Sunday, June 24, 2018

Who Then Is This?

Rembrandt, Jesus Stilling the Storm
On one level the story of the calming of the storm is about the uniqueness of the personhood of Jesus of Nazareth.  Ordinary people don’t do such things as speak to the winds and waves and instantly bring them under control. 

On another level the story raises the question of whether or not the God who is ostensibly present with us and is moreover all powerful does indeed care that we are perishing (some of the time or all of the time).

On still another level the story probes the curious intersection of fear and faith, as in Jesus’ question, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

I want to be honest with you and tell you that I really am not interested very much in what happened once upon a time to Jesus and his disciples in a boat in a storm on the Sea of Galilee.  It is not that I find it hard to believe—I really don’t find it hard to believe—or that I find it unimportant.  Instead, I find myself quite much interested in the storms that are going on right now in my world and in my soul.  I find myself wondering what is happening and what God or faith or Jesus has to do with any of it. 

You might wonder what storms I’m talking about.  I could rapidly come up with a list of a dozen including

  • ·      the firestorm about immigration at the southern US border
  • ·      the suppression of voting rights in this country
  • ·      the rise of authoritarian governments around the world
  • ·      the deep suspicion of immigrant populations here and abroad
  • ·      the corruption of the leadership of many churches who ignore or dismiss directives of Scripture and Tradition to care for the least powerful and most vulnerable
  • ·      the wanton devastation of the earth’s environment
  • ·      unbridled greed that infects economies the world over

But wait.  You don’t want to hear those things.  You’ve come to church precisely to get away from all that.  Indeed the church is a little barque that you’ve bought your ticket to board so you can get away to the other side of all that, a place where all is joy and peace, near to the heart of God, to coin a phrase.  Part of your disappointment and dismay is that this little church-boat that we are in to escape being tossed and blown about by the cross-currents of politics and economics is itself buffeted about by the squalls of change. 

And where, pray, is Jesus in all this?  In the middle of it, of course.  But to all intents and purposes, fast asleep, as if he were a little baby in a manger, sleeping on the hay.  Not quite the Lord and Master that we bargained for or that we need.  We seem to be left bailing water and trying to manage the sails.  Sometimes it seems that the Holy One is either totally absent or present but powerless to stop it all—to correct the course—to pilot the vessel. 

Don’t you ever want to cry out, or don’t you ever hear yourself exclaiming, “Lord do you not care?  We are perishing! Have you nothing to do but sleep on the job?”  If you ever get fed up, frightened, or worse—hopeless—in the straights you find yourself, then you and I are on the same page.  And that page is right here in the fourth chapter of Mark’s gospel.  For this crossing of the sea is not an event that happened once upon a time, but one that keeps happening all the time.  That, you might say, is why it is in the Bible in the first place.  Somebody somewhere recognized it as more than an isolated incident in the life of Jesus and his disciples, but as a window of insight into the human condition that just doesn’t go away. 

Yet it is not disenchantment or disgust that is the enemy of faith, it would seem.  It is fear.  And when I say “enemy,” I really mean a countervailing force that is destructive.  Everybody is scared. We all are running scared much of the time.  Scared we won’t have enough money, or enough energy or health or beauty or education or whatever it is we think will secure our lives and guarantee them against unhappiness or loss or even death.  Faith and fear don’t do well together because faith always involves risk and trust and fear is primed to avoid risk and to distrust.  But there are some major exceptions. Courage is not fearlessness; it is acting bravely in spite of fear.  If fear is great enough, it eats away at courage until there is no courage. 

To put all that in the context of this story of us in the boat in danger of being swamped and ultimately lost in the storm, the issue is not whether Jesus or God is asleep while we are busy battling the winds and waves.  The issue is whether we can call upon our inner strength (another name for the indwelling Christ) to be courageous and not scared to death.  Why are we afraid—not just afraid a little bit, but afraid enough to overrule our own courage?  That’s a question we have to live with.

