Friday, December 26, 2014

Where are you, Christmas? (Rick O'Brien, Christmas Day 2014)

I want to start by saying that I am an enormous fan of Christmas music.  Sacred or secular, I love it all.  But they started playing Christmas music this year shortly after the fourth of July.  Even for me, that is going a bit too far.  Or a lot too far.  The main problem with this, aside from its crass emphasis on trying to separate you from your money, is that starting the music so early makes it somehow less special.  It is hard to focus on the words to Silent Night when you have heard it 73 times before Labor Day. So what begins as a lovely reminder of the season quickly fades into nothing but background noise. 

But every once in a while, at an unexpected moment, the fog of life clears, and you find yourself listening to the words.  I was driving home from a long day of work and shopping, in my own little world, concentrating on my own problems.  Without realizing it, I found myself listening to the song “Where are you Christmas? “

I had heard it 327 times already this year, but for some reason I found myself paying attention to the words.  “Where are you Christmas, why can’t I find you, why have you gone away?  My world is changing, I’m rearranging, Does that mean Christmas changes too?” Does that mean Christmas changes too?  This started my thinking about MY Christmases; how they used to be and how they in fact have changed. 

I recall as a young child that Christmas was about Santa and presents and, as I was an only child and the only grandchild, being the center of attention.  I rather liked that.  The first time Christmas changed for me was when I was 6.  My grandmother died at Thanksgiving time, the first time that I had any experience of death.  Christmas was not going to be the same after that.  Later that year, my mother gave birth to my baby brother, on December 22, and Christmas changed again. 

Fast forward and I am in college for my first year, all by myself and homesick.  Christmas was very different that year, with none of the preparations and traditions I had taken for granted as a youngster. So, after feeling sorry for myself for a bit, I took the bus to Kmart and bought a tiny tree and a cassette tape of Bing Crosby.  Setting up this Charlie Brown tree in my dorm room, listening to White Christmas, I started to feel better and realized that I was now creating my own Christmas traditions.

When Jen and I were married, Christmas changed again.  For the first time in my life I didn’t wake up in my parent’s home.  We now had two families, with two different sets of traditions, and each wanted their traditions to stay the same.  Each family expected us to take part in their traditions, and we had to find a way to mediate the differences and act as agents of change.  Neither family got exactly what they wanted, but all had to adapt to a new reality that included changes in Christmas from that point on.

We had our first son, and that changed Christmas again, in many, many ways.  We now found ourselves in the position of establishing traditions for our own family, both as keepers of the past, and looking forward into the future.  Two more sons followed over the years, and we evolved our own set of family traditions, some that incorporated our larger family, some that were only for us.

Then our sons grew up and left for college too.  Christmas changed again when one of them could not come home, so we went to him.  Our first Christmas in a hotel room was unusual, but lovely in its own special way.  Over the years, we have celebrated Christmas in my parents’ house, in Jen’s parents’ house, in a hotel room, in a church basement, in a rented house in Florida, and one memorable time in a closed restaurant where my brother worked that we took over with the owner’s permission. 

As I think about it, Christmas has been changing all of my life.  Life moves on, people come into and leave our lives, and the world keeps on turning.  Change is a constant; even when we don’t want it to be. 

For some people change comes rather easy; while others meet change kicking and screaming.  If you are one of the former, then you are comfortable with the idea of Christmas changing.  You can listen to the song and answer, “Yes, Christmas DOES change, and all will be well.”  But if you are one of the people who is uncomfortable with change, perhaps this will help.

Our Christmas celebrations change.  The people we celebrate with change.  We go to different places, we eat different foods, but there is one thing that does NOT change.  That God sent his only son into the world in the mostly lowly fashion to become one of us and save us from ourselves.  This infant Jesus who we celebrate today is the one thing that does not change, in fact has never changed.  Jesus is eternal.  He has always been, is now, and will always be part of our triune God.  As John tells us in the beginning of his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The word that John so eloquently describes is Jesus.  Jesus was with God at the creation of the world; indeed, the world was created through him as all things came into being through him.  This Jesus, born today as a tiny baby in a humble cattle stall is none other than the eternal God, who loves us so much that he choose to dwell among us.  Our light in the darkness; the light of all people.

Our Christmases will change.  People we love will not be with us, we may find ourselves in unfamiliar places.  But Christmas has been the same for 2,000 years.  It is not about HOW we celebrate, but about WHAT we celebrate.  And it will always be. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas in the trenches (J. Barry Vaughn, Christmas Eve 2014)

On the 28th day of June in year 1914, a Serbian terrorist shot and killed the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Austria threatened to retaliate against the Serbs; Russia, which saw itself as the protector and defender of all Slavic peoples, said that they would defend the Serbs if Austria and its German ally attacked them; France, bound by treaty to Russia, said that they would stand by Russia in any war that might come; and in London, the government of his Majesty King George V said that they would honor their treaty obligations to France and would also protect the neutrality of tiny Belgium.

