Monday, September 29, 2014

Sour Grapes (William Tully, Christ Church Episcopal, Sept. 28, 2014)

Sour grapes

A sermon for the people of Christ Church, Las Vegas

Sunday, September 28, 2014, the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. William McD. Tully



Religious people are some of the biggest whiners on earth. The ones I know best are, like me, the American variety of religious people. Our great, cosmic whine for generations has been that things are not as good as they were in the old days. Then there’s that whole political movement devoted to whining that our politics has become too secular, that this is a Christian nation, that religion should have some sort of semi-official or even official place in public life.

In the tradition of fables and in the world-view of the Bible, there’s a phrase for that: sour grapes.

You may recall Aesop’s fable of the fox who tries and tries to reach a bunch of grapes hanging above his head. When he realizes he’ll never be able to reach them, he pretends that he never wanted them, saying, “They are probably sour anyway.”

Aesop was writing in the 6th century b.c.e., and at nearly the same time the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel was addressing the crisis of the Jews in exile in Babylon. Although not everything about their exile lives was bad, they felt a pervasive sense of loss: stories of the grandeur and integrity of old Jerusalem, the dignity of independent statehood, the primacy of their own religion.

And they let everyone know how they felt:

“We sat down and wept, wept by the rivers of Babylon,” goes Psalm 137. But “we sat down and whined, whined and whined by the rivers of Babylon,” would be more like it.

In particular, they whined and complained about their ancestors—those who blew it, those who failed to pay attention to the law and the prophets.

Ezekiel would have none of it: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge?’ As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.”

In other words, the prophet said, the Lord has a clear message for you: Stop whining. Stop blaming others. Look to yourselves.

Scholars often cite the 18th chapter of Ezekiel as the Bible’s explicit turning point toward individual responsibility. I’m interested in how we can use this wisdom, which we find in even greater force and clarity in the approach of Jesus.

Early in my time at St. Bart’s, the leadership and I agreed that the condition of the parish was precarious-— not enough people, too much money going out and not enough coming in. We decided to make changes, take risks, challenge people to come along. We also knew there were lots of reasons, including very real and painful internal conflict and huge changes in the world, that were to blame. But if we were to bring St. Bart's back to viability we would have to accept those facts and just get on with our work. There was simply no time to look back or complain. I had some buttons made for the staff: a circle with the word "whine" in it and a slash through it.

No whining.

 Jesus was talking to a restless, unsatisfied crowd and said: “To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, 

    ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;

                 we wailed, and you did not weep.’   [Luke 7.31-32]


In other words, like children, meaning not very mature.

Whining and blaming are symptoms of immaturity. Those who just complain and off-load their complaints and miseries on others are stuck. They can’t change, and the ability to change is a spiritual gift, a necessity if you’re going to grow up. And, this isn’t just about you. The ability to take responsibility, to change what you can, is also the necessary precondition for justice, and for that ultimate good, wholeness and peace.

I once knew a family therapist who surprised me by saying that he had stopped working with whole families. Yes, you heard that right. A family therapist who wouldn’t see the family.

He especially avoided accepting clients who wanted to send him their troubled family member, the so-called identified patient. Instead, after an initial interview with the person who called, he determined which family member was the healthiest, the most motivated to change, the most educable.

I wondered, How do you determine who that person was? “Easy,” he said. “I look for the person who is blaming the least.”

Sour grapes is no way to live.

One particular form of spiritual immaturity is whining about the universe. The biblical view, not the view of every verse, of course, but the view of the developed theology and spirituality, the arc of its narrative, if you will, is that we human persons are very complicated beings, but we’re endowed with capabilities of dealing with an open universe. That is where the deeper convergence of bible and science can be found.

If you’ve ever raised a child, or you’ve learned to be reflective on your own growing up, you know that the expectations of the infant don’t completely go away. They linger deep inside us.

Yes, you hear them in lifelong whining and blaming.

And you hear them in the egocentricity of the infant, who generally assumes three things about life:

 I am in control or ought to be in control of all that has to do with life

 I am at the center of the universe

 Everything and everyone ought to be spinning around me so I can have what I want and life will be the way I want to be.

In the addiction recovery communities, this pattern might be described slightly differently, but the accumulated wisdom of those programs is that until you give up these self-delusions, you won’t recover inner control or sobriety.

Put another way, you need to be born again.

Put still another way, you need to grow up and learn to take responsibility for what can be changed and work at it, acknowledge what’s out of your control, and come to that place of maturity where you can tell the difference between the two. Sound familiar?


Jesus appealed to our potential for growth, not infantile addiction. He worked with people he picked out of crowds who seem to want to work or change, and he had running arguments with those who insisted solely on asserting and following the rules.

This isn’t to say that Jesus, or that the authentic Christian faith tradition, is just for the already strong and well-motivated. It is to say that if you want what the gospels call abundant life, if you want to grow to become your real and full self, if want to be “saved,” and if, incidentally, you want your church to grow in healthy and exciting ways, you need at least to stop whining.

You need to take responsibility for yourself, for the world you live in, and work with it, not to say, Sorry, my teeth are on edge because of the sour grapes . . . and you fill in the rest: because of my parents, because I can’t afford it, because of the economy, because I’m a victim, because God isn't there when I need God.

