Sunday, November 23, 2014

The quest for the kingdom (J. Barry Vaughn, Christ the King Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014)

On Christ the King Sunday, we sing, “Crown him with many crowns…” and “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow…”
I have to confess that the Feast of Christ the King makes me a little uncomfortable. Think about it: If we proclaim that Christ is the king, that everyone in heaven and earth must bow the knee to him, then what does that mean for everyone outside the Christian church? What does it mean for Jews and Muslims? Hindus and Buddhists and Sikhs? What does it mean for agnostics and atheists? Well, I don’t think that Christ the King Sunday is about converting everyone else into Christians. And here is why I believe that.
I did a little research. The feast of Christ the King is actually a very recent invention. Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925, only three years after Benito Mussolini became prime minister of Italy. Mussolini invented the political ideology we know as “fascism.” Fascism gave all power to the state. Loyalty to the state was supposed to supersede loyalty to anything else. Mussolini may have invented fascism, but Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party perfected it!
So the feast of Christ the King challenges our loyalty to the state, the nation, the tribe, even the family.
Pius XI said, “If Christ the Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if everyone, purchased by his precious blood, are subjected to his dominion… it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should … love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve … as instruments of justice unto God."
The feast of Christ the King is rich with royal imagery: kings, crowns, bowing the knee, and so on.
I love this stuff! I think I have always loved it. My friend Rabbi Miller likes to tease me about my love of all things English. When we were in India, we traveled across the country by train. I pointed out that although there had been many bad things about British rule of India, at least they gave the Indians a great railway system. Rabbi Miller said, “It would be more accurate to say that the Indians gave the British a great railway system, because the Indians were the ones who laid the tracks!”
Recently, I’ve been watching a movie about Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy of India. In one scene, Lord Mountbatten is sworn in as viceroy in the great viceregal palace in Delhi. The Lord Chancellor who swears him in wears elaborate robes and a wig; Mountbatten is in his dress naval uniform; he and Lady Mountbatten are seated on elaborate thrones. The British certainly understand how to do pomp and ceremony!
But we live in a world in which kings and queens and the grand ceremonies that accompany them are in short supply (except on the covers of the sensational tabloids in the check out line at Albertsons’s). The United States rejected the idea of having a monarchy, even though many begged George Washington to accept a crown.
So Christ the King Sunday requires us to make an imaginative leap. In our day, kings and crowns and thrones and scepters are mostly found in the literature of fairy tales and fantasies.
We cannot translate the imagery of Christ the King into vocabulary that makes sense to us.
With apologies to Sen. Bryan, when the young girl kisses the magic frog, he turns into a handsome prince, not a handsome senator.
Of course not. We want the frog to become a prince or princess, not a congressman or cabinet member.
We can’t turn King Jesus into President Jesus or Chairman Jesus. It just doesn’t work.
In fairy tales and fantasy, royal imagery is often accompanied by the story of a quest. The princess must embark on a dangerous quest to regain the crown she has lost to an evil usurper. She must climb mountains, slay dragons, and rescue the handsome but dim-witted prince from the clutches of a sorceress.
Similarly, I believe that Christians, too, are on a quest. Our quest is no less adventurous or dangerous than that of Frodo and his companions in the Lord of the Rings. But our quest is not for the “ring of power”; our quest is for the kingdom of God.
Our quest takes us from this world to the next, from the kingdom of this world to the kingdom of God.
Before we start, though, we have to know where the kingdom of God is located. Is it “east of the sun and west of the moon”? Do you go to the North Start and turn left and go straight on till morning?
