be that the rich man was a member of the synagogue. He might have been an exemplary husband and father. He might have been a leading member of the Rotary Club.

 

It also does not tell us that Lazarus was especially virtuous. It may be that Lazarus was poor because of his own bad choices. Lazarus might have struggled with alcohol or drug addiction. He might have been chronically unemployed. We don't know.

 

But what Jesus does say is this: In this world, there was a huge gap between the rich man and Lazarus, a gap mostly created by the rich man. The rich man was isolated from Lazarus by the clothes he wore, by the food he ate, and even by the way he was buried.

 

It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to say that  riches are evil or that it is wrong to be rich. I am far richer than anyone who lived in the age in which the Bible was written. I am responsible for leading this church, an institution that depends upon the generous contributions of persons who have made a great deal of money.

 

In 1965, in the days following the Watts' riots in Los Angeles, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached on this parable at Montreat, the Presbyterian retreat center in North Carolina. He said, "There is nothing in that parable," King says, "that says the rich man went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth. He went to hell not because he was rich, but because he passed by Lazarus every day and never really saw him... he allowed Lazarus to become invisible... he failed to use his wealth to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus." (Cited by the Rev. Chris Tuttle in his sermon "Blindness and a Vision for Community.")

 

Precisely. The man's riches became a barrier, not a bridge. In this world, his riches insulated him so effectively from the poverty of Lazarus, that he did not even see Lazarus. And in death his riches became not just a wall but a cosmic abyss.

 

Much is being said these days about the growing polarization of the rich and the poor. A recent article asserts that the "upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year." Furthermore, the top 1 percent control 40 percent" of the nation's wealth... Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent." (Joseph Stiglitz, "Of the 1%, by the 1%, and for the 1%" in Vanity Fair, May 2011.) But I am neither an economist nor a politician and will not venture an opinion. Nevertheless, I am troubled.

 

The question that Jesus asks us this: Will we let our wealth, our cars, our houses, our food, our clothing, our entertainment insulate us from the lives of those who stand at the intersections of Las Vegas holding signs that say hungry, homeless, and unemployed? Or will we use the wealth God has given us to reach out to others?

 

Will we use our wealth to build bridges between ourselves and those who are less fortunate, or will we build a barrier to shield us from others in this life that in the life to come may become a vast abyss across which no one can pass?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Off to see the Wizard (J. Barry Vaughn, Sept. 15, 2013)


"If I only had a brain, a heart, courage, a way to get home..." Those were the things that Dorothy and her friends - the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Cowardly Lion were seeking when they set off down the yellow brick road to find the Wizard of Oz.

 

Steve and Margie Wilkinson gave me their tickets to see The Wizard of Oz at the Smith Center last week, but what they did not know was that they were also inspiring today's sermon!

 

Someone once said that there are really only two stories - there is the story of leaving home and the story of going home. I think that must be more or less true. Two of the oldest stories in the Western canon of literature are the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad is the story of going off to fight the Trojan War, in other words, it is the story of leaving home, and the Odyssey is the story of Ulysses' return journey. In other words, it is the story of going home.

 

The Wizard of Oz is also a story of going home, of discovering that our real home is not a geographical place, not a physical house, but it is a spiritual location, a community of friends, a group of people who are bound together by a common mission, who cannot achieve that mission unless they help each other. It is the story of discovering that all those things that we left home to find - meaning, purpose, adventure, a heart, a brain, courage - were right there in the place where we started out.

 

The Wizard of Oz is the story of four people who believe that they have lost something or are missing something that they can only find by going on a difficult and dangerous journey, a quest in other words.

 

That is not a bad description of the human condition. Every one of us knows that feeling. Every one of us has woken up at 3 o'clock in the morning feeling that something is wrong, that we are lost or that we have lost something. We may not be able to say exactly what is wrong or what we have lost. We just know that something is wrong.

 

If that feeling goes on long enough and gets strong enough, we may say that we are depressed or that we are struggling with anxiety. Religion gives that feeling a variety of names. We may call it guilt, the sense of sinfulness, the need for repentance and forgiveness. There is a lot of truth in all these descriptions.

 

The danger is that we may try to fill up that empty place in our hearts with something that will not only make us feel even emptier but might even kill us both spiritually and physically - drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, and so on.

 

In today's gospel reading we hear two stories that Jesus told about people who had lost something - a shepherd who lost a lamb and a woman who lost a coin.

