Saturday, January 14, 2017

Late in the Day

Sermon on the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, and before the Inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

John 1:29-42

This is one of those Sundays when several quite important things come into conjunction. We are in the middle of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday celebration. We are days away from the most controversial Presidential inauguration that I can remember in seventy years. We are a week into the season of Epiphany. And you might add, the weather is not so hot.

My question, and I invite you to ask it with me, is what in the scriptures today sits closest to where we are living at the present moment.

I am struck by the story in which two disciples of John the Baptizer shift their attachment to Jesus. The gospel writer makes clear that they have John’s unqualified support, for he himself recognizes Jesus to be the long-awaited one who “baptizes with holy spirit.” He is unique enough for John to call him “the Lamb of God.” So there is not a dynamic of competition or disloyalty here. Interestingly, it is not Jesus who first calls these disciples, as the first three gospels tell us he did. Rather, they begin to follow him unbidden. They literally follow him, tagging along to find out where he is staying. Presumably they share the notion that when they find out where his lodging is they will perhaps have a conversation with him, or apply to be his students.

There is something charming about Jesus turning around and asking these two what they are looking for. They ask him where is is staying. And that’s all he needs. “Come and see.”  He invites them in. We are not told where—that is not important—but we are told when. It is late in the day, the tenth hour, 4 PM. That suggests that a transition is about to take place. Ironically, as we shall see in later chapters of the Fourth Gospel, they have found the Light. And they find the Light at just about the time darkness was to befall them.

late in the day

There. That is the place that the gospel seems to me to sit closest to us. First, it tells us of a shift in attachments, a transfer of loyalty from one authority to another. Second, late in the game these disciples discover something amazing: the true messiah.

A good deal of discussion, debate, argument, even out-and-out conflict has taken place in the Church—and not just the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion—over the last several decades around the question of authority. People have debated the authority of the Bible and debated about what is even meant by its authority. Everybody caught up in the argument has assumed that Jesus was on their side and that they were on his. That’s always the way it is. To be honest, Jesus himself is subject to so much interpretation and spin that it is almost impossible to say exactly what he stands for. And yet, at bottom, we know. He was a radical. The very trouble he got into which ultimately led to his murder was consorting with those who were outside the approved circles. Having open table fellowship with those outside the law, reaching out to social and political outcasts, breaking religious regulations, conversing with people one was not supposed even to pay attention to: all of these are things that Jesus is reported on good authority to have done and encouraged.

Yet, on the other hand, he was steadfastly disappointing to those who looked for political solutions to political problems. He refused to be co-opted by movements, like the Zealots, who were interested in fighting. He consistently held out the ideal of the Kingdom of God, which he said clearly was not co-terminus with any of the kingdoms of this world. He even said outrageous things that virtually no one believes either prudent or possible, such as “love your enemies.” The things he said about money drive even the most lukewarm capitalists crazy. So the Jesus that we actually could know from the gospels is hardly the Jesus that we really want to follow. Instead, the Church has fashioned Jesus into its own idea of Messiah, and essentially made the gospel about getting into heaven when we die, a topic that Jesus seems barely to have been interested in.

So what might happen were we to begin following Jesus with the idea of actually becoming disciples of his? I don’t, by the way, discount the fact that many of you are doing your best to do just that. I also know that the only way I’ve found to do it is to be constantly seeking the truth, assiduously asking questions, examining my heart and soul daily, being bold about accepting the uncomfortable truth of my real attachments, and above all being open to the possibility of change. Not that I do it well, mind you. Nor am I some kind of expert. I just know that settling into what I already embrace and calling it “Jesus” or “God’s will” is a delusion. What might it be like if we were to make a daily habit of taking his question seriously: “what are you looking for?” That might be a good place to start. And we might reply with a question like these two disciples: “where are you….?” The questions themselves might be far more important than particular answers.