Some would tell you that the Kingdom of God isn’t in this world at all; it is in heaven; it is spiritual; it is incompatible with this physical world in which we dwell.
But I don’t buy that.
After his baptism, Jesus began his public by saying, “The Kingdom of God is at hand…” In other words, the kingdom of God is near us.
I propose that the kingdom is present in this world, that it is close to us. The quest for the kingdom of God takes us from the present to the future. The kingdom of God is something that we are called upon to build.
What does the kingdom of God look like? Jesus gives us a vivid picture of the kingdom in today’s gospel reading.
He says that when God’s great day of judgment comes, all nations will be gathered before the place of judgment. On one side are the sheep, those who have built the kingdom of God, and on the other side are the goats, those who have been indifferent to or even hostile to the kingdom of God. And the difference between the two will be that the sheep have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited those in prison, and cared for the sick. And the goats are those who have neglected the hungry and sick, the prisoners and the naked.
United Methodist minister Wiley Stephens calls this “heaven’s audit of our souls.”
We know that our quest is over; we know that we have arrived at God’s kingdom when the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, when the homeless poor have shelter, when the unjustly imprisoned are released, when the sick are healed and the lonely are comforted.
I know that sounds terribly idealistic and I suppose it is, but so what? I’m tired of hearing the word “idealism” used as a criticism. “Oh, you’re so idealistic!” “Christianity is just too idealistic.”
But what’s wrong with being idealistic? Don’t we want to instill idealism in our children? Don’t we want to live up to the highest ideals? The next time someone accuses me of being too idealistic, I’m going to say, “Oh, thank you so much. What a wonderful thing to say!”
One more thing about the quest for the kingdom of God: It is not a solitary affair. In literature, the hero or heroine gathers companions around her for the dangerous quest. The quest for the kingdom is something that we have to do together as a church.
I’m glad that Christ the King Sunday is this church’s feast day. It reminds us that we are joined together in a great enterprise.
So how do we get there?
First, we have to be equipped for the quest, and we do that by making this church the best church that it possibly can be. We have to have a great Sunday school program for our children. We have to have the best staff members that we possibly can have. We have to have a strong musical program. But keep in mind that these things are only the preparation for the quest; they are not the quest itself.
That is what stewardship is all about. It is about equipping us for the quest for the kingdom.
But the goal of the quest is not to stay huddled together in this building. The goal is to go out into the world, to bring the good news of God to the least, the last, the lonely, the downhearted and despairing.
Just a couple of months before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a powerful sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church in which he had been raised and where he had been ordained. He told them how he would like to be remembered. If Christ is ruler over our lives, Dr. King told them, then my Nobel Peace Prize is less important than my trying to feed the hungry. If Christ is King, then my invitations to the White House are less important than that I visited those in prison. If Christ is Lord, then my being TIME magazine's "Man of the Year" is less important than that I tried to love extravagantly, dangerously, with all my being. (Quoted by Dr. Greg Garrison in “If Christ is King, What Does that Mean?”)
Christ the King Sunday is about what is really important. It is about our loyalty to Christ above all things. Hear that again: It is about our loyalty to Christ – not to the church. It is about deeds more than it is about creeds.
It is about letting Christ reign in our minds, our wills, our hearts, and about turning our hands into instruments of God’s justice.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A future worth building (J. Barry Vaughn, Nov. 16, 2014)

