Sunday, January 07, 2018

Power Beyond Words

Cruciform baptism:  marked with the Sign of the Cross

In the Jordan

People have often had a hard time with Jesus’ baptism. That is because they start out with the notion that Jesus is fundamentally unique among human beings.  They call him “sinless” to emphasize that he is one-of-a-kind. So the problem right off the bat is to make some sense of Jesus’ doing something that was totally unnecessary, since they suppose that baptism was for sinners and therefore not for him.  Some have explained that Jesus was baptized to demonstrate how he was so humble.  Others have argued that he needed and wanted to identify with John the Baptist and the old prophetic tradition instead of getting mixed up in some of the other movements of the day, notably the legalism of the Pharisees, the revolutionary politics of the Zealots, the monastic withdrawal of the Essenes, or the reactionary reductionism of the Sadducees. 

What happens if we begin to rethink the baptism of Jesus not in terms of how it does or does not fit our ideas of who and what Jesus is, but in terms of the power of baptism itself?

Start with what baptism is on its simplest level.  It is basically a bath.  And a bath is generally for the purpose of getting clean.  But baths are more.  Baths, including showers, are often relaxing, pleasurable. Sometimes the pleasures of bathing or showering are in fact its primary feature with cleansing almost an afterthought. 

The Baptism of Christ
It is clear from the gospel accounts that John the Baptizer was administering baptism to get people ready for the coming Day of Yahweh.  His message was “the kingdom of God is at hand.” It is unlikely that John taught any highfalutin doctrine of baptism.  It was a bath that signified a need to clean up in preparation for this kingdom-at-hand.  In Luke’s gospel, John explicitly tells what religious leaders, soldiers, tax collectors, and others need to do in order to clean up their acts.  Now, did it make any difference?  We cannot say. We have no records to prove one thing or another about the effect that John’s baptism had on his early audiences.  What we do know is that he had a number of disciples.  We know that Jesus was directly affected by the baptism that he himself experienced because, in Mark’s account, it is the baptism that triggered a descent of the Spirit of God on Jesus in a singular way and that Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness to wrestle with what shape his Messiahship would take.  But you may be sure that no one imagined that John baptized largely for the fun of it.  Nor did he imagine that he was simply giving free baths to the physically dirty.  In other words, baptism was a ritual that had the potential of being life-changing.  Whether it would succeed depended upon the degree to which the baptized would actually live out what baptism promised and provided:  a new life lived with markedly changed motives.

So, long before the Church got ahold of baptism and made it its initiatory rite, the simple baptism by John was a powerful act, powerful enough to change hardened souls, powerful enough to change behavior, powerful enough to change minds, powerful enough therefore to change the world.  That is what good rituals do. If they express real longing and true feeling, they can be mind-blowing in richness.  But even if the person undergoing a ritual is unconscious; even if those leading the ritual have ulterior motives; even if participants are confused or ignorant about the symbolic action involved, rituals can still be amazingly effective, for good or ill. 

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  Years ago a parishioner of mine had a massive heart attack. His condition was grave.  He lay unconscious in ICU for weeks.  Some of his vital signs were strong, but the doctors were not giving us much encouragement that he could survive the damage that had been done. One evening I was in the hospital with his wife, son, and daughter-in-law.  We gathered around Bill’s bed. As we offered the prayers of Compline, the nighttime prayer office, all of us reached out and touched Bill.  We held his hands, rubbed his legs, caressed his forehead, massaged his feet.  We watched the monitor. Every once in awhile it looked as if Bill was responding in some way, but that could well have been wishful thinking on our part, or simple happenstance.  He was unconscious.  Yet here we were, praying, anointing, laying hands all over him.  Would we have done it even if the doctor had walked in minutes beforehand with a pronouncement that nothing more could be done for him?  Of course we would have.  Why? We believed that what we were doing had an effect well beyond what could be rationally understood, at least by the sick man himself.  Did it make any difference?  Who knows?  Bill died a few days later.  What I do know is that I am telling you this story forty years later because that ritual changed me.  I am not even sure how.  But I know that the very action of soothing a dying man made me more human, opened up some channels of sensitivity, taught me more deeply how love translates into prayer and prayer into touch. The Presence of the Holy was there.  We knew it.  We felt it.  We were one with it, just as sure as if we had been able to see the spirit of healing descend on Bill and us in dove-like form.