The ancient prophet's message is still true: claiming that you’re a victim of your ancestors’ mistakes, or the state of the world, or even of your own mess-ups will get you nowhere.

It’s never too late to turn, accept the realities of the world and get in touch with the joys of living the life you've been given.

The more I try it, the more I think that's what Jesus meant.



Friday, September 26, 2014

You can't always get what you want (Rick O'Brien, Sept. 21, 2014)

Four million.  That is my number.  Four million dollars.  I have given this a great deal of thought and I think that is the right number.  You see, I am in my late forties and hope to live for another 35 – 40 years.  Four million divided by 40 would give me an income of $100K a year, before Uncle Sam takes his portion.  I think that will do nicely.  My wife and I live a fairly simple life, but like everyone we have bills to pay.  We have three kids that we are trying to get through high school and college.  We have a mortgage on our home.  We both drive older cars.  It would be nice to not have to worry about paying for these things.  Four million dollars would certainly pay off our mortgage, assure our kids of a good education and leave more than enough for us to drive fancy new cars.

But I don’t want to give you the wrong impression.  It’s not only about us.  We would like to be able to give more money to the church and to other worthy causes.  We would like to take some mission trips to other parts of the world.  I wonder if Royal Caribbean cruises to such places?  OK, I guess I have to admit that it is mostly about us.  And, I suspect if you are honest, it is mostly about you too.  Who here has not had that fantasy of winning the lottery or hitting the big jackpot down on the strip?  We all want more than we have.  I think that is part of the human condition, to always want more.

The Israelites wanted more.  God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, then parted the Red Sea to lead them to safety when Pharaoh changed his mind.  Then he closed the sea again to destroy the army that pursued them, assuring their freedom.  They composed a song of praise and sang it to the Lord to celebrate his glory! “In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode”.  That was chapter 15.  But as we hear today, by chapter 16, all of that is forgotten.  “If only we had died in Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill us with hunger.”  Notice that they don’t say, “Gee, I am hungry and wish there was some food here.  No, the Israelites appear to have quite the flair for drama. 

So God, being kind and loving, sends them manna to eat.  And that is good.  For a while.  In Numbers, the same story appears and tells us that manna was not enough either.  “If only we had meat to eat!  Our strength is dried up and there is nothing at all but this manna.”  God literally provides for them the bread of heaven, and it is not enough for them.   And God answers their plea and sends quail each evening.  Of course you know the rest of the story.  The Israelites wander in the desert for 40 years and complain bitterly at every turn.  “Why did we ever leave Egypt!” “ If only we had died in Egypt”  “If only I had four million dollars”

Oh wait.  That last one was me.  I guess it is very easy to fault the people of Israel for their lack of faith.  But it is not their exclusive province.  For just as they wondered why they couldn’t have meat, I wonder why I can’t have $4M.  In other words, why does God answer some prayers, but not others?  Why won’t he just send me the money?

It is at this point that Fr Barry would provide you a quotation from a great philosopher or an ancient mystic.  I can never hope to match his level of erudition and won’t even try.  But I do have something germane to the conversation to share.  It is from a 20th century prophet whom you may know.  He is a fairly unlikely prophet, but his message here is spot on. I refer of course to the great prophet Mick Jagger.   “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”  I find this to be excellent advice, even if from an unexpected source.  God does not always give us what we ask for.  God is not some candy shop owner in the sky who will give us a lollipop whenever we ask for it.  But God does give us what we need.  The Israelites were given freedom, protection, water and food, but they wanted more.  God has given me good health, a wonderful family, and the privilege of being your priest, and still I want more.  I think we all need to listen to Mick and focus less on what we want and more on the blessings that God has sent by giving us what we need.

Matthew’s Gospel today is a favorite of mine.  It is the type of story that can make you want to pull your hair out.  I have heard passionate debates among clergy and scholars railing against the sheer unfairness of the landowner in this story.  No matter the group, this story is certain to provoke heated conversation and often leads to a discussion of today’s political arena.  Now before you start squirming in your seats, I am not going to turn this sermon into a political discussion.  A wise priest friend once told me that sermons are far too important for that. 

But I am going to see if we can make some sense of this story.  On its face it does appear to be unfair.  Why should those who work all day get the same as those who just showed up?  Shouldn’t some get more and others get less? 

I think the problem we have with this story is that it is about money.  We take money far too personally.  It is fine to talk about God and faith and service, but when the conversation turns to money, it is as if we have crossed a line and are now in very personal territory.  So let’s turn the parable around a bit.  I think we can agree that the landowner in the story is God.  God goes in to the marketplace and finds several people ready to work in his fields and he puts them to work.  He goes back later and finds more people ready to work and puts them to work too.  This happens again, and again and again.  And when the work is done, all of the workers stand before God for their wages.  And God gives them their pay.  Eternal Life with Him in heaven.

This story is not about money at all.  It is not even about the work.  It is about God loving us so much that he will bring us home to be with him when our time on Earth is done.  It matters not whether we have worked our entire lives for him or if we were baptized on our death bed.  We all get the same reward.  He can’t give some more than others because this is one-size fits all gift.  There is no greater hope for us than to be with God for eternity and there is nothing we can do to earn it.  Jesus paid the entry fee for each and every one of us.

