Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Litmus test (Julian Resnick, Kibbutz Tsora, Israel)

I am sure many of you remember the litmus tests we did in high school chemistry. I do not remember much about them except for the fact that the litmus paper changed colour depending on the acidic or basic quality of the material being tested.
The concept of litmus tests in which we use the phrase to describe the quality of something with respect to a certain variable is one which I of course seen and have used over the years. I often talk about my litmus test for my kibbutz, as to whether it is still an intentional community I can be proud of, being the way we care for people in the community who have special needs.
Today is January 27th, seventy years since the liberation of Auschwitz. The web, Facebook and traditional media are full of wonderful stories of those who were freed and the lives they have created, filled with the memories of those who perished in that awful place and who are still remembered both by those who knew them and those who have always missed them as the grandparents they never knew or the great uncles and aunts they should have had, filled with reflections about anti-Semitism around the world today and whether there could ever be another Auschwitz.
I want to use today to talk about something else or rather, somebody else and litmus tests. A few days ago we were shocked here in Israel by the attack on a young person in Jerusalem for one reason and one reason only, he was speaking Arabic. Tommy Chason a young Druze man, a music student in Jerusalem studying piano at the Rubin Academy, until recently a soldier in the IDF, part of a community whose leadership signed the famous "Brit Damim", the Covenant of Blood, with David Ben Gurion in 1950, a self confessed Zionist, was attacked next to the Jerusalem Central Bus Station last week by a group of young men wearing kippot (yarmulkes). He was punched, spat on, kicked and beaten up. His nose was broken.
Let's be clear about a few things. It was irrelevant to include the detail that I did about him being Druze, about him having served in the IDF, a student of music, a Zionist. Even if I had written that he was a Muslim in traditional garb, who belonged to an anti-Zionist organization and had previously been under suspicion for anti-Israel activities, nobody has the right to decide to use violence against anyone for speaking Arabic in Israel.
Just imagine if in, let's say Paris, young Israelis speaking Hebrew, wearing shirts with IDF symbols on them or wearing kippot, were attacked. An outrage we would say. Anti-Semites we would cry out. Invoking the middle of the 20th Century we might ask was it not enough that they murdered us in Auschwitz!! We would be indignant and rightly so.
On this the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz I would like to make it clear: when those young men in Jerusalem attacked Tommy Chason, they were imitating the behaviour of young men in Germany in the 1930s against our people. Their behaviour is a badge of shame for us as Jews and Israelis. Their behaviour not only pains us, it also stains us.
So that we may continue to honour the memory of those of our people murdered all those years ago in Auschwitz, we need today to do what the President of the State of Israel did after the attack, to be unequivocal in our condemnation of racism when we see it. This was racism in its ugliest incarnation. It is despicable, not Jewish and cannot be part of our lives here in Israel. No ifs, buts or understanding that "we have been through so much etc, etc."
Racism is racism is racism.
May we bless their memory by working for a society based on the acknowledgement that each human life has an equal value. This must be our litmus test.  

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Jesus calls us (J. Barry Vaughn, Jan. 25, 2015)

Today’s readings contrast two different responses to God’s call.

In the reading from Mark’s gospel, Jesus addresses two different pairs of fishermen – first, Peter and Andrew, and then, James and John – and says to them: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” And they drop what they are doing and follow Jesus.

Jonah’s response to God is completely different. God said to Jonah, “Get up and go to Nineveh,” and Jonah got up and bought himself a ticket to Tarshish. Nineveh was on the eastern end of Mediterranean, and Tarshish was on the western end. In other words, God told Jonah to go one way, but Jonah ran as hard and fast as he could in the opposite direction.

Which story is more like your life? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been like Jonah more often than I’ve been like Peter and his buddies. More often than not, when God tells me to do this, I do that. When God says, “Jump,” and I dive for cover. When God says, “Put service above self,” and I just keep going my own selfish way.

So what do you suppose made Jonah so reluctant to go to Nineveh?

To understand that we have to know a little history. Nineveh was a city on the east bank of the Tigris river in Assyria. In the 8th century BC, the Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and also went to war with the Southern Kingdom of Judah, although Judah lasted another 200 years or so.

In other words, God was telling Jonah to go and preach to his worst enemies, to proclaim God’s judgment on them. Even worse, Jonah had to give them the chance to repent, to change their ways, and to escape God’s terrible judgment.

The Assyrians had had no mercy on Jonah’s kinsmen and women in the Northern Kingdom, but now Jonah was giving the Ninevites the opportunity to pray to God to be merciful to them.

Imagine the conversation between Jonah and God: “You want me to go where!? To those rascals, those rats?! Do you know what they did to the Northern Kingdom? Imagine what they will do to me when I go and proclaim your message to them! They don’t even speak Hebrew. You mean I’ll have to learn Ninevish to speak to them?!”

And that’s when Jonah bought his ticket to Tarshish.

The book of Jonah has many messages for us.

One is that we cannot confine or constrain God’s mercy and love.  We’re fine when God loves people like us, people who look like us, people who speak our language and have our values.

There’s something in every human heart that makes us just a little suspicious of people who are different from us, whose skin is a different color, who speak a different language, who pray in a different way, who perhaps order their political and economic affairs differently.

