Thursday, December 26, 2013

In the beginning was the Word (Rick O'Brien, Dec. 25, 2013)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The pure poetry of John’s gospel is, in my mind, unparalleled in the entire Bible.  And yet, John is far more than a poet.   John has much to tell us of God and of Jesus Christ, even if it is not like the other synoptic gospels.  For unlike Luke and Mark, John’s gospel has no account of Jesus’ birth.  No angels, no shepherds, no wise men.  No Little town of Bethlehem, no Hark the Herald Angels, no Silent Night.  John tells us nothing of the birth of Jesus, nothing of the Christmas event that we celebrate this morning.  So why then, with all of the other gospel stories we could read, do we have this particular passage from John, on this of all mornings?

It would be a mistake to assume, since he doesn’t mention the baby in Bethlehem, that John has nothing to say to us of the incarnation and divinity of Christ.  Indeed, John helps us to connect the Christmas stories we know so well with the identity of Jesus Christ and helps us to begin to comprehend how he relates to God.

In the beginning was the Word.  Words are powerful things.  The giving of someone’s word is a solemn event and has great import in how we relate to one another.  Once a word is spoken, it cannot be taken back.  Think of the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau.  Jacob deceived Isaac into giving him the blessing instead of his brother Esau, but because the word had been spoken, it could not be taken back.  The word had power and even though Isaac wanted to change his mind, he could not because he had to live by the word he had spoken. 

When I was growing up I was taught that your word is your bond.  How you kept your word spoke volumes to other people about your character, your trustworthiness; indeed your word defined who you are.  Going back on your word was not something that could be contemplated, as your word was literally part of who you are.

Think also about how God created the world.  The book of Genesis tells us that the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.  How did God change this?  Did he strap on his tool belt, head down to Home Depot for materials and start swinging a hammer?  No, of course not.  God spoke into the darkness and said “Let there be Light”, and there was light.  God’s word separated the light from the darkness, created the dry land, and brought forth every living creature including Adam and Eve.  The word of God was the instrument of creation, establishing our reality and all that we know.  Words truly are powerful things. 

John recalls the creation story in Genesis when he tells us, In the beginning was the Word.  And we know that the Word was the instrument of creation.  He goes further though in telling us that the Word was With God, and that the word WAS God.  How can the word be with God, but also BE God?  That would mean that the Word was somehow separate from God, but also part of God.  That would mean then that the word was not something created by God, but instead was an integral part of God himself.  John is telling us that Jesus, the Word of God, is part of God.  Even though we call Jesus God’s son, John is helping us to understand that Jesus is far more than that. 

I am a father and I have three sons.  There was a time when I existed, but my sons did not, as they had not yet been born.  If Jesus were simply the son of God, the same would be true for him.  That would mean that there was a time when God existed, but Jesus did not.  John’s gospel is telling us that this is not the case, that Jesus the Word was with God in the beginning, was part of God, and was the action of creation on behalf of God.

Even though John does not tell us about the birth of Jesus Christ, he is helping us understand that Jesus is more than just one of us.  He is not simply a man sent from God, but he is in fact God himself.  God loves us so much that he gives up his divinity to become like us, to experience the pains and the joys we feel. 

I recently heard a song that said, “Many men have tried to become Gods, but only one God has become a man.”  That spoke to me at a deep level.  History is littered with stories of men who have tried to become God.  Pharaohs, Kings and Emperors have been doing this for millennia, each trying to impose their will upon the world and make it into the image they chose.  Refusing to be satisfied with their humanity, they sought riches and power in a vain attempt to become like God.

Even in our own lives, how many of us want to play God, trying to recreate our jobs, our relationships, our very lives in the image that we would choose?  I thought about this over the past week with the great furor over the mega millions jackpot.  The media was only too happy to cover the story of a chance for life-changing riches.  Enough money to forget about the cares of your everyday life; to remake yourself in whatever image you choose.  Doesn’t this sound like we too are trying to become God?  To have the power to do nearly anything we want?

And yet John reminds us that our God did just the opposite.  God gave all of that up in order to become one of us.  Jesus the Immanuel (which as you know literally means “God with us”) left behind the divinity of God to take on our humanity, coming to earth not as a grown man, not as a wealthy king, but in the frail form of an infant born to a poor carpenter and his young wife in a stable.  Hardly a fitting location for the most powerful human to ever walk the planet, and yet that is what God chose to do. 