That’s what I mean by shifting allegiance, shifting to another authority. It is endless work and requires some effort on our part. Now don’t confuse that with the issue of whether of not God loves you. You won’t get it right most of the time, and you’ll also find that living the gospel is hit-or-miss at best. And God’s love, thank God, is not predicated on whether you do or don’t get it right. Make a short list of stuff you don’t have to worry about and put first on that list, “whether or not God loves me.” That’s settled.

But then there’s the second thing we learn, and that is that these disciples become convinced fairly quickly that whom they have found is indeed the Messiah. Go back to the fact that it is late in the day. Symbolically, that lateness is what we are all up against, even the young among us. Frankly, as one of our Advent hymns puts it, there are signs of ending all around us. Climate change, economic upheavals, wars and rumors of wars, and now an incontestable wave of reaction and repression that appears to be sweeping much of the planet: these things together create a sense of urgency. They also create a kind of panic in which people are known to lose their heads and begin following false prophets and fake messiahs. There is nothing new about this, one of the reasons why it is so disturbing.

We do not have to follow suite. We have an alternative: to follow Jesus. And here is where I think that both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Donald Trump have something to teach us. I cannot imagine two historical figures much farther apart than these two. And I think that each of them would likely agree. Dr. King’s dedication to non-violence; his witness to inclusion; his courage in taking on the powers of evil; his steadfast casting of the movement towards greater human rights as a matter of getting on the side of divine justice: all of these things give us a model of what it means to proclaim the dawning of a real messianic age. And don’t forget that his life ended as those of many prophets and apostles: in death. The life of God, while full of joy and ecstasy, is not the proverbial Sunday school picnic.

And Mr. Trump teaches us some lessons as well. You read the news as well as I, and I don’t think I have to spend sermon time belaboring the obvious. But I’ll tell you what I have learned from his political ascendancy: how easy it is to fool people into thinking that whatever affirms their prejudices is in fact the truth. Now you might say that I am not being fair, and I won’t argue that I am. I’ll only tell you that my understanding of the gospel of Christ leads me to the conclusion that anything that oppresses the poor and weak is the opposite of the radical welcome of God. Anything that exploits and demeans the natural world is incompatible with the Creator’s purposes. Any deliberate attempts to sow dissension and division are contrary to God’s call for honest peace and reconciliation. Any effort to advance oneself and one’s own interests at the expense of communal integrity is at best suspect, if not downright counter to all that the gospel demands of us. How to respond? I choose not to react, or at least to keep my reactions in check. But I will not keep silent in the face of injustice and falsehood. And I call you to examine your conscience and to remember your baptism, in which you are called, as am I, to repent and return to the true Messiah when we find ourselves colluding with the forces of darkness and hate. Striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being is a commitment that lies at the core of Christian life, and I refuse to go back on it. As the song says, “No turning back, no turning back.”

So there you have it. I have worked Martin Luther King and the President-elect into the sermon. But notice that this is not about King or Trump or somebody else. It really is about Christ. And that means it is about you and me. Those two disciples only had a couple of hours of daylight. No one knows or ever will know what exactly transpired between them and Jesus. But it is certain that Andrew was moved to go find his brother and introduce him to Jesus. And we see that same energy motivating other disciples in this gospel. In the gathering darkness, they have chosen the Light. Names change and identities are recast.

It is late in the day. Darkness is arriving, as it has a habit of doing. But remember what we have been celebrating now for well over a month, and many of us for a long, long time. The True Light that enlightens everyone has come into the world. You have a choice. Either succumb to the darkness or follow the Light which cannot be put out. The choice may be obvious, but it is not easy. Still, you will find when you ask, “Where are you?” you will hear a voice saying, ”Come and see.” That is your cue to follow where he leads.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Is that all?

“You got any great plans for New Year’s?” asked a very pleasant clerk in a store yesterday.

“Well, actually, no.” I neglected to say that we were going to a party tonight (not exactly a New Year’s party, but anything on New Year’s Eve must be that de facto. And I didn’t mention that we’d be at a New Year’s Day brunch tomorrow. So I guess I was the bearer of faux news or something.)

