Translate

Saturday, November 11, 2017

What To Do Till the Messiah Comes


Once upon a time a woman came into my office bringing with her a very interesting book with an even more interesting title. It was called What To Do Till the Messiah Comes. Now what would you think the book was about? Prayer? Stewardship? Creative waiting? Not bad guesses and perhaps not entirely wrong. But it was in fact a book about massage. It was a pictorial manual on how to give and receive massage, replete with rich colorful photographs of various massage techniques. Frankly I was more interested in the pictures than the text. So I kept the book on the coffee table in my office for a good while until she reclaimed it.

I am at a very different place in my life and thought from where I was forty years ago when I saw that book. Today I am very much interested in massage not as a hobby or only as a remedy to muscular aches and pains, but as a potentially powerful experience of one’s own body.

That is not exactly where the gospel for today takes us, not for that matter the other scriptures. I don’t know that there is anything in the Bible at all about massage, and certainly there is nothing to suggest that any such activity might be an appropriate way to invest time as the church waits for her bridegroom to appear. Instead we have a story about ten bridesmaids. The point of the parable, whether it actually comes from Jesus or is an allegory of Matthew’s invention, is that readiness, preparedness, is what distinguishes wisdom from folly. The wise are ready for the bridegroom to come. The foolish are only prepared for the bridegroom to arrive on their own timetable. And the point of any parable is not to miss the point.
William Blake, "Wise and Foolish Virgins," 1826

It is difficult, however, in an age and place where the end-time appearance of Jesus is hardly on anyone’s radar screen, to assume that everyone will know automatically what it actually means to be prepared for his arrival at whatever hour that might take place. So we have some unpacking to do. Let’s get on with it.

It’s hard to tell what Jesus actually thought about the end of history and his role in it. Most of the evidence it seems to me points to the likelihood that he understood, as did many of his contemporaries in Judaism, that the days of this world, it inhabitants, and their history, were short. There was nothing new about this. For generations a “Coming Day of Yahweh” had been anticipated and indeed predicted. It was closely associated with the redress of wrongs and a righting of the imbalance of power and justice that had for too long characterized human relationships. The prophets and the psalms are full of the notion that humanity’s inhumanity can’t and won’t go on forever. For Yahweh God comes to judge the earth and with righteousness to judge the world and the peoples with truth [Ps. 96:13]. Generally speaking, the worse things get for people in the world, the more they begin to long for some event, especially an event initiated by God, that will bring relief. And in first century Palestine, things had gotten pretty rotten for huge numbers of people. What oppression the Roman Empire’s power did not impose, religious authorities and local potentates made up for. It is almost more difficult to imagine Jesus not being a part of these hopes than to imagine him sharing them.

It is even more certain that Jesus saw his own life and ministry as authentically representing and embodying what God’s reign is all about. Indeed this parable today is an example of the bulk of parables in the first three gospels about the Kingdom of God, or the reign of God if you will. Matthew chooses to call it the Kingdom of Heaven, which suggests to almost all modern ears that he is talking about something that falls squarely outside this life and in another world besides the present one. Jesus could hardly believe that God was going to intervene in human history in a major show-down event and his not being a part of that. Or so it seems to me.

But what Jesus most clearly got that many of his followers have unfortunately missed is that the reign of God is not temporal but rather eternal. And if eternal, not time and space bound. And if not time and space bound, then immediately present here and now. So there is both a future to God’s rule in the form of a Coming “Day of Yahweh,” and also what Paul Tillich called “The Eternal Now.”

What happens if we try both of those understandings of the Coming of the Bridegroom (that is, Jesus’ eschatological Advent—his coming at the end of history) and see how each understanding works in the parable of the ten bridesmaids?

If we look at the Arrival of the Bridegroom—Jesus—as being a future event, then the issue is to be ready and prepared. The symbol for that preparedness in the story is oil. And oil has a bundle of rich associations in Scripture. It is associated with mercy, with deeds of love and kindness, with compassion, and indeed with the Torah itself. One has only to recall the story from the time of the Maccabees that is commemorated as Channukah, when oil miraculously kept the holy light burning for eight days. As in the parable of the virgins, or bridesmaids, oil is a symbol of light because it is the means of light. All of that suggests that those who await the arrival of the Messiah should be well stocked with deeds of love, mercy, compassion, and that they should not think the hour of Messiah’s arrival to be a foregone conclusion, but rather wait in expectation for it, prepared for either an early or a late arrival. When paired with the lesson from the prophet Amos today it is clear that those who wait for the Messiah should focus on Messiah’s values, namely justice and equity.