I have recently been reading Returnings: A Spiritual Journey by Dan Wakefield. It is what I would call a “spiritual autobiography,” an account of Wakefield’s boyhood in the American Midwest in the 1950s, a time of affluence, security, and religious faith, followed by his education at Columbia University when he adopted a superficial agnosticism. The book is about Wakefield’s eventual return to the Christian faith later in life.


Wakefield writes of his youthful outrage at the pious platitudes of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, the popular preacher of the 1950s who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking. Wakefield says that Peale popularized a “bland, conformist Christianity” that “not only seemed superficial but downright offensive.” The Power of Positive Thinking asserted “that religion was a ‘scientific’ method of making one’s life better” and that “the Bible contains ‘techniques’ and ‘formulas,’ … “that ‘may be said to form an exact science’.”


“Dr. Peale made it seem so simple with his assortment of hints for happiness such as ’10 easy, workable rules,’ ‘7 … steps,’ and so on.


A friend of Wakefield’s family took him to New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church which Peale served as pastor. Wakefield described “the vastness of the church and the huge crowd of worshipers…” He said ”there was not an empty pew… at the shrine of 1950s upbeat conformity and assurance. I remember the smile and the gleaming white teeth of the famous pastor.”


I had an occasion to meet Norman Vincent Peale several years ago and think that he had a bit more depth than Dan Wakefield is willing to attribute to him. Nevertheless, it is difficult for me to reconcile Peale’s belief that the Bible contains anything like a “science” of “positive thinking” with the words of the prophet Zephaniah:


Be silent before the Lord GOD!

For the day of the LORD is at hand;

At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,

and I will punish the people

who rest complacently on their dregs,

those who say in their hearts,

"The LORD will not do good,

nor will he do harm."


THEIR wealth shall be plundered,

and their houses laid waste.

Though they build houses,

they shall not inhabit them;

though they plant vineyards,

they shall not drink wine from them.

The great day of the LORD is near,

That day will be a day of wrath,

a day of distress and anguish,

a day of ruin and devastation,

a day of darkness and gloom,

a day of clouds and thick darkness,

Neither their silver nor their gold

will be able to save them

on the day of the LORD's wrath;

in the fire of his passion

the whole earth shall be consumed;

for a full, a terrible end

he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth


The words of Psalm 90 are almost equally harsh:



You turn us back to the dust and say, *
"Go back, O child of earth."


For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past *
and like a watch in the night.


You sweep us away like a dream; *
we fade away suddenly like the grass.


In the morning it is green and flourishes; *
in the evening it is dried up and withered.

The span of our life is seventy years,
perhaps in strength even eighty; *
yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow,
for they pass away quickly and we are gone.


About the same time that Norman Vincent Peale was writing The Power of Positive Thinking, theologian Paul Tillich was teaching at Harvard University’s divinity school. In one of his great sermons Tillich wrote this about Psalm 90:


A shallow Christian idealism cannot stand the darkness of such a vision. [But] the Bible… the most universal of all books, … reveals the age-old wisdom about man's transitoriness and misery. The Bible does not try to hide the truth about man's life under superficial statements about the immortality of the soul. Neither the Old nor the New Testament does so. They know the human situation and they take it seriously. [The Bible gives us no] easy comfort about ourselves.


There is nothing in Tillich about the Bible or the Christian faith as “a ‘scientific’ method of making one’s life rosier.” I might say that Tillich represents the opposite pole from Peale!


I don’t know about you, but I prefer Paul Tillich to Norman Vincent Peale.  I also do not find the words of Psalm 90 to be all that depressing, especially when you contrast them with the words of Zephaniah.


Zephaniah tells the people of ancient Judah that they would build houses but not inhabit them; they would plant vineyards but not drink the wine that would be pressed from their grapes.


In contrast, the psalmist says to God, “You have been our refuge from one generation to another.”


Do you hear the contrast? Zephaniah speaks of the futility of human effort: Nothing we build will last. That’s true, says the psalmist, but we DO have a home, an eternal home, in God who is our refuge from one generation to another.


In brief, the human predicament is this:


Life is short. Nothing we do or build or make will last forever. So what’s the point? Why try?


Not only are we mortal but even our civilization is mortal, finite, limited. According to Psalm 90, we may live for 70 or 80 years. A civilization may last for a few hundred or even a few thousand years, but even our civilizations will pass away.


However, there ARE things that are eternal, and Paul speaks of them in his first letter to the Thessalonians: “…since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”


Faith, hope, and love – these are the things that are eternal, the things that last.


Today our stewardship drive concludes. We are asking you to make a pledge to Christ Church not so that we can build the things that are mortal and finite such as buildings. We are asking for your financial support so that we can build things that really last, such as faith, hope, and above all, love.


This last week I saw the new film Interstellar. Like Zephaniah and the author of Psalm 90, Interstellar can be seen as a pessimistic and gloomy film. For some unspecified reason, life on earth is coming to an end. Humankind must find a new home on another planet. But any planet conducive to human life is an unimaginable distance from Earth, so some way must be found to bridge the vast distance from our galaxy to another. Some way must be found to transcend not only the vast distance of space but even time itself.