But let’s take this story in another direction.  What about the storms going on in our souls?  Sometimes they are and sometime they aren’t the same or even like the storms in our outward lives.  You have your own and you probably know what they are.  Perhaps they have to do with grief or sorrow over someone or some thing that you’ve lost.  Maybe they are tied up with addictive behavior, whether abusing substances or what feels like lifelong patterns and behavior that you honestly don’t think you’ll ever be able to break.  Or maybe the storm really has to do with relationships that trouble your life among family or friends or bosses or workmates.  You know your storms and your storms know you. 
What storms are going on in your own soul?

It doesn’t really matter what the internal torment is, the feeling is the same if God seems to be absent or uncaring or just sleeping through the whole mess.  But perhaps more on the personal scale than the global one, we tend to blame ourselves for the storm, imagining that there must have been something we could have done to prevent it.


  • ·      “I should have seen her one more time.” 
  • ·      “I shouldn’t have spoken those angry words.” 
  • ·      “If I had it to do all over again, I’d accede to his unreasonable demands and maybe I would forestall a split.” 
  • ·      “It’s all my fault.” 
We take that even further, imagining that the storm is not just one that God is sleeping through but that God has sent the storm in punishment for some flaw that we have—something that makes us particularly susceptible to divine anger. 

And guess what?  That kind of thinking is a thinly masked version of fear.  In fact it’s worse than fear, because it is fear cloaked by shame, a profound sense of inadequacy, even sometimes a sense of worthlessness to the point of paralyzing depression.  And it becomes even worse than all that when we are so far from any idea of God that we don’t even imagine that there’s a God whom we’ve made into an enemy.  We might have, in Nietzsche’s phrase, killed God, with no choice remaining but to be gods ourselves, thus having total responsibility for our own torment.

A pretty bleak place, this.

But there is in all the darkened sky, just enough light to see by.  And in that ray of light there rises a possibility.  It is possible that we might become exasperated enough to cry at some god, even though that god be our own paltry selves, “Do you now care that I am perishing?”  And just that much anger is enough to dispel depression or sadness or paralysis to the point that we’re perhaps able to hear from deep within us a bigger question:  why are you afraid?  Why?  What are you getting out of your fear?  What’s the pay-off? 

Now there is no guarantee.  I’d be a fool to say otherwise.  Nothing is guaranteed to still the storm, calm the elements, return everything to peace and quiet.  But there is a chance that out of the chaos, once we rise to the moment with even an ounce of courage, that courage is like a spark that catches the stubble around it.   Winds only fan the flame.  Take heart! 

The odd thing is that neither the outward nor the inner storms actually go away.  But in both, just that ounce of courage, of trust, is enough to build a nest for peace in the midst of chaos and calamity. 

I heard a man once tell a story about a fellow who was incarcerated in an enemy prison during the Viet Nam War.  In his cell, all alone, not knowing whether he would survive nor how, he had one lone cellmate:  a rat.  The rat turned out to be a female with the job of feeding her young with what crumbs she could scavenge on the floor of prison cells and whatever else comes in the way of rats.  The prisoner strangely took hope from the rat, making the dangerous trek out of the nest every day on the prowl for something to keep her young and herself alive.  The soldier said when finally released that it was the rat that helped him build a nest down in his own scared soul.  Imagine.  A cold trap with nothing but a rat for inspiration.  But that is all it took for one human being to get through years of a weird and mind-destroying storm.

And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace!  Be still.”  Then the wind ceased and there was a dead calm.  And he said to them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this...?”

A sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, 2018, Proper 7, Year B

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018

A Clod Of Earth

We stood by her bedside...

Yesterday, Joe and I went to visit a friend of ours who is in the last days of her life.  She has lived well over 80 years courageously, plowing new ground, touching many lives, articulating her faith.  She cannot talk much now.  We stood by her bedside, one of us holding her hand, the other gently stroking her arm.  All the talk went in one direction, though clearly she knew us and, I believe, appreciated that we were there.  The short while we spent with our friend points up to me a question as I project myself into her situation sometime in the future.  Is it better to remain in the body, or is it better to depart the body?  It is a question that lies beneath much of what St. Paul says to the Corinthians.  You hear it today.

