Monday, October 27, 2014

Are your dreams big enough? (J. Barry Vaughn, Oct. 26, 2014)

The story of Moses’ death on Mt. Nebo is one of the most poignant stories in the Bible. We have heard stories of Moses all our lives, but I’d like to present Moses in a slightly different light.


Moses was an enigmatic and many faceted man. Exodus tells us that he was born an Israelite in a time when the Israelite people, who later became the Jewish people, were threatened with genocide for the first, but certainly not the last, time.


At the time of Moses’ birth the Israelites were living in Egypt. The story of how they came to be living in Egypt may or may not be familiar to you, but that will have to wait for another time.


The Israelites were strangers in a strange land. They had become slaves of the Egyptians, but Egypt’s ruler was deeply troubled by this strange and foreign people in the midst of his land. So he took measures to make sure that they would die out. He not only gave them hard and cruel tasks calculated to weaken and kill them from exhaustion; he also directed the midwives, the women who assisted in childbirth, to kill all male Israelite children.


This story already has a modern ring to it: A wealthy and powerful nation fears the presence of aliens in their midst and takes measures to exclude them. Remind you of anything? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.


But when Moses was born, the midwives spared his life. Moses’ mother placed her baby in a basket and set him adrift on the River Nile, hoping that an Egyptian family would find him and raise him as their own. The desperate mother’s plan succeeded beyond her wildest expectations, because the daughter of Egypt’s Pharaoh found Moses and took him as her own child.


But here there is a mystery in Moses’ story: Exodus gives the name “Moses” an explanation that makes it a Hebrew name: It says that Pharaoh’s daughter gave the child the name “Moses” because it resembles the Hebrew word meaning “to draw out” because she drew him out of the water. But actually, Moses is not a Hebrew name at all; it is an Egyptian name meaning “son of”. It is similar to the names gives Egyptian rulers, such as Ramses or even closer Thutmosis. Ramses means “son of Ra” (the sun god), and Thutmosis means “son of Thut”. It is most likely that the name “Moses” was originally attached to the name of one of the Egyptian deities. But when Moses asserted his identity as an Israelite, he rejected the association of his name with Egyptian religion.


Moses was an Israelite, a Hebrew, but grew up at the summit of Egyptian power and affluence. Then something happened to make him reject his Egyptian-ness and assert his identity as an Israelite. Seeing an Egyptian supervisor cruelly beat a Hebrew slave, Moses grew so enraged that he murdered the Egyptian.


Now a fugitive from justice, Moses fled into the desert where he had a profound mystical experience. The voice of God spoke to Moses from a bush that burned but was not consumed. God commanded Moses to return to Egypt and demand that Pharaoh release the Israelites. Moses did so, and aided by divine power, the Israelites fled into the wilderness where they wandered for forty years before coming to the Promised Land of Canaan.


But in the wilderness there was another strange turn in Moses’ life. Moses the Egyptian had become Moses the Israelite. Moses the Israelite became Moses the liberator, the revolutionary. But in the wilderness, Moses the revolutionary became Moses the lawgiver.


Revolutions are tricky business. It is one thing to free a people from tyranny; it is quite another thing to impose order on a revolution. The American revolution managed that transition fairly well, but most other revolutions have not managed it.


The French revolution descended into the Reign of Terror. The Russian revolution gave rise to the gulag, the chain of forced labor camps, plus a host of other terrors. The Chinese revolution gave us the Cultural Revolution which resulted in perhaps as many as 20 million deaths.


Moses was almost unique in both freeing his people and also creating institutions and laws that enabled them not only to survive but to thrive.


There is so much more to the story but that is enough to take us to today’s Old Testament story. After forty years in the wilderness, Moses and his people finally arrived at the Promised Land.


Imagine the feeling with which Moses anticipated taking his people across the Jordan River into Canaan, the land we know today as Israel or Palestine. But God directed Moses to climb to the top of Mt. Nebo overlooking the land, and there God told Moses that although he had given his entire life to bringing his people out of slavery in Egypt and across the vast wilderness, he would not enter the land with him. And so Moses died after getting one brief glimpse of the culmination of his life’s work.


And here again, the story of Moses is reminiscent of the story of so many other great leaders. There are very few leaders who have managed both to free their people and create a stable society.
Think of Abraham Lincoln. He led the United States successfully through the Civil War, but a month after the South's surrender, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln before he could complete the task of reuniting the divided states.

