January 27, 2019
The shallow end or the deep end? – J. Barry Vaughn – Annual meeting – Jan. 27, 2019
The gospel of Luke tells us that “Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”
To me the most interesting information in that sentence is that Jesus “was praised by everyone.” I’ve nearly always heard this scene described as Jesus’ first sermon, but plainly it wasn’t if, as Luke says, “a report about him spread throughout all the surrounding country… and [he] was praised by everyone.” Jesus had been teaching in the synagogues in the vicinity of Nazareth, but apparently this was the first time he had taught in Nazareth.
So Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Imagine the scene: The attendant handed Jesus the scroll, and Jesus unrolled it. Jesus would have been standing on a platform called a bema. Synagogues today still have this platform; so do churches. In the center of the bema was a desk or table for unrolling the scrolls. Scrolls were extremely holy and expensive and also unwieldy, so an attendant would have been in charge of taking care of them. He was a cross between a librarian and a security guard. So the scroll first had to find the scroll on which the book of Isaiah was written before he handed it to Jesus. Then Jesus, standing on the bema, unrolled the scroll upon the reading desk and read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free…”
And Luke says that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” There was something about the way that Jesus read the words of Isaiah. It was as though he had written them himself. He read and spoke with a compelling authority. And then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The most interesting word in Jesus’ statement is “today.”
For many of us, today is the place where it is most difficult to live.
It is much easier to live in yesterday. Yesterday things were so much better. Yesterday we were younger; we had more hair; our waistlines were smaller; we had more energy; we may even have had more hope. Yesterday has the golden glow of nostalgia about it.
But as Yogi Berra said, ‘Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.” No, it ain’t, Yogi. No, it ain’t. Nostalgia used to be a lot better. For many of us, everything used to be a lot better. Or at least we think it used to be.
It goes without saying that that accounts for a lot of President Trump’s success. And I do not mean that as a criticism. Politicians on both the left and the right invoke the power of yesterday.
It is especially easy for the Christian church to live in yesterday instead of today. Yesterday Christ Church was full. It was not only full of adults; it was also full of young children, and there was a thriving program for children and youth. The budget was much larger.
Frankly, all of that is true. But we do not live in yesterday; we live in today. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” It is in today that we must proclaim release to the captives, bring good news to the poor, recover of the sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free. We must do that today, and we cannot do it by words alone. We have failed to do it if we only use words. It demands action.
Christ Church was a very different church yesterday because it lived in a different world. Following World War II people began to go to churches and synagogues in great numbers. Look at the cornerstones of some of the large religious buildings in any city, and you will see that they were built in the 1950s and early 60s. Just like this church. But then a great wave of secularization swept through North America and Europe. Church and synagogue attendance dropped off.
Today we live in the ages of the “nones.” The N,O,N,E,S. Young men and women who say that they have no religious affiliation.
The question for us today is not how do we go back to the 1950s and 60s, but how do we minister to the “nones.”
Christ Church made a momentous decision several years ago when it decided to stay on the corner of Maryland Parkway and St. Louis. You could have moved to Henderson or Summerlin, but you chose to stay here. Instead, you facilitated the creation of Grace in-the-desert in Summerlin and Epiphany in Henderson.
Christ Church will not attract the people who go to Epiphany and Grace. Instead, you made the decision to minister to the people Jesus refers to in his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth: the oppressed, the poor, the blind, and the captives. And I think you made the right decision. But you did not make an easy decision.
Regardless of the decision you made several years ago, the only time we have to live and work in is today. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing…” Today, not yesterday.
But your decision to stay here instead of moving to a pleasant suburban community does not mean that we can neglect ministry to children and families, to young people as well as to the elderly. I have said from the beginning of my time as your rector that we must have a robust program of religious education. We cannot wait for families with children to come to us before we create a Sunday school program; we must have the program in place before those families come to us. And I am grateful that you have responded by hiring first Rev. Erin and now Grant and by supporting a Sunday school program.
Although we live and minister in today, we must also honor our past by caring for this physical plant that we have inherited. Frankly, it has been neglected.
There is no conflict between investing money in caring for our physical plant and ministering to the oppressed, the blind, the poor, and captives. This physical plant is the means by which we minister to the needy. Without it we could not do ministry. We must maintain it and provide a safe, clean place for our people to worship and learn, and if we do not do that, then we will soon find ourselves unable to carry out our ministry to the marginalized.
When I interviewed to become your rector I said that there was a “fault line” between outreach and “in reach”. A congregation of this size that is doing an enormous amount of ministry to the poor must also prioritize ministry to its members. Frankly, I think that there has not been a healthy balance between ministry to those on the outside and those on the inside. We need to re-balance the equation by pouring more into caring for our buildings and grounds and into ministering to the congregation that worships and learns here. But I will be saying more about that during the annual meeting that follows this service.
I want to conclude by shifting your attention to something that St. Paul said to the congregation at Corinth. The church at Corinth was notoriously unruly. Paul wrote First Corinthians in response to a series of questions that the Corinthians had written to him, but also to a report he had received from “Chloe’s people.” In chapter one of First Corinthians, Paul wrote, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…”
Frankly, it has not been that long since there were tremendous conflicts at Christ Church. When I talked with Bishop Dan before coming to be your rector, he said that Christ Church had been experiencing Level 4 conflicts. I asked him what that meant, and he said, “Well, Level 5 conflicts are generally terminal!” But I decided to come here anyway!
I am more grateful than I can say that the conflicts we have had since I came here have been manageable. Conflicts are manageable as long as we understand that they are about problems and not about personalities. Problems can be solved, but if parties form around problems then conflicts become much more serious.
St. Paul addressed the conflicts in Corinth by reminding them that they were the body of Christ: “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it…” “Can the foot say, ‘I am not a hand so I do not belong to the body’ or can the eye say, ‘Because I am not an ear, I do not belong to the body.’”
We have to remember that we are the body of Christ, and that we need each other.
The problem in our country today is that our conflicts have become tribal. Instead of focusing on problems to solve, our conflicts have become battles between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, Anglo and Latino, white versus black versus brown and so on.
And often that has spilled over into our churches. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the U.S. crossed a line when the churches divided over slavery. First the Baptists, and then the Methodists, and then the Presbyterians, and finally the Episcopalians. If the churches, the body of Christ, could not stay united, what hope was there for the country?
And so it is today. The churches of Jesus Christ, his body in the world, must demonstrate to the rest of the country how to solve conflicts and remain united.
Baptist minister, the Rev. Bill Self, tells the story of taking his grandchildren to their swimming lesson. The pool was in a large building, and the noise was deafening.
“Upon further observation, I noticed something unusual. All the noise was coming from the shallow end of the pool. The only sound coming from the deep end was the sound of experienced
swimmers swimming with discipline and confidence. There was no yelling, no crying, no complaining, no evidence of fear or frustration. They were following the instructions of the leader.” (William Self, “Swimming to the deep end of the pool,” Sept 26, 2004)
I think Rev. Self is on to something. I also find that most of the noise comes from the shallow end of the pool. If we are listening to Jesus and following his instructions, then we will be in the deep end.
Rev. Self went on to say, “When we rediscover Jesus Christ, our belief will be strengthened and focused. When the church rediscovers Jesus Christ, the people may come for the show, but they will stay to grow. The only noise we will hear in such a church will be people swimming from the shallow end to the deep end of the pool because they feel safe in deep water.”
May it be so here at Christ Church, Las Vegas. Amen.