Sunday, March 23, 2014

What we leave behind (J. Barry Vaughn, Lent 3, March 23, 2014)

The story of Jesus and the woman at the well is one of my favorite stories in all the Bible. John was a master story teller, and I love the subtlety with which he this story. Just about every word in this story has multiple layers of meaning.


But even before the story begins, we learn something important from the way that John has positioned this story in the Fourth Gospel. Immediately before the story of the woman at the well is the story of Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus, the learned and important Jewish leader who came to Jesus under cover of darkness. We heard that story last week.


By positioning the story of the woman at the well immediately after the story of Nicodemus, John is showing us that Jesus treats this nameless, morally dubious woman with just as much dignity and seriousness as he treated the learned and pious Nicodemus.


Now, let's go back to the time of day when this story takes place. It was noon when the woman came to the well to draw water. Think about that for a minute. What is it like at noon on an average day in that part of the world? Why is this woman coming to the well at noon? Usually women came to the well to draw water when it was cool in the morning or evening. This woman must have a good reason for coming to the well at the hottest part of the day. Carrying a heavy stone jar full of water from the well back to the village was not easy at any time and was even more difficult when the sun was directly overhead, beating down on her.


She came to the well at noon because she wanted to avoid the other women. And we don't have to wait long to find out why she was avoiding them. Jesus says to her, "You have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband." She is an outcast, an adulterer, perhaps even a prostitute. No wonder she wanted to avoid the other women in the village. Or perhaps they had made it clear to her that they would have nothing to do with her. Perhaps they had even threatened her.


None of us likes to have our faults and shortcomings pointed out to us, so she changed the topic of conversation as fast as possible. "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet..." She must have thought, "Religion! Yeah, that's the ticket. It may not be a topic for polite conversation, but at least everyone has an opinion about it."


And given that Jesus was a Jew and the woman at the well was a Samaritan, they had no shortage of things to talk about.


The Samaritans were the descendants of the people of Israel, that is, the Northern Kingdom, who had been overrun by the Assyrians in 722-21 BC. The Assyrians had completely destroyed the ten tribes of the northern kingdom. There capital had been the city of Samaria, hence they were called Samaritans.


The Samaritans worshiped and offered sacrifices on Mt Gerizim; the Jews or people of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, worship at the temple on Mt Zion in Jerusalem. The Samaritans regarded only the Torah, the five books of Moses, as authoritative scripture; the Jews (at least most of them) regarded the books of the prophets as authoritative, as well.


Doesn't seem like a big difference, does it? Samaritans worship on Mt Gerizim; Jews worship on Mt Zion. Samaritans believe only in the Torah; Jews also believe in the prophets.


Around the time of Jesus' birth, a band of Samaritans profaned the temple in Jerusalem by scattering human bones in it. Samaritans even killed a group of Jewish pilgrims in the year 52 AD.


All that animosity because they disagreed about the proper location for worship and the number of books in the Bible? Seems silly, doesn't it?


One of the criticisms most often levelled at religion is that we disagree about insignificant things.


Following the Protestant Reformation of the 16th c., a series of conflicts between Protestants and Roman Catholics broke out in Europe that lasted just over a century, the so-called "Wars of Religion."


One side believed that the pope, the bishop of Rome, was the vicar of Christ and should govern the church on earth. The other side believed that scripture alone should govern the church.


One side believed the doctrine of transubstantiation, namely  that the eucharistic bread and wine literally became the body and blood of Jesus. The other side held a variety of views about the eucharist but denied the doctrine of transubstantiation.


One side believed that clergy should remain celibate: the other believed that clergy could marry.


Do you know Dr. Seuss's The Butter Battle Book? The story of the war between the Yooks and the Zooks?


"In every Zook house and in every Zook town

every Zook eats his bread

with the butter side down!

"But we Yooks, as you know, when we breakfast or sup,

spread our bread," Grandpa said,

"with the butter side up."