Or think of Gandhi, the Indian leader who freed his people from British rule and gave them independence. There are many echoes of Moses’ story in Gandhi’s story. Gandhi’s devotion to independence for India began when he personally experienced the cruelty with which his people were treated by the white regime in South Africa. He then worked for more than forty years to create an independent India. He did live to see India become independent but as soon as India became free, civil war broke out between Hindus and Muslims. And Gandhi died by the hand of an assassin, his heart broken by the violence between his countrymen.


But perhaps the story with the most echoes of Moses’ story is that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King invoked the very words of Moses in his last sermon in Memphis, Tennessee on the night before his death.


In his sermon, Dr. King said, “I have been to the mountaintop. God’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And so I am happy tonight…Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”


That was on April 3, 1968. On April 4, King died by the hand of an assassin.


I think there is a great lesson for all of us in the stories of Gandhi, Lincoln, King and especially Moses.


How often do any of us live to see the culmination of our life’s dream?


Dreams are the building blocks of our lives. We have the dream of going to college, of being successful in our careers, of buying a home, of starting a family, of seeing our children successfully launched in their lives, of a comfortable and healthy retirement. None of us will live to see all of our dreams come true. All of us will see one or more of our dreams wreck upon the rocks of reality.


Someone said that life is completely fair because it breaks everyone’s heart.


Life is difficult and often sad. The failure of our dreams can lead to bitterness, but we must not let that happen.


But think about this: The larger our dream, the more likely it is that we will not live to see it come true.
Lincoln dreamed of preserving the Union and reuniting the divided states 

Gandhi had an enormous dream, the dream that India would throw off the yoke of the mighty British Empire.


Dr. King dreamed of a world in which people would be evaluated not by the color of their skins but by the content of their character.


Moses dreamed of freedom for his people and a land in which they could live in freedom.


I want to urge you to dream great dreams, enormous dreams. I want you to have a dream that will take more than your lifetime to dream. I dare you to have a dream so large that you will not live to see it come to pass. I want you to have a dream to which you can devote your life, a dream so vast and noble that you will invite others to participate in it.


The story of Moses is not a story of failure; it is a story of success. Moses’ dream was too big for one lifetime. It was too big for one individual. It was a dream that went beyond his own lifetime out into the future. Moses’ dream has influenced all parts of the world and all times.


That is the kind of dream that is worth living for and even worth dying for.


Today’s reading from the gospels echoes Moses in an indirect way.  They asked Jesus this question: "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."


More than a thousand years after Moses, Jesus and the Pharisees debated his words. The words of the Law, the Torah, that Moses gave to the people of Israel, echo down the halls of time and space. We still debate them.


At the end of his life God gave Moses a glimpse of the land that his people would occupy, but I wonder – did God also give Moses a glimpse of the way that his words would influence human history?


The words of Moses continue to influence our lives. The words that he gave to a small band of escaped Israelite slaves are written on the very fabric of time. As long as the human race endures, the words of Moses will endure.


Here at Christ Church we are called upon to dream great dreams. God calls us to dream of being a place of light for those in darkness, a place of hope for those who live in despair, a place of nourishment for those who are hungry, a place of shelter for those who are homeless.


I would like you to think of your pledge to this church in those terms. Do not think only of what we can accomplish today; do not think only of what we can accomplish this  year. Think of what we can accomplish over the next century. A great dream requires great resources. When you make your pledge to Christ Church, I want you to dream big and then give a pledge big enough to make that dream come true.


This church is an indirect result of the dream that Moses dreamed. And it is a direct result of the dream that Jesus dreamed, a dream of a world set free from sin and death, a world in which all men and women will live as brothers and sisters.


Like Moses and the Israelites, we are a people on pilgrimage who travel from a world of bondage, a world of slavery, toward a world of freedom, justice, and peace.


Come and dream with us.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Render unto Caesar (Rick O'Brien, Oct. 19, 2014)

For the past several weeks we have been listening to stories of Jesus teaching the crowds and generally taking the Jewish authorities of the time to task for their focus on life on earth as opposed to life with God in the kingdom to come.  Today we see that the authorities are not taking this lying down and are striking back.  In fact, Jesus has so rattled the authorities that they are desperate to discredit him and generally shut him up.  The Pharisees, as we know were the Jewish authorities of the time.  They were the temple priests, the keepers of the faith, the representatives of God to his chosen people; the Jews.  The Pharisees greatly resented the presence of the Romans, who had taken much of their power and authority away as they occupied the land and imposed the will of the Emperor; even over the will of God.