And so, as we gather this Christmas morning with the great cloud of witnesses who have celebrated this Blessed event for more than 2,000 years, let us remember the angels, let us remember the shepherds, let us remember the wise men.  But let us also remember the Word, Jesus who surrendered his divinity to become one of us.  For God loves us so much that he was willing to become one of us in order that we might share in his eternal life.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Turning on the Lights (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 24, 2013)

Canadian story teller, Shane Koyczan[1], tells the story of being raised by his grandparents. Koyczan had terrible nightmares, but his grandfather had a unique way of dealing with them. He says that his grandfather had two memorable characteristics. First, he loved beef jerky. That may seem like a trivial fact, but trust me, it will be useful to know later. Second, his granddad had a way with monsters.


As a child, Koyczan says that his bedroom was full of monsters. His closet was stuffed with long-legged demons who could make it from one side of the room to the other in a single step.  When the demons would get out of the closet, Koyczan would wake up screaming, and his grandfather would storm down the hall and throw open the door to his grandson's room, and say, "All right, you monsters. I swear to God I'm going to turn on the darn lights." Well, actually his grandfather modified "monsters" with a colorful adjective and he didn't say "darn lights", but you get the point.


Koyczan went on to say that no monster has ever heard a battle cry more terrifying than "I will turn on the darn lights". Every night his grandfather took boogie men by the ears and threw them out on their butts. He dragged the carcasses of dead monsters out of his room, grabbed a broom, swept the remains of his grandson's nightmares into a dustpan, emptied them into a trash can, and said, "Sweet dreams, my boy." 


Koyczan said that he learned as a boy that not every hero wears a cape. When he would cry out in the night, his grandfather would suddenly appear in the doorway of his bedroom, ready to wage war, to restore light to darkness, to dismiss shadows.


But these nightmares continued night after night, and Koyczan noticed that the constant nightly battles with dragons and demons began to wear on his grandfather. So he resolved to fight the demons himself. But one night the demons were just too much for him, and he cried out for his grandfather again.


His grandfather came into his bedroom, dispatched the demons in the closet, then stuck his head under Koyczan's bed and said, "What in the world is all my beef jerky doing under your bed?"


You see, Koyczan had decided that he could get a good night's sleep by making peace with his monsters and feeding them with his grandfather's beef jerky.


Sometimes when we believe in monsters, they take up residence under our beds. They may even take root in our heads. But when they get inside us, they grow and grow, and we need to keep feeding them. We may even believe that it is better to keep our fears a secret and not tell anyone about them. Our hearts become like dark tombs. And in those dark tombs, our fears fester like sores, and get dangerously infected. They may even become life-threatening.


What we need is for someone to break down the door of our dark rooms and turn on the lights.


In the eighth century before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah said, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined."


We are the people that Isaiah was talking about, the people who walk in darkness and dwell in a land of deep darkness. Every single one of us knows what it's like to dwell in darkness. We all know what it's like to turn off the lights and go to bed and hear monsters stirring in the closet and demons scratching under the bed. We all long for someone like Shane Koyczan's grandfather to come running down the hall and throw open the door and turn on the lights and throw the boogie men out on their butts.


Most folks take one of two approaches to the problem of the demons in the dark.


Some folks will tell you that it's all in your imagination, that there aren't any demons in the closet or monsters hiding under your bed. They will tell you that they are just projections of childhood fears and fantasies or that you've been reading too many Stephen King novels or something like that.


But don't you believe them. The demons in the dark are quite real. I have seen them and so have you. And many of us, including me, have the scars to prove it.


If the 20th century taught us nothing else, it certainly taught us that there are demons lurking in the dark corners of our hearts and minds. How else can we explain the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis, a regime that came to power in one of the best educated and most civilized countries in the world, the country that gave us composers such as Beethoven and poets such as Goethe and scientists such as Einstein? How else can we explain the Soviet gulag or Mao's cultural revolution or the Rwandan genocide?


Closer to home, how can we explain the murder of 20 children in Newtown, CT, or the Columbine massacre, if there are no demons in the dark?


The other approach to the demons in the dark is to make peace with them, negotiate with them, even feed them. Some people allow the demons to live in just a small corner of their dark bedrooms, just a little subdivision in their hearts and minds. But that doesn't work because the demons want more and more territory, more and more food and drink. They get bigger and bigger, stronger and stronger. So do not make peace with the demons.


There is only one thing to do with the demons - turn on the lights, kick them out, throw them out on their butts. But demons are strong and we are weak. We need help. We need someone like Shane Koyczan's grandfather to help us.


Well, as Koyczan said, not all heroes wear capes. The good news of Christmas is that someone came to chase the demons away. Someone came not only to turn on the light but to be the light of the world.


