Sunday, August 24, 2014

Creatively Maladjusted (J. Barry Vaughn, Aug. 24, 2014)

Romans 12, verses 1 and 2: I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.


Today’s second reading has a very special significance for me. It was the confirmation text chosen by Peter Gomes, the university chaplain at Harvard from 1974 to 2011, and one of my dearest friends. When he announced his retirement, a classmate and I decided to honor him by commissioning an anthem in his honor and this was the text he chose. The choir of this church sang the anthem when I was instituted as your rector.


Peter’s life exemplified these verses in many ways. He was a genuinely unique individual, and no one could ever have accused him of being a conformist. Peter was an African American and a Baptist, but he was also a Republican for most of his life and only changed his affiliation to the Democratic party when a mutual friend of ours ran for and was elected governor of Massachusetts.


Peter was also a bachelor, but when an ugly anti-gay incident occurred on the Harvard campus, he spoke at a rally condemning it and came out as a gay man.


When his first book was published, Peter went on a book tour to promote it. While on a talk show on a black radio station in Philadelphia, the host noticed that no one was calling in, so he decided to stir the pot a little, and said to his listeners:. “This man is black, Republican, and gay. Do you think he’s going to hell?” And with that the switchboard started to light up.


Paul presents us with two alternatives: Conformity and transformation. But that just begs the question: Conformity to what? Transformation into what?


The first question is easy to answer: “Do not be conformed to this world.”


But isn’t the world good? Did God not declare the world to be good when he created it? Of course. But the problem is not with the world that God created but with the world that you and I have created.


The French theologian Jacques Ellul said that humans are made in the image of God but culture is created in the image of humans. And I would add that something is lost in the translation.


I don’t mean for a moment that everything about culture is bad. There is much that is good. We have created tremendous works of art and music and great works of literature. We have built political institutions that support the rule of law and protect human rights.


But we have also created greed and racism. We have created oppression and authoritarianism.


A topic for another time would be how can humans created in the image of God create a culture that so often deprives our fellow human beings of their rights, relegates them to second class status, declares that those who look different from us, believe a different faith, or love in a different way are inferior? But that will have to wait for another sermon.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deals with this text from St. Paul in a sermon entitled “Transformed Nonconformist.” I want to share some of it with you.


Dr. King observed that “We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability. We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.”


Quoting the poet Longfellow, he said, “In this world we must be either a hammer or an anvil.” In other words, we will either mold the world around us or be molded by it.  Using a powerful, vivid image, Dr. King said that “… most people, and Christians in particular, are thermometers that record or register the temperature of majority opinion, not thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society.”


King observed that the church of Jesus Christ has too often simply blessed the status quo, even if that status quo included racial segregation, unjust wars, and economic exploitation.


But the most memorable words in King’s sermon are these: “The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.”


I love the phrase, “creative maladjustment.” I think that’s exactly what Paul is calling us to in today’s second reading. And there is a perfect illustration of that in the first reading today.


The story of Exodus tells us that “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Do you remember the story of Joseph?


Joseph was the youngest and favorite son of the patriarch Jacob. Joseph’s brothers bitterly resented the favoritism that Jacob showed to Joseph, so they seized him one day when he was out in the fields far from home watching the sheep. And when a caravan bound for Egypt came along, they sold him into slavery. But the joke was on them. Joseph rose from slavery to become Pharaoh’s chief advisor. And when famine struck the land of Joseph’s brothers, they came to him and pleaded for food to save them from starvation. Joseph had every reason to hate his brothers, but instead he loved them and showed them mercy and gave them the food that saved their lives.


Joseph’s entire family, then, came to live in Egypt. But after Joseph died, a new Pharaoh or king came to power in Egypt, one who did not remember what Joseph had done. And this new king feared and hated the descendants of Joseph’s tribe and decided to eliminate them in the cruelest way possible. He instructed the Egyptian midwives to kill all the Hebrew boys.


Even the life of Moses was at risk. But when he was born, his mother fashioned a tiny boat and set him adrift on the Nile River, hoping against hope that he would live. But he was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought up in the royal household. Or as a friend of mine used to say, Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the river and picked up a little prophet!


But in spite of Pharaoh’s command to kill all male Hebrew children, two of the Egyptian midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, refused to do this. They not only disobeyed Pharaoh’s command, they even lied about it, putting their own lives at risk.


In other words, Shiphrah and Puah were “creatively maladjusted.” They were “transformed nonconformists.”


It’s amazing how often the Bible lifts up women who were “creatively maladjusted,” who were “transformed nonconformists.” And it’s equally amazing how we have ignored them.


Think of Mary, the mother of Jesus. When the angel told her that she was going to be the mother of Jesus, she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In effect, she was agreeing to be an unwed mother.


Or think of Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the resurrection. The Risen Christ appeared to her and told her to take the unbelievable news of the Resurrection to the other disciples. But she was a former prostitute. What reason did they have to believe her? But she went.


Maybe women find it easier to be “transformed nonconformists” because they have usually been on the outside; they have been economically and socially marginalized.


The church of Jesus Christ does not have a very good record when it comes to being “creatively maladjusted” to the world.


