Friday, November 15, 2019

The Point Of It All

In almost half century as a priest of the Church, only three people have trusted me enough to ask me to preach when they were celebrating their new ministries in congregations.  Pan, thank you for your trust, because, to be honest, preaching on this particular occasion is somewhat like preaching on Thanksgiving Day, to my mind the hardest of all occasions on which to say anything fresh and new, the message inevitably being precisely what most people expect, so obvious is the point.

Or is the point so obvious?

Lots of things can be said about the priest-congregation relationship, too many, in fact, to fit into one sermon.  But of all the things that seem most relevant to this occasion is that we need not to miss the point of it all.  And the point is not that a parish has a rector or that the pastor is now officially with her flock in a new way.  The point is what the entire ministry is about. 

One clue is captured by the title of tonight’s liturgy:  it is a renewal.  If ministry is not constantly renewing itself, it is not ministry.  I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t ministry.  Ministry is about life and living people.  It is about living things.  Indeed it is so much about life that it is not afraid to face and talk about and deal with death, because there is no life on this planet apart from death. 

Take a look at the gospel [for tonight].  As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”  The setting for these words, you might remember, is the night in which Jesus was handed over to suffering and death.  John’s gospel presents this as the heart of Jesus’ farewell discourse with his disciples. It is the night we call “Maundy Thursday,” marked in the church by recalling Jesus’ outrageous parable-in-action of washing his disciples’ feet, a unique, revolutionary idea then and now.  He is saying in effect, “If you haven’t caught on by now, let me be clear.  The point is love.  Love one another.  That is the way and the only way you have a part of me and I of you.  And this is the way it’s done.  Stoop.  The way up is the way down.  Let go.  Plumb the depths.  Don’t push to get ahead.  Don’t puff yourself up.  You already have everything you need.  Give.  Love.

Now that is not just John’s peculiar gospel.  It is the point of the entire thing, the heart of the message. 

Now compare that with your experience of church.  It might well be that you find getting down on your knees, literally or figuratively, and submitting to others is exactly what you experience [at St. Alban’s]. Or maybe not.  Let me tell you what I often see.  Sometimes I see congregations that are split apart by strife, dominated by competing egos both of clergy and laity, generally over things like the color of the carpet, not the color of somebody’s skin, though there’s that too.  I see congregations that are in a high state of anxiety because they’re not what they used to be, or not what they’d planned on being.  They’re shrinking and they think that is a terrible thing. So they say they want to grow without realizing that there is no growth without change and no change without conflict.  In fairness, I see some congregations that are filled with joyful people, joyful even while broken, glad to be together and even gladder to welcome the stranger.  What makes the difference?

I would suggest that what makes a church healthy and happy is exactly what works for an individual.  Learning new things, rejoicing in others, giving lavishly and prodigally, being open to novel ideas, swapping anxiety for the art of being vulnerable, owning the parts of ourselves that we find most difficult and challenging.  What would happen if we understood the church as a school for actually following the example of Christ?  What would it be like to acknowledge that the only reason we exist is to practice, practice, practice love in every possible way we can?  What if we constantly recalled ourselves to the one commandment that Our Lord gave us, “Love one another as I have loved you”?  Imagine a church that opened every meeting not with a perfunctory prayer but with a brief time of sharing things such as when you’ve had a moment close to Christ, or when you learned something from a mess you made, or how you climbed down a few minutes from the strain of trying to do everything perfectly and laughed at your own imperfection?

You get the picture.  Even at our best and wisest, we have a long way to go and a long way to grow.  You might say, “Well, that’s not the church I want. That’s an extrovert’s dream, not mine.”  I understand.  I invite you to consider that a renewal of ministry is more than a restarting yet again of something that has gone on for years but a willingness to ponder anew what it means to love one another, and to experiment with as many ways of loving as we can.  How can you be most natural, most true to your core self, your soul?  That, it seems to me, is the point of all this.