Like the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem, we are huddled together in the cold and dark, and we know that just outside our tiny circle of light there are demons, there are monsters, there are things for which we do not even have names. But there are also angels; there is a heavenly host;  there is singing, and above all there is light, glorious light, the very first thing that God created. And God's light pushes back the darkness; it pushes back the cold; it pushes back the demons.


And the song that the angels sang to the shepherds, they also sing to us, "Do not be afraid... do not be afraid..."


To the frightened child with the sheets pulled up over her head, the angels say, "Do not be afraid." To the unemployed construction worker, the angels say, "Do not be afraid." To the person with cancer, with AIDS, the hospice patient, the angels say, "Do not be afraid." To the people waiting in line for food from our Epicenter, the angels say, "Do not be afraid." To every single one of us, the angels say, "Do not be afraid." Here is One who is stronger than the demons, Someone who has come to turn on the lights, to throw them out on their butts, to sweep them up and deposit them in the trash can.


"For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord."


Merry Christmas.





[1] Shane Koyczan's story can be heard on the NPR program Snap Judgement:

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Oh, the places you'll go!

J. Barry Vaughn. The baptism of Carellen Marie Graham. Christ Church Episcopal, Las Vegas, NV, Dec. 22, 2013.


Today we are baptizing Carellen Marie Graham. I am going to explain baptism to her, but the rest of you are invited to listen, too.


Carellen, I want to begin with a quotation from one of the most important and best-known theologians of the 20th century:



Today is your day.

You’re off to great places!

You’re off and away!


The theologian, of course, is Dr. Seuss. Somehow I doubt that his doctorate was in theology, because most theologians I know would have to write an entire book to say what he says in only four lines. But it’s hard to find a better explanation of baptism than Dr. Seuss’s book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!


You’ll be on your way up!

You’ll be seeing great sights!

You’ll join the high fliers

Who soar to high heights.


You won’t lag behind because you’ll have speed.

You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.

Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best.

Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.


Carellen, today is the day you launch out into a sea of adventure. Or (to repeat what Dr. Seuss says)


You’re off to great places!

You’re off and away!


Don’t let anyone tell you that the Christian life is safe and peaceful. In baptism your ship sets sail and you leave the safe harbor behind and sail into adventure and adversity. That may sound a little scary but remember this: you will never be alone. Look around you. Everyone here is going along with you on that adventure. Today you become part of what someone called “one family with a billion names.” Today you acquire millions of new brothers and sisters on every continent, every nationality, and every race. And especially remember that whether your ship sails into the storm or the calm, Jesus is going with you on your journey through life.


Carellen, we have several gifts for you: First, here is a baptismal certificate. I’ve made it large deliberately. I wanted it to be about the same size as the certificate priests receive when they are ordained, because the most important ordination anyone receives is the ordination all of us receive in baptism. In baptism, Carellen, you are ordained into the priesthood all Christians share. All baptized persons are ordained to proclaim the Good News; we are all ordained to reach out to the lost and lonely, the hungry and the hurt; we are ordained to lift ourselves and others into the healing and transforming presence of God through prayer.


Second, I will take some water from the baptismal font and put it in a bottle for you to keep. Remember, Carellen, that while life is always good, it is not always fun. Or as Dr. Seuss puts it


I’m sorry to say so

But sadly, it’s true

That Bang-ups

And Hang-ups

Can happen to you.


You can get all hung up

In a prickle-ly perch.

And your gang can fly on.

You’ll be left in a Lurch.


You’ll come down from the Lurch

With an unpleasant bump.

And the chances are, then,

That you’ll be in a Slump


And when you’re in a Slump,

You’re not much fun.

Un-slumping yourself

Is not easily done.


All of us go through slumps, Carellen, but baptism gives us the resources to deal with slumps. That’s why I’m giving you some of the baptismal water to take home. When you find yourself in a slump, look at the water in this bottle, and remind yourself that were baptized. In baptism you are given the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit can lift us out of any slump.


Third, we are giving you this t-shirt. This t shirt is the equivalent of the white garment that people in the early church wore for 50 days after their baptism. But on the front of this t shirt it says that you are a Christian, a child of God, an heir of the kingdom of Heaven; a disciple of Jesus; and a member of God’s royal priesthood. All your life, people will try to make you forget who you are. They will try to make you think you are something other than and less than the person God made you to be. Don’t let them do that. A former bishop of Alabama used to say to the people he confirmed, “Remember who you are and what you represent.” This shirt will help you do that.