Social scientists tell us that Christians divorce at about the same rate as the general population; we watch the same films and television shows; we read the same books; we give about the same percentage of our income to charity as others; our teenagers have pre-marital sex at about the same rate as other kids; and so forth. The church has defended slavery and racial discrimination, wars and economic exploitation. During the Holocaust Christians pretty much turned their backs on the Jewish people.


We swallow cultural propaganda hook, line, and sinker. We believe that sexual pleasure should be unlimited, that politics is the most important news, that poverty is the worst thing that could ever happen to us, that a risky investment provides so-called security, that physical health is my right, and that whatever is technologically possible is good (even though it might be morally dubious). (From Daniel Clendenin, “Positively Maladjusted” in his blog Journey with Jesus.)


Last week we lost Mark Sewall. Mark was “creatively maladjusted,” too; he was a “transformed nonconformist.” Mark was also something of an outsider. He wasn’t from this community, and he was gay. Last year he gave a stewardship talk that I will never forget. He said that when he realized that he was not going to have a partner, he decided to make Jesus his life partner.


Mark seemed to be involved in everything at Christ Church. He was on the Committee on Gratitude and was going to be our stewardship chair this year. Mark was passionate about stewardship. He was so passionate that he took some of his vacation time to attend a stewardship conference in Atlanta.


Stewardship is a great example of being transformed, not conformed. We live in a world that tells us we should make and spend as much money as we can. But the Christian faith tells us that we are not measured by how much money we make but by how much we give away. And Mark lived that out. He gave selflessly of himself, and I can’t tell you how much I will miss him.


We need “transformed nonconformists” like Mark. We need people who are “creatively maladjusted.”


We need people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who gave up a promising career as a theologian and instead joined the German resistance to Adolf Hitler and paid the ultimate price – being executed in Flossenburg prison.


We need people like Rosa Parks who refused to sit in the back of the bus any longer.


We need people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who practiced non-violent resistance to an unjust social order, even though he knew that he was likely to be killed.


We need people like Andrew White, the so-called “Vicar of Baghdad”, who continues to minister to Christians there in spite of the great danger it poses to his life.


We are being “creatively maladjusted” when we practice service rather than self-aggrandizement, when we forgive those who have wronged us; when we seek reconciliation rather than estrangement.


I am glad that Peter Gomes chose Romans 12, 1 and 2, for the anthem composed in his honor, because it reminded me of the music inherent in those words. It reminded me, and I hope it reminds you, that Christians are called to sing a new song, not the same song that the world around us sings, to be just a little bit off key, to march to the beat of a different drum, to be “creatively maladjusted,” transforming ourselves and the world around us.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dog Food (Rick O'Brien, Christ Church Episcopal, Las Vegas, NV. Aug. 17, 2014)

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  I know that you are sitting there thinking to yourself “I could not have heard that right.  There must be some mistake, some misprint.  For Jesus would not, could not have said something so harsh, so callow, so cruel. Jesus was about love, and this is clearly not a loving comment.” 

Well, as much as I hate to burst your bubble, there is no misprint.  This is what Jesus said. It appears not only in Matthew’s gospel, but in Mark as well.   And as much as it may offend our 21st century sensibilities, it was a turning point in his ministry.  But before we explore that, we need a frame of reference.

There are two separate stories in this morning’s gospel, the encounter with the woman and the conversation with the disciples and the crowd about the Pharisees.  For the past several weeks we have been exploring the gospel of Mathew as Jesus and the disciples travel from Jerusalem to Galilee.  We have heard the familiar stories of the parable of the kingdom of heaven, the feeding of the 5,000, and Peter’s lack of faith as he tried to walk on the water.  What we didn’t get in the lectionary was the story of the Pharisees following Jesus from Jerusalem to Galilee. 

Matthew 15:1 tells us “Then the Pharisees and the scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?  For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”  For Jews of that time, eating without washing meant that one was unclean.  They had developed an elaborate process of ritually washing the hands in order to purify oneself.  This was not due to any concerns for hygiene, but rather they believed that this was a way to please God.  So they went to great lengths to avoid coming into contact with any unclean person or thing which would separate them from God.  Even coming into contact with the dust kicked up by the feet of a gentile would make one unclean.  They had taken the laws from the book of Leviticus and built on them, layer upon layer of new rituals and practices, in an elaborate effort to win favor from God.  To the Pharisees, eating with unclean hands was no less a violation of the Law of Moses than adultery, false witness or even murder.