 

Both stories are odd. One lamb wanders away, but the shepherd still has 99 perfectly good sheep left. Nevertheless, he puts on his coat and hat, grabs his flashlight and shepherd's staff (and maybe even his rifle, too) and goes out into the cold, rainy night, walks up one side of the rocky mountain and down the other just to find one lamb who is not smart enough to come inside out of the rain and wind and cold.

 

A woman has ten coins. Jesus says that they were drachmas, pennies, a single day's wage. In other words, they were not worth very much at all. She loses one but still has nine other perfectly good coins. But she looks high and low. She picks up every knick knack on her shelves; she takes her candle and looks into every dusty corner; she moves the big comfy chair and sweeps behind it. Finally, she locates the coin and puts it in a safe place with the other nine coins.

 

Jesus tells us that these stories are about the joy that God feels when God finds something that he has lost.

 

"I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

 

But how can that be? How can God lose something? I don't know the answer to that, but I believe it's true. From beginning to end, the Bible is the story of the divine shepherd's quest for the lost lamb. It is the story of the how the divine housekeeper sweeps her house and looks in every corner for the lost coin.

 

I don't understand how it happened but I believe that it did. The book of Genesis tells us that we started out safely in God's fold and wandered away. Why did we do it? Why did God let it happen? I don't know the answer to it, but I believe it happened. And I believe that deep down in our hearts, we all know that it is true. We all know that we are lost, that something is missing, but that there is a home for us somewhere over the rainbow, that if we look hard enough we will find that missing piece of our heart.

 

And my job is tell you where to find that missing piece. My job is to tell you that God is looking for you. My job is to tell you that you are in the right place.

 

Today is Kick Off Sunday. If you have taken the summer off (and that is perfectly OK, although I wish you wouldn't!), then today gives you the opportunity to re-connect with Christ Church and with all your friends here.

 

After the service, I encourage you to go out in the court yard and look at all the tables that are set up, to find out about the many opportunities Christ Church offers for learning, worship, prayer, and service.

 

And if you take the opportunity to get connected or re-connected to this church, you might just find that missing piece of your heart. Like Dorothy, you might find that you were at home all the time and did not know it.

 

Not long after I came here I proposed that we become a Great Commission church. Do you remember the four parts of the Great Commission? Make disciples, of all nations, baptize, and teach.

 

One way of understanding the Great Commission is to see it as a way of putting all the missing pieces back together. God is out there looking for the lost sheep. God is sweeping her house looking for the lost coin. And God wants to enlist us in that quest.

 

Today you have the opportunity to find new ways of engaging in that quest. Like Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Cowardly Lion, we are all on a quest together.

 

Consider getting involved in Epicenter and helping us feed the hungry. Think about joining  Daughters of the King being part of their ministry of prayer and service. We have a new and exciting Sunday school program. I hope you'll take the opportunity to find out about that and get involved in it.

 

When Dorothy and her friends came to the Emerald City, they discovered that the wizard was nothing but humbug, smoke, and mirrors. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" the wizard told them.

 

But when the shepherd found the lost lamb and when the woman found her lost coin, they threw parties. And Jesus tells us that when we wandered out into the night, when we dropped down into the cracks in the floor, that God put on his boots and coat and came out into the night looking for us or that God took her broom and swept the house until she found the lost coin. Jesus tells us that God gathers us up into the divine hands and bears us home, sometimes gently, sometimes a little roughly.

 

Listen! Do you hear that? I do. It's the sound of the angels singing and shouting and dancing in the streets of heaven.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sermon by the Rev. Rick O'Brien (Sept. 1, 2013)


Jen and I were the first of our group of friends to get engaged, shortly after we graduated from college.  This meant that we were the first to actually plan a wedding, and had no one else’s experience to use as a guide.  Our friends got to watch and learn from our mistakes, but like Lewis and Clark, we had to blaze our own trail.  Or so I thought.  What I had not counted on were the parents, friends, co-workers, and even total strangers who felt completely justified in offering their advice and opinions, in most cases completely unbidden.  It soon felt to me that we were becoming merely spectators in the planning process.

As a man, I had not really given much thought to the wedding itself.  But I learned very quickly that this is not true of women, who usually begin planning their wedding sometime around age 7.  What I had thought would be a relatively small affair soon turned into something resembling the D-day invasion in terms of planning and logistics.  I learned that there are myriad decisions that need to be made from where you get married, what the date will be, what dress the bride will wear, who will be in the wedding party.  These made sense to me and I happily participated in the decisions. 