I hope you’ve had the opportunity to see the wonderful new film Selma. There’s a great scene in it in which Dr. King is talking to his wife, Coretta. She’s clearly worried about what might happen to him if he continues leading the civil rights movement. And he says, “One day I’ll have a church in a small college town and do some teaching at the college.” That was what Dr. King really wanted to do, but God had other ideas. In Ralph Abernathy’s autobiography he says that Dr. King rode to Selma in the back seat of his car curled up in the fetal position, but when they arrived at the site of the march, King got out of the car and strode to the front of the marchers. I don’t believe that King wanted to go to Selma; he was a reluctant prophet, a reluctant warrior for peace. But he heard God’s call, and he answered it.

During my last year at Yale Divinity School, I had the opportunity to meet Billy Graham. It was a very brief meeting, but I was deeply impressed with him. This was 1982; President Reagan had been president for only two years; the Cold War was entering its last phase.

Graham told the story of his recent visit to the Soviet Union. He had had the opportunity to meet with the Politburo, the men who ran the USSR. And he came back to the US believing that they sincerely sought peace with America.

Was Graham naïve? Perhaps. But what a contrast Billy Graham presents with Jonah! As a young man Graham had preached about the evil of the Soviet system. He had preached about a war between the US and the Soviets as the battle of Armageddon in the book of Revelation. And then he heard God telling him to go to Moscow and speak with the Soviet leadership, to talk to them about God’s message of peace, of spears being turned into pruning hooks, of missiles and tanks being turned into money for agriculture and education and health care.

And what happened? Reagan and Gorbachev met and began to negotiate down their arsenals of nuclear weapons.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying for a minute that Billy Graham ended the Cold War. But isn’t it remarkable that this evangelist, this conservative Christian, heeded God’s call to go to the capital of his greatest enemy and tell them about God’s good news?

So if Billy Graham can go to Moscow, can’t we at least go across town and get to know the people who are different from us? Can’t we make an effort to learn their language and share God’s message with those we do not know?

When we hear and respond to God’s call there’s no telling what might happen. The walls that separate us can fall. Hostile nations can make peace. The lowly can be lifted up and the mighty brought down from their places of power.

God’s message to Jonah was not that different from Jonah’s message to Nineveh: Do you want mercy or judgment? Will you hear and heed God’s message and change your ways or do you want to end up in a dark, cold place, a place as stinky and nasty as a fish’s belly?

But even in that dark, cold place there is hope. It is the message of the Psalmist: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. 11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night," 12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139)

Where can we go from God’s presence? Where can we go that God does not pursue us with mercy and love? Nowhere. There is no place we can go where God is not, no place where God will not hear our prayer and deliver us.

This morning at the 10:45 am service we will be baptizing Oliver Abrao and Madeline Melien. The next part of my sermon is for them, but you are invited to listen, too.

Oliver and Madeline, today you are becoming a part of God’s family, a part of this church.

Throughout your life God will be speaking to you. God is going to summon you many times during your life. God is going to summon you to love him and to love your neighbor. Sometimes God will speak to you in soft and gentle tones, and sometimes God may have to shake the heavens to get your attention.

Sometimes you will be like Peter and the fishermen and you will hear God’s call and follow him. At other times you may be like Jonah and resist God and even run away from God.

There will be times when you will feel just like Jonah did in the belly of the fish. You will find yourself in a cold, dark place. You will wonder where God is. But never forget this: God is with you. There is no place you can go where God cannot find you. There is no prayer you pray that God does not hear.

Today we are giving you several gifts: a candle, a cross, a bottle containing some of the water from the baptismal font. And since this is Las Vegas, we’re giving you a T shirt. But I hasten to add that it does not say, “I was baptized at Christ Church and all I got was this lousy T shirt.”

But the most important gift you are receiving today is the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is a gift that God gives to everyone who is baptized.

The Holy Spirit will help you hear and heed God’s call. The Spirit will bring you comfort and courage even in the darkest and coldest places.

May God bless you and always give you a willing heart to hear Jesus calling and follow him, because if you do, you will have the most marvelous adventures.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Selma (Rabbi Jonathan Miller, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, AL, Jan. 16, 2015)

I shared with the congregation that tonight I was going to share my personal reflections on the movie,
Selma, which Judi and I watched last weekend as part of my sermon.  It was excellent and profoundly
moving for both of us and for everyone in the theater.  I confess that I am a Yankee, but I have lived in Alabama for a quarter of a century.  I raised my children here and made this place my home.  This movie was personal to me and to everyone in this state.  When the rest of the world watches this movie, it is about "them", a long time ago.  For us, in Alabama, the movie is about us and, it is not only about us 50 years ago, but it is about us today.

Before I begin my reflections, let me set a few things straight for the record.  I am a rabbi.  I do not
review movies.  You would not welcome the late film critic, Roger Ebert, were he alive and, well, to offer a spiritual message on this bima and you should not trust my opinion of a film as bearing any authority.   Also, as would be expected, there has been some discussion about the historical accuracy of the events and personalities depicted in the film.  That is fair game.  If we lived someplace else, we wouldn't care very much.  We would judge the movie by how it made us feel and what we experienced watching it.

But we live in Alabama and this ugly time is a permanent stain on the character of our state and region.   Whether Governor Wallace or President Johnson or Sheriff Clark actually said and did what was depicted in the movie matters to us because the story is about us.  But, let me point out the obvious:   this movie was not a documentary.  It was a dramatic retelling of a dramatic turning point in American history that happened 50 years ago in a small and otherwise irrelevant Southern cotton town.   In so doing, it took dramatic license in a compelling way to condense the story of several months of planning and execution into a two‐hour storytelling experience.