Holy Wisdom Blesses the Marriage of Christ and the Human Soul
Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Episcopal, San Francisco
If we look at the coming of the Bridegroom to be an event that is outside history, that is eternal, and that is what we might say is the territory of the human soul, how does that work with the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids? The emphasis then might fall on the waking/sleeping of the ten. All fall asleep—and that is to say that none of us, however wise or foolish we might be, can escape falling into unconsciousness from time to time. But something—a call, an announcement, a voice from somewhere beyond—splits the night air and startles us into consciousness. Suddenly we are faced with a momentous occasion—the coming of the Bridegroom—and the question is will we go out to meet him or will we instead be fiddling around at midnight trying to do what we’ve long put off but now decide must be done? Interestingly, no bride is mentioned in the parable. Where is she? Who is she? In the lore, the Bride of Christ is both the company of believers and the Christian soul. In the Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Episcopal, in San Francisco, the dominant icon over the Holy Table is that of Dame Wisdom countenancing the wedding feast of Christ the Bridegroom and his bride, who is the Christian soul. The two are dancing together, for all is now made whole. Divinity and humanity, the Sacred Masculine and the Sacred Feminine, the physical and the spiritual, heaven and earth: all are united. The coming of the Bridegroom is not the dreadful day of wrath and mourning peddled along with myriad other fears by thunderous preachers threatening their people. The coming of the Bridegroom is an earth-shaking event that would bother only those who for whatever reason—foolishness perhaps—simply didn’t show up to meet the Bridegroom.


The book lodging on my coffee table with its curious title turns out to be prophetic in its own way. What might we do till the Messiah Comes? Jimmy Carter once said that we should live as if Jesus were coming this very afternoon. So I have come to believe that the question is not so much what to do but how to live till the Messiah comes—mostly because the Messiah is already here. The hippie book my friend loaned me long ago had a point. Get a massage. Give a massage. Have a dinner party. Read a book. Spend time with a child. Feed the hungry. Visit a museum. Demonstrate for justice. Organize your neighbors to fight for their rights. Spend time admiring, not criticizing, your own body. Hold a dog’s face close to you and look deeply into the dog’s eyes. Write a poem. Put on some music and dance. But whatever you do, do it with those things that Messiah taught us. Do it with gratitude. Do it with grace. Share it. Don’t fake it unless you need to fake it till you make it your own.

Live with the Messiah that you already have until—well, until you are gone. And the one thing you never have to worry about is whether Messiah will be pleased that you did. You’d be surprised at how much Messiah will recognize himself in you. When the door is shut you won’t be on the outside banging desperately to get in. You’ll realize that by simply being yourself as best you could you were already in and never had a thing in the world to fear.

A sermon based on Matthew 25:1-13.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017




-->

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Surprising Vision

  


That sharp-tongued genius G. K. Chesterton once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”[1]

Well, not quite. There are a few who have actually tried it, but such a few it should make us blush to celebrate the feast of All Saints. So what is a saint and what manner of people are those we call saints?

First is the way that we speak of exemplary people of faith. In the strict sense, “saints” as the Christian Church uses the term, are those people who have been exemplary in the way they have lived the Christian life. They are the people that have believed when it would have been easier to lose faith, those who have persevered when it would have been easier to give up, who have loved when it would have been more natural to hate, who have given generously when everyone said it was foolish, who have risked life and limb when it would have been easier to run for safety, who have stood for justice when the mass of people cried out for vengeance, who have been cheerful when everything in them knew that their situation was desperate, and who have never asked for credit, who have seldom been recognized as particularly good until they were dead, and who have honestly thought of themselves as quite ordinary people following a quite extraordinary God. It has never been easy and it still is not.
Dancing Saints
Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Episcopal
San Francisco


A second use of the word saint is associated with persons who have endured great suffering. The Book of Revelation, reflecting an age of persecution in which it was composed, speaks of “those who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” In that sense, saints are martyrs, and martyr means “witness.” They have borne witness to the Power of the Crucified Lamb of God, and they have paid for their witness with their lives. So they are before the throne of God and worship God day and night with palm branches of victory in their hands. Indeed they are a polyglot bunch, from every family, language, people and nation.