“Really?” asked she, a bit stunned.

“To tell the truth, I’m not all that great a fan of New Year’s Day. It has always seemed to me to be artificial. It’s a day like any other. A new year begins for me at my birthday. That’s how I count time, and my birthday is nearly half a year away from January 1.  I'm going to be as happy January 2 as I am today.

“Well, I see your point.”

I realized that I was beginning to sound like a curmudgeon, a profile I don’t intend to adopt. So I softened.

“I think it’s fine to celebrate. We probably need more occasions to celebrate.”

“I hope it snows. Really snows big.”

“Well, that would mean shoveling. I used to like snow. Then I reached the point when I’d shoveled enough of it. Now all I can think about when it snows is California.”

“My brother didn’t come shovel me out the last time it snowed a lot.”
what a really big snow looks like in our neighborhood

I looked out the window where two streets came together and crossed a third. “Look. I think it is going to snow on Kenyon Street. Those clouds! But Park Road will be spared. The sun is shining.”

“Well I’ll be.”

“So looks as if you’ll have a fifty per cent chance of a happy New Year.”

She handed me my receipt. “Would you mind holding the door for that gentleman?” I turned. He was in a wheelchair hunched over.

“I’d be delighted to.” I opened the door. “Hi!” He smiled and spoke, either the victim of a stroke or maybe some degenerative disease.

“Happy New Year.”

I walked on.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

Saturday, December 17, 2016

O the Poetry of Longing

One day at a time, the post below will grow from December 17 through December 24, 2016. These poems are based on the Great O Antiphons, traditionally sung on the Magnificat, the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) each day of the last week in Advent at Evening Prayer, beginning with December 17. The version of the Great O's is that of Howard Galley in The Prayer Book Office (New York:  The Seabury Press, 1980), 131-132.

O Sapientia          (December 17)

O Wisdom, you came forth form the mouth of the Most High, and reach from one end of the earth to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

knaves rule the world
make sport of fools
for their own gain
dull and worried minds

hearts shut to mystery
pine privately for
a return of soul
quenching a thirst
for meaning

heads cast down
bracing against coming winter
could be in prayer
words drop as lifeless
as curling leaves
swept along gutters

o wisdom come
bring some truth
to a disordered world
strangled by much order
of a dark kind

teach us balance
and the insight
of losing balance
and falling in love
with the foolishness
that believes in us
when we forget how

O Adonai           (December 18)

O Adonai, and Leader of the house of Israel, you appeared in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gave him the Law on Sinai:  Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

wandering across brown hills
where grass is scarce
and water a miracle
pastor alone with no one
to talk to among the mostly
silent flock came he
well beyond his own
accustomed desert

sometimes a fire surprises

not the burning but
what is not burnt
arrests the casual
at their tasks
beckons the eyes
examine more closely
what is

ordinary ground
meets ground of being
more than wandering
minds might imagine

obvious questions
et cetera
frame the human mind

you’d think answers
never come on schedule
and you’d be right
yet not exactly right

when arrives the moment
for fire to speak
its riddles spark
clear and present mystery


enough for all eternity
to turn aside
and see for itself
through cloud the majesty
of what the universe
and every conscious
being wants to say
of itself on its
ordinary ground
simply me
no more no less

we cannot voice the
holy words and so
say o adonai
o good lord
stretch out your arm
and make it happen

O Radix Jesse                 (December 19)

O Root of Jesse, you stand as an ensign to the people; before you kings will shut their mouths, and nations bow in worship:  Come and deliver us, and tarry not.