A terrible war followed between the Yooks and the Zooks. Each side developed dreadful weapons such as the "Triple-Sling Jigger" and the "Jigger-Rock Snatchem" and "Poo-a-Doo Power" made of


"...ants' eggs and bees' legs

and dried-fried clam chowder."


And the book ends when each side has developed the ultimate weapon -  the Big-Boy Boomeroo - that will blow its victims


"into pork and wee beans!

... and small smithereens!"


The conflicts between the Jews and Samaritans or between Protestants and Roman Catholics were a little more serious than disagreeing about which side of the bread should be buttered, but not much more serious.


Sisters and brothers, this is one of the besetting sins of religion: Quarrelling and fighting about insignificant things.


We should keep in mind what Jesus said to the woman at the well: "The hour is coming and now is when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth..."


"True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth..."


That's all that matters.


Do you remember what Bishop Dan said when he visited us last year? He said that the biggest challenge facing Christ Church was learning to deal with conflict. The biggest fear I had before I accepted your invitation to become rector of this church was that conflict had become a way of life.


Conflict is a part of life, but it must never become a way of life. Let me repeat that: Conflict is a part of life, but it must never become a way of life. When there is conflict, apply the Dr. Seuss' test: Does this matter more than whether you butter your bread on the top or the bottom? And unless it's more important than that, let it go.


This is a good church, and I know that you are good people. We must not let conflict take hold here again. Two weeks ago the vestry engaged in a planning retreat at Lake Havasu. It was a wonderful, constructive weekend, and it was the first planning retreat that the vestry has had in several years. We are going to accomplish a lot this year, unless we let conflict become a way of life.


So listen to Jesus: "... the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem...  true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth..." The hour is coming and now is when it won't matter whether you are Jews or Samaritans, Protestants or Roman Catholics, whether you butter your bread on the top or the bottom, whether we use incense or not, whether we use the 1928 prayer book or the 1979 prayer, whether we use Rite I or Rite II. True worshipers will worship God in spirit and in truth.


There is one other little detail in this story that I want you to think about. When Jesus' disciples return, John tells us that "the woman left her water jar and went back to the city."


"She left her water jar..." Doesn't seem very important, does it? Think again. What does that little detail tell us?


Did she just leave her water jar behind in her excitement? This woman was by no means wealthy. That jar may have represented a significant portion of her worldly goods.


I believe she left the water jar behind because she no longer needed it. She no longer needed it because she now had the water of life in her heart. She no longer needed to carry around that heavy water jar. She no longer needed to endure the heat of the sun beating down on her as she carried it back and forth between the well and the village.


Is there anything in your life like that heavy water jar? Is there anything you are carrying around that you need to leave behind? I know there are things such as that in my own life. There are things such as anger and resentment toward people who hurt me long ago. There are disappointments and sadness about things that I did or failed to do, opportunities missed, hopes and dreams never fulfilled.


What are the things you are carrying around that you need to leave behind? What are the things in the life of this church that we are carrying around that we need to leave behind?


I invite you to let go of them, to set down the heavy things that you are carrying. You don't need them any more. Jesus gives you everything you need. Think about how much farther and faster we could go if we let go of those things.


The story is told of two members of a very strict monastic order who were on there way from there own monastery to another one. There order was so strict that they could not even look at a woman, much less speak to one.


As they traveled, they came to a deep and fast river. Waiting to cross the river was a young woman in an advanced state of pregnancy who was unable to cross the stream without help. So one of the monks picked her up and carried her across on his back.


After crossing the river, the two monks continued on their journey, but the one who had not carried the woman was furious with his companion for violating the rules of their order. He refused to speak to his companion all day. Finally, they came to their destination, and the monk who had carried the woman across the river said to his companion, "Brother, why are you angry with me? All I did was carry a woman across the river. You, on the other hand, have been carrying her around all day."


What are the things that you have been carrying around all day? What are the things that you need to let go of? What are the things that are impeding the mission and ministry of this church? Let go of them.