You may be one of the many people I’ve known who intensely dislike St. Paul. People frequently find Paul difficult to understand, his arguments hard to swallow, his vocabulary a far cry from what they perceive to be the simple gospel of Jesus.  Thomas Jefferson is perhaps one of the most famous examples of people raised in the Christian tradition who took a razor and glue and excised from the New Testament the passages that he couldn’t stand, saving those consonant with his own philosophy.  Not surprisingly, St. Paul was irrelevant to Jefferson’s project of compiling “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” 

Whether you turn off to Paul or whether you are one of his fans, I invite you to consider some of the ideas that are packed into a chapter or two of his Second Letter to the Corinthians.  This invitation I frankly issue knowing that in order to get at anything you might want to take home with you entails dodging, if not trashing, some of the ideas that over the centuries folks have imagined Christian faith to be about.  Let’s go straight to the heart of some basic issues.

Like what, for instance?  Like this:  how does one actually live a daily life in actual accord with authentic faith in Jesus?  Like this:  what is important about bodily life with all of its possibilities for joy, bliss, ecstasy even—as well as its possibilities and probabilities of pain, sickness, weakness, trouble, distress?  Like this:  how do we square a life “in Christ,” to use Paul’s term, with the anxieties, distractions, challenges that ordinary experience in the world of politics, employment, relationships, tosses our way—experiences that in one way or another keep us worked up, fretting and stewing about issues that seem to be—and often are—beyond what we can control or even attempt to handle?

Let’s start with a central term in Paul’s argument in the fifth chapter of Second Corinthians.  That term is “body.”  Borrowing from the current well-known philosophy of the Greek Stoics, Paul essentially counts as immaterial whether or not one is living the everyday life or has died and gotten beyond the cares of this world.  Why?  Because the reality that he and you and I are living into is a living Christ.  We have been delivered from what we might call the ordinary way of life in the world, and have begun to live life dancing to a completely new tune.  It is new, though ancient.  It is new to us, but only because we’ve inherited a pattern of living that is at odds with what we are designed for.  It is new because it involves a renewed consciousness, and awaking to a reality that can easily be missed if we are (and we certainly are) distracted from noticing it by whatever occupies us at the moment. 

"As many as have been baptized into Christ
have clothed themselves with Christ..."
Now lots of people read Paul, not here but elsewhere, notably Romans 7, and completely misunderstand another term he uses, which is “flesh.”  While “flesh” and “body” would seem to us to be the same thing, for Paul they are significantly different.  “Flesh” has to do with what we can think of as an ego-driven life.  Flesh is effectively soulless.  If you look at how flesh behaves, you may start listing such things as greediness, argumentativeness, divisiveness, one-up-man-ship, fearfulness, anxiety, refusal to forgive wrongs, and on and on.  “Body,” on the other hand is inescapably how we experience life in this world.  Indeed Paul begins this section of Second Corinthians marveling that we have the treasure of Christ’s life in what he calls “clay jars,” meaning the physical body.[1]  So Paul’s project, quite unlike that of other sects and belief systems popular at the time, was not to get out of the body and become pure spirit, but rather to experience the power of the indwelling Christ in this life here and now.  When we encounter Paul in other places using the metaphor of “walking by the Spirit,” that is what he is talking about.  For him, the death and resurrection of Christ has changed everything, including the entire thrust of history.  “If anyone is in Christ,” Paul says, “there is a new creation.  Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”[2] Christ has opened up a new age into which we are invited to enter through our baptism.  “As many as are baptized into Christ have clothed themselves with Christ,” he says to the Galatians.[3]  That makes sense when compared with what he says in Romans, “Clothe yourselves with Christ, and make no provisions for the desires of the flesh.”[4]  Now you see that “flesh” is not the body but actually the “normal” way of life in the world that is antagonistic to Christ, and indeed is a product of those powers that crucified Christ and continue to do so.

