Sunday, May 23, 2010

Community Change

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, The Day of Pentecost, May 23, 2010

Text: John 14:8-17; 25-27

Use your imagination. Think of Jesus, gathered with his disciples during his final hours, hearing Philip say, “Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” A silence falls over the room. Jesus looks down, then up. He runs his hands through his hair. He squints. He lifts one hand to his forehead and knocks a couple of times against his head. See his jaw grinding, his lips pucker. Silence thickens. Disciples see his chest rising with a deep internal sigh. He stares at Philip.

“Have I…have I been…” He stops, measuring his words. “Have I been so long a time with you, Philip, and yet you have not known me?” Though exasperated, he contains his frustration. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Or don’t you believe it?—his expression seems to say. “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves.”

His tone changes. Exasperation gives way to excitement. “I tell you the truth. The one that believes in me will do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do even greater works than these because I go to the Father.” He looks around the table at them all. Their eyes meet his. He lowers his voice to little more than a whisper, as if he is telling them the best secret in the world. “I will do whatever you ask in my name.”

Pentecost is one holy day that has been spared bastardization by Hallmark. Don’t expect to see Pentecost cards on sale tomorrow, nor little marshmallow doves stacked up in CVS. I’m glad to be spared such trivialization. But, to be honest, I’m not sure we in the church have done all that much better in our treatment of Pentecost. We’ve sometimes reduced it to a rather cute celebration of the birthday of the Church, a rather dubious idea since it was hardly on Pentecost Day that something recognizable as “church” actually sprang into being. Sometimes we have had fun—I have—with wind and water and fire and doves and the other symbols. In some places, folks assume that Pentecost is about God getting a little whacky and encouraging us to get whacky too with shouting and clapping and tongue-speaking and praise music—not that there is anything wrong with that. But all these things tend to miss something very central. They obscure the fact that Pentecost is about community. It is about the transformation of a community. It is about a transforming community.

There is a deep connection between the scene of Jesus and his disciples, in which he tells them that he and the Father are one, and the story of Pentecost Day when the promised Spirit comes to the disciples. And the connection is this: that the very nature of God is communal, just as the very nature of humanity is communal. John’s gospel is explicit in identifying “indwelling” as a characteristic of God. As far as the Fourth gospel is concerned, God does not nor ever did live alone. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God:” remember? Jesus is that Word become flesh. He makes it explicit that Abba (as he calls “God”) lives in him and he lives in Abba. Abba works through Jesus, speaks through Jesus, empowers Jesus. The gospel makes it equally clear that indwelling does not stop with Abba and Jesus, however. Abba sends the Spirit to live with and in the disciples. Over and over Jesus tells them that the Spirit will enable them to be one, as he and Abba are one. Through the Spirit, he and Abba will come and make their dwelling with the new community. The world will know that the community belongs to Jesus because the community will love like Jesus. “As Abba loves me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another as I have loved you.”

There is no such thing as a Christian alone. We are all communal, first by our very nature, and second by the transforming act of God through the power of God’s Spirit. Yesterday, our vestry—the governing body of the parish—gathered for a retreat day. Emily Barton took us out on St. Alban’s lawn and gave us a group task to do. She whipped together a bungee pole of the sort used for a tent frame. It weighs only a few ounces. Half of the dozen of us lined up facing the other half. Everyone extended index fingers underneath the rod. Our task was to lower it to the ground. Can you believe how hard that is? Our natural inclination was to lift, not lower. We struggled for a few minutes until Linda, our leader, began to coach us. Working together, we managed very, very slowly to lower the pole until we finally got it to the ground. We talked a bit about what made it so difficult. One insight was that it helped to think together, imagining together the downward motion. Another insight was that our natural instincts were to lift if we saw one end sagging. The point was clear: we could only do the job if we very intentionally and sensitively worked together. Being together in community was a start, but not enough. We needed a transformation.

A fellow I know, about 35 years old, tells the story that several years ago he developed a serious problem with arrhythmia—the condition when the heartbeat changes in frequency or in force. For some reason his medication did not work and he was unable to get medical help. He said that his mother commanded him to lie down on the bed next to her. She took him in her arms and held him against her as if he were a small child. After awhile his heart began to beat in sync with hers. His arrhythmia went away. A strange story, perhaps, but one which serves as an image of what it is like when God holds any one of us so close that our very life-beat begins to mimic God’s own. We begin to live first in sync with God, and then more and more in companionship with God, and finally in true union with God. Then we can become not only a transformed community, but a transforming community.