For me, this was a personal story.  In March 1965, I was ten years old.  My sister had just turned seven.   We were used to our father, Rabbi Judea Miller leaving home for two weeks to make his way to Mississippi and Louisiana and Alabama to engage in non‐violent desegregation drives to integrate lunch counters and public facilities and register African‐American voters.  He did this in 1963 and 1964.  His congregation in Wichita, Kansas had a bail fund for him.    My father actually spent a night in the Hattiesburg Jail.    He was thrilled to be there because he thought that if he were on the street in Hattiesburg, he would have been killed.    In our town in Wichita, he was involved in racial justice, reconciliation, and fair housing for black people.

He was a marvelous rabbi, but I assume that a fair section of his congregation deeply resented his
activities on behalf of others, especially black folks.  Why on earth should this have been a concern to
this young rabbi from the Bronx, then 33 years old with two children and a stay‐at‐home wife?  "Take
care of the congregation" must have been a buzz about town.  "You don't have to be doing this.  This is not what we pay you for and, with little children, what on earth are we going to do if you get hurt or killed?  Who is going to take care of them?"  I have been involved in congregational life as a son of a rabbi, as a rabbi myself, and as a father of a rabbi, and I know the way congregations think.  Temple Emanu‐El in Wichita, Kansas was so proud of my dad and they were so annoyed with him too.  He had to live with that and it couldn't have been easy.

I remember, vividly, the discussions around the dinner table, and when I lay in bed at night and could hear my parents "discussing" my dad's activities.  Let me put it like this:  they were not whispering.  I
remember my mother's tears and her anger, that my dad was willing to abandon her and us in Wichita, Kansas, far away from any family without any means of financial support.  I remember the yellow brick that was hurled through our living room picture window on 6311 East Tenth Street with the attached note accusing my dad of being a "N" lover.  I know that, more than once, the phone would ring at our home in Wichita with a threatening voice.  "We know where you live and we know how your children walk to school."  I cannot imagine how my mother could have lived with this for two to three years and this was in Wichita, Kansas, not Selma, Alabama.

I also cannot imagine how my father could have stayed away from Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana.   The specter of the acquiescing Christians in Europe just two decades earlier, whose quiet made it possible for the evil people to murder his family, his brothers, and cousins, was more than he could bear.  After such an injustice, he could not be quiet and he could not be still.  So, for me, the dinner scenes in the movie around the Formica table in the King's family kitchen was personal.  Dr. King was just two years older than my dad.  His eldest child was a year younger than me.  That was me at the table and that tension between Martin and Coretta, without the infidelity, was not all that different from the tension between Judea and Anita in those days.  I felt it.  I was aware of it.  It stung.

I was moved by the strength and the dignity, and the anger and the rage, of the black people from the
city of Selma who put their bodies up as collateral for their belief in their own dignity and their fervent hope that their white oppressors could change.  I was moved by the white progressives from the North and the South, let me add, who answered King's call to March in Selma.  I was especially moved by the rabbis and pastors and priests who came to march with Dr. King and the suffering people of Selma.  When I saw them get murdered, which actually happened, I wept for them, and for my dad and for my mom and for me.  It could have been him.  It could have been me.

Living in Alabama means that the conversation has no end for me or for us.  When we first moved here in 1991, my parents came to Birmingham for the first time.  My dad had to make his pilgrimage to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to see the basement where our city's four precious girls, in their pretty white church dresses, were robbed of any future by the hatred of the bombers.  We went to the Church and we walked around Kelly Ingram Park.    There was a silence that I remember.    I shared with my children some of what their grandfather did when I was just a bit older than they were then.  For the first time that I could remember, my mother spoke words of reconciliation.  "Aaron and Alana, Grandpa Judea did what he did so your Mommy and Daddy could live here in Alabama with you."

I called my mother after the movie and I asked her if Dad ever thought of going to Selma to join Dr. King, which would have been his third trip down South.  Her voice changed.  "He wanted to go, but I couldn't let him.    I couldn't do it again."    And that was the end of the conversation in my family, but it is a conversation that really has no end.

The movie, Selma, is really another layer of conversation with history that has no end.    So often, as
Americans or as modern people, we feel that we have to get over the pain of the past.  Painful moments are, well, painful and none of us happily invite pain into our lives.  Too often, this is what we try to do.   We bury our pain.  We walk around it.  We look straight ahead and, maybe, only now and then do we make a sideways or furtive glance into the painful moments that echo in our hearts and souls.  I suppose that is normal and the way it should be most of the time.  Even the day after the apocalypse, life goes on and we wouldn't have it any other way.  So, we move on towards the future, attempting to shed the pain along the way.

But, my friends, the pain is still there.   It must be.   You cannot empty it from your soul the way you
empty the dust from the cuffs of your pants.  The sadness is not only a part of us, it is in us.  We are
more than the pain and the burdens we bear, let me assure you.  We have many parts of happiness and joy too.    But they do not wash away the pain and the burdens and the disappointments.    So we
accumulate both pain and happiness and fill our hearts and souls with these blessings and burdens until we finally die and God takes them all from us.

That is what it is like to live in Alabama, even 50 years after Bloody Sunday, after the voting rights march in Selma over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and along Route 80 to Montgomery.  We move forward and, sometimes, as much as we complain today‐‐and we have a lot to complain about‐‐we have a lot of injustice and cruelty that we, as a society, still have to overcome‐‐we still visit our pain because it is still there.  It will always be there and we can hope to be better.  We can hope to have learned from the pain we carry and, maybe, with the grace of God, we might transform it into a blessing for others.