"...let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12.1-2)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

JN36TN (J. Barry Vaughn, Lent 2, March 16, 2014)

Many states allow drivers to select a message for their cars' license plates. The license plate on my old Honda Civic featured the letters MSTRO - the musical term "maestro" or "master".


I went online and found some entertaining religious license plate messages. Apparently, there are a lot of people whose license plates feature the word THEIST, and there are quite a few that feature an opposing point of view - the word ATHEIST.


A car in Texas sports the message HESRZN - "He's risen". I imagine that the Committee on Gratitude would like the Alabama license plate that features this message: BGR8FL - "be grateful." And I suspect that Pete Steinbrenner would endorse the plates that say TITHE.


The state of Vermont is not exactly part of the Bible Belt, so I was surprised to find a Vermont plate bearing this message JN36TN - John 3:16.


After "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" and "The Lord is my shepherd," there are probably no verses of scripture better known than "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" or "You must be born again," both from the 3rd chapter of John.


You see them at every Super Bowl or World Series' game or at pretty much every big gathering of people.


There is no better day to think about what it means to be born again than a day on which we have a baptism, and today we are baptizing Richard Lawney.


However, I suspect that the connection between "you must be born again" and baptism may not be immediately obvious. In fact, I am afraid that there are some Christians who think that baptism, at least as Episcopalians practice it, and being born again are incompatible.


Let's look at the message of the third chapter of John.


Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews "came to Jesus by night." Keep in mind that John is heavily symbolic. John communicates his messages indirectly. So when we are told that Nicodemus came to Jesus "by night", we can be sure that something is up. Light and dark are major categories in John.


At the very beginning of John's gospel, it says that Jesus is "the light of all people... the light shining in the darkness."


John writes about a world hovering between the light and the dark. By telling us that Nicodemus visited Jesus at night, John is saying that Nicodemus is in the dark spiritually as well as physically. What else might it mean that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night? Do you think that Nicodemus might have been afraid? He had a position to maintain; he was a leader. What would it look like for this Pharisee, this leader, to come to Jesus? It would be as though a member of the Christ Church vestry went to one of the seedier blocks of Charleston Ave to visit Madam Olga, psychic visionary. 


Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina says that Nicodemus must have been the first Episcopalian. Nicodemus is just a little wary of this Jesus character. He doesn't want to seem too interested in him, so he goes to him at night. Curry also christened Nicodemus Nick at Nite.


I think Nicodemus was a southerner. He was so polite. He doesn't immediately begin telling Jesus why he has come. He says, "Rabbi (in the south we would say "Sir"), we know that you are a teacher who has come from God." Nicodemus compliments Jesus. In the south, every conversation begins with a dozen questions about how your family members are doing. Nicodemus goes on, "No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."


But Jesus, I'm sorry to say, responds very much like a yankee. No pleasantries for him! "Very truly, I tell you no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Now here you need to know that the phrase "born from above" can also be translated "born again" and that's the way it has usually been translated, and that is how I will translate it for this sermon.


Nicodemus was mystified. The idea of being born again was repulsive to him. Jesus had a way of saying things like that! Nicodemus had been born a Jew; he belonged to one of the 12 tribes of Israel. He had a long and impressive heritage. He was a member of the Pharisaic party. No greater heritage was possible. And along came Jesus telling him that he had to go back to the very beginning, even before the beginning. If Nicodemus were born again, there would be no way to know how things may turn out. He might even be a Gentile the next time round.


Jesus goes on: "No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit... The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."


Now here is where this story connects with Richard's baptism this morning.  Some say that it is impossible to reconcile infant baptism and the idea that we must be born again? Why in the world would little Richard need to be born again? He's not even a year old. Why does he need to start all over again so soon?


I want to suggest that Jesus' message in the 3rd chapter of John operates on a number of different levels.


Looked at one way, Jesus is saying that every single one of us needs to be born again spiritually. All of us are born physically in the natural course of things, but in addition to our physical birth, we also need a spiritual birth.