It’s fascinating to me that when I listen to the words from the Book of Joshua, for example, with this point of view in mind, suddenly everything begins to fall into place.  “The Book of the Law” that Joshua references is not the Bible as we know it, and certainly not the Bible used as a club to clobber people into social conformity or religious bigotry.  Ultimately that “Law” boils down to one word:  love.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.  If there is anything new in the commandment that Jesus gives to his community, it is this:  “Love one another as I have loved you.” 

Ah!  That’s the hard part.  Don’t ever believe anyone, including yourself, who says that love is a piece of cake.  It is what powers every atom in this body of God called the universe.  It is what we are created for.  But we humans have evolved in such a way that our very ability to be a conscious species gets in the way of our exercising anything like the love that Jesus models for us.  His is no sickly sweet kind of love, but one of amazing courage with arms outstretched at once to embrace the outcast and off-scouring of society and simultaneously ready to tussle with the powers of oppression found in the collusion of religion and State.  That love is the kind of love that can fully embrace mortality as he did on the cross.  So we’re talking about real fire here, an awesome energy that is anything but tame. 

The average parish church, even the spectacular parish church, is a microcosm of the Earliest Church we know of, beset with differences of opinion over hot-button issues, uncertain as to how to practice a new-found freedom in Christ, torn between custom and tradition on the one hand and the impulse to be inclusive on the other. There is no disconnect but rather continuity between how nations behave and how individuals and organizations like the church behave.  There is the ever-present issue of clashing interests fueled by fears of not being enough or having enough.  A simpler way of putting it may be, in the words of Ella Wheeler Wilcox a century ago,

So many gods, so many creeds,
  So many paths that wind and wind
  While just the art of being kind
Is all the sad world needs.[1]

The only way to get there is in fact the work of ministry.  It is to persist in practicing the process that St. Paul describes for the Romans:

Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God—what is good and acceptable and whole.[2]

So there again is the point of it all:  the continual process of transformation, an endless spiral of renewal, learning how to be like Jesus, or, as he once put it, becoming children so that we can live in union with our Creator, creating and spreading love as if there’s no tomorrow.  To love like that is to renew ministry from its roots to its blossom. 

A sermon preached at the Renewal of Ministry and the Celebration of the Reverend Dr. Pamela Conrad as the 11th Rector of St. Alban’s Church Episcopal, Glen Burnie, Maryland, November 14, 2019.

[1] Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Voice of the Voiceless,” on the internet at, accessed November 14, 2019.

[2] Romans 12:2, translation mine.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

In Memoriam: 9/11/2001

The following are remarks I made on Sunday, September 16, 2001, at a gathering in the plaza of the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. 

I speak in the name of God, the Creator of all, the Redeemer of all, the Sanctifier of all. 