And a third use of the word “saints” or “holy ones,” the ‘αγιοι of the New Testament, is to denote the entire people of God. You see this usage when St. Paul, for example, begins an epistle by saying, “Paul…to all the saints who are
Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa
at Ephesus,” or some such place. He means the entire assembly of Christians there.

It is pretty clear that All Saints celebrates all three categories of persons. But precisely because saints are seen to be moral and religious exemplars, most of us are generally uncomfortable with the idea that we could seriously think of ourselves as saints. And perhaps that is not altogether bad. Because if we walked around thinking of ourselves as any more exemplary than we already do (in some cases, not in all), we would have one huge problem of a world even fuller of inflated egos.

Yet there is a great big fly in the ointment. The irony is that the more reticent we are to see ourselves as holy, the more likely we are to give ourselves permission to oppose not just holiness but goodness as well. Drink that in for a moment. The more reticent we are to see ourselves as saints, as holy people, the more likely we are to give ourselves permission to oppose not just holiness but goodness as well.

How so? You and I both know that we have seen individuals, including our very own selves, who can be shockingly insensitive, downright mean and nasty, perfectly hateful one minute, and turn around the next and do something generous or nice or helpful. One of the mysterious qualities of many of us is that we can be as sweet as pie on an individual level—never coming close to doing something cruel or unkind to a person we can actually see—but then turn out to be virulent haters of people who are different from us that we deem unworthy of ordinary human decency, let alone mercy. We continue to imagine that people who are personally congenial and polite to friends and close associates wouldn’t think of lying or cheating or stealing or taking advantage of the vulnerable or powerless. The truth of the matter is that much of the time good behavior is popular because it is socially approved, not because of some notion that it is connected with holiness or sanctity. We are good generally because it pays to be good, and we get complimented when we are. We are trained to be good and most of us are—to a point. More bluntly, we are ready to be good when it suits us to be, but ready to excuse ourselves from goodness when we find it inconvenient or taxing.

But are we saintly? Holy? Not only are we reluctant to see ourselves as either of those things, but few of us aspire to be much different from what we already are. Unless, of course, what we are is so uncomfortable for us that improvement seems to be the better course. What would it mean to be saintly? To be holy? To take seriously our vocation to live—dare we say it?—as the baptized persons we actually are?

Christ dancing, Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa
That is actually how saints are made: by baptism. But not because baptism is something magical that transmutes common people immediately into examples of holiness. It is because to be a baptized person is to be on a lifelong pilgrimage to explore what the Life of God is all about and how we can embody that life as Jesus did. You see, Jesus was not about pointing to himself as an object of worship, but rather modeling for humanity what a life lived in union with God is truly like. That is what holiness or sanctity really is: taking on the characteristics of the heavenly One, and living as nearly as possible as God is. That is why, by the way, that Jesus is so indispensable to the would-be lover of God sharing God’s life: he demonstrates in his words, life, and death just what it is for a human being to embody God. Impossible? Of course. But in and with God, all things are possible, even the transformation of quite ordinary people into very extraordinary human beings.

In the Baptismal Covenant we answer five questions after we have confessed our faith.


·      Will we continue in that faith, the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers of the Church?
·      Will we, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
·      Will we proclaim not only by word but also by example the Good News of God in Christ?
·      Will we seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbors as ourselves?  
·      Will we strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?[2]

Baptized in the River Jordan
If you want to know what being a Christian is, there is your answer. Do those things and you will be following Christ. Do those things and you cannot help but move in the direction of becoming more and more like the God who created you. Do those things and you will find that your false self, the ‘you’ that fears letting go of control, the ‘you’ that worries about whether you are enough and whether you have enough, the ‘you’ that is never really sure that you are worthy of love will slip further and further away. Instead there will be born in your body a new person who trusts more easily, frets less, quarrels less viciously, speaks the truth, and takes up causes like justice for the powerless that once frightened the starch out of you. Do those things and you cannot avoid becoming more and more holy. Indeed you will be on the road to sainthood though you may know nothing about it and in fact never have believed it possible. Faith is not about believing the possible. It is about trusting that the glorious impossible is worth giving one’s life to.

St. Dallán Forgaill
One way to put it is to let the vision of God be your vision for yourself. That is far from having an ego two sizes or more too large. It is indeed a way of losing your life—that is your cramped, false self—in exchange for the true Self that amounts to becoming the Christ who already lives within you. There once was a man known as a saint who left the world some words that have inspired thousands since they first were spoken and written in the 8th century, or maybe as early as the 6th, and translated into English and other languages in the early 20th century. Their supposed author is Saint Dallán Forgaill, who was said to be have been blind, which would make them even a more powerful prayer, since they are about true vision.