They had built for themselves a comfortable practice of piety, and what they believed to be a sure fire way to curry favor with God.  All one had to do was scrupulously follow the practices laid down by the scribes and the elders and you would be assured of God’s favor.  And then this itinerant carpenter from nowhere shows up and starts mouthing off to the people about the Kingdom of God.  He tells people that the Pharisees are hypocrites and says that you can’t earn God’s favor, but it is a gift freely given to all.  The nerve of this guy!  So they follow Jesus all the way to Galilee to question him and, presumably, to shut him up.  But it doesn’t go for them the way they had hoped.  Rather than agree with them, Jesus tells the crowd “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

It may not seem like it, but this is actually the beginning of the end.  For in this one sentence, Jesus has basically said that the book of Leviticus is no longer true.  Jesus has, in effect, repealed the dietary laws written by Moses and substituted a new standard.  A standard that says it is not what you eat, but what is in your heart that makes you good or profane.  Remember the parable where Jesus tells the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee?  The Pharisee prays loudly saying, “Lord I thank you that I am not like other men, like that tax collector!  I pray three times a day and pay my tithe.’  The tax collector could not even look up and prayed simply and quietly, “Have mercy on me Lord for I am a sinner”.  Jesus tells us that it was the tax collector and not the Pharisees who went away with their prayers answered.  In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us why that happened.  For, while the Pharisee did the right things by praying and tithing, he didn’t do them for the right reasons.  He did them in order to be seen doing them as a way of earning respect from people.  But Jesus tells us that it is the intent and not the deed that counts.  "Man," as Aquinas tells us, "sees the deed, but God sees the intention." 

The Pharisees are horrified at this.  By preaching that the laws set down in Leviticus are no longer true, Jesus has blasphemed and they can no longer look upon him as a kook or a quaint distraction.  He has attacked a fundamental tenant of their faith and the rules of engagement are now set.  If this were an old TV western, this would be the moment when the sheriff says to the bad guy, “this town ain’t big enough for the two of us”.  From this point on, it would either be the Pharisees or Jesus.

But that still doesn’t explain about the woman so let’s return to that.  After the confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus and the disciples travel to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  They have been traveling for quite a while and everywhere they go Jesus is mobbed by the crowds.  It must have been exhausting and so they try to get away from it all.  Now you may think they were going to Club Med for a little R&R, but that was not the case.  Tyre and Sidon are actually part of Phoenicia and are outside of Israel.  Jesus has now traveled out of the holy land and into gentile territory for the first time.  Jesus has left behind the safe and sacred land of Israel to travel to its gentile rival, right on the heels of telling the world that what goes into the body does not defile it.  By walking in Tyre, he is setting a visible example of this as his feet are now touching unclean ground.

It is clear that Jesus and the disciples were exhausted from their travels and Jesus knew that the disciples needed to rest, and he needed to prepare them for the ordeal that was to come.  For he knew that he would soon be arrested, but there was still much that the disciples needed to learn.  So he wanted to take them away from the crowds, and what better way to do that than to go where no Jew would follow them?  But it didn’t work out quite the way they hoped.  For this woman began to pester them.  This Canaanite woman, this gentile, this unclean Phoenician woman came out and started shouting at them.  “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  Jesus did not answer her.  But she would not be deterred.  She was persistent, in a way that only a parent can be when they are fighting for their child.  It seems to me that all other avenues had been exhausted for her and this woman knew that Jesus was her last hope for healing her child.  And she was not going to go away. 

The disciples tell him to send her away so she will stop annoying them.  What they are really saying is, just heal the kid already so she will shut up!  But Jesus answers them “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  And she catches up to them, kneels at Jesus’ feet and begs, “Lord, help me”. 

I have always found this to be the most plaintive of prayers.  Who among us has not found them self, in the hour of their most desperate need, when you are cried out, when there are no more words, when you have no where left to turn, praying, “Lord, help me.”  And Jesus, our fairest lord Jesus, lover of souls and King of all Kings says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 

I don’t think he could have been more offensive if he tried.  But that I think is the point.  I think he WAS trying to be offensive.  I think he spoke this way, not because he believed it, but to see how the woman and disciples would respond to it.  Jesus needed to prepare the disciples for the trials that lay ahead of them, and often taught them by example.  Sometimes a teacher will stake out a ridiculous premise to see if the student will refute it.  He wanted them to see that, while he had been sent to recover the lost sheep of Israel, there were also many other sheep that needed saving. 

And then something wonderful happens.  Rather than be brushed aside by this expected response, the woman turns the tables on Jesus.  She tells him “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  And Jesus smiles and says “Woman, great is your faith.  Let it be done as you wish” and the little girl is healed.  

This is the first time that we see the faith extended beyond the Jews.  This gentile woman, standing in the unclean land of Tyre, has demonstrated that the gift of God’s love, while it may have been first given to the Jews, is for non-Jews as well.  Indeed, there is no limit on God’s love as it falls from the table in amounts enough for everyone.  This is not unlike the scraps left over from the feeding of the 5,000 that filled 12 baskets, enough for everyone and then some. 

We still use this woman’s example today in the Rite 1 prayer before we receive communion as we say “We do not presume to come to this thy table O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy, so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.”

And Jesus knew it all along.  He knew that this would happen, he knew that this woman would react the way she did, and he knew that the disciples needed to see this happen.  Jesus would be leaving them soon and they would be tested in many ways.  One of the major tests of the early church would be the issue of whether the word of God was only for the Jews or for the gentiles as well.  When that test came, it is likely that Peter and the rest of the disciples remembered this incident with the woman and the lesson they learned from it.  Even though he was no longer with them, Jesus was still teaching the disciples.  For God’s love is truly big enough for all people.  We are all children of God and while none of us are worthy of it, God’s love and grace are for all of us.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Pilgrimage to New Mexico with my clergy group - Aug. 15, 2014

We wrapped up our trip to Upaya Zen Center with 40 mins of meditation at 7 am, followed by breakfast and a conversation with both Joshin and Fleet Maul, the Buddhist teacher who gave the dharma talk last night.

