Sunday, November 24, 2013

Keeping it together (Nov. 24, 2013 - Christ the King - J. Barry Vaughn)

Lutheran pastor Peter Marty writes of looking for a childhood photograph in an album in the attic of his home and finding that the glue that held the pictures in place had disintegrated, and all the photos were jumbled up and out of order.


Perhaps you have had that experience. I know it has happened to me. Life has become disorganized. Your high school prom picture is behind the one of you with a bare bottom looking up at the camera with a goofy, toothless smile - the picture that always made you flush red with embarrassment. The picture of you with an arm full of flowers after a dance recital is right next to one of your wedding photos. The picture of you with the other members of your football team is stuck to the picture of you and your wife in front of your first house.


But there is not only a kind of glue that holds the photos of those precious, funny, sad moments of our life in the pages of an album. There is also a kind of glue that holds life itself together, and sometimes that glue also seems to disintegrate.


This last week we observed the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy. For many his death seemed to be a kind of catalyst that initiated a period of chaos or at least disorder. A decade of domestic disorder followed, that included a polarizing war that never seemed to end, young people in many places seemed to delight in flouting long-established customs by experimenting with sex and drugs, and of course, there were the other terrible assassinations that followed in the years after Kennedy's death - Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Kennedy's own brother, Robert.


Our country may be passing through another season of chaos. Two distant wars have seemed endless and there has been very little to show for the terrible losses of life; our political parties appear to be incapable of working together; many journalists have appeared to abandon all pretext of objectivity.


However, as an historian I want to tell you that the United States has gone through other seasons of polarization and conflict. This is not new and it is not unique. I believe that the United States is strong and will not only survive; it will thrive. The issues that divide us are not small, and all of us need to be informed and involved citizens. But the union is strong and will endure.


There is also a kind of glue that holds our lives together. Perhaps you, like I, have been through times when it felt like that glue disintegrated or when the center no longer held - a time of grave illness, a time of divorce, a time of death.


Perhaps when you mentally went through the pictures of your life there no longer seemed to be any order. You may have wondered if that mental picture of your wedding day had any meaning; the memory of holding your child may have been shot through with sadness; you could even have wondered if there would be any more memories of life to cherish.


About ten years ago a two year relationship that I was in came to an abrupt end when the person I loved died of a self-inflicted drug overdose. I believe it was accidental, but I'll never know for sure. For a time I withdrew from parish ministry and moved back to Alabama from Philadelphia where I'd been living, and more or less hibernated in my mother's home for a couple of years.


What brought me out of that cold and dark time was becoming re-engaged with the church, finding that I still had something to say that spoke to the hopes and dreams of people in the pews of the Episcopal Church.


The author of Colossians tells us that there is indeed a kind of glue that holds life together, a sun around which our lives revolve: "...  in [Christ] all things hold together..." "In Christ all things hold together..."


Christ Church has been through a time of chaos, disorder and polarization. People have left and gone to other churches, or they have just left. Period. Friends have become estranged from each other. It may have seemed that the center no longer held, that the glue holding the life of Christ Church together was disintegrating.


I have heard some of you say that what you needed was to call a new rector. Well, I hope that I can play a part in holding this great church together, but everything you needed to hold you together was already here. All you had to do was to come into the church and look at the figure behind the altar.


Our Christus Rex reminds us of what holds us together. It is Christ on the cross. The Christus Rex reminds us of the magnificent paradox that it is in the midst of his suffering and death that the very glory of God shone out through the life of Christ. It reminds us that Christ is present in the midst of our own suffering and death and will never leave us. The Christus Rex reminds us of what holds us together.


Dividing and separating and leaving should be options only when all other possibilities are exhausted, and I believe that there are always other possibilities because I believe in a God who is endlessly creative.


Last week Bishop Dan spent a little time with the vestry following the 10.45 service. One of the vestry members asked the bishop what he believed was the biggest issue facing Christ Church. In his quiet, wise way, the bishop said that the biggest issue that faces us, the one that will destroy us if we let it, is the way we deal with conflict. What we have to do is to learn to disagree with each other without leaving, to agree to disagree. In a sense, I believe he was telling us that we have to learn exactly that lesson that successful married couples learn - we have to learn how to have an argument.


I have long believed that Episcopalians are not very good at arguing. We turn arguments into personal attacks: "You're only saying that because you're a woman or a man. You're only saying that because you're young or old. You're only saying that because you're Anglo or Latino. You're only saying that because you're gay or straight."