Susanna Annesley Wesley
It’s relatively easy to make a case for a powerful ritual in such circumstances.  A life-and-death situation suggests something of overwhelming importance.  But let’s take another example. Susanna Annesley, born in 1669, the 25th of 25 children, was married at age 19 to a priest of the Church of England.  She gave birth to 19 children.  Nine died in infancy, four of whom were twins.  A maid accidentally smothered one.  A brilliant woman, Susanna once wrote to her husband that, although she was neither a man nor a minister, she took seriously her responsibility for her children during her husband’s long absences.  She managed to devote an hour of her time to each of her children once a week. Imagine that ritual:  a personal conversation with each of her children.  Did it do any good?  Was anyone changed by the ritual? We cannot say precisely how.  But we do know that two of her children are known to all the world for the way they turned 18th century England upside down.  Their names are John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism.  I doubt that Susanna Wesley ever called what she did with her children a ritual, but that is what it was: a regular, predictable, practice of simple presence and conversation.

Simple rituals have amazing power.
You have rituals too. Some are so ordinary that you take them for granted.  They may include sitting down to a meal each day and offering thanks before you take a bite.  You may have a ritual of kissing the person you love first thing in the morning or the last thing at night.  You might have a routine that is more than a habit but yet something that sustains you, opens you, conveys to you a meaning and purpose that springs from the deepest part of your soul.  Perhaps you have a ritual that you share with your family weekly or annually. You are at a ritual this moment.  For you have taken a place in a ritual community today, one in which you share a meal, say and listen to some prayers, make ritual movements such as bowing or kneeling or stretching out your hands to receive holy things.  Do you understand what you’re doing?  Somewhat, no doubt. I can tell you fancy answers to that question myself, but at the end of the day I cannot explain the power of the Holy Eucharist.  I cannot tell you why sometimes saying words I don’t even need to read from the book will sneak up on me like a thief in the nighttime and steal my breath so that I cannot utter them without my voice cracking or my eyes brimming with tears.  Is it just an illusion?  I think not.  I can honestly say, as you probably can, that well beyond anything I can explain, I have been changed little by little, imperceptibly even to myself, so much so that I can almost no longer think about anything without summoning the phrases that have become like flesh to me: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known.”  “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies.”  “But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”  “That we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.” 

Who knows why Jesus was baptized, except that he was moved to identify with whatever it was that John was saying and doing?  What we do know is that he picked up John’s theme and took it way further than John was able to do before he was thrown into prison and ultimately martyred.  What we know is that long before there were stories circulating about his conception, his birth, or anything else, he stepped out of the shadows and engaged in a profound act of immersing himself in a passionate love of God that manifested in a profound love for all manner of human beings.  His baptism was just the beginning of a God-soaked life. 

And the point of that life, the point of his baptism, was not that he was categorically different from you but that he is the Way that you can become authentically the person you are created to be, just as he was authentically the person he was created to be.  You have been baptized with the same power and our vocation is nothing less than to be as passionately full of God as Jesus was.   

A sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Christ, based on  Mark 1:4-8.

© Frank  Gasque Dunn, 2018.


Sunday, December 17, 2017

Don't Quench the Spirit

“Do not quench the Spirit.” [1 Thessalonians 5:19]

The family Christmas:  never quite perfect, but still important
Far more than any other time of year, the windup to Christmas brings front and center the topic of spirit. Cards, advertisements, TV programming, the constant stream of carols and songs are all calculated to get us into the spirit of the season.
What exactly is the "Spirit of Christmas"?