So why then should we labor in the fields for the Lord?  Why not just sit back and wait for the good things to come?  Because that is not what God wants us to do.  Jesus tells us to make disciples of all nations and we do that by bringing them the good news of the gospel.  We are commanded to work for the Lord, not because it will earn our way into heaven, but because we know that our life is better by having God’s light in it.  Walking with Jesus in our lives is a miraculous gift and we would be selfish if we did not share that with other people so that they may have the same joy that we have.  Spreading the love of God does not dilute His love, for that is impossible.  So how can we not share this amazing love with others?

God knows this and equips us for that purpose.  Saint Paul speaks often of the gifts of the Spirit and how they equip the saints for ministry.  Each of us is blessed by the Spirit with gifts that enable us to work together to serve God’s purpose here on earth.  We don’t all have the same gifts, but listen well when I tell you that we ALL HAVE GIFTS.  Your gifts are not like mine and mine are not necessarily like yours, but we all have them.

When I spoke to you a few months ago about evangelism I mentioned that we would be holding a class on gifts discernment.  That course will begin on October 5 at 9:15 and run for six Sundays.  Together we will explore what gifts are and use some practical tools to help each of us discover the gifts God has given us.  I promise you that you have gifts that you don’t even recognize, and learning about them is the best way to begin to use them.

Did you wonder in this gospel story why some folks were ready to work at dawn while others trickled in over the course of the day?  Some were not ready to work because they were too caught up in their own lives.  Some were not ready because they were too busy complaining that they didn’t have everything they wanted, that they didn’t have their $4M.  Others were not ready to work because they didn’t know that they already had the skills to do the work.  Let’s work together to be satisfied with the blessings we have and discover ways to use the gifts we have been given to bring others to God.  For there is no greater joy than having God in your life, and we can work together to bring others to that same joy.  That is our mission.  That is evangelism.  That is how we are the people of God.



Recipe for Happiness (Rabbi Jonathan Miller, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, AL, Rosh HaShanah, 2014/5775)

Sermon: Rosh Hashanah, 5755, 2014
Rabbi Jonathan Miller
Temple Emanu-El
Birmingham, Alabama

U'ntaneh tokef kedushat hayom ki hu norah v'ayom. Uvo t'nasseh malchutecha, v'yakun b'hessed kisecha, v'tashev alav b'emet. Let us declare the sacred power of this day. It is awesome and full of dread. For on this day your dominion is exalted. Your throne is established in steadfast love. There, in truth You reign.

In truth you are Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness. You write and You seal. You record and recount. You remember deeds long forgotten. You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being.

The great shofar is sounded. The still, small voice is heard; the angels, gripped by fear and trembling, declare in awe: This is the Day of Judgment! . . .

And then the words that awaken every slumbering soul--the words that frighten even the most complacent and skeptical:

As the shepherd seeks out his flock, and makes the sheep pass under his staff, so do You muster and number and consider every soul, setting the bounds of every creature's life, and decreeing its destiny.

Now comes the confines of our mortal lives:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not; who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague; who by strangling and who by stoning?

Yes, the poem tells us, you have made it this far. You have made it to another Rosh Hashanah. Our New Year celebrations are fixed in number, but we have made it to the Sanctuary. So far so good. If you have gotten this far, dayeinu, we have enough for us to be grateful for our lives.

But the poem does not end here. It then addresses the quality of our lives.

Who shall be secure and who shall be driven; who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled; who shall be poor and who shall be rich; who shall be humbled and who exalted?

And finally hope. No matter how challenging our lives might have been, no matter how challenging our life is today, no matter how uncertain our times or our destiny,

Repentance, prayer, and charity temper Judgment's severe decree!"

This 13th century poem examines human frailty and the cauldron of life's uncertainties and asks all of life's pressing questions, except one. The poet does not ask, "Who shall be happy, and who shall be unhappy?" And I think it should. Because attaining happiness is the most important task a human being can achieve. And happiness too often eludes us as we work our way through the years. Like a rainbow, we love happiness and we are awed by it. But when we run to grab its pot of gold and make it ours, it disappears out of sight. "Who will be happy and who will not?" That is the hardest question. Even the U'ntaneh Tokef doesn't tackle this one.

It is the hardest question because happiness means different things to different people at different times in life. What exactly is happiness, and how do we measure it? The man who works a lifetime and builds a million dollar nest egg is happy with his accomplishment. The man who has millions of dollars tucked away and earns another million dollars, his earnings will not bring him happiness. The woman who drinks an occasional glass of wine at dinner, that wine will make her happy. The woman who drinks a bottle of wine every night, that wine will not bring her happiness.

I used to think that the most difficult human questions were these: Why do we live? Why do good people suffer? What is the meaning of life? As I have matured, I have learned to live with my deep questions and my shallow answers.

Why do we live? Because God gave us life. I am good with that.

Why do good people suffer? Because they do. Suffering is by its nature unfair. That is the best answer I have.

What is the meaning of life? Perform mitzvot and serve God with a full heart.