I have to say that the food here is really good. I'm impressed not only by its quality but by the way they prepare and eat food. There is a team of residents who work in the kitchen. They begin by "praying" together. I put "pray" in quotes, because Buddhists insist that belief in a deity is not part of Buddhism. Nevertheless, meal preparation here is surrounded by a spiritual discipline that I find very impressive.

When we gather for meals, everyone joins in saying a "prayer" that goes something like this: "We receive this food in gratitude to all beings who have helped to bring it to our table and vow to respond in turn to those in need with wisdom and compassion." Before sitting down at table, you bow; when you get up from the table, you bow. When someone new sits down at the table, you bow. There's a lot of bowing at Upaya!

A word about God and Buddhism: Although Buddhists insist that belief in a deity is not part of Buddhism, it seems to me that Buddhists believe that reality itself has a spiritual shape or nature. Everything we do has an effect on all other beings. We are all connected with each other in spiritual as well as material ways. Buddhists believe that they have a profound connection not only with other humans, but even with non-human reality.

I talked about this with Joshin and pointed out that the Christian theologian Paul Tillich defined God as "the ground of all being" and that seems to me very close to a Buddhist idea. He acknowledged that Tillich's idea of God is very close to the Buddhist idea of reality.

On our last day at Upaya we finally began to connect with some of the residents. Maybe they got curious about us. I was afraid that we looked like "spiritual voyeurs" or dilettantes. We talked with Kieran, a native of Cambridge, who taught high school for a while and now has committed to being at Upaya for a year (he called it being a "dharma bum").

We also talked with Nick, a native of San Francisco. Nick worked for a time in Silicon Valley and found it profoundly unfulfilling. Nick is passionate about mysticism. The mystic, he said, just wants to be empty. Presumably, he or she wants to be empty so that they can be filled by God. Nick said that he wished that he had talked with us earlier. I would like to have more time to explore his ideas about mysticism.

We left Upaya and spent a couple of hours exploring the incredibly expensive art galleries on Canyon Road in Santa Fe. The folks at Upaya told us of the drastic contrasts between rich and poor in Santa Fe. They have one of America's most important art markets and a world class opera, but they also have incredibly low graduation rates and drug abuse is rampant.

Nick also told us that he wants to be part of a project that Upaya is launching to open a "pay as you can" restaurant in Santa Fe, offering nourishing meals to the poor. Upaya is part of the "Zen peacemaker order," a spinoff from mainstream Zen that is deeply engaged with social problems.

I don't know when I'll be with the guys in my clergy group again, but I'm looking forward to it. When Nick asked why we were exploring Buddhism, I told him that we all live in a very small world, and we'd better get to know each other. I really believe that. I believe that a Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic and Reform Jew can do a lot of good just by modeling how people of different faiths can not only get along with each other, but also learn from people of other faiths and have a great time doing it.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pilgrimage to New Mexico with my clergy group - Aug. 14, 2014

Our time at the Upaya Zen Center has been very rich. We meditate with the community once or twice a day for 20 to 40 minutes at a time. Equally, if not more, powerful have been our conversations with Joshin Brian Byrnes.

Joshin is a student of Roshi (teacher) Joan Halifax who founded Upaya. We've learned a lot about the structure of Zen Buddhism. A roshi or teacher is the highest rank. He or she is fully qualified to teach the dharma (way of Buddhism). The roshi also "confirms" a person who accepts the precepts of Buddhism. Roshis also ordain to the priesthood, and a roshi may also "invest" (my word, not theirs) a person with the rank of teacher or roshi. Joshin received his name when Roshi Joan made him a priest.

The Buddhist priesthood is not sacramental. The priests are in charge of the ceremonies in the temple. They also wear three distinctive garments - a long black outer robe and two inner garments that are white. Joshin told us a funny story about a priest who asked his teacher about the meaning of the priesthood. The teacher had a very heavy Japanese accent, and his student thought he said, "Priesthood is about love." That seemed to be a great answer, so the younger priest went around telling that story for years. But some time later his teacher heard him telling the story, and corrected him. "Not love," the teacher said, "Priesthood is about ROBE!"

Yesterday we spent about 90 minutes talking with Joshin about the similarities and differences among Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity. A lot of our conversation was around the idea of "original sin."

I think original sin is a useful concept, but as a phrase, it has probably outlived its usefulness. I would prefer to speak of "fundamental alienation." A lot of Christians (and others) think original sin means "original guilt," that is, we have somewhat inherited the guilt that Adam and Eve incurred when they ate the forbidden fruit. That's not right at all.

"Original sin" or (better) fundamental alienation means that we are all born into a network of alienation or estrangement. It helps to use a musical analogy. We all begin to sing our song just a little flat, and if we don't get some help, we get more and more out of tune. One way to think of salvation is to see it as reminding us of our original melody and helping us to sing it.