Now that I am done with my review of Selma, let me share with you my sermon for tonight.
Selma was not only about the rising up of the oppressed black men and women who demanded their
rights, it was also about the transformation of the South.  It was about George Wallace and Sheriff Clark and Albert Lingo and the white State Troopers and the hate filled bullies waving the Confederate Flag on Highway 80, and the poor ignorant white people who wielded their violence against the defiant black people in spasms of hatred and fear.  It was about them too.  We live in the South.  We have seen some of these people and we know that, blessedly, most of them have changed.

This is Shabbat Va‐eira from the Book of Exodus.  The drama begins.  God reveals himself to Moses and tells him to go to Pharaoh and demand that Pharaoh let God's people go.  I assume that you know the story.    Blood‐‐no.    Frogs‐‐no.    Lice‐‐no.    Wild beasts‐‐no.    Cattle disease‐‐no.    Boils‐‐no.    Hail‐‐no.   Locusts‐‐no.  Darkness‐‐no.  Death of the firstborn‐‐get the hell out, you and every one of you.  After every plague, the Torah speaks about Pharaoh's heart.    The text utilizes the verb, hazek, meaning strong—literally, that Pharaoh has strengthened his heart.

To be honest, I find this an odd term.  Usually, we associate the word strong with positive attributes.  A strong heart?  What could be better than that?
But, the strong heart was precisely Pharaoh's undoing and Egypt's undoing.  To be strong in one's heart is usually a good thing unless, of course, we are talking about Pharaoh and Egypt.    Sometimes, it is better to have a soft heart.  Sometimes, it is better to feel the pain that the strong‐hearted impose upon the soft‐hearted.  Sometimes, it is better to have our resolve melt away in a sea of compassion.

Because of his strong‐heartedness, his determination and resolve, Pharaoh could not see the suffering of the Israelite slaves.    Because of his strong‐heartedness, Pharaoh could not feel the anguish of those he hopelessly oppressed.   Because of his strong‐heartedness, Pharaoh could not hear the cries of those who were hurting in their lives.  His heart was too strong to feel the stirrings of compassion that a good leader owes his people.

The story of the Book of Exodus is, ultimately, about bearing witness to the might and the blessings of a gentle heart, of a bending heart.  It is the blessing of compassion which leads to change, which leads to understanding, which leads to tears, which leads to the march of the Israelites through the Sea into the desert and onwards towards the Promised Land.  When we tell that story in Alabama, it is also the story of those who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma 50 years ago.    It is the story of Birmingham.  It is the story of all those whose strong‐heartedness brought about such hatred and pain that 50 years later, none of us could imagine ever going back to that place in time, that sense of Egypt in the South.  It is the story, too, of those who cast away their strength of heart to gain a heart of wisdom, compassion, and love.

So it was then in Egypt.  So it was 50 years ago in Selma.  So it should be in our own lives today.  Be
strong.  Be of good courage.  Gain for yourselves a soft and kind heart.

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A question and a set of keys (J. Barry Vaughn, Jan. 18, 2015)

When Christ Church Episcopal was built on the corner of Maryland Parkway and St. Louis in 1961, Las Vegas was a very different place. The world was a different place. This was a gracious residential neighborhood. I suspect that the church was seldom, if ever, locked.

I know of very few churches today that remain unlocked, and that’s a very sad statement. If any building should remain open and welcome people to wander inside for prayer and meditation or just to sit and rest a while, it is a church.

But I’m a realist and understand the need to balance both the need to welcome the stranger and to practice good stewardship of this wonderful old building.

The result of balancing those twin imperatives is that I carry around a lot of keys, and I know that our sexton Steve Finnegan carries around even more keys.

Today’s gospel reading is about a question and a set of keys.

The question is, “Who do you say that I am?”

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked Peter, and that question still hangs in the air and echoes in our ears, because Jesus didn’t just ask Peter that question, he still asks each of us that question.

Do we see Jesus just as one who saves us from our sins but then leaves us stuck in our complacency? Our do we see him as the Lord of our lives who commands us to follow him into the struggles he is still engaged in here in this time and place?

Do we see him just as one who speaks soothing and kind words to us but does not challenge us to rise up and follow him?

Do we see him as a prophet challenging injustice? Do we see him as a king whose rule over our lives transcends every earthly kingdom? Do we see him as a priest who stands in our midst connecting every part of our lives with the very life of God?

A few years ago the singer Joan Osborne asked the question, “What if God was one of us? … Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home.” Of course, she was right. That’s exactly what the New Testament says, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.”

The Christian faith tells us that Jesus is fully human and also God incarnate. The phrase “God incarnate” means that everything that God is came to reside in a human life.

Jesus’ humanity was no different from our humanity. I believe that the idea of the incarnation also means that God can be present in our lives, too. God can be present in us. God’s light can shine through us. God can use us to build the kingdom.

Several years ago I heard the chief piano tuner for Steinway pianos tell the story of going to Carnegie Hall to tune a piano for the great pianist Arthur Rubenstein. He brought along his young son who had just begun to play the piano. After he had tuned the piano, his little boy asked if he could play it, and his father gave him permission. So he sat down and began to play a simple piece. At that moment, Rubenstein came out of the wings and sat down beside the boy. The child had no idea who Rubenstein was, so he just continued to play. And Rubenstein started to improvise an accompaniment that turned the child’s piece into something extraordinary and beautiful.