And so on 2 August 1914 Germany invaded France via Belgium and the Great War began. Within weeks both sides had dug hundreds of miles of trenches. They stretched from the North Sea to the border of neutral Switzerland, and for the next four years those trenches did not move more than ten miles in either direction.

For four years the First World War was a dreadful stalemate, and the status quo was maintained at the cost of millions of young lives. Almost daily on both sides young men were ordered up and out of the trenches and into the no man's land between the two sides, where they faced almost certain death in the deadly hail of machine gun bullets. The casualty figures at the end of the war tell the dreadful story better than words can. Great Britain and its far-flung empire lost about one million soldiers; France had lost about 1.3 million; Italy about half a million; Russia 1.7 million; and Germany and Austria about three million.

But in the midst of the war came something like a Christmas miracle. On Christmas Eve 1914 all up and down the western front soldiers on both sides began to sing Christmas carols. Sometimes one side would sing a carol familiar to them in their own language; then the other side would respond with a carol they knew in their own language. Sometimes the same carol would be sung simultaneously in at least two different languages. One British soldier said that he would die rather than sing “Silent Night” in German, to which a German soldier replied, “And it would probably kill us to hear you sing it, too!”

Folksinger John McCutcheon tells the story of the Christmas truce in his song, “Christmas in the trenches”:

I was lying with my mess mate on the cold and rocky ground,
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I, “Now listen up, me boys,” each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear:

“He’s singing bloody well, you know,” my partner says to me.
Soon one by one each German voice joined in harmony.
The cannons rested silent. The gas cloud rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

On Christmas 1914, soldiers on both sides of the western front abandoned their trenches. They met one another in “no man’s land.” They shared food and drink, and they sang songs. Then someone on one side or the other kicked a football (incorrectly termed a “soccer” ball in America) into no man’s land, and a lively game followed. The soldiers shared parcels of food from home; admired pictures of each other’s sweethearts; and in places the Christmas truce lasted two or three days or longer.

The officers, safely ensconced well-behind the front lines, tried to put a stop to it, but the enlisted men paid no attention. And in places even some officers joined in the festivities. In Rome, the pope – Benedict XV – the last by that name until the current occupant of the throne of St. Peter – pleaded with the warring powers to “cease during the holy season of Christmas,” but his pleas had no impact. Much more effective than the pontiff’s appeal was the simple desire of the soldiers to keep the holiday the way they had kept it all their lives - by singing the familiar carols, exchanging gifts, and above all by remembering and telling the story of the Holy Child whose birth to a poor couple had brought hope to the entire world.

But eventually the soldiers went back to their trenches and waited for the signal to launch themselves again into no man’s land or to unleash the deadly fire of their machine guns on the men with whom they had spent Christmas Eve singing carols and playing football. But it is said that in some places the soldiers deliberately fired over the heads of the men with whom they had sung carols and shared a glass of whisky.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more.
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war.
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night,
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”

It was Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone for ever more.

You and I live in a world that is very similar to the western front in 1914, a world divided between rich and poor, black and white, Christian, Jew, Muslim. Like the soldiers in the Great War we huddle in our trenches, our caves, our homes, fearful that someone or something may try to take away something we have earned. And sometimes our fears are not even that specific; we just fear for no particular reason because the human mind and heart seem to be wired to fear those who are different from us.

But long ago, even before the spontaneous Christmas truce of 1914, someone came into this world that we share with those whom we perceive to be so different from us, someone who would have no part of the things that divide us. He pitched his tent in that most dangerous of places – right in the middle of no man’s land, right between our warring factions. Refusing to identify with this side or that, he claimed to belong to all humanity and called himself the Son of Man.

Like the Christmas truce of 1914, his arrival was heralded by a song, a song that promised peace on earth. He came to heal the divisions that separate us. Lepers were reunited with their families; sight was restored to the blind; thieves and prostitutes, excluded by the morally upright, were made welcome in his company. To our astonishment he told us that the poor were the special objects of God’s favor. Wherever he went it was as if people came out of their trenches, even out of their graves – sometimes literally so. “Lazarus! Come forth!” he commanded, and he healed the greatest of all divisions – that between the living and the dead.

He chose to live in no man’s land, between Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, the oppressor and the oppressed. The men who ventured into no man’s land eventually went back to their trenches when the holiday was over, but he did not. He stayed in no man’s land. Of course, we call it “no man’s land” for a good reason: no one can stay there for long. Jesus had enemies. His enemies are those who seek to keep the poor in their place, who traffic in oppression; who resist the empowerment of women, who benefit from the anger and violence that separate us from each other. Jesus began to put them out of business. When peace breaks out, the merchants of war have to create new conflicts. So they really had no choice: Jesus had to die. They brought him before the authorities on trumped up charges and accused him of treason. Some soldiers took a bit of barbed wire and fashioned a crown. Others found a few pieces of lumber in the mud of no man’s land and nailed him to it. And just as surely as if a machine gun had cut him down, he died while both sides looked on. And then some friends took his body and placed it in a tomb that was meant for a wealthier man. Someone said, “Well, that was nice. The Christmas truce was lovely. For a few moments it seemed that the English and the Germans and the French seemed more similar than different, that the music of peace might drown out the discord of war. But eventually we have to go back to the real world, don’t we?  To put away the football, the violin, the bottles of whisky that we shared with the other side, shake the hand of the soldier opposite us and then pick our gun and shoot him.”

