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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

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Ice In Summer


F
or reasons I honestly cannot fathom, on this hot summer day my mind is wandering around the farm I grew up on. It is the middle of winter. Even in South Carolina in the days before drastic climate change, a severe winter storm has set in bringing ice and freezing rain. The thirty-seven acres on the farm seem huge to this boy. Woods border the fields on three sides. I stay out of the woods in hot weather for one reason only: snakes. But in the wintertime it is safe to wander through the woods. I do. I put on some boots. I walk across a frozen field and enter the wonderland. Trees bow down under the weight of ice. Sunbeams dance on bare branches caked in crystal. Hiking through Low Country woods the morning after an ice storm is not necessarily easy. It certainly isn’t fast. Trees have fallen. Ice across little streams turns out to be too thin to support my weight. I zig and zag my way forward. The adventure of moving through a tangle of vines and saplings and brush combines with the awe-inducing freeze to transport me so deep into the heart of Nature that I feel unnaturally connected to an unearthly Something. I’m seventeen. Suddenly I’m venturing into a world of rare beauty that inspires and puzzles me. 
Ice Storm in the South

Long lost to me is what I wrote when I returned to the house and warmed myself to the point that I could pick up a pen and put down some thoughts in the form of a theme for English class. What I do remember is wanting to preserve the experience, to dissect it just a bit, to get into what it was I felt when moving over a landscape at once so familiar and so mysterious. I don’t know that I grasped the paradox of great loveliness and peace a fierce storm had made possible. 

            I

Fifty-seven years have passed since that winter morning. What I believe I experienced then was perhaps not the first, but certainly one of the most memorable instances of finding my own place in creation. I was never a boy much at home in the outdoors. I liked staying inside much more than venturing outside. Reading, playing the piano, studying, and writing were much happier pursuits for me than practically anything I could name like football or baseball, hunting or fishing. I did not at first feel as if the natural world was home to me. I had a lot to learn.

On that morning walk through the ice-laden woods, I had already discovered the great Romantic poets of English literature. I learned from people like Wordsworth and Blake, Byron, Keats, and Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emerson that Nature was a Bible that communicated wisdom and truth to me. And I learned all that from a wonderful high school teacher who opened my eyes to see Truth in the world around me. 

The gravest problem the human species is facing today is the destruction of the natural world. The problem did not begin a few years ago, but has been steadily increasing in scope and severity over the last half century. A great source of the problem is that our religions in this part of the world have taught us that our individual souls are of far greater importance than our environment. They have gone so far as to school us in believing that the native and ultimate habitat of the human soul is in fact not in this world but in another world. They have been rife with images of God as having a home in a heaven that is distinctly not a part of this world. Our hymns and our preachers have told a fairly consistent story that the heaven where God lives is a land beyond the river that we call “the sweet forever,” and to that land we are bound if we are good and pass the grade. And while our religions have insisted that God is the creator of the world, their attitude has been by and large that God really doesn’t care very much about anything in this world except human beings and what we happen to prize. We have had the blessing of our religious establishments to dominate, exploit, use, and exhaust natural resources, with scarcely a murmur about the consequences. 

What you and I are trapped in, namely this wholesale cheapening of the natural world, is nothing less than a broad example of what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “slavery.” I’ll be the first to admit that when we hear words like “flesh” and “self-indulgence,” our minds go first to our appetites—especially to sex. But I invite you not to go there, just in case you like thousands of others think that Christianity in particular harps all the time in a sex-negative key. As a matter of fact, behind what we hear in Galatians, Romans, and elsewhere in the New Testament are echoes of a great struggle that goes on both within the human person and in society. Paul sometimes refers to it as two aeons or two ages. One is the Age of Adam and the other is the Age of Christ. Paul writes in First Corinthians, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” Clearly what differentiates the two is not mortality—because all humans, including Jesus, face death. But Christ represents passage, and not just at death, into a new quality of life, a new way of living, a distinctive redirection of life’s purpose. We struggle because we live in both ages at once. The question is whom do we follow. Adam represents our own human willfulness. Christ embodies free submission to the desire of God to dwell within us. 