somewhere i have known
an old stump uprooted
taken out of context
left to dry of all hope
good for nothing
with only a past
too commonplace to make
a body notice and yet
somebody did notice

an artist came that way
and pausing in the corner
of the field piled high
with bulldozed roots
visually sorted wood from wood
and chose one old stump
from which he planned
a future bowl

tools and time
patience as well
produced a vessel out of
what had already lived
and died a lifetime
giving shade and seed
oxygen perhaps to the very
owner of the field whose
machines at last sawed
it down thanklessly

turned sanded polished
a caring soul gave it
life again renewed its use
to more than rot
returned to earth

so was the stump called
by jesse’s name
recalled from worthlessness
to royal purpose once

o come again from old
and withered loins
as you once sprang
a son of david son of jesse
give again
life to what nobody
values any more
poor toothless beggars
whores and addicts
dismissed from pretty
places and unwelcome
among the holy crowd
o shoot shot from jesse
make of such dead wood
vessels full of grace

potentates and presidents
pontifexes too
have nothing much to say
but hear the falling axe
laid to the roots
of fruitless trees
and tremble while
old abandoned stumps
migrate from oblivion
assuming the shape of

O Clavis David               (December 20)

O Key of David, and Scepter of the house of Israel, you open and no one can shut, you shut and no one can open:  Come and bring the captives out of the prison house, those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

ancient doors appear
in dreams as objects
best known beneath
reason’s edge
silent messengers
from the world of soul
coyly winking at me
saying nothing
i can grasp and parse

heavy old doors
dividing the safe
from the frightening
sometimes closed
with massive locks
sometimes in the act
of being shut by some
unknown hand belonging
to a specter i know
better than to trust
even in a dream

among interior rooms
stored far away
from daily rounds
spots too tender
ever to be touched
lest pain cascade
thoroughly wrecking
entire constructions
of the sanitized self
from their tomb plea
disturbing the peace

you hold the key
you are the key
you fit the lock
fashioned to keep you
in another tomb
far removed from
this collection
of wailing zombies
patched together
from leftover shame
and threadbare fear

o key long lost to me
come free all
within me captive
barred from light
lead the tattered mob
despised rejected
bring these dishonored
dead to life
raise them like
the corpse of lazarus
who had no help
but god himself

o come o key
and open me

O Oriens                (December 21)

O Dayspring, Brightness of the Light Eternal, and Son of Righteousness:  Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

darkness deepens
i do not run from it
nor wish it too quickly
dispelled but draw
the shades tighter
close my eyes
to all the dancing
images distracting
seducing my fickle
mind and restless soul
i want dark in which
to burrow looking
to spend winter
quite apart from
charms and such

embrace night for
all its worth rejoice
in darkness as it
thickens at the solstice
for dark is what
brings out the splendid
light of light
as surely as a jeweler
knows how best to sell
a diamond is to place
its sparkle next to
her blackest velvet
its facets’ impacts doubled 
by what they’re up against

we walked at twilight
a half year from winter’s
onset, the air thick
with new life blossoming
a purplish light beckoned
in the distance so far
away we could not tell
exactly where and what
was burning bright
enough to talk and walk
towards what turned
out to be the doorway
of a church inviting us
to stop our stroll and sit

nightfall the twin of dawn
ushers in sometimes
a heavy quiet we might
borrow and stow away
for mid-december
lest in its dreary cold
we spring too quickly
to rid ourselves of dark

sitting in darkness
and the shadow of death
is not a choice entirely
but a given condition
make the most of it
and bore further in
until the inner eye
grows accustomed to
the underworld for in
the hour most remote
from promised daybreak
appears a ray weak
and tiny as a newborn
in its crib and tinier
still glowing faintly
then rising  as a
burnished orb lighting
creation and waking
tired beings with warmth

it steals in silently
this dayspring does
sneaking up on both
watchers and agnostics
there is no telling
what will turn up
when light at last
returns exposing
all once neatly
packed down for good

o oriens
o original dayspring
o dawn revealing
all and your self in all
just as you cast
your spell to make us
sleep in sabbath hush
shake us awake
lest we grow too fond
of dark and rest
unconscious of
your rising

O Rex Gentium        (December 22)

O King of the nations, and their Desire, you are the cornerstone who makes us both one:  Come and save the creature whom you fashioned from clay.