Then something completely unexpected happened. A woman of dubious virtue (there are a few attached to every regiment) came and told them that he was alive, that his grave was empty. Some scoffed; others went and found that it was true. Some saw him or were convinced by the testimony of others that he had indeed risen from the dead.

But why is it, then, that we still live in such a divided world? A world divided by poverty, oppression, race, and violence? If Christ came to heal these divisions and if his resurrection is the definitive proof that God can overcome our divisions, why does our world still resemble the western front in 1914?

I think we live in a troubled world because God gave us the great and powerful gift of freedom: the freedom to believe or not, to love or hate, to live or die. God doesn’t overwhelm us; rather, God woos us, invites us to believe. Not everyone saw the Risen Christ, only those who had been acquainted with him during his earthly life. But I believe, indeed, I am convinced, that he comes among us today just as surely as came among us 2000 years ago. He continues to live in that most difficult and dangerous of places, that no man’s land between forces that hate and would kill each other. He continues to offer us peace for war, harmony for violence, reconciliation instead of division. He holds up a mirror to human life and shows us that the violence and cruelty we inflict on others, we really inflict on ourselves.

And so on this Christmas Eve almost a century after the Christmas truce and almost 2000 years after the angels sang in Bethlehem, he invites us to come out of our trenches, our places of hiding, to join with others in song, maybe even play football. But most of all, he invites us to make the acquaintance of those we fear, to look at pictures of their family members and to share pictures of our own loved ones, to share our food and drink with those who have none. And when they tell us to go back to our trenches and pick up our guns, he invites us to say, “No.” Because now the dawn is upon us, the light has risen. And in that light we can see that the men and women we feared are no more nor less than our own sisters and brothers.

My name is Francis Tolliver. In Liverpool I dwell.
Each Christmas come since World War One I've learned its lessons well.
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
and on each end of the rifle we're the same

Monday, December 22, 2014

The yellow brick road (Rick O'Brien, Dec. 20, 2014 - Ordination of the Rev. Rick Smallwood)