That is what can happen when we allow God to work through us, allow God’s light to shine in our lives. Our efforts can be lifted up and made a part of God’s work. Our words can be given wings. Our lives can be transformed with divine energy.

That is what I hope and pray happens at Christ Church – that we will let God live in and through this community, that we will let God’s work be done in us in this time and place.

Then when Peter answered Jesus’ question correctly, Jesus handed him a set of keys: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

Keys have two functions. One function is to lock things up, to keep out the bad guys, to protect what is ours. The other function of keys is to open up, to let people in.

I suspect that we mostly think of the former function of keys, that is, to lock things up and keep people out. However, I’d like us to think mostly of the latter function: to open up and let people in.

I believe that the primary function of this great old church is to be as open as possible, to let people in, to welcome the lost and lonely, the broken and hurting, the hungry and the homeless. And I believe that with all my heart.

Today is the day of our annual meeting, and it is a good day to think about our mission, our purpose. I believe you could chart the story of Christ Church through the years in terms of how we have progressively unlocked our doors and made this place more and more open to all kind of people.

In the 1960s we opened our doors to African Americans and began to evaluate people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

In the 1970s we unlocked the doors of ordination and began to welcome women into the ministries of priest and bishop, offices closed to them for almost 2000 years.

More recently we unlocked the doors of the church and said bienvenido to our Latino sisters and brothers.

And this last year the sacrament of holy matrimony was unlocked and we began to invite our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to have their relationships blessed and honored.

Throughout the year we free people from the burden of hunger when we feed them through our Epicenter and our Amazing Grace dinner. We unlock our doors and welcome the homeless when we host Family Promise.

I believe we are at an important turning point in Christ Church’s history. This year we are in a wonderful place with our finances. We began last year with a big deficit, but we ended the year with a surplus. We begin this year with a balanced budget. It would be tempting to sit back and enjoy being in this comfortable place, but I believe we need to challenge ourselves to do more – to expand our staff and programs, to reach out to the community in new ways…

I want every one of you to unlock your imagination, to free yourselves up to dream and imagine what Christ Church might become over the next year, the next five years, the next ten years, the next fifty to one hundred years. Dream big. Don’t let anyone tell you that your dream is impossible or impractical. Don’t even let me do that, because I might! If you are dreaming a dream that God gave you, then do everything in your power to make it come true, and don’t let anyone or anything stand in your way.

Tomorrow we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King knew how to use the keys that Jesus gave us. His whole life was about unlocking doors, freeing people from the chains that bind them. But he also knew how to dream.

“I have a dream,” Dr. King said, “a dream that the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that my children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

My dream for Christ Church is that we will unlock our doors and welcome all of God’s children – black and white, Anglo and Latino, rich and poor, gay and straight. My dream for Christ Church is that we will be a place where people are freed from the chains of despair and given the wings of hope. My dream for Christ Church is that we will be a place where burdens are lifted and people are made whole.

What is your dream for Christ Church?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The baptism of Jesus (Rick O'Brien, Jan. 11, 2015)