These are life’s hard questions. I can only offer easy answers. But the questions surrounding happiness: What exactly is it? How do we get it? And how do we keep it? These are the hardest questions a person can answer and the greatest puzzle to human life.

On Sukkot, two weeks from now, we will read the book of Ecclesiastes. According to tradition, King Solomon wrote this book in his old age. He described how happiness has eluded him. He sought happiness in laughter and merriment and the pleasures of the flesh. But these did not bring him happiness. As enjoyable as laughter and pleasure are--and we should enjoy the things which bring us pleasure--a life devoted to pleasure will soon grow tiresome. One cannot build happiness on a foundation of laughter and merriment and pleasure.

King Solomon sought happiness in wealth and success. And he achieved more than any man in his generation. He built palaces and gardens and amassed fortunes of silver and gold, more riches and beauty than the eye could behold. But he realized that he would leave behind all of his accomplishments. And my friends, to add insult to his injury, he realized that another person, a person who did not earn what he labored to achieve would enjoy the wealth that he accumulated throughout his life. Wealth is much better than poverty, but happiness cannot be bought.

King Solomon sought happiness in wisdom. But the more he knew, the more troubled he became. Knowledge and wisdom do not make us happy. He shared the sobering observation that the wise man and the fool share the same fate. The knowledge and wisdom we work so diligently to accumulate disappears with us when we are laid to rest.

And my friends, while we seek out happiness, paradoxically, unhappiness plays a constructive role in our lives. At some basic level, if we were not discontent with what we have and who we are, why would we strive to create anything or take on new challenges? If we are content with what we know, why bother to learn anything new? And if we are content in our relationships with our parents, siblings and children--and if we are content with the love we give and receive from our life's partners and our appointed tasks, why even bother to work to make our relationships better and more fulfilling as the years and decades progress. A settled life is an unfulfilled life. A life of ease is not the same as a life filled with happiness. We cannot attain happiness unless we also endure a dose or two of unhappiness. The two opposites are a pair.

So what are we human beings to do? To sum up Ecclesiastes' conclusion: Enjoy all the pleasures to which we are entitled, but happiness will not come to us from enjoying our pleasures. Earn money and appreciate the comforts and security that wealth can bring, but happiness will not come from earning money and accumulating wealth. Fill the mind with wisdom, but know that wisdom will not make us happy. So what are we human beings to do?

I am going to share with you my five part recipe for happiness.

My first ingredient in my recipe for happiness is forgiveness. People who bear their grudges--that they have rightfully earned on the playing field of life--will find that happiness will elude them. Even when we are justified in our anger and sadness and disappointment, at some point we need to give it up and let it go. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment. And we ask God for forgiveness. But not only does God judge us, but we judge others too. With Divine wisdom, God did not appoint us to be judge and arbiter, counsel and witness. At some time in our lives all of us will give up our hurts and disappointments. When we are laid to rest, we will not take our resentments to heaven. We would be happier today if we laid our resentments now on the altar of forgiveness, rather than keep them clutched tight in our hearts.

My second ingredient in my recipe for happiness is satisfaction. It is hard for the human spirit to be satisfied. We feel that we have to be the very best. But few of us will ever earn a gold medal, and none of us will earn a gold medal in everything we undertake. Instead of working to be the best in everything we do, we ought to strive to be good at what we take on and become better in the future. Perfection is impossible. Incremental betterness is within our reach. Be satisfied with what is good about you and your lives, and focus your energies on how you might be better and do better.

My third ingredient in my recipe for happiness is appreciation. Appreciate more. People can be so critical. We can be so quick to find fault and pass judgment, and for what purpose? Of course, we cannot expect that all of our efforts are our best, and criticism can be necessary to help others and help us improve. But too many people focus their constant attention on the things that need improvement, and praise comes infrequently. How does an attitude of criticism make anyone happier with the people they love, their community, or their own view of themselves? We all know people who are fault finders. They are insufferable. And when we shine the light of truth honestly on ourselves, we all know that we can voice plenty of fault and dissatisfaction with people we are closest to. If we would have just a glimpse of our critical selves through the eyes of others, most of us would be shocked. Here he comes again. She is ready and willing to spread her doom and gloom. Happy people make happiness. Unhappy people make unhappiness. The Dali Lama said about the happy person, "It is better to want what you have than to have what you want." And I would like to take the Dali Lama's wisdom and apply it to us. "It is better to be who you are than to strive to be who you are not." Appreciate what you have and who you are, and appreciate what others have and who they are, and in the future you will capture some more happiness in your life.

My fourth ingredient in my happiness recipe is for us to live with concern for others. But we intuit the opposite. When we put ourselves at the center of the universe, we won't find ourselves increasing our happiness over time. How many times do we engage in a conversation, and it is as though the person on the other end of the line is not even there? Notice how often we talk about ourselves. One would think that with the rise of social media, with the fact that we can have thousands of friends on Facebook and be followed by a multitude on Twitter, that we should always be happy. But Facebook and Twitter can add to our existential unhappiness. Because all we do is talk about ourselves. When we are the center of the universe, we lose our happiness. Again, words from the Dali Lama:

Consider the following. We humans are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others' actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others' activities. For this reason it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.

Make other people matter, and when you do, you will be happier.