It was the rest of the decisions that started to get to me.  Would we have a band or a DJ at the reception?  What china pattern would we select?  What type of gravy boat did we want?  By the time we came to the heated discussion about flowers, I was seriously thinking of faking a stomach problem figuring that 6 hours in the ER had to be better than this conversation.  My future wife by the way saw right through this and made me stay.

But as I was soon to find out, all of these decisions, large, medium and small, soon paled in insignificance against the biggest decision of all.  I refer of course to the seating chart at the reception.  I had never stopped to consider this as an issue, but I was to learn that this is the most important part of the entire event.  My mother, God rest her soul, approached this task as if it were a blood sport; and I found to my dismay that I no longer needed to fake a stomach problem.

I learned that where people sit entails far more than simply filling in names on a page.  There is serious calculus that goes into developing the correct alignment of people.  There are a number of factors to consider.  Are they family, friends, or acquaintances?  If they are family, are they close family?  Do we like them or are we fighting with them at the moment?  Where will they expect to be seated and will they be offended if they are seated somewhere else?  Do we care if they are offended? Do they get along with the people you plan to put at the table?  You can’t put the non-drinkers near the bar, but you also can’t put Cousin Billy too close to the bar or he will never leave.  And of course the most important of all, where did WE get seated at their last family wedding?  If we found ourselves at a table with the priest, the photographer and the DJ, well, retribution time is now at hand!  It is enough to boggle the mind.

Today’s lessons of course brought all of this to mind.  Proverbs tells us “Do not put yourself forward in the king's presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, "Come up here," than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”  In the same vein, Jesus tells us "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.  That is the challenge isn’t it?  For we all want to be exalted.  We all want to be the guest of honor.  We are all egocentric enough to want it to be about US.   Does that ring true to anyone else here, or is it just me?

Now before you beat yourself up too badly about this, take some solace in the fact that you are not alone.  It is hard wired in us to want to be praised; in fact I am sure it is coded somewhere in our DNA.  Even the disciples were not immune. Luke tells us that right after the Transfiguration, where Peter and James and John witnessed the glory of the Lord and realized beyond any doubt that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, they began to argue among themselves about which of them was the greatest.  They now know that they are in the presence of God himself, and still they think first about their own position in the world.  And when Jesus asks what they were talking about, they don’t respond because they are ashamed of themselves.  But he of course already knows and tells them “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Or put another way, all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."  Jesus was nothing if not consistent.

But he is consistent because this message needs to be repeated.  We have a hard time grasping it.  Intellectually we can understand what Jesus is telling us, but practicing it is another matter entirely.  For we all want to be the star of the show.  We want it to be about us.  But Jesus is telling us that that is not the way it will be.  When asked to name the great commandments Jesus tells us to Love God with all your heart and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.  I assure you, he knew exactly what he was saying when he chose those words.  For loving your neighbor is not the hard part.  But loving them as much as you love yourself; well that is MUCH harder to do.  We find it very hard to love others as much as we do ourselves because in our entrenched narcissism, we want it all to be about us.

But that is not God’s way.  God became one of us, lived and loved and cried as one of us; was arrested, tortured and killed as one of us.  In His time as one of us, Jesus showed us what it meant to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, healed the lepers, and ate with the prostitutes and tax collectors.   He cared for the poor, the sick, the prisoners, and served them before himself. 

St. Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.  Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on the world.”  For compassion is the opposite of narcissism.  And by humbling himself to take the lowest place, Jesus taught us that compassion is the ultimate expression of love.  That is how we love our neighbor as ourselves.  Jesus did NOT assume the place of honor at table, even though he alone had the right to it.  If Jesus could humble himself and love others as much as himself, who are we to do less? 

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Family Values (J. Barry Vaughn, Sept 8, 2013)

From time to time books are published that suggest that Jesus might have been married, and they usually suggest that his wife was Mary Magdalene. It is interesting and even entertaining to observe the controversy that swirls around every time such a book appears.

 

It is usually conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics who are most scandalized by the thought that Jesus might have been married.  Personally, I believe that it is extremely unlikely that Jesus ever married. If Jesus had been married, where is the evidence? There is certainly nothing in the canonical New Testament about Jesus’ wedding or his wife or children. There isn’t even anything in the earliest non-canonical Christian writings about it or even in the schismatical and heretical writings.

 

I think the strongest argument against the idea that Jesus was married is psychological. How long can you keep a secret? There is something in human nature that makes is impossible to keep secrets. If Jesus had been married, that would have been just about the biggest secret in human history, and I am certain that someone would have felt compelled to spill the beans, but there is simply no record that anyone ever did.