One of the main characters in Interstellar says something that even the apostle Paul would agree with: “Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful, it has to mean something... Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends the dimensions of time and space.”


“Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends… time and space.”


In today’s gospel reading Jesus tells us of the wealthy man who went on a journey and entrusted one servant with five talents, another with two talents, and a third servant with only one talent.


We misread this completely if we think the word “talent” as Jesus used it means anything like the word “talent” when we use it. It does not mean a skill, such as a talent for music or painting or playing football.


The talanton was the largest unit of currency in Jesus’ time. It meant something like a huge bucket full of solid gold." You would have to be a weight lifter even to pick up a talanton.


I don’t think Jesus was thinking of money at all when he spoke of “talents.” What do you or I have that would be the equivalent of a bucket of solid gold?


The word “talent” as Jesus used it meant all the gifts that God gives us.


In the parable of the talents Jesus is asking us: What have you done with all the things that God gives you -- the life, the health, the intelligence, imagination, and creativity, and above all the love with which God endows all of us? What have you done with all that?


Those are the things that last, the things that will not go down to the dust. Those are the things that we are trying to build here at Christ Church.


In his sermon on Psalm 90, Tillich went on to say: “The psalmist does not think that … the truth of what he has been saying will cast man into despair. On the contrary, he believes that just this insight can give us a heart of wisdom -- a heart which accepts the infinite distance between God and man, and does not claim a greatness … which belongs to God alone.Something new appears in these words: the significance of past and future, the prayer for a better future,…  a future of happiness and joy, of the presence of God…. God … is … the God of the future. The cycle from dust to dust, from sin to wrath, is broken. There appears the vision of an age of fulfillment, after the ages of misery…. The individual no longer stands alone before God. He is included among the other servants of God, in the midst of the people of God who look not toward their return to dust, but toward a life in a new age in which God is present. Hope supersedes tragedy.”


That is a faith worth living for and a future worth building: We are mortal but we are not alone. We look not only toward our return to the dust but toward life in a new age in which God is present.


So build something that will last: Love others with all your heart.  Counter despair with hope.  Overcome evil with goodness. Because at the very heart of the universe there is a goodness greater than evil; a hope greater than despair; a love which holds us in an eternal embrace. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Bridesmaids - Wise and Foolish (Rick O'Brien, Nov. 9, 2016)

A wedding.  Everyone has their own interpretation of what a wedding is, or at least what it should be.  Your own, your friends, your children’s and perhaps even your parents.  A wedding is a celebration of life, a union of two people in love who pledge their lives to one another.  In Nevada and in many states, this now includes ALL people, and that is truly a good and joyful thing! 

A wedding is a binding contract tying two people together.  In the church we consider it to be one of the sacraments as we see it as far more than simply a civil contract, but as a gift from God and a pledge of obedience to each other and to God.  It is also often a huge event!  It is a time for celebration with family and friends, a time to eat, drink and be merry.  A time to connect with people you don’t see often and to renew bonds of friendship and family. 

In the ancient world, weddings had some of the same character, but there were some very distinct differences.  It is these differences that make today’s passage from Matthew a bit hard to understand, so this morning I would like to talk about them and see how they may help us with the wedding concept.

Today we think of a wedding in basically two parts; the ceremony and the reception.  Whether in a church in front of a priest, at city hall in front of a justice of the peace, or in a wedding chapel in front of Elvis, the ceremony marks the beginning of the union.  An engagement is an agreement to be married, but it is not until the ceremony that a binding contract is established between the two people. 

In ancient days things were different.  The wedding was actually in three parts.  The first was the betrothal.  This was what we would consider the engagement where an offer of marriage was made and accepted.  It was not typically made by the couple, but by their families.  Arranged marriages were common and were much more about joining of families for economic reasons than for anything as silly as love.  But, unlike our concept of engagement, the betrothal was a binding agreement and the couple were considered to be married at that point, even though they would still live apart.  In some cases this was because the couple were children and had to wait to move forward until they had come of age, while in other cases it was to allow the groom time to earn the dowry called the Mohar that had to be paid to the bride’s family.  Remember the story of the Virgin Mary and her betrothal to Joseph?  Each advent I get asked why Mary would be traveling with him if they were not yet married.  Now you understand that as they were betrothed they were in fact considered to be married.

