Saturday, October 14, 2017

Heaven Is No Place

“Heaven. Heaven. Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t going there. Heaven. Heaven. When I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes and dance all over God’s heaven.”
—“I Got Shoes,” Negro Spiritual

Heaven has for a long, long time been the name of that place where we are headed. The spiritual “I Got Shoes, You Got Shoes,” is a very good example of what heaven means to a people when there seems to be no possibility of life getting much better on this side of the grave. For most of Christian history, the dominant narrative has been that the whole point of Jesus’ death and resurrection was to give us a way to get to heaven when we die. That possibility takes on urgency when things get worse and worse in this life, to the point that we can see little hope for change except to get to a place where the entire game is different.

Matthew’s parable of the Great Banquet[1] is his own adaptation of a story that was circulating in different forms in Early Christianity. You can read a different version in Luke’s gospel and there were others. Matthew has the habit of talking about “the Kingdom of heaven” as opposed to the more primitive form “the Kingdom of God.” So when we hear this or some other story from Matthew and catch the word “heaven,” little wonder that our minds immediately click into what we already imagine heaven to be:  the place where we are going in the next life.

I want to invite you to take a look with me at that. I’m not going to suggest that this is wrong necessarily, but that it obscures something very important, namely that heaven is not a place but a reality, not in the future but now. This may strike you as not necessarily the news, in which case I’d say you are lucky. Or it may land on you as downright bizarre, in which case I’d ask you to stick with it as we open it up.

First of all, where is God? That was the first question in my catechism when I was studying it at the age of 8. The answer was, “God is everywhere.” Think about that. There is no place that God is not. There is no place in the entire universe that God is not, because God is the true life, the source, the very essence of existence itself. As the psalmist says, “Where shall I go then from your Spirit? Where shall I flee from your Presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in hell, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall hold me and your right hand hold me fast.”[2]  Take it further. There is no place inside you that God is not. There is no place on or in your body that God is not. You can get down to the smallest microbe in your intestinal tract and there is God. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “Split a piece of wood and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”[3]

So if heaven is where God is, then heaven is everywhere. And if God cannot be located in one place, neither can heaven. And if heaven is eternal, then it can’t be measured in time. Heaven is no more future than it is past. The eternal is timeless, not infinite time. So is God.
Heaven is everywhere, neither up nor down.
To be sure, these are elementary lessons, but key to understanding what follows. And what follows is that if God is eternally present, the entire question for you and me is how does the presence of God impact us. What difference does God make in this world of space and time?

And that ultimately is the question that Matthew is addressing in his gospel. He does it in a way that is unmistakably clear to his readers. They knew the Biblical story. That story was one in which messengers (the prophets) had repeatedly called Israel to change. By and large the prophetic word had been rejected time and again. So another batch of messengers (Christian disciples) goes out into the world on a mission to announce the Good News. They, too, are rejected and mistreated, in many cases murdered. So Matthew takes these contemporary headlines and tailors the story to fit that situation. It is clear that the King in the parable is God, that the wedding banquet is the feast in honor of the Son (Jesus), and that those who are invited to the banquet encompass all and sundry, the bad, the good, the ugly. Don’t look for the parable to make logical sense in all its parts, because it won’t. Look instead to the point of it.

And the point can be found at the very end in that strange part about the man who shows up without a wedding garment. It makes no sense if we look at it logically. Why should a man who has been randomly rounded up with a bunch of others from the streets even have a wedding garment? And where did all the others get theirs? And so on. Think about the wedding hall as the gathering of a faith community, called church. Everyone reading Matthew in the first century would know that the most common way of speaking about baptism was reflected in the way that at the entrance into the life of Christ every newly baptized person was clothed with a new garment symbolizing how the old life without Christ was gone and the new life in Christ had been put on. As Paul had said it earlier, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” That is the “wedding garment” that Matthew has in mind. And it is not too hard to see that the fate of the poor guy who failed to wear the garment is cast into outer darkness, for that is a metaphor of the Last Judgment. Either you come to the Light or you dwell in Darkness.
Early Christian baptism:  candidates stripped naked, descended into the water,
then donned the new robe symbolizing Resurrection Life.