Exactly what that spirit is, is less than clear.  There are at least four Christmases that are actively in play: the commercial Christmas, the cultural Christmas, the family Christmas, and the religious Christmas.  In broad strokes, each of them has its own idea of what the spirit of Christmas is.  The commercial Christmas is, of course, the spirit of retail.  It gets dressed up as the spirit of generosity and giving.  The cultural Christmas, represented by such staples as “The Nutcracker,” “The Messiah,” and various concerts, programs, and parties, is what I’d call the spirit of cheer.  The family Christmas?  That one is so complicated that I don’t know of a word to characterize what its dominant spirit is, but I’ll take a stab at and call it the spirit of perfection.  Somehow in the context of family more than any other, there is the pressure to have an occasion for solidifying relationships and kinship bonds through such things as returning to one’s roots, sharing meals, decorating houses and exchanging gifts.  The fact that frequently no family Christmas turns out to be absolutely perfect leaves more frustration in its wake than any of the other Christmases.  Finally there is the religious Christmas, the spirit of which is generally one of high emotional intensity with a discernible meditative, reflective component.  
Christmas Eve at Washington National Cathedral 

You can readily see how all four of these Christmases overlap, borrowing imagery and elements from one another.  Rather than rant about how Christmas has been spoiled by secularism and so on, I prefer to look at this planet-wide celebration as a needed annual event on many different levels.  I can think of no better reason to have a worldwide bash than the Coming of the Messiah, however we might understand that advent. 

But there is a downside in all this.  It is possible to quench the spirit.  It is possible to choke it to death.  And if we aren’t sure what the spirit even is, the danger is greater that even though we might not intend to do it, we might in fact stifle it. 

Both the Prophet Isaiah and the Apostle Paul speak directly about the spirit.   And here’s the thing:  the Spirit of Christmas is not a seasonal thing at all.  Nor is it a mood.  Nor is it unique to a day or an event or some conglomeration of activities.  It is in fact the Spirit of God, one name for which is Holy Spirit.  There is no way that we can read, hear, understand, and appropriate the stories of Advent and Christmas without encountering the centrality of the Holy Spirit.  In both the birth narratives, that in Matthew and the other in Luke, it is clear that the action behind the birth of the Messiah is the movement of the Spirit of God. To Mary, the angel Gabriel announces, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”  [Luke 2:35] Likewise in Matthew’s account, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream saying, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” [Matthew 1:20] The net effect of both these stories is the claim that the entire life of Jesus is a documentary of the nature of the Holy Spirit. All the healing, preaching, teaching; all the feeding of multitudes, casting out of evil, crossing of boundaries separating Jew from Gentile, man from woman, outcast from community, poor from rich, child from adult; all the prayer, sacrifice, forgiving of sins:  these are live actions out of the life of Jesus that manifest the Spirit by which he was conceived and through which he was born.

The story in John’s gospel drives home the point even further. John the Baptist identifies himself as a “voice crying in the wilderness,” harking back to a centuries-old prophecy of Isaiah. In this story of the Baptizer answering his questioning visitors about his identity, he says, “I baptize with water.  Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” And later he testifies, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.  I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” [John 1:26-27; 33]  

That is the link between Jesus, the Spirit of Christmas, and you and me.  In a word, Jesus baptizes us with the same Spirit that descends on and is embodied in him.  He is not a categorically different human being who has little relevance to us beyond teaching us what we are not or implicitly lecturing us on what we can never become.  Even less is Jesus’ main purpose is to get us past a formidable entrance exam into a life after death.  As one of the Church Fathers put it, “What he is by nature, we become by grace.”[1] Put simply, Jesus shows us not only what God is like but what the human being fully alive is—and how that human being thinks and behaves.  St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote in the second century that the glory of God was the human being fully alive, and the model and means of that glory is Jesus.  It is precisely the work of the Spirit to be the power unleashed in us enabling us to become the persons we are created to be—fully alive, fully feeling, fully embodied, fully free, fully human, and full of God.