My fifth ingredient in my happiness recipe is faith. But faith is not a simple declaration that we believe in God. God should be the last thing that engages a faithful person. Before we can get to God, we have to believe that our lives have significance; that our struggles matter for something; that other people matter to us; and that fairness and justice mean something. Before we can believe in God, we have to live In such a way that God believes in us. I believe that our dedication to others and our willingness to sacrifice what we desire for ourselves to enhance the greater good is what it means to believe in God. God is not simply some abstraction or some formulaic utterance. The living God lives in us, and we live with the knowledge that life existed before us, and will continue beyond us, and that our struggles have meaning. So when we are kind and generous, when we reach out to someone struggling or suffering, when we place others before ourselves, when we show gratitude and appreciation for the magnificent world in which we live and create for ourselves a purposeful life, we then can say we believe in God. The Higher Power is just that, the world beyond ourselves that we strive to engage with our best selves.

So these are the five ingredients that we need to create our own happiness recipe. You can mix the ingredients as you wish, but nobody gets to be happy without a proper measure of forgiveness, satisfaction, appreciation, concern for others, and faith. Only with these elements in place will our lives make sense, and we will be happy. Maybe that is the reason the U'netaneh Tokef poem does not ask, "Who will be happy, and who will not?" Because our happiness is not like life or death. We have little control over whether we will live or die, whether we will be secure or be driven, whether our lives will be long or not so long. God decides those things for us. But happiness?--that is in our control.

We are the only ones in charge of our forgiveness. We are the only ones in charge of whether we are satisfied with our lives today. Only we can measure our appreciation for what we have and who we are. We alone can exhibit concern for other people. Our faith starts within us and only much later ends with God. These five factors are totally within our control. We are powerless over so much of our lives, like the lamb before the shepherd, the subject before the king, or the defendant before the judge. But when it comes to our happiness, we are our commander in chief.

A story is told about a teacher, maybe he was a rabbi or priest or an imam or she was a roshi or a college professor--it doesn't matter. At the start of their learning, the teacher invited all of his students to take a cup on the table. Each student grabbed hold of a cup near to them. The teacher poured the tea for the students, and they began to sip. But soon they noticed that some of them had cups that were large and others that were light and delicate and others had cups that were chipped or cracked or the finish was peeling off the sides. And the students began to eye each other's cups. Soon they stopped enjoying their afternoon tea, thinking instead about why they had one cup and others were different, and wouldn't they be happier with someone else's cup instead of their own?

The teacher expected this response. It is such a human response. And she taught her students this first lesson in happiness. "Each of you holds up a unique cup, one of your own, unlike anyone else's cup around the table. And no one has the perfect cup. But each of you is drinking the same tea. You should all be equally happy with this gift, set aside for each of you. You share the same tea, the same warmth and the same sweetness. It doesn't matter what cup you are holding it in."

Rosh Hashanah is the tea in our cup. It is the sweetness of another year of life. For each of us, the cup is different. For some of us, the cup is cracked. For others, the cup is chipped. Some of us would like a cup that would be larger or smaller; lighter or more sturdy. Nobody's cup is perfect. But let us be happy in the life that we have been given. This is a sweet time. All of us drink from the cup of life. Let us drink it all in with happiness and joy.
Shanah Tova T'kateivu, May you be inscribed in the book of life for a sweet and happy year.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Practicing Forgiveness (J. Barry Vaughn, Sept. 14, 2014)

Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?"  What prompted Peter's question to Jesus?  Perhaps someone had said or done something that offended Peter.  Perhaps it was a friend, perhaps it was another of Jesus' disciples.  There must have been a difficult person in Peter's life as there is in every human life.  Perhaps Peter had had enough of this person, felt that he had been as forgiving as he should be, and wanted Jesus' permission to let him have it.


I can just see Peter counting up the number of times he had forgiven this difficult person in his life.  One, two, three, four, five, six... "Jesus, I only have to forgive him seven times, isn't that right?  So the next time, I'm going to let him have it with both barrels, OK?"


Imagine Peter's disappointment when Jesus says, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven."  In other words, Jesus says to Peter, “Throw away your calculator, your computer. Stop calculating the level of your brother or sister’s wickedness and the number of times you will get to beat the heck out of him or her. Your capacity to forgive should be as inexhaustible as God's.”


The problem most of us have with Jesus’ response to Peter is not only with how difficult it is to forgive someone who has really wronged us, I mean did something genuinely underhanded, unethical, and nasty, the problem is that Jesus takes all the fun out of it. I mean, be honest with me: Isn’t it just a whole lot of fun to engage in fantasies of revenge? To imagine all the ways that you would torture the person who has wronged you? To see in your mind’s eye that person being held up for humiliation in public? We can spend hours engaged in such fantasies. We can think about it all night. Well, I know I can, and I am certain that I am not the only one who does that.


Jesus says, “Stop it. No more fantasies of revenge.”


We were reminded this week of the anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Most of us remember where we were that day. We remember the clear blue sky, the cool early fall breeze, the panicked voices of reporters on radio and television, the dreadful images of enormous towers crashing to the earth.


Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, was speaking at Trinity Church, Wall Street, that day and very nearly became one of the victims. The next day he spoke at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and said, “I'm sure in the city and the country in the days ahead, the pressure to do something, anything, is going to be greater and greater. The rhetoric will become more and more intense. There is something I want to say to that. One very simple personal observation. Quite simply: I wouldn't want what we experienced to happen to anybody. I wouldn't want to see another room of preschool children hurried out of a building under threat. I wouldn't want to see thousands of corpses just to satisfy someone’s idea of justice. And very simply: I don't want anyone to feel what others and I were feeling at about 10:30 yesterday morning. I've been there."


Keep in mind that Jesus wasn’t telling us to forgive only seventy times seven times; he was telling us to forgive until we have lost count of how many times we have forgiven. But I wonder: Why did Jesus pick that number as the appropriate number of times to forgive? The fact is Jesus was referring to a story in Genesis in which Lamech, a descendant of Cain, the first murderer, claims the right to avenge himself “seventy-sevenfold.” In other words, Lamech claimed the right to avenge himself innumerable times for a single injury. That is the usual calculation we make when we are wronged. We are much more likely to claim the right to infinite REVENGE than to practice infinite FORGIVENESS.

Notice something else about Peter’s question to Jesus: “
Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” “If another member of the church sins against me…” I wonder if Peter was an Episcopalian? But it is not only Episcopalians who have a tendency to hurt fellow church members; it seems to be characteristic of all churches.


The late second/early third century theologian Tertullian said that the pagans of his time admired Christians and would say, “See, how these Christian loved each other!” I wonder what Tertullian’s pagans would say today if they sat in on the average church meeting!


I don’t know why it is, but church fights seem to be the worst fights. Henry Kissinger said that fights between academics were bitter because the rewards were so small. I think the same might be true of churches. We fight over the smallest things.


We fight over whether to use port or sherry as the communion wine. We fight over whether to use incense or not. We fight over the 1928 Prayer Book or the 1979 Prayer book, Rite I or Rite II. We fight over whether or not to use energy efficient light bulbs in the parish hall. Remember the old joke: How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? How dare you change that light bulb? My great aunt gave that light bulb to this church and it’s a perfectly good light bulb!!


I want to say four things about forgiveness: The first is the most important, so I want to be as clear as possible: Forgiveness is about behavior not feelings. The great psychologist William James said, “Act yourself into a new way of feeling.”


“Act yourself into a new way of feeling.”


It sounds completely counter-intuitive, but it is absolutely true. If you want to change the way you feel, then start by changing the way you behave. If you want to forgive someone, then start acting as though you have already forgiven them. Practice kindness toward the person who has wronged you, even if you have to grit your teeth to do it. But I absolutely guarantee you that the day will come when you will not only behave in a forgiving way, you will wake up one day and be startled to find that you have let go of your anger.


Jesus was clearly concerned with actions and deeds, not feelings.  When Jesus said, “Love your enemies” and “Forgive those who persecute you,” he was not talking about feelings. Jesus did not say LIKE your enemies and those who persecute you. Jesus did not say, "Do not be angry with those who have done you wrong." Anger is a perfectly good emotion when it is used correctly. Jesus both felt and displayed anger.  Concealing and denying our anger is not the route to spiritual vitality; it is a short-cut to emotional illness. 


Secondly, forgiveness is based on tolerance.  Ecclesiasticus says, "Does a man harbor anger against another, and yet seek for healing from the Lord?  Does he have no mercy toward a man like himself..."  St. Paul makes it even clearer that to forgive we must recognize that all of us stand under the judgment of God:  "Why do you pass judgment on your brother?  Or you, why do you despise your brother?  For we shall stand before the judgment seat of God..." (Romans 14.5-12)  Every wrong that has been done to me I have done or am capable of doing to others. 


Thirdly, we have all heard the saying, "Forgive and forget".  There are wrongs that we should forget--the unkind word said thoughtlessly, the social group that does not include us in its plans.  Keeping a list of such small complaints is spiritually and emotionally dangerous.  Yet, there are some wrongs that should not be forgotten.  The child who has been physically and sexually abused often blocks out the abuse so that she or he literally cannot remember the terrible things done to him or her.  It is only later in therapy that the dreadful details of the past come flooding back.  In the case of severe abuse, redemption comes in remembering, not forgetting.  I think, I hope, I pray that it is possible for abused children and abused spouses to forgive those who have abused them.  But I think that it is not wise for them to forget what has happened to them and who was responsible it, for to forget may be to invite the abuse to happen again.


I think there is a difference between letting go and forgetting.  I think that it is possible both to let go of the pain so that it no longer has power over us.  But at the same time we may have to remember who inflicted it, so that it doesn't happen again.


The fourth thing I want to say is that Jesus’ commandment that we should forgive until we have lost count of how many times we have forgiven is not about our enemies; it is about us. It will probably do nothing to change our enemies’ hearts. They may still be as mean as snakes after we have forgiven them. But that is not our business. Our business is simply to imitate our Father in heaven who forgives us no matter how many times we do wrong. And God has Her hands full doing that!