Yesterday Joshin used the phrase "our ancient twisted karma." I think that's pretty close to what I mean by fundamental alienation.

We did get hung up on the Cross and atonement. For me, the Cross is the symbol that God is present in the midst of suffering and that God's grace is available to us to help us overcome estrangement and "repair the world." I think there may be a connection here with the idea that bodhisattvas (awakened or enlightened souls) choose to be present in the world to help others overcome suffering. But we didn't talk about that.

There was also an interesting dharma talk (somewhat like a sermon) last night by Fleet Maul, a Buddhist teacher who is a former felon. Fleet spent 14 years in a penitentiary and became a monk while in prison. He came and talked with our group this morning.

It's not all been high level theological conversation and meditation. Last night we went to the Santa Fe Opera to see Donizetti's Don Pasquale. It was one of the best operas I've ever seen and was greatly enhanced by the translations of the libretto that were displayed on small screens in front of every seat. The singing and acting were absolutely first rate, too.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pilgrimage to New Mexico with my clergy group - Aug. 13, 2014

My clergy group - Jonathan Miller (Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham), Ray Dunmyer (St. Thomas' Catholic Church, Montevallo, AL), Steve Jones (Southside Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL), and Ed Hurley (South Highlands Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, AL) - and I have been together for several years. We received a grant from the Institute for Clergy Excellence to explore the experience of the divine, and we traveled to Bangladesh, India, Israel, and Italy. Our most recent trip is to New Mexico to visit Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, and to spend a few days at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe.

I left very early Monday morning. Sunday had been a long day. In addition to two services, a class, and lunch with some parishioners, I went to the jail to visit a parishioner awaiting a hearing. Bonnie Polley led me up to the place where we were to meet. There was one chair, the parishioner, Bonnie, and me. So the chair became the altar by default. But sharing communion there felt like one of the holiest things I have done in a long time.

I had an 8 am flight to Albuquerque. The guys picked me up in a van they had rented, and we drove to the Center for Action and Contemplation. It's in an economically challenged area of the city. After we looked around for a while, Richard Rohr met us.

I knew very little about Rohr before our meeting. My parishioner Midgene Spatz had given me his book, Falling Upward. I read it (well, skimmed it) on the plane and liked it very much. The basic idea of his book is that the first half of life is largely concerned with building, making a living, establishing yourself as a professional, making a name for one's self. But the second half of life is an inward journey; it is about discovering what really gives life meaning. Usually (but not always), what triggers the second stage is suffering - divorce, job loss, illness, or something like that. Paradoxically, we learn more from our losses, suffering, and failures (usually) than our successes.

Rohr is a prolific writer. I saw that he had written a great deal about men's spirituality, and I bought three of his books about that at the Center. I'm looking forward to reading them.

I was also impressed with Rohr's emphasis on the "perennial philosophy" or the idea that all religions share some core ideas, e.g., that there is an "ultimate reality" and that we can experience and even become one with that reality. I also believe that there is no such thing as "generic religion" or "cafeteria religion." You can't have a little bit of Buddhism and a small serving of Christianity. There may be (as Buddha said) 85,000 paths to the top of the mountain, but you can't get to the top of the mountain by constantly switching from one path to the other. You have to choose one path and follow it.

After meeting with Rohr, we drove to Santa Fe. At the Upaya Zen Center, we met with Joshin Brian Byrnes, one of their priests. Joshin is the name he was given when the Upaya Center's founder ordained him to the priesthood. Upaya is not only a meditation center, it also trains Buddhist chaplains for hospital ministry and other ministries.

I've been interested in Buddhism in a very casual way for a long time, and have benefited from some of the things I've read about it. The emphasis on being fully present in this moment is very powerful. I think there are many points of contact between Buddhism and Christianity, as well as many points of departure (especially Buddhism's "agnosticism" about the existence of a deity). But I believe that wisdom can be found in all the great spiritual and religious systems.

The main practice of Zen Buddhism is silence. The community here gathers for silent meditation at least three times on most days, from 20 mins to 40 mins at a time. We have joined them for two 20 min sessions and one 40 min sessions. I didn't find the 20 min session too difficult. Actually, I enjoyed it. We get so little silence in our lives. The 40 min session was difficult, even more difficult than I thought it would be. I was really surprised at all the different images and thoughts that seemed to vie for my attention during meditation.

Joshin gave us a quick introduction to meditation yesterday. I knew a little about it already. The idea is not to resist distractions, but to let go of them gently. Watch the thoughts as they arise or flit across your consciousness, but don't pursue them.

This afternoon we will meet again with Joshin to talk about some of the core teachings of Buddhism.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Living stones: The plight of Christians in the Middle East and north Africa (J. Barry Vaughn, Aug. 10, 2014)

The Christian church is going through its most important change since the Reformation of the 16th century.

But before I go into details, I want to say something about Christianity and change.


It may sound strange to say that a religion is changing, especially the Christian religion. After all, we’re supposed to be about timeless truths. We worship a God who is eternal and unchanging. If God is changeless and God’s message is timeless, how can we change? Surely, our job is to represent a changeless God and the eternal truths of God’s message.