It is on this level that that infant baptism makes perfect sense. Richard had the good sense to be born an Episcopalian. He had the even better sense to be born into a wonderful family, the family of Melissa and Eugene and Mark and Eugene, Jr. Today we are claiming God's promise on Richard's behalf that those who are baptized in water and in the name of the Trinity are born spiritually into God's family. Having been born once into a wonderful human family, Richard is now born a second time into a spiritual family that extends throughout time and space. He becomes a brother to Christians all over the world and throughout time. Welcome to the family, Richard!


But Jesus' words in John 3 also operate on another level. I want to take Jesus quite literally, even more literally than my evangelical sisters and brothers: "You must be born again..."


Birth is not a sudden event; it is a long process. Human births are preceded by nine months of gestation. In elephants and whales, gestation takes almost 2 years. I'm pretty sure the human race would die out if our gestation took that long!


What do you suppose is the gestational period that precedes spiritual birth?


Writer Mary Antin says, "We are not born all at once, but by bits.  The body first, and the spirit later.... Our mothers are racked with the pains of our physical birth; we ourselves suffer the longer pains of our spiritual growth."


That is why I cannot believe that the only way to become a Christian is to have a sudden, emotional conversion experience.


Once when gave a talk at a Rotary Club in Scotland where I lived for a couple of years, a member of the club asked me a question after my talk. "Is true that in America they believe in instant conversion?" I said, "In America, we believe in instant everything!" Deferred gratification takes way too long!


I also do not believe that spiritual rebirth happens only to individuals; I believe that institutions can also go through a kind of spiritual rebirth. I hope and pray that Christ Church is going through a time of spiritual rebirth. But as Mary Antin says,  " We are not born all at once, but by bits.  The body first, and the spirit later.... Our mothers are racked with the pains of our physical birth; we ourselves suffer the longer pains of our spiritual growth."


It takes time. To shift the metaphor, we are turning around a vast ocean liner. We want to sail it in a new direction. This is not something that is done all at once.


And it may be painful and confusing at times. What I would ask you to do is to cooperate with the Spirit that blows where she will. We hear the sound of the Spirit and we see the effects of her work. We see lives being changed; we see new projects getting started; we see old ways of doing things being changed. That is all the work of the Spirit.


We cooperate with the Spirit by praying. We cooperate with the Spirit by being flexible, because if we're not flexible, a great gust of Spirit wind might suddenly knock us on our backsides!


But the most important way that we cooperate with the Spirit is by being willing to let the Spirit get into our hearts and renew them.


We can only be baptized once. We are born once into our human families and we are born once into the Christian family. But I suspect that we may be born again and again. Or perhaps the other translation of those words is more appropriate now: We are born from above again and again.


Life gets stale. We get stuck in a rut. We become sluggish and depressed. We need the Spirit to grab us and shake us up. Maybe what's really happening at Christ Church is that we are being born anew or from above one more time.


I suspect that Christ Church has been born anew more than once and that it will be born again many more times in its long life. I feel privileged to be a kind of midwife to its rebirth in my time. And I invite you to join me as we open our minds and hearts to the new thing that the Spirit is doing among us.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Good News of the Cross (J. Barry Vaughn, Ash Wed., March 5, 2014)

I want to begin with a quotation from one of my favorite theologians - Tallulah Bankhead. Her father, Congressman William Bankhead, gave Tallulah her mother's Bible and wrote inside the cover: “As a spiritual source at the end of each exacting day may I recommend to you your little mother’s favorite, the 103rd Psalm.” Tallulah recalled that “I have never gone to church since I could avoid it without penalty, [but] I have found consolation in: ‘He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. . . . For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.’”


Today we remember that we are dust, mortal, finite, limited. It is a message with which our conservative sisters and brothers are comfortable and familiar.