Today we are baptizing Rosa Falee, one of our youngest sisters. Baptism is not about doing something that will make God love Rosa anymore than God already does love her. Nor is it about some future that she will share with God when she leaves this body and this life. It is about Rosa being connected to a community alive with the life of God dancing around our heads like so many flames. It is about Rosa living among us, practicing things like prayer, repentance, proclamation, works of mercy, works of justice. It is, in short, about Rosa being in a community that knows its heartbeat will be irregular unless we stay very close to the God who births us and mothers us and heals and restores us. But Rosa will not have heard the whole message of God or of Jesus if she does not hear that her Christian life does not end with her own transformation, nor indeed her community’s transformation. The Spirit is to the community of Christ what breath is to the body: it empowers the community to do transforming works—believe it or not, even greater works than Jesus did (we have never ever believed that and still don’t). But that is the promise and the call. And do you know what? A people on fire with God’s spirit, staying close to God’s heart, can do wonders. Like bring the planet back from the edge of self-destruction. Like learn to get past racism. Like dismantle nuclear arsenals. Like lay down their lives for their friends, and to love their enemies for God’s sake. Like being kind when it is easier to be nasty, to tell the truth when it is easier to lie, and to believe against all odds that the great God who made us actually lives within us.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2010

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Benediction for a Commencement

May 15, 2010

Now may the One whose Word preceded every beginning
And whose Word will abide after every ending
Be with us and bless us on this day
When so much is coming to a close
And so much more is just about to commence.
Then we shall
Accept the blessings of God who prompts us to great joy
As we celebrate the success that so many have achieved
And smile at the failures that have been so graciously forgiven.

Accept the blessings of God who prompts us to deep sorrow
For those who began the journey with us
and are concluding it elsewhere
For those who began the journey with us
and are still aimlessly without a conclusion
For those who began the journey with us
and whose time on earth ended before their education could.

Accept the blessings of God who prompts us to weep
In tears of gratitude for teachers who believed in us when we doubted ourselves
In tears of thanks for siblings and spouses and sons and daughters
who celebrate with us though they do not understand
what we study
or why
In tears of respect for parents
who sacrificed more than even love could require
who labored so we might learn
who kept vigil so we could rest
who maintained hope so that we would be free from our doubts.

Accept the blessings of God who prompts us to keep our minds and hearts open
So that we can learn about arrogance without being arrogant about learning
So that we can long for peace without feeling that war is the only way to win it
So that we can labor for success without needing others to fail for us to gain it

Therefore, on this day,
May the light of learning that informs our minds
Also infuse our souls
And transform our ways
Then those of us who have studied law
Will establish justice
And those of us who have studied business
Will practice equity
And those of us who have studied science
Will embrace mystery
And those of us who have studied art
Will create energy
And all of us who have been committed to study
Will make a commitment to serve

Until every one of the children in God’s world
Who feels forced to travel in any manner of darkness
Will journey safely and peacefully
Into great light AMEN

William B. Lawrence, Dean
Professor of American Church History
Perkins School of Theology
Southern Methodist University
Dallas, Texas

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Clean Start

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, The Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2010

Text: Acts 11:1-18

At first blush, we might think that hardly anything would be less important to discuss this morning than the matter of clean and unclean foods. Few of us are hung up on what kind of animals are kosher and which are not. A number of you, in fact, are vegetarians or vegans, and have thus presumably dismissed once and for all the question of meat-eating. You might even be viscerally repulsed at even this much talk of animals as food stuffs. (So let’s quickly move on to a comfortable abstraction.)

The story of Peter’s vision, recounted today in Acts, is not really about food, of course. Except that it is. The story is important because it marks the turning point for the acceptance of Gentiles as Christians on a par with Jews as Christians. (That seems odd, doesn’t it?) The problem for the early Church was an inherited division among people according to what they ate, among other things. The story overturns the notion that people are clean and unclean according to whether the foods they eat are clean or unclean. “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” Peter’s vision opens his heart to the possibility that the Holy Spirit can fall on Cornelius the centurion and his household the same way it had fallen upon him and other Jews.

Before jumping to the conclusion that this is a quaint story without much relevance for us, let’s pause to consider the persistent trait of human beings to divide the world into sacred and profane. It certainly is not a tendency solely among ancient Hebrews. People all over the world and from time immemorial have designated places, people, actions, and words “sacred,” and have sought to honor their sacredness by making taboo any careless or disrespectful transgression of the sacred. When I was a child, for example, the Bible in our home, the sacred book, was to have nothing placed on top of it. More seriously, there was a list, however much revised from my grandparents’ list, of things that could not be done on Sunday, the sacred day. The holy name of God and the holy name of Jesus were reserved for serious discourse and prayer. One did not swear with those names nor even use them as exclamations of surprise. Now, lest you think that I am bidding for a return to those ways of respecting the sacred, let me state clearly that my purpose here is only to illustrate how it is that we persist in having a category that we call “sacred”—and along with it comes the notion that to dishonor or obliterate the sacred is to “profane” it, or make it common.