 

However, there is something odd in the controversies that erupt over the idea that Jesus might have been married.  Doesn’t  it strike you as odd that it is precisely the people who are most upset by the suggestion that Jesus might have been married are also the ones who are most vociferous about so-called “family values”?

 

“Family values” has become the rallying cry of the religious right, and in many ways, I think they are on to something important.  Drug abuse, crime, education, divorce, unwanted children, domestic abuse… Certainly better parenting and healthier families would do a lot to alleviate these and other social problems.

 

So, of course, we would expect Jesus to be on the side of family values.  What did Jesus have to say about family values?  Listen to these words from today’s gospel reading:

 

"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

 

Uh oh... I hope the Forum on the Family doesn’t hear about this.  They might try to have the National Endowment for the Humanities cut off his funding.

 

I’m not trying to be facetious, but it’s a little difficult to see Jesus waving the banner of family values as understood by many on the religious right.   Jesus’ relationship with his own family seems to have been very troubled, and the trouble started at the very beginning.  When Joseph learned that his fiancĂ©e Mary was pregnant before the marriage, he seriously considered calling the whole thing off, and was only dissuaded from it by a direct message from God delivered in a dream.

 

When he was 12 years old, the boy Jesus remained in the Temple rather than returning to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph.  When they found the boy missing from their traveling party, they returned to the Temple and found him conversing with the learned men.  Mary scolded Jesus rather sharply and said, “Son, why have you treated us so?  Behold your father and I have been looking for you anxiously”.  And Jesus replied equally sharply, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  (Luke 2.49) By identifying the Temple as “his Father’s house” rather than Joseph’s house in Nazareth, the 12 year old Jesus was already declaring his independence from his family.  Wouldn’t that be an interesting Gospel reading for Father’s Day?

 

And when Jesus finally launched his ministry of teaching and miraculous cures, his family believed that he was possessed by a demon and tried to seize him and bring him home with them.  It was as though a family in our day and time were trying to abduct and “de-program” a child who had joined a cult.  When Jesus learned what his family was trying to do, he looked around at his disciples and said, “Who are my mother and brothers?  Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister and mother”.(Mark 3.34)  In effect, he disowned his earthly family and announced the creation of a new, spiritual family.

 

Jesus and family values are an uneasy combination.  Between the beginning of his ministry and his crucifixion his family consisted of a motley group of disciples that included both men and women.  Many of them seem to have abandoned their own families.  The gospels tell us that when Jesus called Peter and James and John that they dropped their fishing nets and followed him.  In other words, they simply walked away from jobs and families to follow an itinerant prophet.  This “family” that followed Jesus wandered from place to place.  They seem to have supported themselves by asking for handouts.  No wonder Jesus made the authorities nervous!

 

Now, don’t misunderstand me:  Jesus did not endorse disobedience to parents nor did he encourage husbands to leave their wives or vice versa.  Jesus was no advocate of irresponsibility.  But the teachings of Jesus radically challenged the idea of family in the first century and perhaps in our world, too.

 

In the first century, family was everything.  One was a Jew because one’s mother was Jewish.  One didn’t choose the Jewish faith; one was born into it.  That was why Nicodemus found Jesus so puzzling.  “You must be born again,” Jesus said to Nicodemus, and the learned Nicodemus replied, “How can this be?  Can one enter again into one’s mother’s womb?”  (John 3.4) Nicodemus saw no need for a second birth.  He had been born a Jew and a Pharisee and no greater heritage was imaginable.  We’ve become so accustomed to the phrase “born again”  that we do not see what a revolutionary idea it was in first century Judaism.  It implied a radical rejection of the whole structure of Judaism.  One was to be born again not by blood but by the spirit.  One was to be born not into an earthly family but into a spiritual one. One’s earthly ancestors became completely irrelevant.

 

It was not just first century Judaism that made the family central.  It was true of the Roman Empire, as well. Family was everything.  The family was the central institution in Rome.  The father of a family was known as the paterfamilias, and he had almost absolute power over those in his household.  But Jesus taught his disciples to call no one father except God.  (Matthew 23.9) With a stroke, Jesus severed the ties that bound his disciples both to their earthly families and to the larger societies of which families were and are the basic units.

 

“I have not come to bring peace but a sword.  I will set father against son and mother against daughter...”  Jesus came to found an entirely new kind of family.  And it didn’t take long before first the Jewish authorities and later the Roman authorities realized just how dangerous his ideas were. 