But don’t be distracted from the point here, which is not to get us to wondering about what happens in the future or to begin pondering whether God is really just and so forth. The point is that this entire project of God is in fact a wedding. It is a joyous occasion. Invitations come from the hand of the King himself who displays an inordinate amount of grace and patience, trying again and again to share the joy with people. So the issue is how do people (we) respond to the invitation?

The answer is pretty simple, although the implications of it are not. The answer is to answer yes: accept the invitation. Then come to the banquet. I don’t know about you, but I get invitations all the time. I never get on my computer that someone isn’t trying to sell me something, attend some event, give to something or someone. 99% of the mail that comes daily is full of invitations to join, contribute, attend, support, and buy. I would do virtually nothing else for half a day on average if I took the time to respond to all of those invitations of various sorts or even investigated what they were all about. Most of them either get the delete button or the trash can. So what is different about this invitation? In a word, unlike all the other invitations that you’ll ever get, the invitation to the wedding feast of God is an invitation to engage in a lifelong process of being changed. Yes, changed. And that already should sound an alarm in our heads, for change is something that on some level nearly no one really wants. Like all forms of life, we prefer to continue doing what we are doing until the cost of doing so exceeds the benefit of doing something different. Like all forms of life, we are busy adapting, accommodating ourselves to the forces that press upon us so that we can survive. Resisting is costly. Changing lifelong patterns is difficult. How many people do you know or have you known in your entire life who have kicked over the traces and actually undergone radical transformation? You have probably known some, but getting past four or five would put you in an exceptional category.

One of the ironies of the Christian Church is that we often, as a global community, specialize in getting people, beginning with our children, to adapt more than we support folks in making radical changes. Indeed, we tend to look with deep suspicion on anyone who is odd, an outlier, a misfit. And the pressure is on full blast to get that person to adapt or else. The way I read and understand the teachings of Jesus is that he was constantly saying that life with God is a great adventure that at many points is diametrically opposed to what human society prescribes. The life of God is a life of unqualified generosity, profligate love, unexpected grace, countless mercies, fathomless forgiveness, infinite welcome, and inclusiveness. The life of God by its very nature demands focus, hard choices, discipline, mindfulness, purposefulness, and accountability. But at its core it is a great party.

So the old spiritual had it right: When I get to heaven, that is when I get to living the life of God, I’m gonna have shoes and I’m gonna dance all over the place. And I’m going have a robe (notice that!) and I’m going to wear it. And I’m going to have a harp and I’m going to play it. And I’m going to be able to fly all over God’s heaven. Oppressed, beaten down, overburdened, abused, you name it: those who first sang that of course looked to a future that was beyond their lives. And you and I know that we can do that as well, because eternal is the love of God who throws the party in the first place. The banquet never ends. But neither does it wait until we die to begin. Those very barefoot slaves singing about having shoes in heaven were in a profound way already there. They were hoping, dreaming, singing even when there couldn’t possibly have been a dry eye among them. And because of that, they and tens of thousands of others have tasted the glory on their very human tongues even before that glory was fully revealed and realized.

That is what living your faith is all about. But it is living it now in the reality that God is no farther from us than the air we breathe. Those early Christians who came up from the waters of baptism, having been stripped naked of all that belonged to their life before Christ, put on the robe of Christ’s resurrection. That resurrection was not only a promise of dwelling in the land of the immortals but a reality that would take careful tending every day, constant renewal and return to the center, an open mind and an open heart, the courage to persevere. But boy was it a joy! Life became a wedding thrown by the Maker of the Universe for every single soul as if that soul were the Prince or Princess of the realm.

And that prince or princess is none other than you.