I met Rick and Jeanne Smallwood one Sunday morning in 2009 at coffee hour.  Two people I had never seen before asked me if I were the aspirant at the parish.  I was a bit surprised, but realized that it wasn’t too hard to figure it out since I had been serving at the altar that morning.  The guy then said to me (still wearing his Stetson cowboy hat), my name is Rick and I want to be a priest too. And then the story started to come out.
Rick had felt his calling from God many years ago in the late 1960s, but like many who are on another path, he felt that it was not quite real. That God couldn’t be calling him, that he was somehow not worthy.  And life, as is does, tended to get in the way.  So he hit the snooze button.  And then he hit it again.  And again and again.  Each time he felt the stirring of the call, he hit the button and focused on other things.
Make no mistake, despite an active Navy career that involved postings all over the country and the world, Rick was always involved in the church in one fashion or another.  He was living out his Christian ministry, but there was always that quiet call in the background.  Sometimes it was very loud, other times only a whisper.  But it was always there.  And it was always put on hold.
Jesus tells us that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.  So when the Bishop in his diocese sent out word that they were short on priests, the alarm clock started ringing very loudly.    And this time, the snooze button just wouldn’t work.  For at last, Rick’s time and God’s time had come together and there was no longer any way to deny the reality of God’s call.  40 years after the first stirrings of his calling, Rick entered the discernment process and started on a path toward this day.
Having been in the process for a while, an unexpected roadblock materialized.  A roadblock that would likely have stopped him in the past, but not this time. For by now Rick was absolutely convinced of his call, and he would not let it go.  That determination led him to a conversation with Bishop Dan in the unknown wilds of Nevada.  The bishop had not told him he would be ordained, merely that he would be allowed to pursue the process.  With no more assurance than that, off they went.
I was fascinated by this story and asked when they had arrived in Nevada.  Last night, they said.  Where are you living?  Don’t know yet.  Where are your things?  In the car outside.  You mean you just packed up everything, left your life behind and drove to Nevada with no planning and only a promise that you could at least attempt the discernment process?  Yes, was the answer.  I have to tell you that I was deeply moved by this.  To do this was a significant leap of faith, one that I am not certain that I could have made.  I was impressed by Rick, but I have to tell you, I was even more impressed by Jeanne.  Picture for a minute this conversation over the dinner table. “Honey, I want to pull up stakes and move to Nevada because that is what God is calling me to do.”  And her answer was not, “have you lost your mind”, it was, “OK, when do we leave?”  Wow.  Think about that for a moment. Each of them demonstrated a great deal of faith, in God and in each other.
The path Rick embarked upon is not an easy one.  The discernment process is a bit like the yellow brick road.  Lest you think you heard me wrong, yes, I am going to preach on the Wizard of Oz.  Sometimes the path runs through a beautiful happy place like munchkin land full of sunshine and smiling people.  Other times it runs through a dark forbidding forest and the path is hard to follow and seems to go in circles where you wander aimlessly making no progress whatsoever.  When you are on the path, it can be difficult to understand why it is so complex and always changing.  When you are in the middle of something it can be hard to have a sense of perspective and appreciate it for what it is.  But when you look back over the journey, you can see that every part of it, the good and the bad, the easy and the difficult was put there for a reason. 
It is very tempting in the good times to think that you are doing it all on your own, that you are completely equipped for the journey and are ready to go.  But it is the dark times, the times when you are lost or feel overwhelmed or totally inadequate; those are the times that you are reminded that the journey is not about you, but about God.  Only by falling back into the arms of God can you find your way through the hard times, and that also helps you to see that it was God, not you, who was acting in the good times as well.  For this call to the priesthood is not about you, but about God and we are called to be servants of all in His name.
It has been my privilege to walk alongside Rick for some of his journey on this path. I have seen him in the good times and in the bad and I know that he has learned well the lessons of the path.  Rick, hold fast to those lessons.  Always remember that it is God who equips you to face the journey, for today you begin on a new path.  I am sorry to be the one to tell you this, but everything you have done so far is merely prologue to the journey you undertake right now.  When I was ordained, a couple of wise priests told me that I would find serving as a priest in a congregation very different from what I had experienced before.  There would be a new level of expectation from people and I would be called upon to serve in ways that I had not yet imagined.  I listened politely and was sure they were wrong.  They were not.
Starting today you are on a new path, a lifelong journey as a priest in God’s church.  You will never be the same again.  You will be called upon in new and different ways and you will most certainly be stretched outside your comfort zone.  Yes, there will be munchkin land time, but you have some time in the dark forest ahead as well.  When that happens, remember the lessons you leaned on this path, for they will serve you well.  Trust in God to be with you and equip you in the good times and the bad and He will always lead you through.
Now, it would be easy for everyone here to think that I am speaking only to Rick.  And you would be wrong, for each of us is called by God to ministry.  Each of us is given special skills and talents from God and we are all called to use them to serve God’s purpose and build the kingdom. Rick may be called to ordained ministry but that is no more or less valid than the ministry to which all of us are called.  Matthew tells us that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few, and that is a challenge to each of us.  For each of us is called to labor for the Lord and each of us is given the skills necessary  to carry out that ministry,  And like Rick, each of us will spend time in munchkin land, and each of us will spend time in the dark forest.  And like Rick, if each of us can put our trust in God rather than ourselves, God will most certainly lead us through.
Now, Rick, you are about to complete a journey that is more than 45 years in the making.  I know that there were times that it seemed to you that this day would never arrive; that your time in the dark forest would never end.  Today, you complete the first phase of the journey and commence the more daunting journey as a priest in Gods holy church.  You will be challenged in ways you have never been before, but you have been prepared for this in ways you have never been as well.  The work you undertake today is both sacred and necessary.  For the world we live in is in desperate need of the gospel and people are in greater need of God than ever before.  Your brothers and sisters in the priesthood have been waiting patiently for you, for we have need of your skills and abilities in the work that we share.  The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.  Today you recommit yourself to our shared labor and there is much labor to be done.  We celebrate your accomplishment, rejoice with you in the successful completion of your journey, and welcome you to the sacred work you now begin.

The imagination of our hearts (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 21, 2014)

Christmas is a season of the imagination. We say that Christmas is for children. Maybe that’s because their imaginations are richer and more active than ours are. Children can still imagine a magic sleigh that flies through the air pulled by eight tiny reindeer (nine, if you count Rudolf). Children can still imagine a white Christmas, even in Las Vegas. Children can still imagine shepherds coming to the manger, three, wise kings traveling over “field and fountain, moor and mountain” to visit the newborn King, and that an angel asked a Jewish peasant girl if she would become the mother of God.

Immediately after the story of the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that God was inviting her to be the mother of “the Son of the Most High”, Mary left Nazareth and went to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth greeted by saying, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you,” Mary responded with the Magnificat.

My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

I especially like the phrase, “He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” Mary herself was no slouch at imagination. She imagined that God would come to help of his people Israel, that God would put down the mighty from their seats and lift up the lowly and meek; that God would fill the hungry with good things but send the rich away with empty bellies.

In one his best known songs, former Beatle John Lennon also invites us to imagine:

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

I like John Lennon, and I used to like the song “Imagine” until I began to think carefully about what Lennon was saying.

I really like the bit about

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
Imagine no possessions…
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

But frankly, I think this song shows Lennon’s lack of imagination. First, he seems to buy into the idea that religion is responsible for all the world’s problems. Now to be perfectly honest, and if we just do a superficial investigation of things, there seems to be some support for that idea. After all, wasn’t religion responsible for the Crusades, the Inquisition, the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, the tension in the Middle East between Muslims and Jews, and the tension in India and Pakistan between Hindus and Muslims?