I want to tell you two stories about forgiveness.  First, I want to tell you the true story of a young man who was studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood.  He was sent to a seminary in Toronto where his living arrangements were supervised by an older priest who was probably psychotic.  The older man terrorized the younger man with emotional, verbal, and physical abuse, and finally, in the middle of a bitter Canadian winter night, he locked the young seminarian out of the house. 


Later talking with another older priest, the young man began to pour out his bitter feelings of rage about this psychotic supervisor.   The older man listened quietly and finally said, "My son, you must forgive him".  That's just what I need", said the younger man, "that old tired business about forgiveness just doesn't work".  "No," said the older priest, "what I mean is this.  Every night you must get down on your knees and pray to God and say, 'Dear God, please kill Father So-and-so.  I despise him.  He doesn't deserve to live'.  You must pray that prayer every night.  And not that night and not the next, but later, perhaps years later, you will find yourself saying to God, 'Dear God, please forgive Father So-and-so'."


The point of the wise old priest's advice was this:  Acknowledge your feelings and honor them in prayer.  God knows how you feel and you cannot change your feelings by denying that they exist. 


Finally, I want to tell you a story about forgiveness in my own life.  Father Harry Reynolds Smythe was the librarian of Pusey HOuse in Oxford, and he's one of the holiest men I know.  One day at lunch I began to tell Fr. Harry about someone, a man of great power and influence, who had wronged me and hurt me deeply.  Fr. Harry listened carefully, quietly, and sympathetically.  Finally, he said, "You must do two things.  First, let Jesus bear your pain.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That's his job; not yours. Secondly, you must forgive him".


I think both stories are helpful.  I confess my prayers about this man who wronged me are more often "Dear God, please kill so-and-so" but sometimes they are also "Forgive him and forgive me, for we are both sinners".  But it is very helpful to remember, as Fr. Harry said, that Jesus bears the sin of the world, that he bears our pain, and that that is his job, not ours.


I don't know about you, but all this leaves me feeling uncomfortable.  My reaction to Jesus' radical challenge to forgive those who have wronged me is at least discomfort, if not depression.  More often than not I am a failure at loving my friends, much less forgive those who have done me wrong. 


            I am tempted to say that Jesus sets before us an impossible ideal, but that would be too easy.  It would let us off the hook.  The trick is to aim at forgiving those who have wronged us, really try to do that, and at the same time to know that most of the time we will fail.  And to realize that God sends sun and rain on the just and unjust, gives life and health to those we love and those we despise, that you and I and all of us need God's mercy as much as anyone in the whole creation.


            Perhaps W.H. Auden said it best,


O stand, stand at the window

as the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbor

With your crooked heart.[1]


All of us have crooked hearts, but God knows that.  It is with the crooked love of a crooked heart that God asks us to forgive those who have wronged us.  But we might find in trying to forgive that we succeed in forgiving. And we will find, in the end, that forgiveness is not an accomplishment, it is God's gift, for only by the grace of God are we able to forgive at all.



    [1]W.H. Auden, "And down by the brimming river".

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Reclaiming evangelism for the Episcopal Church (J. Barry Vaughn, Sept. 7, 2014)

We have christened this church year the “season of evangelism.” I agree with what Father Rick said about evangelism some time ago: Episcopalians don’t like that word. It makes us uncomfortable and even scares us a little.


Evangelism is what other Christians do, especially Baptists and Pentecostals. Some of us came from churches that talked about evangelism a lot, and it’s one of the reasons that we left those churches and came to the Episcopal Church.


We associate evangelism with people standing on street corners and telling us that the world is about to come to a crashing halt and that a terrible fate awaits all those who do not believe in Jesus.


Many Episcopalians are practically allergic to evangelism. We break out in hives when we hear the word.


Well, I used to be allergic to the idea of evangelism. I am one of those Episcopalians who was formerly a Baptist and came to the Episcopal Church partly because I got tired of the way some Baptists practiced evangelism.


But I want to tell you this morning that I have changed. I have seen the light! I want to do something very Baptist this morning.


I thought about having Kathi Colman lead the choir in several verses of the hymn “Just as I am” while Dr. Hesselink plays it on the organ and then invite all those who want to give their lives to Jesus to walk the aisle.


I can see some of you already start to sink down in the pews and others begin to look toward the exits. So before the vestry announces a special meeting to reconsider my employment as your rector, I want you to relax. I’m not going to have a Billy Graham-style altar call this morning However, it might be a good idea to try it some other Sunday, so I encourage everyone to come to church more frequently so that you can watch the excitement and be a part of it!


No, the Baptist practice that I’m importing this morning is what we used to call giving my personal testimony. We have invited several of you to talk about your personal faith, your spirituality, and I want to tell you something about my own story.


But before I do that, I want to say a little more about evangelism. The word “evangelism” is derived from the Greek word evangellos, more correctly pronounced EU-angellos. The first part EU is familiar to us from words such as “euphoria” or “good feeling.” We also speak of “eulogy” or “good word,” especially a “good word” spoken about those who have passed away. Angelos also gives us the word “angel.” An angel is a messenger. So “evangelism” is “good news.”