The Great Banquet at the Son's Wedding:  Lady Wisdom blesses the marriage of Christ and the soul.
Icon in the Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa (Episcopal), San Francisco 

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017


[1] Matthew 22:1-14
[2] Psalm 139:6-9.
[3] Gospel of Thomas, 77b.

Monday, September 18, 2017


Why the big deal about forgiveness?  Matthew in his gospel makes sure that his readers know that in Jesus’ mind and teaching forgiveness was not negotiable.  In short, everybody needs it, and ultimately Abba is willing to give it.  But there is a catch.  In order to get it you have to give it, this forgiveness.  And that’s that.  The only petition in the prayer he taught his disciples that is attached to a condition is “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin again us.” 

"Forgive us our sins as we forgive."

Some years ago, a senior high Sunday school leader opened class one morning by saying something like, “You’ve all heard of the Ten Commandments, right?  Well, ten may be two too many.   Which two would you leave off if you were giving them to the world?”  There ensued a pretty lively discussion in applied moral theology. 

I thought so well of the notion that several years later when I was leading a senior high class, I recycled that question.  Much to my surprise the commandment that got the greatest number of votes for being eliminated was “Thou shalt not covet.”  When I asked at one point what made that one so unpopular, one kid said, “Well, isn’t that what you want people to do?   If you have a new skateboard or pair of shoes, don’t you want people to envy—covet—what you have?”  And so said they all.

What that discussion revealed in no uncertain terms was that beneath the varnish of a Christian morality lies an assumption shared by many, many people who are way beyond chronological adolescence:  that the way to live life is very different from anything that Jesus ever taught about the central reality that he posed as a distinct alternative way of living, a reality that he called the βασιλεια του θεου, the kingdom or reign of God.  It is a kingdom in which the puffed-up self, the inflated ego, the cutthroat competitor, the win-at-all-costs mentality, undergoes a death and resurrection.  The βασιλεια is a kingdom in which there rises to life a new self, as fresh as a newborn baby, grounded in valuing giving over receiving, sharing over accumulating, practicing lavish hospitality, prodigal love, and unmeasured graciousness.  Why?  Because that is what Abba the king of the kingdom loves and does.  And those who belong to Abba take on and live out the qualities of Abba.  This is what Jesus is and does.  His nature and essence is identical with Abba and thus he lives the life of Abba.  He practices open table fellowship with any and all, regardless of their social or moral standing.  He embraces the sick, includes the outcast, heals the helpless, frees the oppressed, and models a life of generosity.  To be sure, Jesus has a hard edge in some ways.  He is not namby-pamby.  He confronts oppressors, takes on authorities, challenges limits, redefines morality, and ultimately pays the price of getting killed by those who experience him as an intolerable threat to the established order.  Still, he boldly crosses boundaries separating male and female, religious traditions, ethnic identities, and even enemies.  He teaches the rich to sell what they have and give to the poor.  It is in the context of all of that show-stopping liberalism that Jesus says, when fielding a question about how many times one must forgive another, in effect, you never stop.  Not after seven or seventeen, or seventy, but so many times you can’t keep count.  In other words you can’t be stingy and forgiving at the same time, not if you are in the βασιλεια. 

Perhaps people in general, and clearly Americans in particular, are fond of finding easier, quicker ways to do almost anything.  Unfortunately, practicing forgiveness does not lend itself to quick and easy 1-2-3 steps.  It literally takes most people a lifetime of practice, and in this case practice does not necessarily make perfect.  We might as well know at the outset that forgiveness is something we’ll never get exactly right.  It might not be very complicated, but it certainly is challenging.  The countervailing force of self-protection is strong, and the energy demanded by the practice of forgiveness is considerable.    You tell me.  How many of you here have somewhere in your life one or more relatives or others that you are not on speaking terms with?  How many of us carry around one or more grudges?  How many people have written you off, cut you off, fired you from their lives, and how many people have you given up on?  If you can honestly say that there is no one in your life that you are at serious odds with, you are most blessed and we could probably use your coaching to great advantage. 