I don’t think so. I believe in all those instances religion is the excuse for violence, not the reason. The terrible crimes of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and so on, were not committed by nice people who would have lived in peace with their neighbors had they not been religious. They were committed by bad people who would have been responsible for murder and mayhem regardless of what they believed or didn’t believe.

On the whole, religion helps more than it harms. Religion gave us Gandhi and his philosophy of nonviolent resistance to tyranny; it gave us Martin Luther King, Jr., and his inspiring call for people to be evaluated by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Religion gave us Mother Teresa and Albert Schweitzer, and I could go on and on.

John Lennon gave us some great songs, but his world is flat, colorless, one dimensional.

I believe there is a heaven above us, and although I have serious doubts about a hell down below. However, I do believe that our actions have consequences, both here and in eternity.

I think Mary’s song, the Magnificat, beats John Lennon’s “Imagine” hands down in the, well, in the imagination department.

Long before John Lennon, the prophet Mary sang:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek;
He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.

Long before John Lennon, the prophet Isaiah sang,

Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

Long before John Lennon, the prophet Amos sang, “I hate, I despise your feasts, but let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

Why do you suppose that God “scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts”?

Well, what is it that the proud were imagining? Being proud, their imaginations were probably mostly concerned with themselves. Fourth century theologian Augustine of Hippo said that the human heart is curvatus in se, curved in upon itself. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that Augustine was right. We are selfish; we want the world to revolve around us, and we do everything in our power to make that happen.

We imagine more power and money for ourselves. We imagine a world arranged to suit our needs and desires.

So when Mary sang, “God hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,” she wasn’t talking about someone else, she was talking about me… and you, too.

What is that you are imagining this Christmas? Are you imagining a new car, a new house, a bigger bank account? Are you imagining a trip to Tahiti or a cruise to the South Pole? There’s not a thing wrong with any of that, but this Advent I’d like to join the prophet Mary in imagining a very different world.

Imagine a world in which religious militants don’t kill innocent children in their school in Pakistan.

Imagine a world in which police officers are not targeted while carrying out their responsibilities.

Imagine a world in which black mothers and fathers do not have to weep because their children are suddenly and unjustly taken away from them.

Because if we imagine these things, then maybe, with God’s help, we can build a different world, a world that more closely resembles Mary’s song.

I’m not sure, but it’s possible that our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers have put too much emphasis on Mary. I just don’t know. But I do believe that we Protestants have paid too little attention to Mary. Maybe part of the reason we have done that is that she frightens us. Her uncompromising obedience to God is so different from our halfhearted obedience. Her boundless faith is a far cry from our doubts and uncertainties. And most of all, her song about God’s fierce and uncompromising justice troubles us, because we are so reluctant to imagine a world in which the mighty are brought low and the meek and humble are raised up; the poor and hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away with empty bellies. Because we ARE the powerful, and we ARE the rich.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

New lamps for old - J. Barry Vaughn (Dec. 14, 2014)

Do you remember the children’s tale of Aladdin? Wandering the streets of Baghdad, Aladdin heard a street vendor crying out, “New lamps for old! New lamps for old!” Aladdin was mystified and curious; why would the vendor want to exchange something new for something old? Something shiny and clean for something worn out and dented and covered with scratches?


Today’s reading from Isaiah might make us scratch our heads like Aladdin: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to… comfort all who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”


Well, you don’t need an MBA from Harvard to know that there is something wrong with God’s business sense. God sends Isaiah out like an Amway representative, but instead of buying low and selling high, Isaiah is to trade garlands for ashes, gladness for mourning, the “mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”


In other words, new lamps for old.


So, you would think that the people who hear Isaiah’s message would come pouring into the marketplace: the oppressed and brokenhearted, prisoners and those who mourn. Yet, look around you. This is a once in a lifetime, never to be repeated offer, yet very few are taking advantage of it.


God is eager to exchange new lamps for old, divine riches for human poverty, but very few want to accept God’s offer.


But if something is wrong with God’s business sense, something is even more wrong with ours. We clutch at our griefs and sorrows even though God is eager to give us “gladness instead of mourning.”


Irish poet William Butler Yeats coined the phrase, “the rag and bone shop of the heart.” How appropriate is that? When I look at my heart, I see grudges, old hurts, memories of past failures, insults long forgotten by the one who insulted me but which I’ve never forgotten, much less forgiven. What do you see when you look in your heart?


God is ready to exchange new lamps for old, divine treasure for our trash. Yet we hoard petty grievances and old wounds, the real or imagined insults of years long ago.


C.S. Lewis once observed, “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”


“New lamps for old” is the theme of the Christian faith from beginning to end. At a wedding feast at Cana, Jesus took water and made rich, sweet wine. He took lameness and gave back two strong legs. He took blindness and gave back the light of day. And finally, upon the cross, Jesus took death itself and gave back life abundant and everlasting.


Ashes, mourning, faith spirits… God takes our trash and returns treasure; God takes these hard, old hearts of ours and gives them back to us new and improved.