When I took the General Ordination Exams, there was a particular question that I found to be quite relevant, for in my experience, it gets asked a lot.  The question went something like this.  “When asked, a member of your church replied, “The trinity?  For me that means the Father, incomprehensible, the Son, incomprehensible, the whole thing, incomprehensible.  I think it is just something the theologians made up to confuse us.  How can it possibly have any bearing on my daily life?”  Does that resonate with anyone?  I thought that it might.
The trinity is one of the more difficult concepts to grasp as it is unlike anything else we experience on earth.  The idea of one God in three persons, separate but united, is challenging to understand and to explain.  It is no wonder that people feel the church has not done a good job in helping to develop a greater understanding of our triune God.
I find that most people in the church have no trouble with the idea of God the Father as creator of all.   We start with Genesis and the beginning of the creation story. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”.  Here we have God the Father creating the universe and establishing everything in our reality.  This is the first part of the trinity; God the Father who is the creator of all.  The picture of a benevolent God who loves us and created the heavens and the earth resonates with people, especially the paternalistic part.  Everyone understands the concept of a father (even if they do not have one) and it is fairly easy for people of faith to develop a picture in their mind of God in that way.  Describing God as Father allows people to anthropomorphize God and some people tell me they imagine God the Father looking a lot like Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments, or for the younger folks, like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings.
Jesus the Son is also an understandable concept as his coming to earth as one of us, dying for us, and being resurrected is the cornerstone of our common faith.  God the Son took on our mortal form; lived and laughed and cried as we do, and knew what it was like to be one of us from a very personal and intimate perspective.  It is not a stretch for people to develop an idea of Jesus as he clearly took mortal form and walked the earth.  As it says in the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  In him was life and the life was the light of the world.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it”.  The light of the world, the Word that was with God and in fact was God is Jesus.  Jesus was with God at the creation of the world and the light that broke the darkness was Jesus.  The same Jesus who came to earth on Christmas in the most humble manner was with God in the beginning and has always been the light of the world.
Returning to Genesis, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”.  The Hebrew word for wind is Ruach, which translates to Spirit.  The Spirit of God, part of God yet separate from God; and with God the Father and Jesus the Son at the very beginning.  If people can develop a picture of God the Father and God the Son in more or less human form, the Holy Spirit is more difficult as it has no form.  Without that frame of reference, it can be hard to grasp the concept of a living Spirit that surrounds us, lives within us, and can inform all that we do. 
But it is this uniqueness of the Spirit which I believe gives it reverence, and is a tangible reminder that we cannot ever reduce God to the status of being simply one of us.  I have found that we sometimes try to put God in a box; a box that we can open and close when we want to.  If we can understand God by making him just like us, we can put him into that box and in that way we are in control.  We control when we want to experience God and when we don’t.  We can pull the box out on Sunday morning and have our nice experience of God, and put him back in the box when it isn’t convenient for us.  When we want to experience the darkness; when we are doing things that we know are not what God wants.  When we are petty, or cruel or self-indulgent, it is infinitely easier to rationalize these behaviors if we have trapped God in that box so He can’t see us. 
But the Holy Spirit makes that difficult.  If we can’t picture the Holy Spirit like one of us, we can’t put it into that box.  How do you trap a force that surrounds us, moves among us, and in fact is part of our very being? 
And then we have Mark’s Gospel; the story of Jesus’ baptism.  “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Here we see the three aspects of the trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit each demonstrating their uniqueness, yet acting together in concert to fulfill God’s plan on earth.
For just as Jesus received the Holy Spirit that day in the Jordan, so did each of us when we were baptized.  Just as Paul baptized the people at Ephesus, each of us received the Holy Spirit in our own baptism.  That makes it impossible for us to hide from God, no matter how much we may want to.  And it reminds us that our conception of God and Jesus as merely people like us is fundamentally wrong.  We cannot equate ourselves with God and we cannot reduce God simply to the level of one of us.  God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are more than we can comprehend and they cannot be reduced or diminished by us.
That is the message of the Trinity at Jesus’ baptism.  God in all forms is acting in the world, not for Jesus, but for us.  God the Father didn’t need to speak out loud to Jesus, but instead chose to speak so that WE would hear him.  Jesus already has the Holy Spirit, but it comes from heaven to him as a visible sign for US.  God in all forms is acting in the world to remind us of his power and his willingness to love us with all that He is.  So much so that he came to earth as one of us to die for our sins.
Looked at from this perspective, the Trinity becomes a bit easier to understand.  Each aspect of God is unique, yet they work together and each is a gift to us.  While it may be tempting to call it a merely a theological construction, the Trinity is very real.  It was then, is now and will always be; and is a wonderful gift to us all. 

Friday, January 09, 2015

Off the top of my head - We are all French (Jan. 9, 2015)

I imagine that most of you are as disturbed by this week’s events in France as I am. I hope we all remember that on the day after 9/11, Le Monde (the leading French newspaper) proclaimed that “We are all Americans. We are all New Yorkers, just as surely as John F. Kennedy declared himself to be a Berliner in 1962 when he visited Berlin. Indeed, just as in the gravest moments of our own history, how can we not feel profound solidarity with those people, that country, the United States, to whom we are so close and to whom we owe our freedom, and therefore our solidarity?” 

In the wake of the attacks in France, the rallying cry has become, “Je suis Charlie Hebdo,” or “I am Charlie Hebdo.” (Charlie Hebdo is the name of the magazine whose offices and writers were attacked.) My friend Julian Resnick, an Israeli, wrote an essay in which he declared that he, too, was Charlie Hebdo. Julian made the excellent point that he supports toleration for all except the intolerant: “I want to live in a world where we celebrate all identities with one very clear line: the identities we have cannot claim exclusivity, particularly the exclusive right to truth. I cannot live in a world where fundamentalist ideology is supreme. And here lies the crunch for many of us, especially those of us who want a Progressive world. How do we define those identities which are based on exclusivity and focus on not only othering, but also on a plan of action against others which includes getting rid of the other, or subjugating the other?”

I have said before that I believe the Episcopal Church is a big tent church but not an infinite tent church. Similarly, the free and democratic states of the world can and must tolerate a very wide range of opinions, but we must draw the line at opinions that do not tolerate those who differ from them.

 I would also very much like to say that “I am Charlie Hebdo,” because I believe that all of us must declare our support for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, especially when those fundamental human rights are attacked. However, I am a little reticent to declare complete solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

The excuse (NOT the reason) for the attacks was that many Muslims were offended by cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo that ridiculed the Prophet Muhammed.  I have looked at the cartoons and have to agree. Nevertheless, satire, no matter how offensive, can never justify murder. There are limits to freedom of speech, but they are few and far between.

Ironically (and tragically) the French policeman who was killed outside the Charlie Hebdo offices was Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim. The phrase “I am Charlie” has inspired a companion phrase: “I am Ahmed.” One person tweeted, “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed, the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture, and I died defending his right to do so.”

Christians should also remember that our faith has at times given its blessing to violence. Think of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials, not to mention the willingness of Christians (both north and south) to tolerate and excuse the institutionalized violence of American chattel slavery.

What are we to do, then?

First, even if we must use violence against the violent, we must do so with sadness and reluctance. Violence is never good, even though at times it may be necessary.

Second, we must encourage moderate Muslims to speak out, and we can only do that if we recognize that Muslim extremists represent only a small fraction of the Islamic world. Ultimately, extremist Islam can only be defeated from within the Muslim faith. If we demonize all Muslims, then the terrorists have won because that is exactly what they want to achieve. We encourage moderate Islam by reaching out to Muslims, befriending them, and getting to know them.