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
Naught be all else to me, save that thou art,
Thou my best thought by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping they presence my light.

Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true Word,
Thou ever with me and I with thee, Lord,
Thou my great Father, thine own may I be,
Thou in me dwelling and I one with thee.

Be thou my breastplate, my sword for the fight,
Be thou my whole armor, be thou my true might,
Be thou my soul’s shelter, be thou my strong tower,
O raise thou me heavenward, great Power of my power.

Riches I heed not, nor the world’s empty praise,
Be thou mine inheritance now and always,
Be thou and thou only the first in my heart,
O Sovereign of heaven, my treasure thou art.

High King of Heaven, when victory is won,
May I reach heaven’s joy, bright heaven’s Sun.
Great heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be thou my vision, O ruler of all.[3]


Eastern Orthodox Baptism: candidates are naked and fully immersed
symbolizing union with Christ's death, burial, and resurrection 




[2] The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing Company, 1979), 305-306.

[3] “Be thou my vision,” Irish ca. 8th century, translated by Mary Byrne (1880-1931), versified by Eleanor Hull (1860-1935), as found in The New English Hymnal (Norwich: The Canterbury Press, 1986, 1997), 339, and adapted by comparison with the text in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1982), 488, and other translations. A history of the text may be found on the internet at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Be_Thou_My_Vision, accessed November 4, 2017.




Saturday, October 21, 2017

God and Caesar: Struggling in America


Augustus Caesar
 Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

It isn’t possible to erect a whole theology based on one little incident in Jesus’ life. So that’s not what I want even faintly to suggest. But there are few passages of scripture that are quite so timely as the story ending in Jesus’ pronouncement, “Render to Caesar (give to the emperor) the things that are Caesar’s (the emperor’s) and to God the things that are God’s.

It is pretty clear from the context in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all of whom tell pretty much the same story, that the purpose it serves is to illustrate how the forces of power were out to trap Jesus, whom they had already decided had to go. And it illustrates as well how they were no match for his intelligence, wisdom, and cunning.

In a way the context itself illustrates the pronouncement well. For it is a showdown between the forces of this world’s power and the values of God. Since most religion is run by people who are allied in one degree or another with power and privilege, it almost goes without saying that the default understanding of many folks through the ages has been that if the religious establishment says it, it must be the correct religious position. Of course, there are exceptions. The entire Protestant Reformation was a rebellion against the religious establishment. And long before the Reformation, there were lay movements, groups, and sects that did not gee-haw with the hierarchy. Nowadays stock in organized religion has plummeted in many parts of the world, though not in all. People are less inclined to accept docilely anything just because religious authorities say it.

But a point not to miss is that Jesus seriously questioned and ultimately threatened the forces of power, mainly those dressed in religious garb. That is in line with the tradition itself that God is always on the side of the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the slaves, and any others who are not in power. It is a matter of justice. The psalms are full of references to this preferential treatment on the part of the divine. “For he comes to judge the earth and with righteousness to judge the world and the peoples with his truth,” says Psalm 95. Judgment in the Bible is deeply connected to justice. And justice is part and parcel with equity. And righteousness, far from meaning moral perfection, actually means being in line with the right order of things, an order which is characterized by right relationships, not relationships out of whack because of an imbalance of power.

Recent history in the United States shows that a great many people have not only forgotten that, but have in fact inverted it so that political power is assumed to be the medium in which they suppose that God is interested. Bad mistake. It is not that political power is wrong. Of course not. But it is true that power can’t be assumed to be serving the divine purposes just because it is power. As flawed as they are and can be, democratic institutions have emerged as instruments for making societies more just, more equitable, more responsive to human need. We are seeing before our very eyes the rise of widespread undermining of such institutions. I never thought I’d live to see the day that some of the worst nightmares of the twentieth century, like fascism and Nazism, would rear their horrifying heads again. I never imagined a day to return when nationalism turned into nativism and once more white supremacy paraded through the streets to the toleration and downright approval of some in power. And what is, if not surprising, the most egregious development of all is that a huge swath of religious leaders are cheerleaders for those who are undermining human dignity. How do you square that with the teachings of Jesus?