What we must learn to do is to have a knock down, drag out fight with each other, and at the end pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, embrace, and say, "But Jesus is Lord."


Because he is and that's the only thing that matters.


An old friend of mine, a Presbyterian minister in another state, recently took his church out of the Presbyterian Church USA because they voted to ordain gay and lesbian clergy and bless same sex relationships. I still love Mark and consider him a friend even though we disagree sharply over this issue. But I am deeply saddened by his decision to withdraw from his denomination over this issue, because I think that we can still believe that Jesus is Lord, still be joined together in Christ's fellowship, and have different opinions about that issue.


Lutheran pastor Peter Marty goes on to say, "When chaos strikes, people seek strategies for putting life back together. The challenge for us is to make the Lordship of Christ more than just words. We don't need more talk of making Christ first in our lives. The world is full of religious talk. What we need is  to live as if Christ were indeed the head of the body, and not some extra equipment we strap on.... Colossians tells us that everything that is God is present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Though God once was content to dwell in places like Sinai, Zion or the Temple, now God is in present in a person. Everything that God is, and cares about, now resides in Jesus Christ. Christ is the face or the image of the invisible God." (paraphrased from Peter Mart, "Super Glue", The Christian Century, Nov. 16, 2004)


From time to time we have all heard of people who have seen the face of Jesus on the side of a barn or on the side of a mountain or even on a piece of toast or a taco. But we can see Christ all around us every day. He is present in every human heart. Colossians says that Christ "is the image of the invisible God." And Genesis tells us that every single one of us is made in the image of God. If you would see Christ, look within. If you would see Christ, look at your neighbor, as well as yourself.


The way to reorder jumbled lives and hold things together in the face of chaos and the way to put this great old church back together is to cherish the fullness of God dwelling in Christ. He is the image of the invisible God, the one who holds all things together.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Off the Top of My Head - Four Anniversaries by J. Barry Vaughn

November 22, 2013, is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It is also the fiftieth anniversary of the death of writers C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley. And it comes at the end of a week in which we observed the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.


At first, there doesn't seem to be any connection among the four anniversaries. Some have described Kennedy's assassination as a "tectonic shift," that is, a moment when the very continents on the face of the earth moved. It was certainly tragic in the classical sense of the word, and everyone my age and older still remembers where they were when they heard that it happened. But Kennedy had been president for barely a thousand days, and except for his wise handling of the Cuban missile crisis and his helpful response to Dr. King's Birmingham campaign, he did not have a great deal to show for his presidency.


At the time of his death, C.S. Lewis was little known outside academic circles, but in the years since his death he has become (pardon an overused word but in this case it seems absolutely essential) an icon of evangelical Christianity. His books, especially Mere Christianity, have influenced millions of lives for the better.


Aldous Huxley's intellectual heritage was impressive. His grandfather, Thomas H. Huxley, was the principal defender of Darwin's views and allegedly coined the term "agnosticism." Aldous was a prolific author and is best known for Brave New World, a brilliant and bitter critique of the dehumanizing potential of technology and unbridled capitalism.


Lincoln's Gettysburg Address lasted only about two minutes, but apart from the Bible, it is one of the best known and most frequently quoted documents in the world.


All four anniversaries are united by the power of words. There is no such thing as "mere words." Words can change the world. The Gettysburg Address helped shift people's perception of the Civil War. From being a war to save the Union, Lincoln's address at Gettysburg recast that conflict as a war to save democracy and promote it throughout the world. Our "forefathers," Lincoln said, "brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." The Confederacy, on the other hand, was dedicated to the proposition that all men (and women) were most certainly not created equal.


In President Kennedy's inaugural address, he memorably challenged his listeners to "ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for you country." And in response the Peace Corps was created which has done incalculable good throughout the world.


Huxley warned us of the potential of technology to dehumanize. In the "brave new world" which he envisions, children are engineered and reproduction has become an industrial process.


C.S. Lewis's works of theology and fiction have brought many of us (including me) to faith (or at least renewed faith) and have delighted generations of children.


Words are powerful and can do great good or great harm. But we knew that already. The most powerful words in the world are in the Bible. From beginning to end, the Bible informs our understanding of the world and human nature. The words of Israel's prophets have inspired social change wherever they have been read: "Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an everflowing stream." (Amos 5.24)


Above all the words of Jesus, who, we believe, was himself the Word made flesh, have shed an entirely new light on the world: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."


Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley - may they rest in peace. And may we be careful of the words we say and write, for words not only describe the world - they can also change it.


