Saturday, November 09, 2013

Good Gracious

 Luke 20:27-38

            Some day, I think I’ll write a book called Famous Scenes Left Out of the Bible.  One of those scenes actually belongs in the twentieth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel in the middle of our story this morning.  The included scene would have the text read like this:  “There were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married the widow, and so in the same way all seven married her and died childless.  Finally, finally the woman died.  And Jesus looked at the Sadducees for a moment in total disbelief.  Then he snickered.  The snicker became a laugh, then a guffaw.  And Jesus, turning to his disciples saw that they were trying to hold in their laughter.  And the Sadducees grew very angry.  But Jesus, totally losing it, fell down upon the ground, rolling in the dirt, laughing uncontrollably.  “This,” he said, finally composing himself, “is the darnedest story anybody ever cooked up.”  But clearing his throat and wiping away tears from his dusty face, Jesus proceeded to teach the Sadducees a lesson.  They were chagrined to hear him say that Moses himself testified to the resurrection when he spoke of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  So therefore, said Jesus, “God is not God of the dead but of the living.”

            Worse things have been done to the Bible.  In fact, one has to wonder why all three of the Synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—report this incident.  In all honesty, I imagine that they found it far less funny than I do.  I think it might be that they were all writing to audiences who, far enough removed from the Easter event, had some trouble with the notion of resurrection.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think that the Early Church was necessarily plagued with exactly the same issues that bedevil the post-modern world.  But we know, for example, from another source, namely St. Paul, that there were significant numbers of people in the ancient Church who had a hard time with the notion of resurrection.  Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”  A little later he goes on to say, “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised?  With what kind of body do they come?’”  So well before any of the first three gospels took shape, Paul was acknowledging that there were folks around who had trouble with the notion of resurrection, let alone the fact that on resurrection hangs the truth of the Christian faith.  If you have trouble believing in the resurrection, don’t feel so alone.

            Perhaps you are beginning to wonder if I am in as great a fog as any Sadducee.  Don’t I know that we are half a year away from Easter?  Am I not aware that St. Thomas’ Church has been building towards this day now for well over a month as the culmination of your stewardship season?  What has all this marrying that the poor woman did with so many feeble and worn out husbands—all with the added problem (from somebody, somewhere) of monumental infertility—what has all this to do with what we are here for on this special Sunday?

            This story is the quintessential example of a crowd of people, very sure of themselves and their point of view, who ask the wrong question. They miss the point entirely.  A generation ago, The Episcopal Church had a great Presiding Bishop by the name of John Elbridge Hines.  Bishop Hines used to begin his sermons with a prayer that included the phrase, “When we would make much of what cannot matter much to thee, recall us to the heart of our confession, Jesus Christ, Lord.”  In the light of that, most of us are Sadducees at least some of the time.  We make much of what cannot matter much to God.  We ask stupid questions, which, by the way, is not at all the same as expressing honest doubts.  We fritter away our time on things that are forgotten in a day or less.  The religious as well as the non-religious are not exempt from the danger of missing the point by making much of what cannot matter much to God or anyone else.

            So what is the point? 

            Everything in the gospel hinges on Resurrection.  Is the whole message one of love?  Then love and resurrection are inseparable.  Is the thrust of the New Testament about serving others to relieve suffering and to make a better world?  Then service and relieving suffering are inextricably tied to resurrection.  Is the theme of the gospel salvation, or transformation, or eternal life, or morality, or outreach, or justice, or right relationships, or honoring the Truth, or claiming one’s most profound Selfhood?  Yes and yes and yes to all of that.  And every one of those things, properly understood, is an expression of resurrection.  For God is God of the living, and if you are either alive or want to be, God is all about raising you from the dead.  That is what our baptism means.  It is our initiation into a community of resurrected persons sharing the life of the resurrected Jesus.  And it is more—our baptism is.  It is living out that life, practicing the precepts of Jesus, cultivating the Mind of Jesus, acquiring the habits of Jesus, doing the works of Jesus.  It is from beginning to end about being raised little by little, day by day, action by action from death to life.  You want to know what dead is?  It isn’t so much what you’ll be when you are a corpse.  It is lifeless, tasteless, meaningless, pointless stuff—relationships that are poisonous, attitudes that suck, inflated egos that try to mask insecurity with bravado, self-medication through one thing or another that never quite eases deep pain nor bleeds away old anger.  It is what the New Testament writers refer to as “the world” or “the flesh,”—not to be confused with the marvelous body you have.  Spirit and life and resurrection are all rolled up in the same ball, and that ball is the life of God, the power of God:  the power that raised Jesus from the dead and raises you from the dead.

            That is the point. 