In a word, there is massive confusion about the cause of Caesar and the cause of God. This is not a matter that you can dismiss as simple political difference, even political warfare. It is a profound and deepening spiritual crisis that owes its strength to a pack of lies as to who God is and what God wills. I certainly don’t believe that you can sign up with any political party and imagine that that party has some corner on the market of doing God’s will. But it is transparently true that there are some folks, notably the so-called “religious right,” whose politics are way out of line with the biblical understanding of justice and righteousness. The forces of power and privilege, ever out to protect their status and amass more power and privilege, are still trying to trick Jesus with a classic set-up. The forces of power are forever dropping broad hints that neither Jesus nor anyone else had better cross Caesar, or else.

Tintoretto, "The Temptation of Christ," 1579-81
Do you remember that story about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness? It is a key story making a profound point. All of those temptations were about using spiritual power to serve the forces of evil that corrupt and destroy the world by claiming to do the opposite. Controlling the food supply (turning stones into bread), dazzling people with displays of invincibility (jumping off the pinnacle of the temple), and controlling the empires of the world were then and are now and always have been the proven ways of clutching and expanding power.


Of course the religious people who are busy kowtowing to economic and political power have a different story to tell. They’ll tell you that God is all worked up about sexual improprieties. They’ll explain that what they are doing is actually manipulating the courts and legislatures because they want to enact God’s will on a massive scale. They’ll quickly tell you that God is in a hurry because the world doesn’t have long to go before God comes and gives the world a solid thrashing that is a prelude to wiping it out entirely. They’ll argue that somehow God is unconcerned with the trashing of the planet and the wholesale killing of species but is disgusted with people who are different because of their color, sexual orientation, country of origin. They imagine that God is a card-carrying Christian with no time for Muslims or others because they’re wrong, of course. And so on. Evil never lacks a narrative to explain itself.

Alonzo Cano, "Cristo Crucificado," 1646
But be aware that it is not powerlessness that adequately describes the difference between God and Caesar. It is rather that all power is not the same. The power of God and the power of Caesar are quite different. And how do we know? The power of God that we see in Jesus is indeed a power that can stand toe to toe with the forces of wickedness and prevail. Yet it is a power that is made perfect in weakness, as St. Paul once put it [2 Corinthians 12:9]. The irony is that the divine power that we see in Jesus ultimately empties itself and becomes nothing, going the way of suffering and death, confident that it is not amassing power or parading it to domineer that is the means of life. Rather, the way to life is to be vulnerable, to let go, and to be willing to die. What we never seem to get is that even as the Creator of all, God voluntarily limits God’s self by choosing to have a world in the first place. God’s power is made perfect in weakness. That is the lesson of the cross.




This leaves us with an important question: what are we to do?

First, there is no way to understand the difference between divine power and worldly power short of being intimately familiar with the biblical story. And we can’t pick and choose the parts that support our already fixed positions. We have to look at the whole thing. Otherwise we’ll be sunk with a bunch of internal contradictions.

Second, the theme of scripture really lies in the word “covenant.” From beginning to end, the sacred story is God’s saying, “I will be their God and they shall be my people, and I myself shall be with them.”  Never forget that.

Third, when in doubt, look at the teachings of and the story of Jesus. His life and death reveal it all. It is not self-explanatory for sure. But rather than trying to figure it out and make it make logical sense (because it won’t), just keep in relationship with Jesus. Read him, talk with him, and understand that he is not remote but is nearer to you than the air in your lungs and just that much a part of you yourself.

Fourth, divesting ourselves of our alliances with worldly power starts with having a practice of self-examination and repentance. Otherwise we get trapped in arrogance and begin to believe in our own self-importance. But repentance doesn’t mean just being sorry for the stuff you think you should not have done. It means living differently. And ironically one of the things that we need to repent of is letting ourselves be trampled on without standing up for our own dignity. I know. It sounds counter to all I’ve said about vulnerability. But there is an ironic twist in all this. Claiming our worth is not the same thing as amassing power nor being enchanted with the power of others. It is precisely in knowing that we are sufficient just as we are that allows us not to be abused by the powers of this world that corrupt and destroy.

Finally, be as concerned about the powerless, the vulnerable, the outsider as you are about yourself. Maybe even more so. When worldly power serves those who are weakest and in biggest need—and it sometimes does—then worldly power indeed does become an instrument of repairing the world itself. Start that process, or continue it, by using your own power for good. That is rendering unto God the things that are God’s, one of which is that power to do good with which he has lavishly endowed the children of humanity, including you.

A sermon based on Matthew 22:15-22.  

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017