Jan van Hemessen, "Parable of the Unforgiving Servant," ca. 1556
Forgiveness cannot exist in a vacuum.  There is nothing to forgive unless there is a standard, such as a law or an agreement or a commandment, clear or implied, by which an action can be weighed and found faulty.  At that point, whoever is offended has to call the offender to account or the offender must come to realize that he or she has committed an offense and must take responsibility for it.  Then some sort of confession is in order, ideally a real and heartfelt confession, an admission of guilt, an apology, a willingness to make amends for the offense however it is appropriate.  The cycle is not complete until forgiveness is granted and, if appropriate, restitution is made by the offender.  That is how it works—ideally.

But the ideal isn’t always actually realized.  Sometimes the offender won’t budge.  Sometimes apologies are offered but are not sincere.  Sometimes the whole works are fowled up because something like addiction or illness gets in the way and subverts the process of reconciliation.  What then?  Ah!  We cannot say in a one-size-fits-all mode.  Sometimes it takes time, years maybe, decades, even centuries, as we are now experiencing as we slowly come to awareness in this country of the complexities of reconciliation and restitution regarding racism and the yet un-atoned-for sin of slavery in the American past.  Sometimes it means hanging in with openness and hopefulness when everything and everybody says, “Give up and go home.”  On occasion it means confronting hard realities and difficult people with a no-nonsense call to change.  Always it means never relinquishing one’s grip on love as an overarching  theme and practice.  In the βασιλεια one never stops forgiving because it hasn’t worked.  The reason is not that we beat up on ourselves for the fun of it but that Abba never withholds forgiveness except to those who themselves refuse to forgive.

Mochtar Lubis, an Indonesian author, wrote when he was imprisoned during  the 1970’s political struggles with the dictator Sukarno, a novel called “Tiger!” The story is about seven men who work in the forest collecting dammar, a resin.  After killing a deer and eating it, the men discover that they have killed prey being stalked by a tiger.  One of them convinces the others that the tiger has been sent by Allah to punish them for their sins.  Suddenly they are in a fierce battle on two fronts.  Outwardly they are terrified of being killed by the tiger who attacks them one by one, compounding their fear.  Inwardly, they struggle and wrestle with the sins and transgressions that each has committed, fearing to confess and fearing not to.  This pack of men devolves into near savagery, mad with fright.  Ultimately they come to realize that the tiger who prowls around seeking someone to devour is one of two.  The tiger that is harder to confront is the tiger within themselves. 

The tiger within ourselves:  that is the beast that stalks the world, and its den is the human heart.  We could shoot every tiger threatening our peace and security and still find that we were as vulnerable and fragile as ever, were we to carry within us the dead weight of collected wrongs and injustices that we never have forgiven.  And the fiercest tiger of them all is the fanged tormented monster crazed by the things we have never forgiven ourselves for.  Until we accept the grace to forgive ourselves we will not likely forgive much of anyone else.  And if we cannot find the way to forgive those who have sinned against us, we march on through all our days always wanting a place at the table in the βασιλεια, somehow never finding the way in.

Seventy times seven.  Does it seem impossible?  I think Abba means it to be impossible.  It is one of Abba’s ways of quietly beckoning us to give up the fantasy that we can fix ourselves and others.  Generally we turn to Abba when we figure at last that we might just give Abba the chance to do what we cannot possibly do alone.