 

A tribe is just an extension of the family or a collection of families.  It is odd at the beginning of the 21st century to find tribalism reasserting itself.  Everywhere we look in the world, we see hatred and even wars that are based on kinship, that is to say, on families.  Protestant families against Catholic families; Muslim families against Jewish families; Hindu families against Muslim families. People are hated and killed simply because of who their parents and grandparents were.

 

At their best, families are places of love and warmth and nurture.  And I would venture to say that the healthiest families are those in which there is enough love not only for those who have a claim to it by their birth but also for those outside the circle of the family.  God is constantly probing at us and our families to see if our love excludes or includes, if we will constrict the circle of our love or open our arms wide.  Jesus challenges our idea of family values because he preached a gospel of love without limits. Nowhere does Jesus encourage neglect of family.  Rather, he asks us to love the poor, the hungry, and the homeless alongside our own parents and children.  Jesus preached a “both/and” love, not an “either/or” love.

 

Did Jesus preach an impossible ethic?  Yes.  Does that mean that the bar is set so high that we might as well not even try?  Not at all.  Instead, Jesus expects us to learn to love by loving those in our families and then extending that love to those outside, to those with no claim on our love, to those whom no one loves. 

 

God put us in families because families are schools of love.   Our families are schools of love, because it’s very difficult to love someone you share a bathroom with!  We are put in families because it’s usually easiest to love those who are similar to us, but unfortunately, that’s where we stop all too often.  Loving those whom we know, loving people who love us, is only love’s most basic arithmetic, but Jesus challenges us to go on and learn love’s advanced calculus.  We must love our families, to be sure, but that is only the first step on love’s journey, a journey whose ultimate destination is to learn to love those who are completely different from us and perhaps even repellent to us.

 

So love your wife or husband or partner.  Love your children.  Love your parents.  Love your sisters and brothers.  Love yourself.  But don’t let your love stop at the front door.  Instead, keep your hearts and your homes wide open, because Jesus is coming to knock on your door. 

 

 

Saturday, September 07, 2013

"I'll have the businessman's special": A sermon for the reception of the Rev. Aaron J. Oliver as a priest in the Episcopal Church. (J. Barry Vaughn, Sept. 7, 2013)

Years ago there was a cartoon in the New Yorker that showed several priests seated at a table in a restaurant. When the waitress asked for their order, one of them said, “I’ll have the businessman’s special.”

 

That image has always stuck with me because for me, at least, it epitomizes one of my greatest fears: the fear of looking ridiculous.

 

There is something a little ridiculous about being a Christian, and there is something even more ridiculous about being a priest or pastor.

 

In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, even though we live in a world of earthquakes and hurricanes, AIDS and cancer, Christians believe that there is pattern and meaning to the world, that it is God’s good creation. Furthermore, wee believe that God was uniquely present in the life of a Palestinian peasant named Jesus of Nazareth and that through his death on a cross God is reconciling the world to himself. And by the way, he also rose from the dead. To which the world replies, "Oh, really?!"

 

Priests believe that they have been called by this God to tell the world about Jesus and that God uses us to bestow reconciling grace in the sacrament of baptism and to communicate God’s own life to the world in the sacrament of holy eucharist.

 

I’ll have the businessman’s special, please!

 

I’d like to be taken as seriously as my friends who went to law school or medical school or business school, but that’s difficult when your uniform is not a business suit or surgical scrubs but these elaborate and expensive vestments that are modeled on garments worn by officials of the Roman empire almost 2000 years ago.

 

And the church often makes it as difficult as possible for us to do our jobs. Commissions on ministry and - I'm sorry, Bishop Dan, but I have to say this - even bishops are looking for men and women who are psychologically healthy and well-educated.

 

Imagine how difficult it would have been for the prophet Isaiah to get ordained.

 

"Isaiah, would you tell us about your call to ordained ministry?"

 

"Well, I was so disturbed by the death of King Uzziah that I went to the temple to pray. And while I was there, I saw God. God was surrounded by a swarm of seraphim. Did you know that they have six wings? They cover their eyes with two wings; they cover their ... uh... 'feet' with two; and they use the other two to fly. They also sing while they are flying. You can imagine that I was a little overwhelmed by all this, so I said, 'I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!' Then one of the seraphim took a coal from the altar and 'Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.' Then I heard God say, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' And I said, 'Here am I; send me!' That pretty much sums it up. Do you have any questions?"

 

I imagine that the chair of the commission on ministry would have said, "Thank you very much, Isaiah. We'll be in touch with you."