The Herodians on the other hand, were Jews as well, but they were loyal to King Herod.  Herod was the King of Galilee, who the Romans had installed as a puppet ruler in an effort to appease the Jews and provide the polite fiction that they had some aspects of self-rule over their lives.  The real power of course lie with Rome, but Herod was someone to be feared nonetheless. 

As you might expect, there was no love lost between the Pharisees and the Herodians.  The Pharisees hated all that Rome was and wanted them gone, while the Herodians owed their power and status to the Romans.  For the two groups to unite on any issue should give you an indication of just how much they feared Jesus.

They come together in an effort to trap Jesus into giving an answer to a seemingly innocent question.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor?  But this was not such a simple question.  If Jesus answered that it was not lawful, that God, not Caesar was the true ruler, he would have angered the herodians who would have turned him in to the Roman authorities for preaching against the emperor.  If he answered that it was lawful to pay taxes, he would be legitimizing the authority of Rome and recognizing their claim that the Emperor was the lawful ruler and should be worshipped as the God he claimed to be.  To do this would anger the Pharisees and their followers who worshipped no ruler but God.

It was a clever conundrum and they must have felt quite proud of themselves for coming up with such a fool-proof scheme.  Whichever way he went, Jesus was sure to anger one side or the other and, in so doing, dilute his standing as a teacher and Wiseman.  Jesus of course saw the trap right away.  And, as is typical for Jesus, he does something completely unexpected and chooses a third path. 

We all know this story of course.  The King James version says “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”  Jesus frustrates the efforts of both the Pharisees and the herodians by telling them that it is not about the money but rather about God.  Money is an earthly thing.  It is a creation of men and though it holds a huge place in our hearts, it should not be the focus of our lives.  We should focus less on earthly things and more on divine. 

The job of a preacher is to open the scriptures to us; to interpret the words of the earliest times to our life today.  20th century theologian Karl Barth said that we should read scripture with Bible in one hand and today’s newspaper in the other.  So my task today is to find some current relevance for this gospel story and help us all to see the teaching for us in 2014. 

As I read this passage, I think of the relationship we have with money.  Money was very important to people in Jesus time and is has not become any less important throughout the centuries.  I don’t know about you, but I find myself thinking a great deal about money.  What I have, what I don’t have, what I can do with it and how I can get more.  And as I reflect on this passage, I am reminded that I spend more time thinking about money than I do about God. 

I find that troubling.  Jesus’ message to the crowds to focus more on God than on money was true then and is true now.  It is a reminder that we place too much emphasis on money and have let it become a substitute for God in some ways.  This is not healthy. 

It is also a reminder that no matter how much we feel we have earned it, the money is not ours, but comes to us from God.  We work, using our gifts and talents to earn a living and feel that we are entitled to the fruits of our labors.  But we fail to recognize that our gifts, our skills, our very lives are gifts from God.  Without God we would not have the ability to earn this money. 

This of course leads to the concept of stewardship.  If we accept that all of what we have is ours, not because of ourselves but because of God, we have an obligation to give back to God in proportion to our gifts.  We are called to give of our time, of our talents, and yes, of our money.  Each is a gift we have received and each is important for us to give back to God.  We tend to think that we can be good stewards by offering one of these to God but that would be to diminish the gifts we have been given.  We need to give each to God, our time, our talent and yes, our money.  For each is a gift given to us by God and we must give back in thanks for the abundance of blessings we have received.  For as Jesus tells us “Give to God the things that are God’s”.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Building a foundation, putting down roots (J. Barry Vaughn, Oct. 5, 2014)

Several years ago Roy Moore, the chief justice of the Alabama supreme court, had the Ten Commandments engraved on a huge rock and placed in the foyer of the Alabama supreme court building. Many regarded Justice Moore’s action as an infraction of the constitutional guarantee of the free practice of religion and a breach in Thomas Jefferson’s wall between church and state and went to court to have the monument removed. The case went all the way to the U.S. supreme court which decided against Moore. They not only had the monument removed; they also had Mr. Moore removed.