A sermon based on Matthew 18:21-35

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Jesus, Conflict, and You

It is pretty clear that what we are hearing from Matthew’s gospel today* is directly out of the experience of the Early Church. To begin with, it is quite unlikely that Jesus would ever have used the word εκκλησια or “church” to denote a gathering of disciples.  Moreover, the pattern of conflict management described reflects a stage of institutional life well beyond the itinerant and intensely personal ministry of Jesus.  Anyone who has had much experience in the church in any age must wonder about the reliability of the global statement, “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”  It sounds very much like an institution’s approach to inspiring members to reach agreement.  We know enough from the New Testament about some of the conflicts that tore apart the Early Church that we can readily understand the need to emphasize the desirability and usefulness, not to mention the necessity, of harmony.  “Look what happens when just two of you agree!”  Then there comes a telltale verse that reflects post-resurrection experience for sure:  “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” 

To recognize the probability that what we are hearing is the Early Church’s interpretation and application of Jesus and his teaching is by no means to diminish its value, let alone to negate it.  Indeed it is not just the Early Church but the contemporary Church that must in fact do that all the time.  We might do it well or poorly, but we have little choice but to reckon with who Jesus is and what he means for our particular situation.  Indeed, every age has to a great extent reinvented Jesus to address its own needs and concerns.  Jaroslav Pelikan, a theologian at Yale, wrote a book decades ago called Jesus Through the Centuries, in which he traced exactly that:  how Jesus changed with and for each succeeding age.  Ours is no different. 

I invite you to open up with me the question of what it means to practice the teaching of Jesus in an age of conflict.  I think you will very likely readily agree with me that we are soaked with conflict these days on just about every level. These scriptures today remind us that there is nothing new about living in a world riven with conflict.  The question is not whether our conflicts are the greatest and deepest ever—arguably not.  Nor whether we are getting worse at handling conflicts—I have no firm evidence that we are worse at conflict resolution, although I admit that we seem to be caught in a deep trough at the moment.  The issue is ultimately a spiritual one:  how do we practice, if we do, the teachings of Jesus in facing conflicts?

Alexander Smirnov, Cleansing of the Temple
Jesus himself was not conflict averse.  Folks have a habit of pointing to his celebrated cleansing of the Temple, chasing out the moneychangers and overturning their tables and pens and cash boxes as evidence that Jesus could be on fire with anger and ready to do battle with opponents in a very physical way.  I would argue, true as that may be, Jesus engaged in virtual non-stop controversy from the beginning of his ministry.  He took on the religious authorities of his day.  He sided with the very people whom those authorities considered anathema.  He flouted tradition and law when either got in the way of according human beings decent treatment and hospitality.  He set aside Judaism’s holiest institution, the Sabbath, when its observance meant ignoring human need.  None of this made him popular.  Still less did it make him the exemplar of dodging conflict or the hard choices that have to be made in in the heat of conflict.

How do we square all that with his teaching and practice of the Love of God and neighbor?  I will tell what we don’t do.  First, we don’t continue to romanticize Jesus as “gentle Jesus meek and mild.”  He was anything but.  Second, we don’t fall for the ahistorical nonsense that Jesus was all about making nice to folks that are out to use, abuse, violate, and destroy others.  What we do instead is to look and see why Jesus himself was in the conflicts that he was in.  What was going on?

A number of years ago there was a television commercial built on an image that actually helps to get to the bottom of this question.  The commercial began by showing a scene of a large and busy room in a public space, perhaps a convention hall or shopping mall.  Over to one side was a sizeable platform that was noticeably higher than the floor where crowds were milling about.  As the viewer continued to watch the relatively short commercial, it became clear that in increasing numbers, people were stepping up on that platform until, at the end, the majority of the crowd stood there and not on the lower level.  Then came the voiceover that said something like, “People are moving to…” and the corporate sponsor was named.  What was interesting about this visual was the two levels of the room that existed simultaneously.  And that is the key for me to understanding the conflict at the heart of Jesus’ ministry.  He in effect proclaimed the presence of another level of reality that existed simultaneously with people’s ordinary situations.  The name he gave to that other level was the “Kingdom of God,” ‘η βασιλεια του θεου [hay  bah-see-lay-ah too the-oo].  In Matthew’s gospel, the phrase is often “the Kingdom of Heaven” instead of “the Kingdom of God,” but it is the same thing.  What it is not about is the afterlife.  It is rather the appearance of an entirely different reality that has manifested itself right in the middle of the ordinary world of human affairs. 