I want to conclude with the last words of the article Le Monde published on Sept. 12, 2001: “Madness, even under the pretext of despair, is never a force that can regenerate the world. That is why today we are all Americans.”

And it is why today we are all French.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

"Je suis Charlie aussi" by Julian Resnick

A wonderful statement by my friend Julian Resnick of Kibbutz Tsora in Israel responding to the shooting yesterday at the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

I am also Charlie.
Even though I am not a cartoonist and even though the attack was not against a Jewish target and even though the attack was not against an Israeli target, I am the last two, both Jewish (proudly) and Israeli (proudly), it was an attack against another part of my identity, my progressive identity (once again I am proudly progressive).
What are the ways I identify? Is each part of my identity separate and discreet or are they all part of a single identity?
I have multiple identities and so do you, each and every one of you, of us, has multiple identities. I am a man, a father, a husband, a Jew, an Israeli, a Progressive. And many more as well; I am an ex-South African, I am bilingual (almost trilingual, but my Afrikaans is in decline), I am a doubter when it comes to belief in a transcendental authority, I am a believer when it comes to the mystery of life. 
I want to live in a world where we celebrate all identities with one very clear line: the identities we have cannot claim exclusivity, particularly the exclusive right to truth. I cannot live in a world where fundamentalist ideology is supreme.
And here lies the crunch for many of us, especially those of us who want a Progressive world. How do we define those identities which are based on exclusivity and focus on not only othering, but also on a plan of action against others which includes getting rid of the other, or subjugating the other?
My world has place for the Socialist, the Capitalist, the Liberal, the Conservative, the Radical. It does not have place for the Fundamentalist or the Exclusivist.
It is a world where we celebrate multiplicity of truths, we search for accommodation, where we celebrate compromise and diversity. It is therefore extremely complicated and complex. It is not a world of sound bites, of political speeches which create fear and warn us that we have to either destroy or be destroyed. It is a world where solidarity is important. At the same time it is not a pacifist world. It is a world which says "there are things we have to fight for, things we have to defend, that are worth defending". It is not a dreamy world of Peace, Happiness and Flowers. It is a world in which we are sometimes asked to clarify different values which sometimes collide and work out how we create the best possible solution for the greatest number of people.
So as not to be accused of being "airy fairy", with two feet firmly planted in the clouds, it includes Israel as it includes Palestine. It includes synagogues, mosques, temples, shrines and churches and many other places where those who do not worship in traditional manners can explore the meaning of life. 
If I could draw, I would end this short piece with a cartoon honouring not only the people murdered yesterday at Charlie Hebdo, but also a cartoon honouring all those who celebrate diversity, who live with doubts, who help the weak without any thought as to who the weak are.
Take care,

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas (J. Barry Vaughn, Jan. 4, 2015)

Happy new year, everyone! New Year’s day is not on the liturgical calendar, but I want to propose a change to the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church. General Convention will take place in Salt Lake City this summer, and maybe all of us can go up there and petition the Deputies and Bishops to make New Year’s Day the feast day for the city of Las Vegas. It’s what we’re known for all over the world. It may not be a spiritual occasion in Las Vegas, but it’s certainly a time when spirits are used liberally.

We say “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Needless to say, that’s a phrase that covers a multitude of sins, but in a strange way, it may also be a kind of Christian idea.

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” more often than not means that people come here to do things they would rather others did not know about. But it also means that we can put our past behind us; we can look ahead to what is to come. Our history is not necessarily our destiny; we can start all over again, be reborn, and that is certainly a Christian idea.

The prophet Isaiah says, “Do not call to mind the former things, or ponder things of the past.  Behold, I will do something new, now it will spring forth.” (Isaiah 43)

One of my favorite prayers in the Prayer Book says, “Let the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new…”

So how appropriate on this first Sunday of 2015 that we baptize Rylynn Faith Gordon and also welcome our new minister to children and youth, the Rev. Erin Spengeman Hutchison.

Today we are doing a new thing, or rather, we recognize that God is doing a new thing among us. We are also renewing something old. This church has a great history of ministry with children and youth. That ministry has been somewhat dormant for a while, but today we announce our determination to renew our ministry to children and youth, because, my dear sisters and brothers, if we do not pass on our faith to our children, then this church does not have a future.

But I imagine that some of you are wondering, “Why do we need a minister to children and youth when we have so few children and young people?” It’s not a bad question, but I think it is the wrong question. It would be better if we asked, “Why in the world would families with children and young people come here, if we do not have programs for them?” I subscribe to the “if you build it, they will come” school of Christian ministry. We cannot wait until families with children and young people join us and then create programs for them. We have to create those programs before we can attract families with children and young people.

Today’s reading from Jeremiah talks about the new things that God will do for the Israelite exiles in Babylon:

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty.

This priest could do with a little less fatness, but I like everything else Jeremiah has to say. It is a profound vision of how God does new things.

Jeremiah tells us that there is nothing so old that God cannot make it new; there is nothing so decrepit that God cannot repair it; there is no desert so desolate that God cannot make it bloom; none of us are so lost that God cannot bring us home; there is no sorrow so deep that God cannot transform it into joy.

In other words, there is hope. There was hope after the Babylonians invaded Judah, burned Jerusalem and its temple, and took its people into exile. There was hope for the crucified Christ on the cross. And there is hope for us. For beyond exile, there was return and restoration; beyond the cross, there was resurrection. And beyond our difficulties and disappointments, God awaits with joys we cannot imagine.