Undaunted, Roy Moore began to take his enormous rock bearing the words of the Ten Commandments from place to place on the back of a flatbed truck. The rock weighs over 5000 pounds or more than 500 pounds per commandment. It was lifted on and off the truck by a 57 foot yellow I beam crane that weighs five tons, and even it sometimes buckles under the weight of the monument.[1]


I was living in Philadelphia when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision against Roy Moore and insisted that he remove the monument from the Alabama supreme court building. One night at a dinner party a friend asked me where I thought the Ten Commandments were now that they had been removed from the supreme court’s foyer. I said, “I don’t know where the monument is now, but the Ten Commandments are where they have always been: In the 20th chapter of Exodus and the 5th chapter of Deuteronomy. And that’s where they belong.” They belong in our Bibles, in our hearts and minds, in our behavior, and perhaps even on our lips. They do not belong on a 5000 pound rock in a courthouse.


Make no mistake: I am a big fan of the Ten Commandments. They are a wonderful guide for our lives. They tell us how to live a genuinely human life, a life that allows us to flourish, not just exist.


We may or may not disagree with Justice Moore’s decision to place a monument to the commandments in a government building, but for many of us there seems to be a kind of heaviness around the Ten Commandments; perhaps there seems to be a kind of heaviness around any commandments, around the very idea of a commandment, a “thou shalt not” or even a “thou shalt.”


But I would like you to think of the commandments not as a huge stone weighing us down but as a firm foundation upon which we build our lives.


Poet Andrew King wrote this marvelous poem about the commandments. The commandments are


words that are beacons, words that cast shadow,

words that are firesparks struck from stone,

words that are trumpet, calling to silence,

words that will echo through ages to come,


words that are the beating heart of a covenant,

words of requirement, words that are gift,

words that are bones in the body of a people,

words that are blood flowing into their veins,


words that are power, spoken to weakness,

words that are freedom because they are fence,

words that challenge us, words that summon us,

words that are song for a life-long dance,


words that are dwelling place, words of foundation,

words that are law, given in grace,

words that are signposts, words that are journey,

words that are a pathway pointing to peace.[2]


The Ten Commandments create a kind of wall around human life. The purpose of a wall is both to keep things out and to keep things in.


The things that the Ten Commandments keep outside are things like lying, envy, murder, unfaithfulness to our spouse. The things that the Ten Commandments keep inside are truthfulness, faithfulness, gratitude, and life itself.


Much is sometimes made of the fact that the commandments are phrased in the negative: “Thou shalt NOT…”  None of us likes to be told that we cannot do something. There’s something in us, especially Americans, that likes being forbidden to do something. There’s even something about being forbidden to do something that makes us want to do it even more. I’ve always thought that God made a huge mistake when he told Adam and Eve not to eat that darn apple! That just about guaranteed that they would eat it.


Visual artists tell us that one of the best ways to learn to draw or paint is not to focus on the object we are trying to represent. If you do that, you will almost certainly fail. You have to focus first on the space around the object, the negative space. When Michelangelo carved a beautiful angel out of a block of marble, he was asked how in the world he was able to create such a beautiful object out of a cold, dead block of stone. Michelangelo replied that all he did was to take away the pieces of stone that were surrounding the angel and, as it were, liberate the angel from its stone prison.


In a sense, that’s what the Ten Commandments do, too. They carve out a space in which real, authentic life can flourish. They take away the things that are ugly and harmful, such as lies, unfaithfulness, envy, and murder and create a space for things that are good and healthy such as truth, faithfulness, gratitude, and life itself.


It would be impossible to enumerate all the things that we are supposed to do in life. Every day there are hundreds of tasks that we are supposed to do, such as get up in the morning, get dressed, make breakfast, drive to work, do our jobs, and so on. It would be impossible to list all the things we should do; it is much easier to eliminate the things that we should not do.


Let’s give some thought to the things that the Ten Commandments do NOT say. The Ten Commandments tell us nothing about which economic system we should follow. You will find nothing there about whether it is better to be a mercantilist or a capitalist or a socialist. The commandments leave us free to make our own decisions about that.


The commandments tell us nothing about the political system that is best. They leave us free to decide how to order our political systems.


The commandments tell us nothing about whether or not we should let women serve as political and religious leaders. We have to look elsewhere for guidance on that subject.


And the commandments say absolutely nothing about homosexuality. Neither did Jesus. It is time for the church to stop acting as though homosexuality is the worst of all sins. It is perfectly possible to observe every single one of the commandments and also love someone of the same sex.


In today’s gospel reading, Jesus quotes Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone…” and goes on to say, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls."


The Ten Commandments are like ten great foundation stones. They create a foundation on which we can build good lives. If we fail to observe them, then we pretty quickly see the truth of Jesus’ observation that “the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces… it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” A man or woman who lacks the foundation of the commandments or who breaches the wall that they build around human life will eventually find life impossible as lies, envy, unfaithfulness, and lack of respect for life crowd into the space of his or her life.