hen the nation was clamoring for revenge and retaliation for civilian American lives tragically slaughtered by the enemy, and every avenue to avert war had been exhausted, the President of the United States signed the Declaration of War.  Then he put his head down on the cabinet table and wept.
The President was Woodrow Wilson.  The year was 1917.  And the day was Good Friday. 
America entered a war that had begun with a terrorist act: an organized assassination.  It was the cruelest and ghastliest of all wars this planet had ever known.  You can read the Books of Remembrance in British churches and see page after page of names of young men who were slaughtered in the trenches of France.  Literally a generation of the young was wiped out in the horror that ensued. 
I don’t know why the President wept on that Good Friday afternoon.  Did he weep for himself?  Did he weep for America?  Maybe it was because he knew, as he told a veteran news correspondent and editor, “Once lead this people into war, and they’ll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance….”  Or was it because he sensed the deep irony that on that very day when the Christian world was remembering the death of Jesus, he was signing the death warrant for Christ to die all over again in young doughboys who would lie beneath crosses in places like Flanders Field?
We meet today at the monument of the turning point of another great war.  We meet in a town where an incredible number of young lives were wiped out in an invasion that ultimately would mean liberation from a regime of unprecedented horror and evil.  America entered that war only when, on a quiet sunny morning, enemy bombs had made mincemeat of The United States fleet.  President Roosevelt was outraged.  The country was shocked.  December 7, 1941, is still a day that lives in infamy. 
Today we are faced with another momentous occasion.  This time, another sneak attack.  This time, an act of obscene hatred and violence carried out again against unarmed citizens.  But this time, a complicated enemy hard to detect, difficult to pin down, capable of cloning its own violence hundreds of times.  And an enemy convinced in righteous indignation that it has God on its side; that its acts of terror and destruction are not only justified but also holy; that its program of retaliation is compelling enough for its warriors gladly to yield their lives to fiery deaths, so right they are.
I talk today about history because human history is exactly what the Judeo-Christian tradition understands to be the sphere of God’s activity.  And if we are going to speak about God, we have  to look at history, God’s lesson book.
What have we learned?  One lesson that we have learned is that violence breeds more violence, and terror begets more terror.  We cannot play into that!  If, in the best judgment of our leaders, this nation must engage in military action, no doubt the country will support them—no doubt at all.  But do not be deluded into believing that that violence will not come at great cost!  Far more than the lives we will lose in any one military action, the cost will spiral into an ever-broadening wildfire of hatred and revenge.  Through our cries for retaliation and revenge, in so many throats this week, we need to hear and heed the words of Ghandi.  He said, “If we live by the law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be both blind and toothless.”  Pour out instead your prayers for peace and healing as you have never done before.  Envision a world wrapped in its Mother’s arms.  If this dreadful attack is a wake up call, let it rouse us to double our efforts for peace:  peace in our hearts, peace in our homes, peace in our nation, peace for our planet.
What have we learned?  We have learned that religious intolerance and hatred, no matter of what stripe, are tools of evil.  Hear me carefully.   I speak in the name of the Prince of Peace.  If we, individually and as a nation, turn against one another in disrespect and outright hatred, we are replicating the same bigotry and self-righteousness of the terrorists themselves.  There is no difference between Islamic fanaticism and Jewish fanaticism and Christian fanaticism except the labels. All are life denying and peace shattering.  God calls all people of this world into unity with God and one another.  Let there be no place in this society, under attack in part because of our openness and acceptance, for finger pointing and blame laying and scapegoating.   Reach out in support to Arab Americans.  Join with Muslims as with all others in the family of religions and assure them of your good will.  Live with courage the words of the hymn, “Who loves the Father as his child is surely kin to me.”
What have we learned?  We have learned that God shows up at the least likely of times and in the worst stenches imaginable.  Julia Ward Howe wrote that we have seen God in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps.  Well, this week we have seen the face of God:   in exhausted firefighters, in strangers reaching out to hold the grieving, in physicians and nurses and technicians aiding the wounded, in hands digging down into the rubble to clear a path for life where there is life.  “Where charity and love dwell, God is truly there.”  In the Persian Gulf War, when some Iraqi soldiers finally came out of their bunkers expecting to be killed by Americans, they found themselves instead washed and fed and treated humanely.  That is the spirit of Christ.  That is the face of God. 
What we have yet to learn is that Jesus was not joking when he said, “Love your enemies.”  “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who persecute you, pray for those who abuse you.”  That is the lesson that the world needs to hear, and that is the way to the healing that we so deeply seek.
Whatever the reason, President Wilson was right to weep, just as he was right to sign the Declaration of War.  Sometimes we have to do what we most fear.  But, in the end, if we are as open, as humble, as loving as we can be, then, in the long march of history the world will become as God created it to be:  free, and whole. 

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Good Faith

Faith. If only I had more.

Have you ever heard yourself saying that? Or somebody else saying it?

Let me ask you something. If you had more faith (assuming you want more), what would you do with it? What would it do for you?

Marc Chagall, Abraham and Sarah
Once upon a time, according to Luke, though not in today’s gospel, the disciples asked Jesus: “Lord, increase our faith.” And he answered them, “If you had the faith of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘be uprooted and planted in the middle of the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Another version of that story appears in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is provoked at his disciples for having so little faith. They have tried unsuccessfully to perform an exorcism. After Jesus upbraids them and takes over the project himself, the disciples ask Jesus why they weren’t able to cast the demon out. “Because of your little faith,” he said. “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’”

So is that what we want if we want more faith? To be able to do the impossible? Or is faith something else?