Fourth, when we go to the font, Bonnie will light a candle from the Paschal candle and give it to you. You’re supposed to burn it every year on the anniversary of your baptism. The candle will remind you of the light that burns brightly inside you. You may not always see that light, but it is always there. All of us go through dark places from time to time, and when you do, light your baptismal candle and remember that God’s light is burning in your heart.


Finally, we are giving you a cross. Most Christian churches have crosses inside or outside or both. There’s a large cross on top of our bell tower and many crosses inside. The cross has many meanings. But the most important meaning of the cross is that it tells us that God can take the worst possible thing that can happen to us and turn it into something glorious. The cross is also a sign that shows us the way to go when we get lost.


Sometimes, Dr. Seuss says


You’ll come to a place where the streets are not marked.

Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.

A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!

Do you dare to go out? Do you dare to go in?

How much can you lose? How much can you win?


And IF you go in, should you turn left or right…

Or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite?

Or go around back and sneak in from behind?

Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find.

For a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind .


There’s a story about a little girl who got lost in a big city. Fortunately, a policeman found her and walked around the neighborhood with her, hoping that she would see a landmark. Finally, they stopped in front of a big building with a cross on top, and the little girl's face lit up, and she said, “It’s OK, officer, this is my church. I can find my way home from here.”


Carellen, when you come to that “place where the streets are not marked” (and all of us find ourselves there from time to time), look for the cross and look for the church. The cross will point you the way, and the church is full of people who will help you find your way home.


You’ll get mixed up, of course,

As you already know.

You’ll get mixed up

With many strange birds as you go.

So be sure when you step.

Step with care and great tact

And remember that Life’s

A Great Balancing Act.

Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.

And never mix up your right foot with your left.


And will you succeed?

Yes! You will, indeed!

(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)



Friday, December 13, 2013

Off the Top of My Head - Nelson Mandela - Man of Faith (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 13, 2013)

On Dec. 5, the world lost a unique leader who was almost universally admired when we said good bye to Nelson Rolihlahla  Mandela. Mandela's story is too familiar to repeat here. A black nationalist leader and campaigner against apartheid (the practice of not only discriminating against but physically separating different races), he was imprisoned for 27 years and was released in 1990. After four years of negotiations with the white leaders of South Africa, Mandela was elected president - the first president elected by a true majority in South Africa's history.


What is almost never noted about Mandela's story is the debt he and other African nationalists owed to the Christian missionary movement. Like other African nationalist leaders (for example Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana), Mandela was educated at a school founded by missionaries. Mandela's early education was at the Healdtown Comprehensive School, founded by Methodist missionaries in 1845. In 1999, Mandela said, "Without the church, without religious institutions, I would never have been here today..."


There have been four great periods of missionary activity in the history of the Christian faith: The first was from the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus around 34 AD and lasted until the middle of the second century. In this period, the Christian faith spread southward as far as Ethiopia, eastward as far as India (or perhaps even China), and westward to the British Isles. The second occurred in the sixth and seventh centuries when the evangelization of Europe was completed. The third took place in the 15th century during the age of European exploration of the western and southern hemispheres when Roman Catholic missionaries accompanied the European explorers.


The fourth period of Christian missions was inspired by the evangelical movements of the 18th and even more the 19th centuries. The evangelical movement led to the explosive growth of the Methodist and Baptist denominations. Methodist, Baptist, and (to a much smaller degree) Anglican missionaries went throughout China, India, and Africa in the 19th century founding churches, schools, and hospitals. And wherever they went nationalist movements sprang up. They inspired not only Mandela and his fellow African nationalists but also the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat Sen.


Although Mandela was a Methodist throughout his life, he flirted with Marxism in his youth. But when he was a prisoner at Robben Island, he prayed regularly with a group of ministers who visited him there. However, as Mandela himself often said, he was no saint.


Mandela was extremely discreet about his religious beliefs and preferred not to speak about them publicly. He avoided public pronouncements about religion because he wanted to unite all the people of South Africa - Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, and animist. Indeed, our own leaders in the United States would do well to heed Mandela's example and avoid using religion as a tool to advance their own narrow interests. But there is no doubt about his Christian convictions. At a Christian conference in 1994, Mandela said, "The good news was borne by our risen Messiah, who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language,  who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind."


It is difficult not to see the Christian inspiration of Mandela's principles. Emerging from prison after 27 years, Mandela advocated not revenge toward his oppressors but reconciliation of the oppressed with their oppressors. He also avoided the mistakes of other African nationalists and advocated a parliamentary democracy and free markets.


Mandela is sometimes referred to as the "George Washington of South Africa," and I think the comparison is an apt one. Like Washington, Mandela could have been president for life, but he stepped down from office after only one term.