In the words of a favorite Christmas carol:


What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd

I would bring a lamb;

If I were a wise man

I would do my part:

Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.


The heart is all God asks, but the heart is everything. For in it are the ashes of dashed hopes, the grief that must come to every human being, and the spirit that is faint from a thousand disappointments.


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has sent me to proclaim good news to the poor.” God gave Isaiah good news to proclaim to those who taste the ashes of defeat and whose faint spirits struggle to get out of bed in the morning.


In other words, God gave Isaiah good news to proclaim to people just like you and me.


In Advent we anticipate once more the coming among us of this strange God who not only offers us new lamps for old but who chooses to dwell among those who do not have any way of purchasing the merchandise God is offering.


The One who read Isaiah’s words to a synagogue in Nazareth still proclaims good news to the poor whenever the Bible is read, and whenever we share bread and wine in his name, he fills the hungry with good things.



Thursday, December 11, 2014

The skeleton at the party (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 11, 2014. Celebration of marriage equality in Nevada.)

The 2013 film Philomena is the story of an Irish woman’s search for the son she had out of wedlock who then was sold to an American couple by the nuns who ran a home for unwed mothers. After discovering that her son was gay and died of AIDS, Philomena also learns that Sister Hildegard prevented the son and mother from meeting when the young man visited Ireland shortly before his death. When they meet and Philomena asks the nun why she prevented her from meeting her son, Sister Hildegard answers, “You had no one to blame but yourself and your own carnal incontinence. Self-denial and mortification of the flesh… that’s what brings us close to God.”


Self-denial and mortification of the flesh… that has all too often been the Christian church’s attitude toward the kind of love celebrated in the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon from which Michael Dimengo read the first lesson.


One of the most common misunderstandings of religion in general and of the Christian religion, in particular, is that they are concerned with a realm we call “spirit” that is completely separate and apart from the realm of the earthly or material.


It’s easy to see why many Christians believe this when you read Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “Do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh..” But in fact, when Paul uses the words “flesh” and “Spirit”, he means something quite different than what we usually mean when we use those words.


This misunderstanding is not just a slur spread by the enemies of religion; it is a conviction deeply held by a lot of the faithful themselves, including a lot of good Christians who go to church every Sunday.


But if it is true that the spiritual and the physical are completely different realms, then why does the Bible contain the Song of Solomon? This extended poem is frankly – almost embarrassingly - erotic: “I am faint with love. O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me… Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away… let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely… My beloved is mine and I am his…”


Of course, from the time this poem was written to the present day, good faithful religious people have tried to spiritualize it beyond recognition. The rabbis of Israel claimed that it depicted God’s love for b’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel. And the church fathers, following in the footsteps of the rabbis, claimed that it was about the love of Christ for the church.


Beware when people speak well of you and tell you how spiritual you are, because they are usually trying to make you completely irrelevant!


But of course, the rabbis and the church fathers were wrong; the Song of Solomon is a love poem. And to speak of love, one must speak of the flesh; one must speak not only of agape - the love which gives without seeking anything in return; one must not speak only of philos - the love that we have for our family members and friends; one must speak also of eros, or passion.


Plato said that eros was the child of hunger. Anyone who has ever loved another knows that Plato was right. If you have loved another with eros, passion, then you know the hunger for the other’s presence, the other’s eyes and voice, the other’s embrace, the other’s… well, I’m in a pulpit, so I better not finish that sentence!


Until very recently, the church, at best, merely tolerated gay and lesbian people, although there is no doubt that the church has had gay clergy from the very beginning. And although the church has done its best to marginalize women for most of the last 2000 years, I am certain that many of the women who did find ways to lead and serve loved other women.


The church told us that we would be acceptable only if we did to our love for one another what the church did to the Song of Solomon: We had to spiritualize it until it was nothing but a dried up stick. We had to deny that it had an erotic component.


And yet, at the very heart of the Christian faith is a celebration of the physical, of matter, of flesh: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God and the Word became sarx – a Greek word meaning flesh and blood and bone. The Word became flesh and blood and bone and lived among us.


The Christian faith is the most physical, the most fleshy of all religions. In the early church those wishing to be baptized stripped naked, and were anointed all over their bodies with sweet smelling oil before stepping into cold running water. Every Sunday from the first century to the present, Christians have claimed that they eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood when they receive the bread and wine of the eucharist.


To say that someone’s love for another is acceptable only as long as it does not include a physical, an erotic component, is to deny something essential to the Christian faith.


Tonight we are celebrating marriage equality in Nevada. Over the last few years we have witnessed a great sea change. In spite of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, (which should really be called the Denial of Marriage Act) thirty-five states now issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. From the enactment of DOMA in 1996 to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision granting same sex couples in Nevada the right to marry, we have traveled light years, but the price for that journey was too high.


The Song of Solomon says, “Do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready…” It was the AIDS crisis that stirred up and awakened both love and rage.