The writer to the Hebrews clearly had some idea of faith, and I am not sure that his was exactly what Luke’s Jesus had in mind. That writer (whose identity we do not know and can only speculate about, but who was most certainly not St. Paul) wrote out a long, sustained argument, the longest in the whole Bible. He set out to demonstrate conclusively that Jesus on the cross had performed once and for all the sufficient sacrifice that had never been done and could never be done in the Jerusalem Temple. The writer with good reason takes his time in recounting what might be called the “faith history” of Israel.
Icon of Jesus Healing the Epileptic Boy

We do not have to guess what was in his mind. He tells us. Christ is the great High Priest who has made atonement, unlike any “high priest” that there ever had been. By a single offering Christ has reconciled humanity and God. Sins are forgiven. There is no need for any more sacrificial offerings for sin. Christ’s sacrifice is thoroughly effective. “Therefore,” states the writer, we have confidence to enter the sanctuary (that is, the presence and life of God) by the blood of Jesus. And we can approach with a “true heart in full assurance of faith, simply because all the barriers to our being with God and living in God have been removed by Jesus. But there are some precautions.  (How could it be the Bible and there not be?) We must know that if we willfully persist in ego-driven behavior after having received knowledge of the truth, we will effectively be acting contrary to the indwelling God. Still, the author calls his audience to remember the struggles they have been through, the abuse, the persecution. He exhorts them not to shrink back, but to live in full confidence that the loss of nothing is nearly as great as what God has promised. This, he says, is how the righteous live and have always lived: by faith. He begins calling the roll of those who in the holy history have been examples of faith: Abel, Noah, Abraham, Sarah. “All of these,” he says, “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” They were, he says, like foreigners on earth. They knew that they belonged to a different land, a different reality. They could have looked behind and moaned sentimentally about all that they had lost and left behind, and could even have returned. But they kept pressing on towards a better country, a future with God, a heavenly country. And indeed God had prepared a city for them.

What is his point in all this? It’s to get his Christian audience to take heart! He wants to inspire them to keep on moving, going, growing; not to give up; to follow the examples of their forebears, not to mention the example of the pioneer and perfecter of their faith, Jesus, who pressed on through cross and shame and suffering to be seated at God’s right hand in glory. “You can do it!” he says. “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet….” Faith is the quality, very closely related to hope, that keeps people from giving up.
Sojourner Truth

But that’s not the only thing that faith is. Not, at least, according to the Bible, which is something of a textbook on faith and faithfulness. Faith is not essentially about believing a set of doctrines or teachings, though it has come to mean that for a great many people. To have faith means to put your trust in somebody. It is essentially about giving your heart to somebody, even at the risk of having it trampled and trashed. Faith can be believing something that you have no evidence for, only a hunch about, or less, or more. Faith can be practicing piety like saying your prayers and going to church, or it can mean the things you believe or the persons you follow, whether they are religious or not. Faith can be virtuous or it can be pig-headed. It can make life sweet when it works like a charm, and it can be a bitter disappointment when faith turns out to have been sadly misplaced.