Sometimes the Episcopal Church takes pride in what it is not.  We are not holy rollers; we are not fundamentalists; some of us are evangelicals, but Anglicans tend to be a tamer sort of evangelical (no hell, please; we’re Anglicans); some of us are very high church but Anglo-Catholics are nothing if not tasteful and don’t go in for the more extreme devotions of our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shrine to the Holy Infant of Prague in an Episcopal Church and I hope I never will.  Above all, we take pride in doing things properly (Martha Stewart must be an Episcopalian).  We are the church of vicars having tea on the lawn with the women’s guild; we are the church of many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence who also just happened to be more Deist than Christian in their theology; we are the church of excellent prep schools, beautiful neo-Gothic churches, and old silver communion vessels. 


I’m afraid H. Richard Niebuhr was referring to more than a few Episcopalians when he said that the problem with liberal Christianity was that “A God without wrath brought men and women without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”  I think Niebuhr was right, but before I tell you why I agree with him, I want to say a good word for liberal theology. 


One other important thing about the Episcopal Church is that we are a church of GOOD news, not bad news.  What I mean by that is that our clergy tend to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ as good news, which, of course, is what gospel means – “good news”.  From most Episcopalian pulpits you will hear that God loves you, that God created the world and declared it to be very good indeed and never changed his mind about it, that God seeks to know us and to make the divine nature known to us, that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons.


All of that is true, but, as Paul Harvey says, now for the rest of the story (Does Paul Harvey still say this?). Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker, who spent almost her entire adult life living and working among the poor, said that God’s love is “harsh and dangerous”.  Lent is about living into God’s “harsh and dangerous” love.  It is about reflecting on what it means that (to borrow Niebuhr’s categories) we ARE sinful, we cannot enter the kingdom without being judged and found guilty of many misdeeds and shortcomings, and that if we take the cross out of the story of Christ, then it becomes nothing more than a saccharine tale of a good man who espoused lovely ideas.


In his book The Next Christendom historian Philip Jenkins points out something that Anglicans have known since the last Lambeth conference:  the vital and growing edge of the church is in the Third World.  Now, that is certainly problematic for us liberal Episcopalians, because the members of these Third World churches really believe that humans need to be redeemed, that God is a God of righteousness as well as love, that there is right and wrong, and that our actions have consequences.  The problem is that they want to impose their values on us the way we imposed Western values on them in the 19th century. 


However, there is also good news in the shift of the church from the First World to the Third World, because the Third World church understands the cross.  They understand the cross because they live in a world in which the cross is their daily reality.  They live in a world in which most children go to bed hungry; a world in which children die in infancy and women die in childbirth in numbers not seen in the northern hemisphere since the 19th century; a world in which substandard housing and the enormous populations of big cities make them vulnerable to floods and earthquakes that routinely result in catastrophes of biblical proportions.  In other words, the Third World churches are a lot more like the church of the New Testament than our First World churches have been in centuries. 


Do not misunderstand what I am saying: I disagree with our Third World sisters and brothers on many issues, but they still have much to teach us about walking through the valley of the shadow of death, losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel, and taking up the cross.


Christians in the Third World know that following Jesus means risking everything.  They are a church of martyrs.  Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum assassinated for taking a prophetic stand against him.  The Anglican Archbishop of Iran barely escaped death when during the Islamic Revolution assailants fired a machine gun into his bedroom while he was sleeping.  Last year Hindu nationalists in India killed an Australian missionary and his sons.  And daily in countries such as Nigeria and the Sudan where Christians and Muslims live together there is the risk of violence.


God has blessed us with a free and prosperous country, with readily available medical care and probably with more food than we need.  But a loss of spiritual muscle usually seems to accompany the blessings of prosperity and freedom. 