            But we are left with a question, aren’t we? What must we do, what can we do, to live the resurrection life more fully? Or, if we haven’t yet begun to live it, how do we start?  It is a fair question, and it deserves an answer.

            Practice being grateful.  If you hang around the Christian community very long, you are bound to hear a bunch of one-syllable words, an important one of which is grace.  Essentially, grace refers to the giving action of God.  The one thing we can safely say about God is that God is always giving.  Every once in awhile, something hugely significant breaks into our awareness.  In 1999, on a sun-drenched autumn morning I started the drive from Santa Fe up towards Taos through what is properly called the Land of Enchantment.  I looked westward at mountains rising out of the desert, an overwhelming sight.  Full of joy, I exclaimed out loud with no one to hear me in the secrecy of my truck, “O God, thank you!  It is unimaginably beautiful.  Thank you for whatever you did to cause such beauty!”  I sighed and drove on.  In a second or two, I heard the words—not a human voice or a disembodied spirit, but words that formed so large in my mind that they might well have existed outside of me:  “Frank, I made it just for you.”  Tears sprang.  Alice Walker, my favorite theologian, says in The Color Purple that God is always flirting with us, trying to get our notice.  Her character Shug says that God is pissed every time we pass the color purple and don’t notice.  “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins.[1]  And that is just the start of it. God made it all just for you, as if you were the only being on the entire planet. God gives it all just for you.  Free of charge.  Millions upon millions of years, billions even, went into the making of you.  Flaming stars turned dark and died, flinging their dust across distances you cannot fathom, and their glory is right now in the stuff sitting here in the form of you.  Pinch yourself.  Feel what once shone as light, which you now feel as flesh. 
            Live with that awareness, breathe deeply that joy, and you cannot be depressed forever or down for long.  You’ll want a thousand tongues to sing your dear Redeemer’s praise.  And if you catch the spirit that made you, you will find yourself, sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually, wanting to mirror that life that gave you your life and keeps on giving it to you no matter how you beat it up.  When you were conceived and later born, you embodied the DNA of your parents and took on their characteristics.  We are born again in baptism so that we can take on the characteristics of our Maker and Redeemer.  And before long, we find ourselves finding ourselves oddly when we start losing ourselves.  We begin practicing, awkwardly at first and then with increasing confidence, giving ourselves away.

            That is what God does, and when you do it, God is palpably alive in you.  Grace and gratitude are inseparable, two parts of a continuous cycle.  Charis, or grace, is at the heart of the Great Thanksgiving, which we call eucharist.  And that brings us up to this very moment.  We have gathered today to make eucharist.  A part of our eucharistia is making an act of thanksgiving the way we most frequently do, and that by giving a gracious gift.  Call it a pledge, call it commitment, or call it your estimate of giving.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that you make the connection between what you give through St. Thomas’ and your life in Christ.  Don’t pay the Church for goods and services.  Give to the Body of Christ because you are the Body of Christ and you want to be as giving as the Body of Christ in the manger, as giving as the Body of Christ when he fed five thousand, as giving as the Body of Christ on the cross.  And don’t stop with the card you fill out today.  Find some way to turn your thanksgiving into a gift every day.  Pay compliments.  Tip generously. Laugh hilariously. Love profligately, especially those who are hard to love and who therefore need it the most. 

            And should you ever come to the moment when you puzzle over who will be whose lover or wife or husband in the resurrection, may God recall you to the heart of your faith:  that you are alive in God and God is alive in you, for which grace you will never cease giving thanks.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013

[1] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” in Chief Modern Poets of England and America, 4th Edition (New York:  Macmillan, 1962), p. 60-I.

Monday, November 04, 2013

No Use Trying


 Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

            He was an earnest boy.  Parents punished him for being sassy, and he took their disapproval seriously, little by little conforming to their expectations.  Teachers praised him for his astuteness and studiousness, yet found him irritating in his talkativeness.  He tried to please.  He was pleased when they were pleased.  Peers alternatingly teased and admired him.  He learned to win them over by making them laugh.  If adult voices suggested that he could be patriotic, he set out to be a patriot.  When teachers held out the ideal of being a serious scholar, he vowed to be one.  And preachers, articulating the virtue of goodness, inspired him to be good. 

            Mistakes he made.  On occasion he cheated and lied.  His stubborn streak accounted for his perseverance but also for his pigheadedness.  Anger stored up from childhood sometimes erupted, frighteningly so.  In midlife he came to a crossroads in the midst of a thick, dark forest.  Three things he had become had joined to form a life path which abruptly came to a place where he could not see any road ahead of him but for a pace or two.  Paths diverged.  If he took one, he was sure to lose his career.  If he took another, he was sure to lose his family.  If he took a third, he was sure to lose himself.  So he stood, sweating, staring, remembering all the things he had ever been told, and tried earnestly to choose the right way.  But there was no right way. 