When the time came for the second part of the wedding, the families would agree on an approximate time, but it was not a fixed point in time. The second part is what we would think of as the consummation of the marriage.  Remember that the couple was already considered to be legally married, but the consummation would establish the virginity of the bride and the commencement of their life together.  It was largely up to the groom to determine the exact date and time.  The bride was expected to make herself ready for the groom, attended by her bridesmaids.  The bridesmaids would prepare her for the arrival of her husband, but since they did not know when he was coming, they were with her morning, noon and night.  Only once the groom had arrived and the marriage had been consummated would the third part of the wedding begin; the celebration. 

Remember that we are not talking about a time and place with 9 channels of HBO and a 4G WiFi connection.  These were small rural villages in Palestine with extremely little in the way of entertainment.  Every wedding in the village was a huge event and all of the family and friends would take part in the celebration; a celebration by the way that would last an entire week.  A wedding was the event of the year and after all, who doesn’t want to be part of a week-long party? But there was of course a catch.  You had to be there when the party started.  If you were not, then you were quite literally shut out.  So it was important to be sure you were ready when the groom arrived because you clearly did not want to miss out on the event.

Which brings us to the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.  Those who were wise had planned ahead and brought enough oil for their lamps, while the foolish had not.  I imagine they were very excited for their friend, were flattered to have been chosen to take part in this momentous occasion in her life, and were very much looking forward to the feasting and dancing at the wedding banquet.  But in their enthusiasm for the moment, they had let their concern for the present come before their hope for the future; and in so doing they sacrificed their ability to share in the wonder of the event that was to come.

Now I think we are starting to get a taste of the meaning of the gospel.  The bridesmaids were called to wait with the bride for the coming of her groom; for the commencement of the life that meant, and the celebration that they had long looked forward to.  But they were either too excited about the event to properly prepare themselves for their task, or they were too caught up in their own lives and problems to invest the effort and energy needed for the task at hand.  The wise had been just as excited or just as preoccupied, but in their wisdom they knew the importance of preparing for what was to come. 

The Wisdom of Solomon tells us “Wisdom is radiant and unfading and is found by those who seek her.”  If you seek wisdom, we are told, you will have no difficulty in finding her as she waits for us, graciously appearing in our paths and meeting us in every thought.  But that is the catch isn’t it?  For while wisdom is always ready for us, we must want to find it in the first place.  We must seek wisdom; we must place a value on wisdom and want to open ourselves to what we can learn from it. 

If we don’t value wisdom, or if we aren’t willing to accept that we have things we can learn and be willing to invest the time and the energy, then wisdom will elude us.  The foolish bridesmaids saw no value in wisdom and found themselves on the outside looking in, but the wise were able to accomplish their task and enjoy the rewards. 

But there is another point to be made.  This is not just about the good maids vs. the bad or the wise vs. the foolish.  For what happened when the foolish asked the wise for some oil?  They didn’t tell them, tough luck you should have planned ahead.  No, they told them we don’t have enough, but you should go and buy some and return.  Instead of deriding them for their lack of preparation, they gave them a helpful suggestion and a path to the wisdom that had eluded them. 

If you are not actively seeking wisdom, now would be a good time to consider it.  For as Jesus says, you know neither the time nor the hour when the groom will come.  If you are wise and are preparing for the coming of the bridegroom, good for you.  But remember not to be smug about your preparation.  Remember also to offer help to those who need it so that we all may attend the bridegroom when he returns.  For the bride is the church and the bridegroom is Jesus Christ the Lord.  We know not the day nor the hour when he will return to take possession of his world.  But if that day were today, which of the bridesmaids would you be?