Britain's The Economist magazine says, "For all the humiliation he suffered at the hands of white racists before he was released in 1990, he was never animated by a desire for revenge. He was himself utterly without prejudice, which is why he became a symbol of tolerance and justice across the globe."


And The Economist concludes, "He was, quite simply, a wonderful man."



Sunday, December 01, 2013

Advent memory, Advent hope (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 1, 2013)

Well, it's official... as of today, it's the most wonderful time of the year.


Although every year the most wonderful time of the year starts earlier and earlier... In my childhood they started playing Christmas carols and decorating stores right after Thanksgiving. Then a little later they started decorating the stores and playing the carols right after Halloween. And I believe I saw Christmas things in the stores not long after Labor Day this year, but now I'm in Las Vegas, and I believe you folks do things a little differently here!


But the celebration of Advent and the Christmas shopping season are not the same thing. The Christian church gets to say when Advent begins, not Macy's or Nordstrom's.


Advent is a peculiar season. Is it a season of memory or hope? Does it look forward or backward?


Do we remember the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem or do we hope and pray for his return to judge and redeem us and the world in which we live?


Is Advent a time of preparing for Christmas or a journey into the past?


Does Advent awaken memories of a young woman named Mary, only a teenager, and her husband Joseph... a crowded town... a filthy stable...shepherds watching... angels singing... a star shining... magi bringing gifts... cattle lowing... "The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes"?


Or does Advent anticipate a nearly unimaginable future when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea? Of a time when we shall beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, when there shall be no need to send our troops to Kabul or send F-14 fighter jets over some islands claimed by both China and Japan?


In these weeks before Christmas do we hope and pray that some day God will spread out a banquet for all who hunger and are homeless?


Do we fervently pray for that day when every tear shall be wiped away and death shall be no more and there shall be no more mourning nor crying nor pain?


"Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free..."


So which is it? Is Advent a journey into memory or a time of hope? 


The answer of course is both. 


Advent reminds us that we live our lives in that uneasy and sometimes uncomfortable place between the already and the not yet.


Several years ago my friend Rabbi Jonathan Miller and his son Aaron, now a rabbi himself, visited a history class I was teaching. One of my students asked  a question that  she had always wanted to ask a Jew: "Why don't you believe in Jesus?" And so I sat there, red-faced and deeply embarrassed. But Jonathan calmly turned to his son and said, "Aaron, would you like to answer that question?" And Aaron just as calmly replied, "Jews believe that when the messiah comes, he or she will bring in an age of peace, and that hasn't happened yet."


It's a great answer. And also a great challenge.


If Jesus is the messiah, then why isn't the world at peace? Why haven't the lion and the lamb snuggled up together? Why are there still troops in Kabul?


Maybe we all had the wrong idea about the messiah. Maybe Jesus is saying to us, "What are you going to do to bring about an age of peace? What are you going to do to help the lion and the lamb to become friends? What are you going to do to build a world in which troops won't have to go to Kabul or Baghdad again?"


I think those are even better questions than the one my student asked Rabbi Miller. The question is not, "Why don't Jews believe that Jesus was the messiah?" The better question is why don't Christians live as though Jesus really is the Prince of Peace?


In today's gospel reading, the psalmist tells us to "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem," but we misunderstand that psalm if we believe the psalmist is only telling us to pray that there will be no more violence in Jerusalem.


The Hebrew word shalom that we translate as "peace" means so much more than an absence of conflict or violence. Shalom is a positive word. It means well-being, plenty, prosperity, completeness.


"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem" means "Pray that Jerusalem - God's city, the place where God dwells on earth, may be a place of plenty, a place where the hungry are fed and the homeless will have a roof over their heads, a place where the lion will lie down with the lamb, and little children will dwell in security."


In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah says, "In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it."


The "mountain of the Lord's house" is Mt Zion, in other words, Jerusalem. Isaiah is expressing the hope that Jerusalem, the city of God will encompass the whole world, that all the world will know the peace, the shalom, for which the psalmist bids us pray.


Advent is the time when we hope the hopes that Isaiah and the psalmist hoped, when we pray their prayers, and when we work for the future they envisioned.


In Matthew's gospel, Jesus said, "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." Keep awake, watch... These are the key words of Advent.


Each day we must be like Noah building an ark... like a man plowing a field, like a woman grinding grain. Each day, each hour, we must be doing whatever we have to do to build the new world that God wants to build in our world.


So my hope and prayer for you and for all of us in this Advent season is that we will live just a little UN-comfortably, a little UN-easily between the memory of the past and the hope of the future. And that our discomfort and unease will prompt us to build that world in which swords will be beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.