Writer Andrew Sullivan says, “The radicalism of [AIDS] segued into the radicalism of gays in the military and same-sex marriage…. Once [we] had experienced… the responsibility for life and death for [ourselves] and others [we] … found it impossible to acquiesce in second-class lives. [We] demanded full recognition of [our] service to [our] country, and equal treatment under the law for the relationships [we] had cherished and sustained in the teeth of such terror.” (Love Undetectable, p. 65)


The AIDS crisis gave a voice to the love that once dared not speak its name. No longer voiceless, we refused to be silent when we were told that we could not serve openly and honestly in the service of our country. And then when we were told that the love of gay and lesbian couples was different from and less honorable than the love between a man and a woman, we spoke out again.


But the price was the death of 650,000 men and women. It was AIDS that brought our love out of the closet and empowered us to fight for recognition. And that gives new meaning to these words from the Song of Solomon: “…love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it”


On Dec. 1, I helped lead a candle light vigil for persons living with HIV/AIDS or who had died of AIDS. And that night I sensed that there was a connection between the vigil and the celebration of marriage equality that I was helping Bishop Edwards to plan, a connection that I couldn’t quite articulate.


And then it came to me in the form of a question: Would there have been an AIDS epidemic if the church had embraced gay and lesbian people? Would the AIDS quilt contain 48,000 panels if the church had given its blessing to gay and lesbian relationships? I don’t think so.


Andrew Sullivan also wrote, “Plagues and wars… force people to ask more fundamental questions of who they are and what they want…. Out of cathartic necessity and loss and endurance comes… a desire to turn these things into something constructive… [to] give meaning and dignity to what has happened. Hovering behind the politics of homosexuality in the midst of AIDS and after AIDS is the question of what will actually be purchased from the horror. What exactly … did a third of a million Americans die for? If not their fundamental equality, then what?”


The church’s refusal to accept gays and lesbians and affirm their relationships forced their eros, their passion, underground and into the shadows. Denied healthy channels, passion become pathological, and so the epidemic came.


For me tonight there is a note of sadness and anger in our celebration. It is wonderful that we have marriage equality in Nevada and 34 other states. It is wonderful that the Episcopal Church now allows me to bless and celebrate gay and lesbian relationships.


So thank you… I guess. But I also have to ask the church, “What took you so long? Why are you so late to the party?” 


Why did it take you so long to say to your lesbian daughters and gay sons, “We love you and accept you. We bless your relationships and want to encourage them.” Because for such a very, very long time, that is not what you told us, and it is still not what many, perhaps most, branches of the Christian church are saying.


Some would say that the church withheld its blessing from its gay and lesbian children because of the Bible. They tell us that the Bible condemns homosexuality, and you cannot bless gay and lesbian relationships without undermining the authority of the Bible.


But I don’t find that a very persuasive argument. There are just over 800,000 words in the Bible. The Old Testament contains only 45 words that unambiguously refer to homosexuality. In the New Testament there are only 48 words that refer unambiguously to homosexuality. There are a few words that are ambiguous, so let’s include them. That gives us possibly 51 words in the New Testament that refer to homosexuality.


So if we combine the Old Testament and the New Testament, that gives us 96 words that refer to homosexuality. Ninety-six out of more than 800,000. That means there are at least 799,914 words that don’t say anything about homosexuality, either positive or negative.


Now, it’s a little unfair of me to argue this way. After all, you can’t assume that homosexuality is not an important topic in the Bible just because it has so little to say about homosexuality.


So let’s look at a couple of other things. What did Jesus have to say about homosexuality? Not a thing. What about the Ten Commandments? Nothing there either.


This is not the time or place to go into all the reasons that Christianity gave such extraordinary weight to just 96 words in the Bible, words that were used to justify the condemnation and sometimes the killing of men and women who loved differently.  But I am certain that the world would be a warmer, better, more loving place if the church had read those words in a different light.


I loved a man who was an elder in the Presbyterian church and who was also HIV positive. Scott and I were together for two years. I am certain that his life would have been very different if the church had accepted the way he loved, had offered to bless his relationship with another man. Perhaps he would not have become infected.


I am certain that my life would have been very different if I had gone off to college with the encouragement of my parents to meet a nice young man, settle down, and get married. Perhaps I would not have arrived at my 59th year having spent only two of those years in a loving and intimate relationship with another man.


So by all means, let’s celebrate marriage equality in Nevada and elsewhere. But there is a skeleton at the party or rather 650,000 skeletons, so for me this celebration is tinged with regret and anger.


The most powerful moment in the movie Philomena occurs immediately after Sister Hildegard tells Philomena that what’s important is “self-denial and mortification of the flesh” and that she prevented her from meeting her dying son because of her “carnal incontinence” as a young woman. Philomena looks at Sister Hildegard and says, “I want to tell you something: I forgive you.”