            In the protracted moment of paralysis, an old friend and guide showed up.  What was the matter the friend wanted to know.  The confused and stymied man tried to explain.  “You are trying to be a saint,” his old mentor said.  “Tell me.  Is sainthood something that you can choose, do, achieve?”  The man stood still, looking blank.


            “Why, then, are you trying to be a saint?”

            “I can’t really say.  I suppose I am just trying to do the right thing and there is no right thing.”

            The mentor pressed him.  “Is sainthood a gift?”  The man said he supposed it was.

            “Then trying to be a saint is like trying to be Einstein when you are only an ordinary Harvard physicist,” spoke the guide.

            The man smiled.  Then he laughed.  He laughed and laughed, louder and louder until the whole forest echoed his laughter back to him.  He was on fire with total joy, which shook down to a sense of deep relief.  It took him awhile to recover.  Then he knew which path to follow, and he took the first step.  In a pace or two there was just enough light to see the trail marker.  It read, “Way to go, bud.”  And the initials, “B. U.”

            Maybe you have noticed that the festival of All Saints is a stopping place along a road that leads, as all roads seem to, back to the place where we came from and forward to the place where we are headed.  It is a peculiar spot, All Saints, because suddenly we are attune to memories and voices and the faint sound of heroes we imagine cheering ever louder.  The cheers sometimes come from throats of unlikely persons, none of whom was perfect and few of whom were more than average to good, but all of whom were real.  And they cheer us on, these voices from the past.   “You can do it!”  “Keep it up!”  “March on!”  Like most fans, they can get awfully upset when we do stupid things or blunder unnecessarily.  But they hang in there with us, never stop loving us, though we may not win a Series in a hundred years. 

            By its very nature, All Saints looks at the road ahead of us, not only to that behind us.  As Thomas Merton worded it in a prayer, we have no idea where we are going.  We do not see the road ahead of us.  We cannot know for certain where it will end.[1]  What we do know is that this journey we are taking can be called by either of two names.  We can either name it an exploration of who we are in our deepest selves, or we can call it a quest to find God.  It is all the same thing.  And even if this one journey with two names happens to be two quite different journeys, when we arrive at the destination of either, the end will sit so close to the object of the other journey that we can’t miss it. Search for your deepest Self and you will be sure to arrive at God.  Search for God and you will be certain to arrive at the most profoundly true you. 

            Along the way, we have this thing called baptism that we are living out.  As the author of Ephesians puts it, we “were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” in baptism, and with that seal God has promised us an inheritance towards redemption.  All of that clearly is about the future.  But the future is also about now. We are constantly being shaped by the forces that press upon us, wear us down, erode our confidence, shake us up.  Yet there are countervailing forces that come from our model, Jesus, who is, as Ephesians says, the one in whom God has put divine power to work.  And we are so connected to Jesus in this community called the Church that Jesus lives in us as much as the blood coursing through our veins.  When we allow ourselves to love our enemies, even imperfectly, we cultivate the Mind of Christ in us.   When we return good for the evil done to us, we foster the Spirit of Christ in us.  By praying for those who abuse us, we follow the model of Christ in us. When we choose to live peaceably, we find like Ghandi and King and all those in the company of saints who disavowed violence and retaliation, the power of Christ in us.  When we give coat, shirt, and everything on down to the pure old naked body, we discover that we have only followed the example of Jesus, who, when he had nothing else to give, gave his own naked body on the cross.  And it really all amounts to living by this simple rule:  “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” 

            The journey is about living, not about claiming.  It is about living out of the wellspring of the Self rather than by the playbook of management through determination, defensiveness, cunning, and sheer willfulness.   So the irony of getting to be a saint is that we don’t get to be what we already are.  We only get to practice being who we are to get better and better at it.  And that, in turn, results in our losing interest, more and more, in preserving our façades in favor of paying more and more attention to the core truth of who we are. 

            In the old days—which means any time in the relatively distant past—writers spoke of “the Church militant, the Church expectant, and the Church triumphant.”  We don’t talk so much in those terms anymore, and that is doubtless a blessing.  Yet All Saints reminds us not only that we are compassed about with a great cloud of witnesses, those mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers who have gone on before us and have now become our own cheering fans, but of all the folks around us who are our fellow pilgrims.  There is no sharp dividing line between past and present.  We are all on the same trajectory, moving and moved like stones and water all carried along in the same streambed by the persistent motion that will bring us all one day to the Great Sea from which we sprang in the beginning.  There we shall be embraced in a love that will not let us go, in whose ocean depths our flow may richer, fuller be.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013

[1] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York:  Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1999), Kindle version, loc. 62.