Sunday, November 03, 2013

Saints and Sinners (J. Barry Vaughn, Nov. 3, 2013)

A few years ago, Rabbi Jonathan Miller and other members of my clergy group and I had the remarkable opportunity to visit the Mother House of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India.
Mother Teresa's tomb is on the first floor of the Mother House and while we observed many people praying for short or long periods at many places in the room. The members of my clergy group and I prayed. I believe that even Rabbi Miller prayed!
On the second floor of the Mother House is the tiny room where Mother Teresa lived. It is deeply moving in its simplicity. It contains a bed, a chair, and a desk. That's it. No television, no stereo, computer, no microwave or mini-fridge, not even a radio. When she died, Mother Teresa, like every other member of her order, owned only two saris or habits and a pair of sandals.
Several years before her death, Harvard University gave Mother Teresa an honorary degree, and my friend, Peter Gomes, the university chaplain, acted as her host. Peter told me that he was excited to meet this remarkable woman. Peter could talk to anyone about anything for as long as they cared to listen, so he went on at length about his admiration for Mother Teresa and her accomplishments, but she said nothing. Finally, Peter shut up, and Mother Teresa simply said to him, "It's all Jesus."
I bring up Mother Teresa because today is All Saints' Sunday, and if there is a saint for our time, then surely it is Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
But Mother Teresa also creates a problem for many of us. She sets the bar impossibly high. How can we possibly measure up to her example?
Listen to me carefully. I want to make this as clear as I can. God calls very few of us to be Mother Teresas. God calls most of us to marry and have children, to have jobs and mortgages. But God does call us to participate in the kind of work that she did. We participate in that work through our prayers, through volunteering in our free time, and above all through our contributions and offerings. Do not forget that as we move into stewardship season! Your pledge is your principal way of participating in the kind of work that Mother Teresa did.
But there was another side to Mother Teresa. After her death, when Mother Teresa's letters were published, people were startled to learn that she had been plagued by profound doubts, sometimes even doubting the existence of God. She had felt a sense of spiritual desolation and a disturbing sense of God's absence.
She wrote, "In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not existing.”
What are we to make of this? What are we to make of the fact that this modern day saint who embraced the poorest of the poor experienced such profound spiritual darkness and even doubted the existence of God?
The story of Mother Teresa gives me pause. It makes me question what it means to be a saint. But maybe the problem is with the way that we define the word "saint".
Who are the saints? Well, the answer is obvious, isn't it? Those guys up there. By the way, have you noticed that none of our stained glass windows in the nave depict women? Aren't they the saints? Aren't the saints the spiritual superheroes and celebrities?
But the story of Mother Teresa gives us pause. She makes us stop and reconsider what we mean by the word "saint."  If you judge saintliness by good works, then surely she was a saint. But if you judge it by deep faith, then perhaps not.
Let's look first at the New Testament's definition of a saint.
In today's New Testament reading, Paul says, " I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints." (Eph. 1.15) Paul is NOT saying, "I have heard of your love toward the spiritual superheroes of the faith" because there weren't any of those when he was writing. He was saying, "I have heard of your love toward your sisters and brothers in Christ."
Almost every one of Paul's letters begins with a reference to the saints. Romans 1.7 says, " To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Or 1 Corinthians 1.2: "To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints ."
In the New Testament “saint” means simply any baptized person, any Christian.  The word translated as “saint” in the New Testament is hagios or its plural hagioi, a Greek word that means “holy”.  The saints are the holy ones, not holy because of anything intrinsic to them, but holy because of the holy presence of Christ within them.
A second, more common, use of the word “saint” is to denote one of the heroes or heroines of the Christian faith.  Thus, we speak of St. Peter or St. Francis, St. Mary Magdalene or St. Clare. 
How do you suppose Jesus would define the word saint?
For a long time I was puzzled about why the gospel reading for All Saints’ Day was the Beatitudes from Luke or Matthew.  However, I think I know why that is.  The Beatitudes are, if you will, Jesus’ definition of a saint.
[i]"Blessed are the poor." Poverty of some kind is almost essential if we are to know blessedness or saintliness. If you want to meet a saint, look to the poor--those who have little that gets in the way of their experience of God. There is an emptiness in every human heart. The saints are those who learn to live with that emptiness, who do not fill it with anything other than God. The saints have little pretense or deceit. The purity of their hearts allow God to be present in a startling way.