John Chapman,
known as Johnny Appleseed
Are you still sure that you want some faith? Or more of it? Some of you will tell me that you have all the faith you need and that what you have works perfectly fine for you. I’m sure you do, and I rejoice that it works well. Others may say that you don’t get what it is all about. Faith is about as appealing to you as a root canal. The truth of the matter is that we can’t live very well without faith. By that I do not mean we need to live a particularly “religious” lifestyle. I am talking about faith as a matter of trust. I am thinking even more specifically about faith as a quality of taking risks, like Abraham and Sarah, the practice of striking out occasionally into the unknown, for which you have no guarantees, and in which you have no charts or road maps. It is true that a great many people—you may be one of them—have an aversion to taking risks, and who can convincingly argue that they do very well staying on the safe side of things. I’d be lying if I didn’t say to such folk that I’d like to rattle their cages a bit! But this gospel we proclaim is not one that we can use to slam the timid and retiring—or anyone else—suggesting that somehow they count less than the brave-hearted. Yet, the writer to Hebrews has a point. People did not get to be models of faith by hedging their bets and pulling punches. The way of God demands some element of cutting loose and letting fly, for God’s sake! No one in the entire roster of faithful people gets to be in the Bible because he or she sat musing on the possibilities of adventure, vacillating about whether or not to join the innumerable caravan moving into the future with determination, analyzing to death the pluses and minuses of getting balled up in the hard stuff that comes from a challenging God.

St. Seraphim of Sarov
If we, two thousand years later, were to add to Hebrew’s gallery of faithful heroes and heroines, we would quickly see that faithfulness is not a matter of particular content, nor of a particular vocation. We would find all sorts of people who have lived faithfully, from the hermit, St. Seraphim of Zarov, to the wandering Johnny Appleseed, from the cloistered Julian of Norwich to the activist Dorothy Day to the courageous mystic Sojourner Truth. Whoever you are, you can be faithful.

Are you one of the many people who have stopped believing that? Have you been jerked around by the Church to the point you have spiritual whiplash, and only want it to stop? Do you find yourself wandering away from faith, convinced that the requirement of being faithful means to forfeit your intellect or in some cases your sense of common decency like many who set themselves up as paragons of right and do nothing to stop this cruel rampage against humanity now picking up steam? Some of us are slow to wake up and realize that there is more to life than conforming to social expectations (be they set by your parents or by gangs in the ghetto or Vogue magazine or Oprah), totally unaware that life is a many-layered thing, and that some of the best layers are invisible to the naked eye, known to make the heart quiver, and the spirit do a somersault. It is just this kind of insight that nearly everyone on the Hebrews all-star line-up exhibits. Our author says that they knew their true native land was somewhere besides the front porch. They listened to a Voice that called them away from the familiar towards another country, a heavenly one.

Dorothy Day
My own take on most of the people on the Hebrews list is that they were not in fact motivated by a dream of an afterlife. Most of them did not know what that was, including Abraham, the prototype of faithfulness. But they did have a notion of “heaven,” if by “heaven” we mean where God is and if heaven and therefore God is everywhere including as close to you as your nose or your forehead or your buttocks. Being faithful is not dreaming of some airy-fairy world. When it comes right down to it, being faithful is taking the presence of God in your own life quite seriously.

We need people of faith, real faith, as never before. We are facing issues and battles today of unprecedented proportions. We live in a society where there are now more guns than people, where those who could do something about it choose weak-kneed responses and cynically offer their thoughts and prayers as if consolation of victims were a way to stop violence. It is just a matter of time before the next catastrophic environmental disaster like poisoned water or a gigantic oil spill will be the news for a day or two. The planet heats up and people either refuse to believe it, or believe it and refuse to alter their behavior. Meanwhile we let the religious crazies, at home and abroad, hijack our faith traditions and dictate the terms on which we decide to be faithful or not. We are looking at every bit as dangerous a time as Hebrews ever saw: a slow collapse of social institutions, a debasing of education, the triumph of anti-intellectualism, a fickle electorate that is run largely by fear, cynical so-called leaders who lie big enough and long enough and steadily enough that hosts of people find it easier to believe the lie than to pull up stakes, like Abraham, and hit the road for the One who is True.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
The real enemy of faith is fear. The question confronting us is, “So what are you afraid of?” Whatever may be holding you back from running a risk or taking a stand or making a witness is just something that puts you in the category with every other human being. We can either shrink back, dither, or take heart. Martin Luther King once said, “This faith transforms the whirlwind of despair into a warm and reviving breeze of hope. The words of a motto which a generation ago were commonly found on the wall in the homes of devout persons need to be etched on our hearts: ‘Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. No one was there.’”

A sermon preached on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010