But the Christian church has been changing since its very beginning.


The first big change was Paul’s decision to drop the requirement of circumcision for non-Jewish Christians. The second big change was the separation between church and synagogue which was complete by the beginning of the 2nd century. Those two changes enabled Christianity to become a universal faith.


The church changed when the Greek-speaking Jews of the 1rst c. were replaced by Latin-speaking non-Jews in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.


The church changed when a persecuted church, a church of martyrs, became the official religion of the Roman empire in the 4th century.


The church changed when the eastern and western branches of the church mutually excommunicated each other in the 11th century.


And the church changed profoundly when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg and declared, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”


The church must change because it exists to mediate between a God who is timeless and eternal and a world that is always changing and developing and is full of people like you and me, and – let’s be honest about it – we need a lot of improvement! Harry Emerson Fosdick said it best, “Theories of astronomy change but the timeless stars abide.”


The church is now in the midst of another great change. You may have heard me say this before, but it bears repeating. In 1900 the vast majority of Christians lived in the northern hemisphere. Today the vast majority of Christians live in the southern hemisphere. The heartland of Christianity today is no longer Europe and north America but Africa and Latin America.


In 1900 the vast majority of Christians were of European ancestry, but today the great majority of Christians are of African or Latin ancestry. They don’t look like me or most of you any more!


This is going to have profound consequences for the churches in the United States. Many of the Episcopal churches in the northeast are full of immigrants from the Caribbean. And we know from our own experience that churches in the southwest are full of immigrants from Central and South America.


There is great promise in these developments. Christians who come here from the developing world bring with them great vitality and a deep commitment to the faith.


But these changes also create tensions. It is very difficult to merge the cultures and traditions of people from very different parts of the world. We know a little bit about that at Christ Church.


But there is another problem with the remarkable growth of the Christian faith in the developing world: In many places, especially in Africa, the Christian faith and the Muslim faith are growing in precisely the same areas; both Christianity and Islam are proselytizing faiths, that is, they seek converts; so in many places in the developing world, tension between Christianity and Islam  is increasing.


A report from the Pew Forum and the Templeton Foundation says, “The vast majority of people in many sub-Saharan African nations are deeply committed to one or the other of the world’s two largest religions, Christianity and Islam... And while many Muslims and Christians describe members of the other faith as tolerant and honest, there are clear signs of tensions and divisions between the faiths.”

But the tensions and divisions between Christians and Muslims in Africa are nothing compared to those in the Middle East.


Last week, I talked about the recent upsurge in anti-Semitism, primarily in Europe but to a degree also in the U.S. Today I’d like to talk about the plight of Christians in the Middle East.


I hope you understand that I don’t want to be an issues-driven preacher. I don’t write my sermons based on the headlines in the New York Times. I want to be a gospel or good news-driven preacher, a biblical preacher.


But there are times when I have to speak out, and this is such a time.


Until the rise of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries, the Middle East and North Africa were the heartland of the Christian faith. From the 2nd century until the 6th, the greatest Christian cities in the world were Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople (present day Istanbul) and Rome.


All but one of those cities was in the eastern end of the Mediterranean, so picture that part of the world in your mind. Only one – Rome –was in the western Mediterranean. Jerusalem is in present day Israel, of course, but until the end of the First World War it was ruled by the Ottoman or Turkish empire. Antioch is in present day Syria; Alexandria is in Egypt; and Constantinople is today Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey.


In the first century Christian missionaries not only spread their faith westward as far as Spain and the British isles, they also spread it eastward to Babylon in present day Iraq and Persia, which we know today as Iran. Christianity once flourished in all the countries between the eastern end of the Mediterranean and the borders of China and India. There were even great centers of Christianity in medieval China.


With the coming of Islam the Christian communities of North Africa simply disappeared. Sometimes Christians were converted by the sword; sometimes they were peacefully assimilated into Islam.


But even after the advent of Islam, great Christian communities remained in the Middle East. There were long periods during which Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together peacefully.


The great centers of Christianity in the Middle East included Aleppo which has been much in the news because of the Syrian civil war. The Maronite and Syrian Orthodox churches flourished there.


The headquarters of the Syrian Orthodox church is in Damascus. In other words, Damascus is their Canterbury or Rome.


Djezirah, another Syrian city, is important to Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox Christians.


For centuries Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, had large groups of both Christians and Jews. Even though Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, his government included many  Christian officials.


In 2011, the Pew Forum estimated that there were almost 13 million Christians in the Middle East and North Africa, but that number is now drastically smaller.


Since the 2nd Gulf War, it is estimated that the number of Christians in Iraq has declined from 1.5 million to around 200,000.


At one time not that long ago, most of the people of Lebanon were Christians, but most of them have fled.


A few years ago when Rowan Williams was Archbishop of Canterbury, he and the Roman Catholic archbishop of Westminster launched an appeal to support the Christians of the Holy Land. Williams referred to them as a “witness which has gone on throughout Christian history...often in conditions of great trial and stress...Christians in the West...need to be aware that the Christians of the Holy Land are an intrinsic part of our Christian family"


Williams also referred to the people in these ancient Christian communities as “living stones.” I want you to think about that. These people are “living stones” in a bridge that links us with the earliest centuries of the Christian faith. Losing these communities in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq deprives us of a vital link with our past, not to mention the devastation it causes in the lives of hundreds of thousands of men and women and children.