We live in a world full of people who are looking for foundations for their lives. We are in a time of questioning; people are looking for answers. We here at Christ Church know a secret that the world around us longs to share – We have a foundation for our lives. We have found that life becomes richer, deeper, more meaningful, when we build it upon the rocks of truth, gratitude, fidelity, and respect for life.


But the stone of offense, the stumbling stone of which Jesus was speaking was not just the foundation of the commandments; Jesus was speaking of himself.


Jesus is the “great foundation,” the “cornerstone” of the Christian life. The author of First Peter says that we are “living stones” who are being “built into a spiritual house.” Beneath the foundation of the commandments is the very source of our lives. Theologian Paul Tillich called God the “ground of our being.”


This church rests upon a foundation not made of stone. It rests upon a foundation created by generations of people who worked to establish it – Mom and Pop Squires, Bishop Harry Graham Gray, Arthur Kean, Malcolm Jones, Talley Jarrett, Karl and Midgene Spatz, perhaps your parents or even your grandparents.


We have inherited both a great tradition and a great responsibility. It is our task now to build upon the foundation handed down to us, to invite all in this community who seek a foundation for their lives to join us, to find here a place upon which they can build strong and flourishing lives.


Our annual stewardship campaign begins today. Stewardship offers you the opportunity to share the foundation given to us with others, to maintain and build upon the foundation bequeathed to us.


I am asking everyone to consider increasing their commitment to Christ Church by at least ten percent. If we all do that and if those who are able to do even more, we will not only have a balanced budget, we will also be able to continue all our present ministries and even expand some of our ministries.


Although I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, I do not preach hellfire and brimstone sermons, but sometimes I have to tell you that our actions have consequences, and if we do not support our church with our pledges and increase our pledges gradually over time, there will be consequences.


There’s a wonderful murder mystery set in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. It is entitled Divine Inspiration and is written by Jane Langton. Langton invents the Church of the Commonwealth although it is obvious to anyone familiar with Back Bay that the church she created for her novel is a combination of Trinity Church, Copley Square, and its neighbor Old South Church.


The section of Boston known as Back Bay was built in the 19th century to be a gracious neighborhood. To build it a section of Boston harbor had to be filled in, so Back Bay is built on land fill. Back Bay includes some of Boston’s most beautiful and important buildings, including the Boston library, Trinity Church, and Old South Church.


The tower of Trinity Church, a church built by Phillips Brooks – the author of “O little town of Bethlehem” and later bishop of Massachusetts – weighs almost 10,000 tons. That’s 10,000 TONS, not 10,000 POUNDS. In order to build it on the land fill of Back Bay, they had to drive enormous pillars down into the water beneath the land fill of Back Bay. As long as the pillars are surrounded by water, they are enormously strong, but if they ever dry out, they will crumble. There is a system of automatic sensors that measure the depth of the water around the pillars, and if the water level drops, additional water can be pumped in.


In Divine Inspiration, the water level is allowed to drop with disastrous consequences.


While the church’s organist is playing Bach’s chorale prelude, In Thee Is Joy, he accidentally pulls out too many stops, causing the building to shake with Bach’s joyful music.


“The building swayed… the floor rolled beneath him… shaken by the long waves rumbling within it…. The music swarmed… the building shook, the spongy floor sagged…Behind the pulpit the east wall crumpled and caved inward. A single block from the vault over the pulpit pitched down with a crash, and then the rest roared down together in an avalanche of stone…. The church was no longer in darkness. Looking up, [the organist] saw the limpid sky of morning…. Now only one of [the] massive vaults remained, clinging to the high walls south, west, and north, trembling in the empty air to the east, thrusting outward into nothingness its tons of arching stone…. It was Easter morning.”[3]


That is what happens when we do not build our lives upon the foundation of the commandments. That is what happens when we do not send the roots of our lives down into the foundation that God provides for our lives.


Stewardship provides us with the opportunity to build strong foundations and to invite others to join us under the shelter of the living stones who form the very house of God.



[1] Facts about the monument’s weight, the crane, etc. from “Dancing the Decalogue” by Thomas Long, Christian Century, March 7, 2006.
[2] From “Andrew King’s New Weblog,” Sept. 28, 2014.
[3] From Divine Inspiration by Jane Langton.