That brings us to a second phrase, key to understanding both what Paul meant and the implications for us.  The whole sentence runs thus:  “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.”  Stop and think for a moment about Jesus.  How do you imagine Jesus?  Is he a dead historical figure, one who lived two millennia ago, remote from your personal experience but still a person whom you admire from a distance?  Is he a larger-than-life spiritual being that you imagine “up there” or “out there” in space?   Is he a buddy, a friend, a companion that walks beside you, to whom you chat intimately and in whom you confide?  Paul rarely talks about “Jesus” but frequently talks about “Christ.”  To borrow wording you may know from the Book of Common Prayer, “Christ dwells in us and we in him.”  Christ is a living reality, closer to us than the clothes we wear or the air we breathe.  We are, he says, “ambassadors for Christ,” possible precisely because who we are, how we live, and what we do manifest Christ—which is the primary way that others can come to know him as real.[5]

If you want to take something away today to chew on, try this, because there is nothing more important, relevant, or critical for Christians in this country today.  If you can’t imagine Christ doing something—let’s say for example, ripping families apart and taking screaming children from their sobbing parents—then it is totally inappropriate to be Christian and either do such things or sanction such things.  It doesn’t matter what your church credentials are or how many degrees in God you have or what your justification is.  And it serves to bring us to a third an challenging phrase in this epistle.  “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.”  Now that notion will only serve to fuel the fires of those who treat the Christian life as a system of rewards and punishment, a matter of retributive justice where the goods (generally imagined to be the afterlife) are parceled out to those who deserve them and withheld as retribution for those who don’t.  But I invite you to consider laying this notion alongside what we’ve already said that Paul means about the indwelling Christ.  If Christ dwells in us, so does his judgment seat.  And while we might imagine that Judgment to be at the entrance of the next life, or at the hour of our death, or at the end of human history, the reality is that the judgment is as present this moment as it will be at some future time. That in turn means that we are held accountable for what we do with the inner life of Christ and its inevitable outward expression.  There is no reason to puzzle over what the life of Christ is like.  All we have to do is to read the gospels.  His was a life driven by a passion for justice to the point he was willing to take on both political policy and religious tradition, overturning the practices that oppressed the poor and subjugated the powerless.   His was a life on fire with zeal for breaking down barriers that people use to separate themselves from fellow human beings.  His was a life that saw the unity of all under the reign of God.  He got angry, hungry, lonely.  He became joyful, playful, serious, stern.  He practiced inclusiveness, acceptance, and forgiveness.  He never asked that anyone worship him, and never requested that churches be built in his honor or that he become remembered mainly for starring in stained glass.  Those who would be so bold as to say that they follow him, let alone love him, are like him. 

"We have this treasure in clay vessels..."
No one who even tries half-way to be like Jesus will find it easy and few will find it natural.  Generally it requires a radical shift in our way of thinking and our way of being, because we are formed by forces that teach us in many cases to be the opposite of what he was.  And that is why, being accountable, we need to make a daily trip deep inside ourselves to the judgment seat of Christ, where we can honestly say, “I have fallen far short of the Life, this treasure contained within this clay jar called me.”  Sometimes we can honestly go so far as to say, “I have wandered far in a land that is waste.”  That is where mercy and honesty kiss each other.  It is never about being perfect.  It is about owning the fact that we are just bodies, living in a world where the pressure to seem what we least are weighs heavily upon us.  It is knowing that you are and I am, as the great Carl Jung once said, “just a clod of earth.”  Yet it is also remembering that though we are clay—dust even—we live in Christ and Christ in us.  That is enough to take us through the darkest day that ever dawned.

A sermon preached on June 16, 2018, on 2 Corinthians 5:6-17.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018

[1] 2 Corinthians 4:7.
[2] 2 Corinthians 5:17.
[3] Galatians 3:27.
[4] Romans 13:14.
[5] 2 Corinthians 5:20.