And this is where the conflict begins.  It was clearly the purpose of Jesus not only to announce the fact, the reality, of the Kingdom, but to invite people into it.  Hence he continues to tell parables that illustrate how differently the Kingdom operates from the ordinary world, how its values are in many ways counter to the values that the world generally honors.  Not only that, but Jesus himself modeled what life in the Kingdom looks like.  He lived according to the standards and values of the βασιλεια.  In so doing, he engaged in personal combat with the powers that run the “ordinary” world and showed in his life, his teaching, and death how clashes with that world are inevitable. 

The world is not a region that is somewhere outside ourselves. It is very much a part of us.  The way human beings develop can be thought of as having two selves—a self that learns to adapt to what people expect, to protect itself against whatever threatens it, and to control its environment to its advantage.  But in the very depth of the human heart is the potential for being and living differently. Normally the first half of life is about establishing the first of those selves—establishing ourselves in work, relationships, family, and so on.  The second half of life is about discovering the limitations of all those things  and learning little by little how to let go of all that stuff that we have been giving our lives to and to live instead in tune with a deeper reality.  Bingo.  That is the process of mounting the platform and taking a stand outside the movement of the crowd.  In Jesus’ terms, it is living life in the βασιλεια.  In my vocabulary, it is learning how to live the Resurrection, how to be in touch with one’s own soul, and how to live in a way that increasingly sees oneself as a part of an endless web of connection that embraces the entire universe.  It has something to do with everything we are, everything we decide, and everything we do.  But it is not just “different” from the false self sucking energy from our own inflated egos.  The βασιλεια is qualitatively distinct.  To describe it in terms of Jesus’ own life, the βασιλεια is a life of forgiveness, of caring, of the eradication of barriers between human beings, between the human community and God, and between the human being and the rest of creation.  In a word the βασιλεια is about healing.  It gets its only power form pure love, and that love is so strong that it drives away sickness and ultimately proves itself stronger even than death.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God:  that is the fundamental truth at the center of the βασιλεια.

Now you can see how it is that the βασιλεια is not about life in some other world somewhere else, but the power that is at work undoing the very things that make the false self false and the world a mess.  It is possible, though not necessary, to call the powers that run the false self and its world the devil or evil.  Paul, in a choice that has caused untold problems, referred to the same reality as σαρξ or “the flesh.”  Well, it is not the body that is the problem, but the energy that runs the world that exists outside the βασιλεια. 
Christ whipped, displayed at the 2015 Biennale, Vatican Pavilion

Now we are in a position to see what all this has to do not only with the inevitability of conflict, but also how to handle it.  It cannot all be reduced to a flat set of rules.  Always do this or never do that.  But there are some principles, and here are some of the key principles:

1.     Have some guiding principles and know what they are.
2.     The main guiding principle is to be in relationship and know how to tend to relationships.  We can’t get anywhere when we simply dis and dismiss each other.
3.     Practice putting ego aside.  Learn to listen not to argue or to agree but to understand.
4.     Speak the truth. 
5.     Realize that where a person or a people are today is not necessarily where they will be tomorrow.  Allow for the possibility of shifts and changes.
6.     If you allow for shifts and changes, make sure you keep some space to shift and change yourself.
7.     Breathe.
8.     Smile.
9.     Remember that the most important phrase for stating an opinion is, “It seems to me that…”
10.  Practice forgiveness.

I am not sure what Jesus might have meant when he said that when two or three are gathered together in his name, he would be there in the midst of them.  But I think I know.  I believe that if we intentionally live in the βασιλεια, we will find that the power of Christ is palpably present.  It is not theoretical, but real.  And if I am wrong, I think it is just fine to be wrong if it means that I actually am, and you actually are, making the world a better, safer, more loving place just by moving to the higher level, whether anyone understands it or approves or not.

*A sermon based on Matthew 18:15-20

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017