 

Flannery O'Connor said, “...the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ... It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it."

 

I know a little bit about suffering as much from the church as for it. At the beginning of my last semester in divinity school, my bishop told me, in effect, that I would be ordained over his dead body, and refused to tell me why he was doing this, except to say to me that the first time he met me he realized that I was incapable of following his pastoral direction. I then sought ordination in a different diocese but was eliminated from the ordination process there when the priest I was working for fired me. Almost ten years later I decided to try one more time and was finally ordained.

 

Steve, forgive me for not sharing that information with the search committee!

 

Aaron knows a bit about the suffering we have to endure from the church. I imagine that there are days when he is also tempted to order the businessman's special.

 

But we have come here today not to ordain Aaron. We have come here to empower him to exercise his priestly ministry in the Episcopal Church.

 

Another way of saying that is to say that we are here to invite Aaron to share his gifts with us and to offer to share our gifts with him.

 

If you have not gotten to know Aaron, I hope you will get to know him better, because I believe that he possesses extraordinary gifts.

 

I want to tell you a little about the gifts I believe Aaron has to share with us, but I first want to talk about the gifts that we have to share with him.

 

First, at its best, Anglicanism is characterized by reasonableness, toleration, and hospitality to outsiders. Another way of putting this is to say that our church is a "big tent."

 

Secondly, we are a global church. Quite unexpectedly, the Anglican Communion woke up one day and discovered that we were the church of some of the poorest people on earth. However, we weren't quite as pleased to learn that the kind of Anglicanism that our less affluent global neighbors preferred was conservative, evangelical, and sometimes aggressively proselytizing!

 

Thirdly, we are also a church that loves and values beautiful liturgy, thoughtful preaching, soaring architecture, and music of exceptional quality.

 

I recently saw this on a conservative Anglican blog: "The Church of England - serving Jesus with a slight air of superiority since the year 597."

 

I don't think that an air of superiority is one of our gifts, although it is sometimes one of our many faults. Psychologist Carl Jung reminds us that every strength has its "shadow side" or corresponding weakness.

 

Anglicanism's reasonableness, toleration, and hospitality to outsiders sometimes becomes an unwillingness to draw lines, to say that some things are right and others are wrong. A big tent is all very well and good but no tent is infinite. We are tolerant of everything except intolerance!

 

We are a global church partly because Anglicanism was a part of the British imperialistic agenda of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. To enjoy the benefits of the British empire meant accepting not only the monarch's shilling but also his or her Bible and prayer book, too. The cross followed the flag, sometimes reinforced by cannon and rifles.

 

I love the liturgy, architecture, and music of Anglicanism. Sometimes I'm afraid that I love them too much. But religion cannot be just an aesthetic experience.

 

What of Aaron's gifts? They are many.

 

He brings us the gift of a keen and inquiring mind, a mind he has sharpened with learning. We like to believe that we are an intellectual church, and sometimes we are. But we can also be intellectually lazy. Very few bishops or priests are capable of writing a book as thoughtful and well-informed as Bishop Dan's book, God of Our Silent Tears, and even fewer clergy have the energy and discipline to write such a book. But I believe that Aaron could write a book like that, and I hope he'll make the effort.

 

Aaron also brings us a warm and compassionate spirit, and a sense of humor. I don't know why humor isn't one of the cardinal virtues. I can think of few gifts more valuable for the spiritual life than humor.

 

Aaron also brings us the gift of his youthfulness. Thirty-something looks a lot younger to me at 57 years of age than it did when I was in my twenties, but we need some evangelists and missionaries to work among the millenials, and Aaron can do that.

 

But most importantly, Aaron brings us the gift of his vocation to work as a military chaplain. I don't know whether or not Aaron will continue to serve as a military chaplain, but that is beside the point.

 

In today's gospel reading, Jesus says, "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." I do not know of any sheep who need a shepherd more than the men and women of our armed forces. We talk a lot about serving the marginalized, and I believe that the women and men in our military services are among the most marginalized people I know. Think of the suicide rate of veterans and those who are on active duty. Think of the almost daily reports about post traumatic stress disorder among present and former members of the military. Think about Congress's refusal to expand services to veterans and budget cuts to veterans' services. Think about the unemployment rate among veterans.

 

Aaron, you won't hear this nearly often enough in your career as a priest, so I want to say it now as clearly as I can: Thank you. Thank you for your willingness to offer yourself to serve God and God's people as a priest.

 

I hope you will not be tempted to order the businessman's special too often.