It is not just the radiantly holy and the astoundingly wise who are saints. Poverty and poverty of spirit are the reasons that infants and children can be saints, too. The newborn child, hungry and curious, has such an enormous capacity for God. If we have eyes for it, infants can show us the mystery and wonder of God. The sick, too, can be saints, and also the elderly; they show us the mystery and wonder of God.
Jesus also says, "blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh”.  We live in a world where feelings, in general, and sadness and depression, in particular, are suspect and not exhibited in public. Men, especially, are schooled to show little expression and feeling. 
We also live in a "feel good" culture.  "Drink Budweiser, eat Doritos, drive a Mercedes, and you will feel good and be happy".  Fairy tales end "and they all lived happily ever after", but that isn't the way life works.
What if the ability to feel deep sadness is a prerequisite for feeling great joy? 
The saints are complete persons who feel the full range of human emotions.  The saints are those who can "weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice".
Finally, according to Luke's version of the Beatitudes, Jesus says, "Blessed are you who hunger, for you will be filled." But in Matthew, the Beatitudes are different. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."
This is one of Jesus' most outrageous statements. Jesus was a Jew, and to a Jew, righteousness, zedeqah, meant something very specific..  Righteousness was literally "to do right by", especially to do right by the poor and hungry, widows and orphans.  So when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, he was literally saying, "Blessed are those who long for the hungry to be fed and the homeless to be housed, for in the end, they will not be disappointed".  Of all Jesus' claims, this may be the most extraordinary.  Righteousness is not at home in the world in which you and I live, but Jesus announces the coming of a new world of righteousness and justice.  The saints are those who long for the appearing of such a kingdom, who never lose heart and are never satisfied with anything less.
Another definition for saint that I want to offer involves a very concrete example of holiness.  In the early part of this century, Henry Joel Cadbury came to teach New Testament at Harvard Divinity School.  Cadbury was one of the great New Testament scholars of our century and was at work on what became the Revised Standard Version of the Bible when World War I broke out.  A pacifist, Cadbury would not fight in the war but instead volunteered to work with the Quakers caring for the wounded and dying on the battle fields of Europe.  In the midst of the war, one of Cadbury’s students came across his professor bandaging a wounded soldier.  “Dr. Cadbury,” the student exclaimed, “Why aren’t you back at Harvard translating the New Testament?”  “I am translating the New Testament,” Cadbury replied.  He was translating the New Testament not from Greek into English but from the printed page into human life.  I think that may be the best definition of saint.  A saint is one who translates the New Testament into a life of love and service. 
Finally, I want to offer the devil's definition of a saint, or at least the definition from The Devil's Dictionary by 19th century American humorist, Ambrose Bierce: "Saint - A dead sinner revised and edited."
Unfortunately, that is the definition of saints that we get most of the time. We get the saints revised and edited. We get the expurgated and abridged version. That's the version of Mother Teresa we would have gotten if someone had not defied her own wishes and published her private letters and journals. But I'm so glad that we learned of her doubts and struggles, because I struggle with the same things, and I know that many of you do, too.
I have moments of profound doubt and uncertainty. Am I good enough? Is God listening? Why is there suffering and evil? Why aren't my prayers answered?
Mother Teresa's story reminds me that the saints struggle with the same things that I struggle with. She reminds me that the church is not a museum for spiritual celebrities; it is a hospital for poor sinners just like me.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote, "…that the saints in heaven rejoice over their sins, because through them they have been brought to greater and greater understanding of the endless endurance of God's love, to the knowledge that beyond every failure God's creative mercy still waits.” (A Ray of Darkness, p. 52)
All Saints’ Day exhausts and unsettles me.  However, you define saint, I find it difficult to imagine myself among those “saints triumphant [who] rise in bright array”.  More often than not, I choose self-aggrandizement over service; my heart and mind go in a thousand different directions, rather than being fixed on God’s kingdom; and if my life is a translation of the New Testament, then it must be in an unknown tongue.  But I have to keep reminding myself and keep reminding you that sainthood is not our accomplishment; it is God’s gift.  We follow where Christ and the saints lead, knowing all the while that we will stumble and fall.  You see, the Devil’s Dictionary had it partly right: Some saints are dead sinners revised and edited, but all saints are forgiven sinners, just like us.  The saints remind us of what we are capable of if we will only open ourselves to the power of God who makes all things new and raises us from death to life abundant and everlasting.

[i] The next two paragraphs are paraphrased from "Saint Carlton is lowest" by the Very Rev. Sam Candler.