What is the “good news” that Christians have to share? Today’s readings speak of three functions of evangelism: The first is to let people know that there are choices to make – choices that lead to health and wholeness and other choices that lead to illness and death. Another function of evangelism is to communicate a sense of urgency about these choices. And the final function of evangelism is to let people know that God is not some distant  Deity who does not love and care for us and listen to us. Rather God is close at hand, in our very midst, and loves us deeply and passionately


One part of our good news is that life presents us with choices. Some of our choices are good and healthy, and others are not.


The Bible frequently speaks of two different ways: a way that leads to life and a way that leads to death. For example, the first psalm says, “Blessed are those who walk not in the way of the wicked but whose delight is in the law of the Lord.  They shall be like a tree planted by streams of water. It yields it fruit in due season and its leaf does not wither. The wicked are not so. They are like the chaff which the wind drives away. The way of the wicked shall perish.”


Today’s psalm says something very similar: “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end… Make me go in the path of your commandments, for that is my desire.”


The people of Israel identified the good way, the way that leads to health and wholeness, with their Torah or Law. According to the rabbis there were 613 different laws in the Torah. The apostle Paul identifies some of those laws in today’s second reading: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet" In other words, many of the laws are phrased in a negative way. They tell us what we should NOT do. Then Paul, like Jesus before him, summed up the entire law in a positive statement: the “commandments are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’… love is the fulfilling of the law.


So one function of evangelism is to let people know about this way that leads to life and health and wholeness – the way of love.


Another function of evangelism is to communicate a sense of urgency to people.


The prophet Ezekiel says that God has made him “a sentinel for the house of Israel…”, one who “warns the wicked from their ways.” In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, he says that it is time to “wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near…”


Ezekiel and Paul sound a little like those street preachers I mentioned earlier who shout at passersby about the end of the world and eternal punishment. But there is a grain of truth in that warning.  Life is short. We need to be about God’s business. We do not need to put off doing the important things, such as loving our neighbor as ourselves.


I have a confession to make: I wrote most of my sermon this morning. I got up at a very early hour. It was still dark outside. I made coffee and fixed breakfast. I checked my email and looked at the headlines in the New York Times and skimmed a few articles. And before I knew it, as Paul said, “the night was gone and day was at hand” and my sermon wasn’t quite finished.


The same is true of our lives. Those of you with children know that they grow up before you know it. Tell them today that you love them and care for them because tomorrow they will be getting married and having children of their own.


Choose today to love your neighbor as yourself, because the night is far gone and the day is at hand.


The third aspect of evangelism is the most important. It is to remind people that God is not some distant Deity up in the sky, infinitely removed from human life. Rather God is in our very midst.


This is the theme of Matthew’s gospel from beginning to end. At the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel, the author says that the birth of Jesus was a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that a young woman would bear a child whose name would be Emmanuel, a name which means “God is with us.”


The very last words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel should be familiar to all of us, because Jesus articulates the so-called “Great Commission” and we are striving to be a Great Commission church: “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” And then he adds, “I am WITH YOU always, even to the end of the age.”


And in today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”


Emmanuel… God with us.


I am with you always, even to the end of the age.


Where two or three are gathered, I am among them.


God is here among us. The psalmist asks, “Where can I go from your presence, O God?” And Jesus answers, “Nowhere.”


That is the essence of the gospel, the good news. God is not some distant Deity unconcerned with human life. God is right here.


Where people are hurting and lonely, God is there to comfort.


Where there is sickness and death, God is there to heal.


Where people are longing for meaning and purpose in their lives, God is there.


But at the beginning I promised to tell you something of my own spiritual journey, something of how I discovered the Good News for myself.


Like many of you, I grew up in a Christian family. Church was a big part of life. Frankly, as a small child, I thought there was a little more church in my life than I needed because we were there just about every time the church doors were open.


Like most Baptist kids, I was baptized by immersion. And after I learned to play the piano, I started to play for our services. Then when I was 15 or 16, something odd happened. As I sat at the piano one Sunday morning, I suddenly asked myself, “Do I believe any of this?” And the answer was , “No! I don’t believe a word of it!” And I became a teenage agnostic.


It’s something that happens to a lot of us, usually in our college years. Mine just happened a little earlier.


Then when I applied to Harvard, one of my interviewers asked me about the books I had read, and I told them about 1984 and The Scarlet Letter and To Kill a Mockingbird, and all the other books that high school students read. But he asked me if I had ever read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and I said that I had not. So he gave me a copy of it.


I read it, and I was stunned. No one had every explained the Christian faith to me that way. And I was convinced. I was also a little disappointed. I had thought that after I went to college I would never have to go to church again!


In spite of its reputation, I did not find Harvard godless at all. Rather I found that there was a rich diversity of spiritual life on campus. I became part of a prayer and Bible study group that included Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics. I heard intellectually challenging sermons in the university chapel. And I discovered a vocation to ordained ministry in my conversations with Dr. Gomes, the university chaplain.


I will not pretend that I do not have doubts. I think doubt is a part of every spiritual life. But I have not found anything that makes as much sense of human life as the Christian life.


That is all evangelism is: Telling people that God loves us. That God longs for us to find the way that leads to life and health, and that there is an urgency about this.


In this season of evangelism I hope that we can all rediscover those truths for ourselves and find ways to share them with the world around us. That will not only make Christ Church a healthier place and change your life– I think it might even change the world.