Do not quench the Spirit.  The most available way to quench the Spirit is to make a habit of telling yourself, “I am not.” Or, “I can’t.” Or, “I can’t be.” Or, “I will never be.” We become the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. If we tell ourselves that we are flawed, wicked, evil, and so on, that is exactly what we will become. By the same token, if we make up stuff about ourselves that, however positive, is not true, then we become those lies as well. “I am perfect. I am the best. I am better than you or you or you. I am not accountable to anyone. I can do what I please. I have no responsibility for anyone other than myself.” Those are just a few of the most obvious lies that are just as untrue as a litany of mess about how low-down we are. 

Do not quench the Spirit. The Spirit of God is always the Spirit of charity. God makes it rain on the just and the unjust. 

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in God’s justice
Which is more than liberty.[2]

Scrooge, icon of the cultural Christmas.  "We can't victimize
the poor and claim to be in the side of God."
So much in our world, embodied in our systems and enshrined in our heroes and values, proclaims a very different standard for human beings.  (One might add that there are many voices claiming that God is neither kind nor merciful but fundamentally angry, punitive, and harsh.) We give ourselves broad permission to be stingy, judgmental, bigoted, racist, sexist, and a host of other human-deprecating things. Not so with Jesus, not so with God, and not so with Holy Spirit. We can’t have an unjust society without quenching the Spirit of righteousness. We can’t be intolerant and claim to be followers of Jesus. We can’t victimize the poor, whether on an individual, corporate, or national level, and claim to be on the side of God, who always is on the side of the poor and the oppressed, righting the injustices of the world.

Do not quench the Spirit. One of the things that people often say of Christmas is that it is “for the children.” I used to get nauseated when I heard that, thinking that it amounted to trivializing Christmas, to ignoring the gigantic implications of the Incarnation of the Word made Flesh in Jesus. But I no longer think that. While I don’t agree that Christmas is essentially about toys and candy, I think it is exactly about becoming as children, without which we will never be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Spirit’s work is emptying, letting go, becoming vulnerable, embracing mortality, and living a life of giving oneself away. Choke off the Spirit fast by hoarding, possessing, controlling, denying your humanness, colluding with dehumanization, or giving into the fears that breed all of those things and more. 

Santa visits a children's hospital
A number of years ago I met a man who told me that he really didn’t enjoy Christmas and hadn’t for some time. I asked him why. He told me that he really had had a terribly difficult experience one year when he was asked to play Santa Claus in a children’s hospital. He gladly donned the obligatory red suit and fake beard and went through the wards cheering up the kids. When he asked one little boy on a cancer ward what he wanted for Christmas, the child said, “I know I’m going to die, Santa, and I’d like nothing more than for you to stay with me. Will you?” Well, what do you do with such a request? Of course he would, said Santa. And he did. For more than 24 hours he sat with the child, holding his hand, comforting the parents, on into the night and into the next day until finally the little boy slipped away.  

“I was totally wrung out by that experience,” said the man. “I can’t even begin to celebrate Christmas without having the whole thing come back to me.” Well, it was not up to me to talk the guy into re-thinking what he had done, and it might be that he never ever has gotten over his troubling experience. But to my mind, if there ever was a story that more aptly captured what the Incarnation of the Word is about, I don’t know that story. It might have spoiled Christmas forever for me, too, and it might for you. But somehow joining humanity in its weakness and giving it company and strength seems to be what God does best. It is not by might, nor by the power of will, but simply by the grace of the Spirit that we can ever do such things. And yet it is in those very moments that the Spirit baptizes us with amazing strength and courage.

You don’t have to go looking for opportunities to do something heroic. Just be yourself, without pretense or shame, and the Spirit will find a way to come alive in you as surely as a little seedling will find its way out from under a log until it finds the light. Treat it tenderly.  Do not quench the Spirit.
Treat it tenderly.
A sermon for Advent III, preached at St. Paul's Church Episcopal, Baden, Maryland, December 17, 2017.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017

[1] St. Maximus the Confessor.
[2] Frederick William Faber, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” The Hymnal 1982 (New York:  Church Hymnal Corporation, 1982), 469, 470.