so you are a king
what kind of a king
are you who foment
trouble kicking up a fuss
in a land that wants
its kings noble and
appropriately handsome
preferably diplomatic

what have you done
what are you doing
what are you talking
about use language
we can comprehend
if you are a king dammit
save yourself and us
act like one and we
know what a king
acts like if you don’t
know just ask

he comes riding on a colt
the foal of an ass
we are embarrassed
he comes so poorly
clad and seems to
enjoy himself despite
his lack of style
he has no form or
comeliness that we
should desire him

my kingdom is not
of this world if it
were my followers
would be fighting
like good soldiers
to keep me from being
handed over and
handed over is what
my kingship is all
about and has been
from the alpha point

i came to bear witness
to the truth not to
make sense out of
the senselessness
everybody calls reason
only the foolish
are wise enough to
take my folly and
ponder it in their
hearts it is they
the foolhardy that
get me

what is truth
that is truth

there was a garden once
in which i walked
shin deep in snow
on a gray january day
shrubs all wrapped
in ice and in the middle
stood he in marble
white as his context
not a stitch on him
save the cloth to
cover his genitals
silently reigning from
his throne and no
one to cheer him
or obey a naked
yet in my shivering
i felt some warmth
arise deep down
in my legs i think
that now i recognize
i started to submit
there snow falling
on us both and say
o come my heart’s
and rule me
i surrender

i knew not the way
of ordinary kings
they belonging to
a world not mine
and knew even less
about a kingship of
one handed over to
ridicule and general
helplessness and fate
like standing nude
for a whole winter
in freezing temperatures
while nations raged
and chose to go to hell
rather than accept
so strange a rule

still he stands
recognizing whom he
fashioned out of mud
in the beginning
our hearts toss
and turn resisting
even our own cry

o desire desire
my heart’s desire
come enter me
and make us both

O Emmanuel        (December 23)

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Salvation:  Come and save us, O Lord our God.

gone is the old magic
spells and tinkling bells
incantations charms
runes and rings
they all used to work
and somehow invaded as
by a swarm of very smart
bees seeking to make
honey out of nettles
the whole race fell
asleep somnambulant
though continuing to produce
at harder labor and
much lower prices needless
things highly prized
and then woke up one
day to find no one could
fix an old broken pot so
lost was ancient
wisdom and women
who made stuff happen

the gods have fled they said
and left us hapless with no
way to figure out much
of anything so now we have
no choice but to pretend
we know what we forgot

and so it was the days
were accomplished when
a defiant king said
hell no he wouldn’t ask
for a sign he didn’t believe
in superstitious hocus
in an age of spelling out
things neat and tidy in
reasonable packages

enough enough enough
already leaders have no
compass but something
brews besides the witches
a young woman is
conceiving what you powers
and principalities cannot
conceive of she will
bear a man child
what all nations need
and yearn for now that
magic and mystery are
confused and in effect
out of commission

gods as familiar as the
nearest neighbors have ceased
to walk in the cool of evening
withdrawn from their
accustomed temples
leaving trees whispering
vacant promises in the
breeze and worlds no way
of keeping peace

at last the sun came
up and in the promised land
the boy appeared who

understood not just
the ancient formulas and
how to mend broken
limbs and hearts of poor
tired people he knew
the secret and how to
publish it and drew
aside the curtain dividing
truth from empty lies
and finally exposed the
most outrageous key
unlocking the big puzzle
it was so simple
no one could believe it
worked a new commandment
that you love as i love

that was it and non-stop
glorias rang through skies
at midnight and alleluias
too and choked back tears
of gladness poured and
freed convicts and freed
slaves laughed and lame
legs leapt and blind eyes
could not believe what
they saw a peaceable land
where gods and animals
bedded down together
and humans took courage

o courage could you not
as well come again and
dwell among your own
who have forgotten what
was wise and simple
the maundy of no greater
love than what bled from
god with us
at last

o emmanuel
your hour has come


© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016