A few years ago I met with a group of Coptic Christians in Jerusalem, a Christian group that can trace their history back to the apostle Mark in the first century, who told me of the persecution they face in Egypt, their homeland. . Not that long ago the Copts were a large minority in Egypt. At one time Copts accounted for as much as 10% of Egypt’s population, but their numbers have declined by almost 50% in recent years.


What can we do?


First of all, we can pray. Prayer is probably the most important thing we can do. I urge you to remember the Christians of the Middle East in prayer. Remember them by name: the Christians of Aleppo and Damascus; the Christians of Iraq. Remember the names of their churches: the Syrian Orthodox church, the Assyrian Christians, the Chaldean Christians, and so on.


Secondly, we must put our prayers into practice, so I encourage you to contribute to American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. The Diocese of Jerusalem is an Anglican diocese that supports churches in Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. I asked Bp Dan about it, and he assured me that it is a responsible organization. The website for it is in your leaflets today.


Thirdly, stay informed. Read responsible publications such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.


Fourthly, I want us to consider partnering with a Christian community in the Middle East, such as the Anglican churches in Nazareth or Bethlehem. I would love for us to send a group of our people to visit them and encourage them to visit us. We could perhaps provide materials for their Sunday School program or altar supplies. I hope some of you will become interested in this and help me figure out how to make this a reality.


It is fitting that today’s Old Testament reading is the story of Joseph and his brothers.


Joseph’s brothers hated and despised him because he was their father’s favorite, so they sold him to slave traders who took him to Egypt. But Joseph rose to prominence in Egypt, and when famine came upon his family, they turned to him for help, and he saved their lives.


Like Joseph’s brothers of old, our sisters and brothers in the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere are reaching out to us, imploring us for help. The question is, Will we, like Joseph, hear them and respond to their need or will we turn a blind eye and a deaf ear?


Make no mistake: The situation in the Middle East is desperately bad. But Christians are never without hope. In the midst of the storm, there is one who says to us, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” No storm, no matter how fierce, can overcome the Master of wind and wave who told us that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Has God rejected his people? By no means! (J. Barry Vaughn, Aug, 3, 2014)

            Over the last few weeks I have been reading a lot about the resurgence of anti-Semitism. An anonymous caller to a German rabbi threatened to kill 30 Jews in the city of Frankfurt, and swastikas were painted on Jewish shops in Italy. America is not immune. Last week swastikas and the word “Hamas” were spray-painted on a Florida synagogue.

            In the second reading today, Paul writes, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah.” When Paul says, “my own people,” he is talking about the Jewish people.

“…to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah.” That’s quite a legacy.

            One of my favorite trick questions for my New Testament students was this:  “Was Paul a Christian?” Think about it. Of course, Paul was a follower of Jesus, but he never says, “I am a Christian” or refers to himself as a Christian. That’s because the word “Christian” was invented during Paul’s lifetime.

            Paul lived in that period between the death and resurrection of Jesus and the emergence of Christianity as a religion distinct and different from the Jewish faith. Remember that wherever Paul traveled – Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, and so on – he went first to the synagogues, because Paul understood the gospel to be good news for Jews first and foremost. Only after he got kicked out of the synagogues (and Paul always got kicked out of the synagogues) did he proclaim the gospel to non-Jews.

            Paul had a profound understanding of himself as a Jew. If we jump two chapters ahead in his letter to the Romans, we find Paul saying this: “I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” (Rom. 11.1b) More than likely all the writers of the New Testament were Jews. If you read through the book of Acts, you will find that the earliest Christians continued to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem and in synagogues. The New Testament also shows us that Jesus was an observant Jew. According to the gospels, it was Jesus’ custom to go to the synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath. (Luke 4.16) Matthew tells us that Jesus miraculously produced a shekel to pay the temple tax. (Matthew 17.27) And Luke also says that Jesus began his public ministry by reading and commenting on the book of the Prophet Isaiah when he was called to the bema or pulpit of the synagogue in Nazareth. (Luke 4.16)

But from the very beginning the followers of Jesus fit uneasily in congregations with their fellow Jews and a separation was inevitable. Jesus’ followers believed that the resurrection of the just (which all Jews believed would take place at the end of days when God judged the world) had begun with the resurrection of Jesus; the followers of Jesus believed that he was the instrument through whom God would judge the world; Jesus’ followers believed that the God revealed to Israel through Torah had revealed himself more fully in Jesus; gradually, this belief in God’s revelation in and through Jesus evolved into the doctrine of the Incarnation, the conviction that God was not just revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus but that Israel’s God was fully present in Jesus, that to see, hear and touch Jesus was to see, hear, and touch the God of Sinai. And above all, the followers of Jesus were convinced that the Messiah predicted by the prophets had come to his own and had been rejected.