But there is work for us to do. We must create programs and structures in this church for the people whom God is bringing to us. That is why I have asked Rev. Erin to join our staff. And that is why she and I will be asking you to help us build a Sunday School and youth ministry.

I want to be perfectly honest with you: I met Rev. Erin and decided to hire her after we had put together the budget for 2015, so her salary will add to the bottom line of the budget that our treasurer Vivien Rothwell put together. So if you want to support our ministry to children and young people by adding Rev. Erin to our staff, I hope you’ll give just a little more than you had planned to give to Christ Church this year.

Our children and young people represent hope. The hymn before the gospel reading tells us that Rylynn, the child we baptize today, is a “child of blessing” and a “child of promise.” Every child represents both a blessing and a promise.

Like the magi bringing gifts to the infant Jesus, we, too, have gifts to bring to the children in our midst. To the children and young people in our midst we must bring the gift of religious education, and the even more important gifts of our attention, our support, and our love.

So in this season when old things are being made new and things which were cast down are being raised up, I invite you to renew and raise up our ministry to children and youth, and to invite them to join us and the magi in our pilgrimage, following the star of hope that leads us to Jesus.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Grace upon grace (Rick O'Brien, Dec. 28, 2014)

If you were in church on Christmas morning, you are probably saying to yourself, “wait a minute, didn’t I just hear this gospel reading on Christmas morning?”  No it is not simply a case of déjà vu; you did hear this passage from John.  But unlike television, this is not a mere rerun or simply a way to take it easy on what is traditionally a Low Sunday.  We have four gospel stories, each with its own way of telling us the good news of Jesus Christ.  Over the course of the three year cycle of our lectionary we hear each gospel in its entirety, for there is much to learn from each one.  But the beginning of John’s gospel is so rich, so full of import for our understanding of Jesus, that it is repeated.  Indeed, I could preach on the beginning of John for a full year and still have only scratched the surface of its significance.

I don’t know how other preachers handle their preparation, but I like to read the lessons several times over a number of days and see what words or message resonate with me. Each time I do this, I find some phrase or nuance that I have not noticed before.  Far more than simply a story or a collection of advice, the Bible is a living document; it is God’s message to us that informs how we live our lives.  That is why reading the Bible is a lifelong pursuit, for unlike a Dan Brown novel; it does not have a beginning, middle, and an end.  The words in the Bible are the same, but their meaning is revealed to us in different ways as our lives change and our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with God deepens.

Two phrases caught my attention this week.  John tells us, “He gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”  And Paul echoes this in Galatians when he says “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” 

Children of God.  It is easy to focus on Jesus in the gospel, but we too are included in the Good News.  We call Jesus the son of God, but John reminds us that we too are children of God.  By taking on our mortal form, Jesus the Immanuel makes us God’s children.  As God’s children, we are not slaves or outsiders.  By giving us the gift of Jesus, God has accepted us as his own and this is vividly demonstrated as Jesus assumes our flesh and blood.  For if God becomes one of us then we too become part of God.  As slaves or outsiders we have no right to expect anything from God, but as his children we then may claim the inheritance of a child.  The inheritance of God Immanuel, who rose from the grave to show us that death was defeated and that eternal life with God is our destiny. 

The second phrase that captured my imagination was “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  Grace upon grace.  What a lovely phrase.  But what does it mean?  Grace seems to me to be an absolute term; you either have it or you don’t.  So what could John mean by this phrase?

Many years ago I was in New Orleans for a weeklong conference.  I had never been there before, but had always heard that New Orleans had some of the best restaurants in the country.  I was not disappointed.  The first night there, I had the best meal I had ever eaten in my life.  I remember going back to my room, absolutely full to bursting and thinking “I will never have such a wonderful meal again, that was as good as it gets.”  The next night, as you can probably guess, the food was even better.  It got better each progressive night, and I had to constantly reevaluate my thinking that this was as good as it gets.

Grace upon Grace is something like that.  For grace is not a binary proposition.  It is not a “take it or leave it “proposition.  Grace is like that first meal in New Orleans.  A wonderful experience that exceeded anything I had ever had in the past.  But unlike my thinking that this was as good as it gets, Grace just keeps on getting better.  Grace is not simply enough, it is more than enough.  Grace is an inexhaustible supply of abundance that overflows our ability to experience it.  God’s fullness of grace is more than we can imagine or experience.  It fills us and washes over us in its abundance.

Tying the two images together helps us to understand the concept of Grace upon Grace.  Through the incarnation of Jesus we are children of God.  As children, we are not yet prepared for all of the grace that God has in store for us.  For just as a newborn is not yet ready to dine on Prime Rib, we are not ready from birth to experience all of God’s grace.  As a child must learn to crawl before they can walk, we must learn to comprehend the idea of a relationship with God.  As infants we have a relationship with our parent.  But that relationship changes as we grow and mature.  The same is true of our relationship with God.  And it is only as this relationship grows that we can even begin to appreciate the idea of grace upon grace.

Indeed, as our relationship with God develops, so does our need for Grace.  We need one type of grace in times of abundance and a different type in times of peril.  A prayer of thanksgiving for all of God’s gifts is quite different from the cry for help when one is in need.  Both are calls from a child to a parent, but the response is different based upon the situation.  Grace upon grace assures us that the inexhaustible supply of Grace will be there for us no matter our circumstance or the level of our relationship with God or one another. 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  This Christmas let us remember the coming of the savior, who made us children of God and heirs of his grace upon grace.