Friday, May 25, 2018

You Are the Dance

I’ll be honest with you.  I tried for years to make Trinity Sunday something memorable.  I was even rector of a Trinity Parish for thirteen years.  So at least on thirteen different occasions I worked hard to make it something other than the last Sunday of the church school year, the Sunday that often fell on Memorial Day weekend, the Sunday that paled in comparison to Pentecost the week before, the Sunday that Hallmark cards knew nothing about, and the Sunday that clergy frequently blow by saying that the Trinity is just totally beyond understanding. 

You might want to read it.
My enthusiasm for the Trinity has been rekindled, thanks in no small measure to Richard Rohr’s new book The Divine Dance:  The Trinity and Your Transformation.[1]  The title gives the message away. The Trinity is about your transformation.  But if you’re like me, you want to know why the transformation and where it’s coming from.  You want to know, if somebody wants to transform you, what you’re being changed into.

I want to deal with those questions, but first I want to tell you a couple of stories about my own pilgrimage with the Trinity.  When in seminary one of my first and favorite courses was one entitled “The History of Christian Doctrine to the Middle Ages.” When we read St. Augustine’s famous tract “On the Trinity,” I was tickled by his phrase, “vestigia Trinitatis,” which can be translated “traces of the Trinity” or “footprints of the Trinity.”  Augustine found that there were three’s all over the place in nature, in human beings, and so on.  I thought it was hilarious.  Smart-aleck that I was, to some of my friends I lampooned the idea saying that I supposed when Augustine ran into some poison ivy with its three-leaf clusters he thought of the Holy Trinity.  Now, however, I have come to see that Augustine was onto something, as we’ll see in a moment.

A couple of years after seminary, I was ordained and in my first parish as the curate.  On my first Trinity Sunday, which fell soon after my arrival, my rector preached a sermon in which he said that the Trinity—one God expressed as three persons—contains the brilliant insight that the very nature of God is relationship.  For God cannot be understood apart from community—it’s in God’s very nature.  I’ve spent the ensuing 45 years processing that sentence.  Putting both these anecdotes together, I can see how for years I’ve been carrying around with me these two ideas that have now come not only to make sense to me but are quite literally transforming the way I approach and appropriate reality.  Augustine’s notion of the traces of God throughout nature has less to do with poison ivy and shamrocks than it has to do with relationship.  We now know that everything in the universe affects everything else. There is literally nothing in complete isolation, because isolation is an illusion at best.  Not only is everything related to something, but each category of thing, no matter how we slice the cake, is contained within a larger category.  In quantum physics, “entangled particles” remain connected so that actions performed on one affect the other, even when they are separated by great distances. Einstein dubbed it "spooky action at a distance."[2]  Although this might be a prominent but unique example of relatedness, the same thing occurs repeatedly in both physical and psychic experience.  Even without resorting to these sorts of discussions, consult your own experience to find how not a day goes by that you are not affected in hundreds of ways by a host of things.  It comes from being in a body.  Because bodies have to be somewhere.  And that somewhere is always some kind of environment, if nothing more than a bed in ICU or a prison cell where a body is affected by whatever else is in that space.

Entangled particles

My friend Bruce P. Grether has recently published The 9 Realities of Stardust, in which he argues persuasively that nothing is actually separate from anything else.[3]  We are quite literally stardust, creatures that are made out of stars born of the Big Bang, stars that died and turned to dust just as we ourselves will do.  And the dust of the stars becomes the stuff of planets that ultimately takes the shape of specific forms.  Fascinating! You see where this is going.  The Force that sets off the Big Bang bringing the universe into existence is the Source that incarnates itself in every particle, quark, string in the universe.  What is not material is the sheer energy of that Force itself.
Peter Paul Rubens, "The Three Graces."  1630-35, in the Prado, Madrid.
In Greek mythology, the Graces are often depicted dancing together in
unity, not unlike the Greek Fathers' depiction
of the divine dance of the Holy Trinity.
The name Christians give to the Source is God.  But “God,” the primal and overarching Unity, is a dynamic that manifests in three distinct ways.  There is always the Source itself. And there is always whatever way the Source makes itself known, felt, observed, experienced.  And thirdly there is what Rohr calls “The Divine Dance” engaging the two.  Rohr writes, “Whatever is going on in God is a flow, a radical relatedness, a perfect communion between Three.”[4]  The ancient Greek Church Fathers depicted the Trinity as a round dance, an endless flow of love back and forth between Father and Son, a trinitarian dynamism that goes on endlessly. 