So this Lent I invite you to put the cross front and center.  The cross shows us the cost of discipleship, as well as the height and depth of God’s love.  The cross shows us the reality that Third World Christians live with every day.  The cross is the signpost, the arrow, the X that marks the spot where we find God.  The good news of the cross is that God is in the midst of suffering with us, and when we have reached the end of our rope we have not yet even begun to plumb the depths of God’s grace, mercy, and love.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Extraordinary ordinary moments (J. Barry Vaughn, Last Sunday of Epiphany, March 2, 2014)

Some of you may know that in the hills and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains that cover parts of Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and north Alabama, there are a few small churches that maintain the strange practice of handling deadly snakes. This is based on a few verses in one of the endings of Mark's gospel: " And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." (Mark 16.17-18)


Several years ago the minister of one of these churches was accused of trying to kill his wife by having her handle a rattle snake and was put on trial. The New York Times asked Birmingham journalist Dennis Covington to cover this case.


While covering the story, Covington found himself strangely drawn to the preacher's snake-handling cult.  On about four occasions, Covington picked up a rattler himself.  In a National Public Radio interview, Covington described his snake-handling experience in this way:


            "The preacher laid the snake in my hands, I turned to face the congregation.  Everything kind of disappeared -- the preacher, the congregation, the photographer who had come with me.  It all faded to white.  It was just me and this rattlesnake.  I felt as if I were disappearing, too.  I couldn't hear anything.  Everything just faded into this whiteness.  There came a point when it all came back to me.  I realized that this loud shouting I was hearing came from my own mouth."


A bizarre story.  But is it any more bizarre than the story of three Palestinian peasants who accompany their Teacher to the top of a high mountain and suddenly behold him glowing with an unearthly light and chatting with prophets long dead, while a voice from heaven says, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him".


Dennis Covington's story of handling snakes and the story of the Transfiguration have this in common:  Both are instances in which ordinary people have extraordinary experiences.  Both are stories of moments of transcendence.


Now, at this point I should probably pause and ask you not to call or write the bishop tomorrow morning and tell him that I said that you should try snake handling.  Episcopalians don't do that, and that isn't my point.


I must also confess to you that I have never had such a moment.  I've never seen the heavens opened and angels ascending and descending between earth and heaven.  I've never heard the archangels chanting the praises of God.  I've never had an out-of-body experience.  And I've never seen the mysterious light reported by those who've come close to death.


And I have to admit that I don't have a strong desire to have any of those experiences!


But both Covington's story and the stories of Jesus' transfiguration in the gospels beg the question: What is transfiguration? What happened to Jesus? What happened to Peter, James, and John?


One important clue to the meaning of the story is in the first two words of the gospel story: "Six days..." Matthew tells us that the transfiguration of Jesus took place six days after Peter had acknowledged that Jesus was both the Messiah and the Son of God. Notice that the divine summit conference between God and Moses also took place six days after Moses ascended Mt Sinai.


In other words, both events took place on the seventh day, the Sabbath, the day of worship. In Judaism, the Sabbath is not just the day of worship. The Sabbath is the summit of creation. The hymns of Judaism celebrate the Sabbath as a bride. Jews welcome the Sabbath as a bride coming to meet her husband. The Sabbath is the joining of the human and the divine, the heavenly and the earthly.


The story of the Transfiguration is about a moment of worship, a moment when the disciples saw Jesus for who he really was, a moment when the veil separating earth and heaven opened.


Why, then, is our worship so mundane? Is worship for us a moment when the veil between heaven and earth is opened? Is time is suspended and do we feel ourselves to be in the presence of the eternal? Probably for most of us, most of the time, that does not happen.


Several years ago I heard the author Phyllis Tickle, who has written extensively about spirituality and the so-called "emerging church", speak to a group clergy. Someone asked her why people were turning away from the church and embracing the practices of eastern religions - meditation, silence, chanting mantras, and so on. She said it was because the western churches did not have a deep spirituality.


I thought she was wrong then, and I still think she is wrong. There is a deep spirituality in both the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. But I do believe that western Christianity has put the emphasis more on the intellectual than on the experiential. We express our spirituality in ways that are more rational than mystical.