Sacred and profane are a pair of opposites—a polarity—like light and dark, good and evil, comic and tragic, truth and falsehood that, if not inborn in us, are so deeply implanted structures that we seem unable to think in any other way. If, for example, we decide to define everything and everybody as sacred, then nothing is sacred. “Sacred” depends for its existence upon a relationship to the profane, its opposite. Same thing is true for night and day. We can only understand “day” in relation to its opposite, “night.” So if we were to abolish the category of “sacred” and say that everything is “profane,” it would not be profane; it would simply be. For “profane,” like “sacred” depends upon its opposite to have any existence.

The notion of clean and unclean (not just animals!) comes out of this polarity. And my point is that the polarity is not going away. If it does not pop up in one place, it will surface in another. Look, for example, at what happened to the Church of Peter, Paul, Luke, and the rest of the other early Christians. The categories of “clean” and “unclean” within a few short years had been replaced by the categories of “orthodox” and “heretical,” which functioned in much the same way. Some ideas and some people were admissible and good. Other ideas and other people were inadmissible and bad. Even the notion of common table fellowship in the Early Church, which had been the instrument of union among Jews and Gentiles, became the instrument of disunion when Christians started sorting themselves out into “orthodox” and “heretical,” sending each other away from the Table through excommunication.

Now you get the picture. The “clean and unclean” polarity is something that continually dogs the Church. The hot-button issue in our time is not food but sexual orientation. And it is interesting that when our own Kathy Grieb and others sat down to write the Episcopal Church’s response to what the Anglican Communion knows as “the Windsor Report” several years ago, she and they produced a document called “To Set Our Hope on Christ,” grounding much of it in this very story of Peter’s vision. Their point was that in every age God the Holy Spirit reveals that what we have called “profane” or “unclean” is off the mark. We continue to get it wrong by excluding this group or that group. When we listen carefully to discern the leading of the Spirit, we find that frequently we have messed up by failing to imagine that Christ’s saving power is deeper than our poor power to conceive it. And we likewise continue to learn that the Holy Spirit can, in fact, hold us together despite our proclivity for dividing each other into pitched camps of mutual disagreement.

You might get the idea—it would not be the first time someone did—that the upshot of all this is a notion that any distinctions between people are wrong, or that somehow there is no reason to see a difference between “clean” and “unclean,” for example. That is not what we learn from the Jesus of the gospels. It is commonly thought that Jesus treated everybody the same. No, he did not. What he did was to refuse to make distinctions based on age, gender, ethnic origin, or religious pedegree—things like that. But Jesus very clearly expressed in strong terms condemnation of those people who were self-righteous and hypocritical. What Jesus did was to shift the notion of “clean and unclean” from external matters to matters of the heart—attitudes, judgments, and intentions:

He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:18-23)

What do we do with all this? What difference does it make? To become evermore conformed to the pattern of Christ—the process that we call Christian formation—we need to practice careful and thoughtful reflection on what in fact is sacred—clean, and profane—unclean. It is not that these categories have no meaning. It is that we often misapply them and as a result exclude or even demonize persons or whole groups of people. Two or three practices, even more basic than such reflection, are prayer, repentance, and the intelligent study of the Bible. The virtue that we seek to train by doing all this is the virtue of charity, the kind of generosity characterized by a soul open enough to see where we could be wrong and thus how someone different from us might be right, or at least deserving of respect.

Jostein Gaarder’s brilliant novel called Sophie’s World tells the history of Western philosophy in the guise of a mystery tale. I won’t spoil it for you by giving away the plot, but I will tell you that the 15-year-old girl at the center of the story learns how difficult it is to grasp how the human mind works and how easy it is to be prisoners of our own little worlds. As her understanding grows, so does her ability to see how rich and complex the mind is, how intricate the basic questions are. At the same time she begins to understand that the entirety of philosophy is a conversation around one or two basic questions: who am I? what is real? how should we live? It is not so different from the project that St. Stephen and the Incarnation is about, or for that matter, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about: getting us to stretch open our little worlds (they can be little even when loaded up with much intellectual and political baggage) and become something new. To do that is often confusing and always a little scary. But it is a piece of the great transformation that God is about in bringing us to new life. And it is a big part of what we celebrate and call Resurrection.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010