            The synagogues in which Jesus’ followers worshiped were uneasy with the presence of Jesus’ followers. To distinguish Jesus’ followers from other Jews, the synagogue liturgy was modified to include prayers which Jesus’ followers could not in good conscience say. So by the end of the first century, the church and synagogue went their separate ways.

            By and large, Episcopalians and Jews have been good neighbors to each other. Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson met in our building for a time.

            One of my favorite examples of Jewish-Episcopalian cooperation is in the small town of Demopolis, Alabama. Temple B’nai Jeshurun is just across the street from Trinity Episcopal Church, and for years the church and synagogue had a happy relationship, often having joint social functions and working together on projects for the community. Then the day came where there were too few Jews to support the synagogue, and the president of the congregation took the temple’s keys to the rector of Trinity. Handing the keys to the priest, the president of Temple B’nai Jeshurun asked that the people of the Episcopal Church maintain the synagogue until there was once again a Jewish presence in Demopolis. Today the sign in front of the synagogue reads, “Temple B’nai Jeshurun – maintained by Trinity Episcopal Church.”

            Sadly, though, the story of the Christian church and the Jewish people has often been one of suspicion and even violence.

            About three hundred years after the crucifixion and resurrection, Christianity had the good (or perhaps bad) fortune to become the “official” faith of the Roman empire. Suddenly, the followers of One who said his kingdom was not of this world and who forgave those who crucified him had the power to persecute and even put others to death, a power they exercised far too often against Jesus’ own people, the Jews. The church’s liturgy came to include prayers for the conversion of the Jews. One of the holiest days of the church’s year – Good Friday – became a day of persecution and violence against the Jewish people.

            The last country in Europe to abolish legal restrictions against Jews was Italy. Prior to that, Roman Jews suffered all kinds of indignities. Roman Jews were required to live in a tiny neighborhood, so close to the Tiber River that it was frequently flooded. One pope even required Jews to wear distinctive yellow hats

            Some trace the roots of Christian anti-Semitism to the New Testament itself, and there is some support for this. The oldest gospel, the gospel of Mark, tells us that the “chief priests and scribes” brought Jesus to Pilate to be crucified. (Mark 15.1, 3, and 10) However, John’s gospel (which was written twenty or thirty years later) says that “the Jews” brought Jesus to Pilate. (John 19.12)

            I want to be perfectly clear: I believe that God is fully and perfectly revealed in Jesus, that God was and is uniquely present in Jesus of Nazareth. But we can believe in the uniqueness and completeness of the revelation of God in Christ without believing that God no longer reveals Himself to Israel in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.

            Christians must never forget their debt to Israel:


· The faith of Israel was the first to join righteousness with piety. Israel’s God demanded not only ritual and sacrifice but also the just and ethical treatment of widows and orphans, the poor and physically afflicted.

· Israel gave the world the Torah with its incomparably lyrical and powerful tales of creation, fall, and flood. These stories continue to inform our relationship with God and with one another.

· Israel gave the world Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the other prophets. Their scathing denunciations of irresponsible wealth and callous power still thunder against tyranny and greed. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., employed the rhetoric of the prophets to bring down the structures of discrimination.

· Israel gave the world and still gives the world the example of fierce loyalty and faith in the face of unimaginable persecution. Not even the Holocaust could destroy the faith of Sinai.

· And above all, Christians must give thanks to Israel for giving us Jesus Christ, a Jew, nurtured in a Jewish home and synagogue, steeped in the scriptures of Judaism.


            But what of the future? Some would have us believe that the faith of Israel will one day wither away or that those who hold the faith of Israel and do not put their faith in Jesus of Nazareth have no place in God’s eternal kingdom or are condemned to punishment in the next life, but that is not my belief.

            Today’s second reading is from the 9th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Christians in ancient Rome. If we jump two chapters ahead to chapter 11, we hear Paul saying these words: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!... God has not rejected his people…” (Rom. 11.1 and 2)

            Two thousand years ago, Jews excluded the followers of Jesus from the synagogue, but from then until now, the church has had the upper hand and has exacted a bitter price from the Jewish people. It may be, however, that we are entering an age in which neither the synagogue nor the church will be in a position to dictate to the other, a secular age in which all faiths have a precarious place in the public square. It may be that we are entering a time in which church and synagogue must make common cause against those who would mock and despise all religion.

            The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in our first reading today is a good parable for the relationship between Jews and Christians. Christians and Jews have been wrestling with each other for 2000 years. We have injured each other in this wrestling match. But it is in wrestling with each other that we both learn who we are, find ourselves blessed, and see the face of God.

            We do no favor to the synagogue nor to ourselves to trim and modify our belief to avoid offense. We should confess firmly and clearly our faith in the crucified and risen Lord. Israel should just as firmly and clearly confess its Sh’ma: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one…” We owe each other the respect and courtesy first to listen attentively and then to disagree politely but firmly. But Christians and Jews are a part of a two thousand year old conversation, often a rancorous argument, but a dialogue nonetheless. I cannot speak for the Jews, but I know that our side of the argument would be profoundly impoverished without the contribution that Israel has made and still makes. We are better Christians for listening to what Israel has said and still says. So I say, Todah rabbah. Thank you very much indeed.