Having traveled many times to the Middle East, it is always interesting for me to observe the reactions of Protestants when they encounter the worship and spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox churches.


Orthodox churches, especially the older ones, tend to be dark. Western Christians feel crowded, almost suffocated by the proliferation of icons. In some Orthodox churches, it seems that almost every available space is covered with icons. The air is thick with incense. There are candles everywhere. Every word of the service is sung or chanted.


We western Christians like our worship to be calm, rational, and orderly. We want it to begin promptly at 7.45 or 10.45 and end no more than and hour and 15 minutes later (a little shorter, if possible, please). And no more than a 12 minute sermon, thank you very much.


Now, there's nothing at all wrong with that. But spirituality and mysticism are not calm, orderly, and rational things. They require that we loosen our hold on this world just a little. They ask us to give up our need to control. They tell us that we must open ourselves up to experience the disorderly, the irrational, even the fearful and bizarre.


Can that happen to us here at Christ Church, Las Vegas? Can it happen in a seventy five minute sequence of scripture, hymn, sermon, and sacrament? I think it can, and I think it does more often than we think.


I love Christ Church. I began to fall in love with it the first time I came here. I love it because it has been a place of transcendence and transfiguration for so many of you.


It is a place of transcendence and transfiguration because of the many times that extraordinary things have happened to you here. It is where many of you were baptized or had your children baptized. It is where you were married or saw your children married. It is where you said good by to your loved ones when they had died and may even be the place where they rest eternally in our columbarium.


If you'll allow me to coin a paradoxical phrase, this is a place where "extraordinary ordinary" moments take place. Baptisms, weddings, funerals, midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and Easter day celebrations are to the outward eye ordinary things, but to many of us, to many of you, they are also extraordinary. They are times when heaven and earth meet, when the human and divine come together, when the veil between the earthly and heavenly is lifted.


We may not experience them to be extraordinary when we are going through them, but in reflection, in memory, in the eye of the mind and the heart, they become extraordinary. This is a place we treasure, cherish, and hold sacred.


I hope it will always be such a place. My sincere hope and prayer is that Christ Church will be a place of extraordinary ordinary moments for years and generations to come. And that is why I work so hard to keep this place alive and vital.


Many of you have been here for years. Some of you have been here for a lifetime or close to it. I have only been here a year. But it has been a marvelous year for me, and I have loved just about every minute of it.


In my first year as your rector, I have learned just how special this place is for you, and it has become just as special to me.


I want to share with you a few of the things I have learned in my first year:


  • First, Christ Church needs your presence and your prayers. I urge you to come to worship here as frequently as possible, and I want you to pray for Christ Church every day.
  • Second, Christ Church also needs you to let go of old patterns of conflict. When Bishop Dan came here last year, someone asked him what he thought our greatest challenge was, and he said that we need to learn to deal with conflict in a healthy way. The healthy way to deal with conflict is to bring it out into the open. Gossip and rumors flourish in the dark, and they are deadly to a church. Just this last week I have heard two absolutely ridiculous rumors - one about me and one about another employee of this church. You can kill rumors and gossip by refusing to repeat them and by asking for evidence.
  • Third, Christ Church needs your financial support. This is an exceptionally generous community, and for that I am grateful. But we need your continued financial support, and if possible, we need you to increase your financial support.


I want to point out one more thing about the stories of the Transfiguration in the gospels. The most important thing we can learn about theses stories is that Jesus is at their center. The disciples experienced the transfiguration because they were with Jesus. They saw Jesus glowing with an unearthly light. They heard the voice of God telling them that God was pleased with Jesus and that they were to listen to him.


Sisters and brothers, when we come together in this place for worship. Jesus is with us, and in this place and among these people, Jesus speaks to us. "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them..." (Matt. 18.20)


The world needs Jesus. The world needs God. That is why Christ Church is here: to invite the world to experience the transfiguring power of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. I will work as hard as I can to keep Christ Church alive and vital so that we can carry out that mission, and I invite you to join me in doing that.