I would like to be able to say to the Christian church, “I forgive you,” but I’m not quite there yet.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Comfort ye, my people (Rick O'Brien, Dec. 7, 2014)

O God, our creator and preserver, we cry out to you along with our brothers and sisters in West Africa, especially Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where so many lives have been lost. We pray that as they continue to live and struggle with the Ebola Virus Disease, you will grant them your grace and mercy that an end to this virus will come soon; and that life and community will be restored. Give us the courage and strength to respond willingly to this great human need. We ask this in the Name of the One who came and gave his life, so that we might live life fully, Jesus, our Lord and Savior. Amen 

Braeden Mannering is a typical 11 years old boy from Delaware.  He enjoys riding his scooter and playing video games with his friends.  But Braeden is unusual in one respect.  "It started off when I saw a man who was homeless," Braeden said. "I couldn't stop thinking about him."  Brae went home, made a brown bag lunch, and brought it to the man.  In so doing, he provided more than just food.  By his simple act of kindness, he offered hope.  There are many people like Braeden in the world, and there are many 11 year olds who do simple acts of kindness like this.

But Braden was not satisfied doing a simple act of kindness.  He wanted to do more.  And he did.

Brae's Brown Bags are brown bags containing a few healthy snacks, water and a message from Braeden, including a list of local services and contact information for people to get further assistance. He often includes food, gloves, and books for children.  Over the past year, Braeden has personally given out over 2,000 of the bags. 

The label on the front of each bag says, Brae’s brown bags to provide hope and nourishment.  This young boy is giving hope to those who have none.  He is an agent of change, he is following Jesus’ instructions to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for those in need.  Braeden understand the message from Isaiah, Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  It may surprise Rusty, by for this verse I prefer the King James version that says Comfort Ye my People.

The season of Advent is a time of waiting, but it is also a time of preparation.  But unlike waiting for the birth of a baby in our family where we would be buying bibs and high chairs and cribs, we are preparing for the arrival of our God incarnate.  What does one do to prepare for such a world-changing gift?  Isaiah tells us that.  Comfort Ye my People.  Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight a highway in the desert, every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill made low. 

Isaiah is telling us that we need to change the world.  We need to remove the artificial barriers we create between ourselves.  Make the crooked straight.  Lift up those trapped in the valleys of life and stop exalting others for no reason because we are ALL of us children of God and Jesus is coming into the world not for some but for all.  Comfort ye my people.  A message to us that we may take comfort from the fact that God will soon be among us, but also a challenge.  A challenge that we should not simply wait for the Lord but WE should be the ones doing the comforting.  Braeden knows this.  This 11 year old boy gets it.  He is comforting the people, with food, love and encouragement.

So how do we build upon this child’s wonderful example?  How do we offer comfort to God’s people?

We do some of this already.  Through our outreach ministries at Epicenter, Christ Church brings comfort to God’s people through our food bank which is on track to provide 1 million pounds of food to the hungry this year.  We comfort by giving clothes to those who need them through Matthew’s closet.  We comfort by housing homeless families through Family Promise and by caring for sick teenagers through the Huntridge teen clinics. 

But these are things we do every day.  And while it is easy to take pride in these accomplishments, for many of us these are things that are done by other people.  Our involvement may be to support these efforts financially or with prayer, but in Advent we are called to take on a more active role in preparing the way of the Lord.

The collect I began with is for our brothers and sisters in Liberia and West Africa.  Bishop Katherine has called upon the entire church to pray for them this second Sunday of Advent.  With Isaiah, pray for comfort and strength for all God’s children; seek out the builder of straight roads and giver of healing balm for all on this difficult journey.  Learn about this crisis, and instead of fear, let your hearts be moved to respond in generosity of spirit and of purse.”

Our sister parish of St Augustine’s is in Maryland county Liberia, right on the border of the Ivory Coast.  Life in Liberia is not what any of us would consider to be easy.  They have faced great challenges from many years of civil war in their country and in their neighboring countries.  The church building itself was literally torn apart as people scavenged the materials to rebuild their own homes which had been devastated by war.  They have none of the comforts that we take for granted, and then came the Ebola crisis.  Our brothers and sisters at St Augustine’s have had far more than their share of trouble, and yet, they are full of the Spirit and they too await the coming of our Lord.  I spoke this week with Father Williams who told me of their joyful Advent service and the anticipation it brings them of the birth of the Christ child.

And so this second Sunday of Advent, I would ask that you follow Isaiah’s instruction and offer comfort to our brothers and sisters in West Africa.  There are several ways to do this.  The first is to pray for them.  Pray that God will alleviate their suffering, and bring about an end to the Ebola disease.  The second is to make straight the highway in the desert, to donate to ERD so that we can help rebuild their churches and their lives.  And just as important, we can offer hope and encouragement.  There is a table in the courtyard where you can write out a Christmas card.  Our brothers and sisters there will likely never meet most of us in person, but they need to know that we love them and care about them.  So fill out a card; let them know that you are praying for them and wish them the joy and love of Christmas.  We will send them all to St Augustine’s so that they will know that we love them and care about them.  From half a world away we will be offering hope and encouragement to brothers and sisters that we have never met.   

Prepare for the coming of the Lord.  And if Isaiah and Brae and I haven’t convinced you this morning, then perhaps this bumper sticker I saw the other day will help.  It said, “Jesus is coming – Look Busy”.