This would all be just another exercise in trying to understand the Trinity rationally if we were to stay in our heads cogitating about it.  Quite honestly, that is where a great many people in our culture are most comfortable.  We tend to want to figure it all out before we plunge in.  But here is the very point at which I become charged about it. This divine dance is not going on somewhere out there.  It is going on right here and right now.  Not just in this church but this very minute in you and me.  There is not a cell in your body, not a substance passing through your alimentary canal, not a hair on you or a microscopic mite clinging to you that does not have the imprint of the Trinity.  It doesn’t even matter whether you believe in God enough to use the word “God.” If it exists, whether animate or inanimate, it is buzzing with life.  The dance takes the form of electrons whizzing in their subatomic clouds.  The gorgeous crystals of geodes are as alive with the dance as any bacterium or protozoan or elephant.  Complexity varies.  Consciousness makes a huge difference.  Mind differs from species to species.  Plants and planets vary widely.  But there is nothing that does not fit in the universe. 

Rainbow crystal geode

But what about other things that we associate with God?  Does this Trinity not have a moral standard?  Of course it does.  Or more precisely, of course God does.  But what our Triune God doesn’t have is a human-made morality.  And that is frequently what people suppose God is, namely a great big being who thinks like us.  Remember that the very nature of God is Love.  Thus the divine dance is pure unadulterated love.  The only way to be with the flow is to love.  We are, so far as is known, the only species on this planet that has difficulty being what we are created to be.  Plants and other animals just simply are.  Sometimes their nature is pretty.  Sometimes by our standards it’s not. 

But we humans get into deep trouble when we start living contrary to the flow.  Trinitarian morality, as evidenced by Jesus, is neither flimsy nor fluffy.  It certainly is firm, courageous, and bold.  Everything that Jesus reveals about God accords with love.  If you want to see what love is like when it is diverted and obstructed, then go to Jesus’ denunciation of the religious leaders of his time and read aloud what he says to them [Matthew 23; Luke 11:37-53].  Listen and understand that when love is thwarted, dammed up, twisted by systems how quickly it is displaced by injustice and downright hate.  Read aloud those passages in John’s gospel where Jesus takes on the forces of darkness [John 8:31-59].  Read and re-read today’s gospel about Nicodemus and hear Jesus talk about transformation in terms of being begotten anew (or “born again.”) [John 3:1-17] To live life from the motive of love is in effect to reinvent what it means to be human.  The most radical thing that Jesus ever said was “except you become as a child, you will never enter the kingdom [Matthew 18:1-4, cf. Mark 9:36-37, Luke 9:46-48].”  He was not talking about an afterlife, but a different way of living.  That is what he means when he tells Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.  The child is the model not because of innocence or purity, but because the child is newly minted—and, if young enough, malleable and not stuck in ruts.  Return to that moment of your own creation, when, as the poet Rilke wrote, this happened:

God speaks to each of us as [God] makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.[5] 

That is what it means to be transformed—to return to the Source, to be in its flow, to live free, to play, to love profligately not just people but all creation.  And while you’re at it, don’t forget that love won’t go very far from you if you don’t first love yourself.

A sermon preached on Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018.

Newly minted

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018.

[1] Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. New Kensington, PA:  Whitaker House, 2017).
[3] Bruce P. Grether, The 9 Realities of Stardust:  A Guide To Being Human In the Universe.  (Wimberley, TX:  Heart Bird Books, 2017).
[4] Rohr, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, Kindle Locations 362-363.

[5]  Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (The Berkley Publishing Group: 1996), 119, text alt. by the writer.