Another way Paul frames this struggle is with the terms flesh and spirit. Think of flesh as not simply the human body, but as life that never quite gets beyond the basic struggle that all flesh engages in: the struggle  to survive. Following the Spirit is not negating the body, but reorienting our purposes for living in a radically new direction. Among other things that direction involves a change in the way we approach the natural world. 

Owning, Possessing, Hoarding:  Not Quite the Art of Living
Joe and I were watching a couple of nights ago a detective mystery in which a very wealthy man was thoroughly enamored of ancient Chinese artifacts. He was a collector who had amassed a museum-quality collection of various objects, many very precious and fragile. To him they were not to be shared, but to be prized and hoarded, only rarely to be seen by select visitors whom he could perhaps impress. What was important to him was owning the artifacts, to the point of engaging in whatever criminal activity he needed to in order to protect his ownership. That is a perfect example of the Age of Adam in full swing. That is a chilling example of walking after the flesh, living according to the gods of this world called self-indulgence, greed, avarice, malice, egotism. Our place is within the created order, not to exploit it to puff up ourselves with power, influence, fame, or privilege.

            II

Jesus is going forward, his face firmly set in the direction of Jerusalem. His agenda is constantly to confront the powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. His ministry of healing directly challenges diseases of body and spirit that infect people. He is constantly calling out the authorities both political and religious that oppress the poor and powerless. He consistently ranges himself on the side of the outcast. And along the way to Jerusalem, where he will pay the ultimate price for his witness, he calls people to follow him. One man says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replies that he has no home, no bed, but is perpetually on the move, restless, tireless in his mission. Are you really willing to follow that example? To another who wants to delay responding to Jesus’ call, he says, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Who is dead? Those who live according to the flesh, those who are stuck worshiping the gods of the Age of Adam, those who hoard their art and possessions, their money and their food, instead of sharing. Someone agrees to follow but first has to say farewell to those at home. Sounds reasonable. But this is the third metaphor that emphasizes the urgent call of the Holy One asking for admittance to the human soul. 

Mary Cassatt, "The Child's Bath," 1893
And that is the simple truth at the bottom of all this. In everything, the great Soul Maker is sitting silently in the depth of our being, simply waiting to be noticed, waiting to be acknowledged. Waiting and waiting, the Great Mother can think of nothing better than to shower love and affection on her children. Nothing pleases her more than for her children simply to play lovingly with her and with each other.

            III

A life in the Spirit, life lived in the age of Christ, is not a drab and tedious thing that is ridden with guilt over imagined sins and weighed down with shame that cannot accept itself. No, it is like a trip to a fabulous farmers market at the height of the growing season where there are fruits and vegetables aplenty. Some of them are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You won’t find laws that prohibit such things, because on both the deepest and most obvious levels those are the very things that human beings and societies most hunger for. We never quite have them until we have turned our faces in the direction our Leader is going. The fruits come with following the one through whom all things are made. 

            IV

I’ve grown a bit since that icy morning many years ago. All I could see then was the sheer beauty of a world so much larger than I. And that was enough. Now I understand that the enchanted frozen forest was not simply something that I was exploring, but a vast and profound territory that was as much inside my heart and mind as it was on the farm I called home. 

At the end of the day, when the sunlight has melted the last of the ice and has begun to sink into night, I can see the truth now. Walking by the Spirit, living in the Age of Christ, following Jesus, putting my hand to the plough and not looking back, is essentially acknowledging that I am a part of this marvelous world and all that is in it. The trees, the ice, the streams, the rocks, and even the snakes and spiders are a part of me and I of them. And so are you, my brothers and sisters. And there is absolutely nothing to do but love everything and everybody just as I love myself. We are all one, and it is all good.    


A sermon preached on Proper 8, Year C, of the Revised Common Lectionary, on the texts Galatians 5:1, 13-25, and Luke 9:51-62.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019


Friday, June 07, 2019

William Potter Parrish: A Homily For His Funeral, June 5, 2019

W
e had gathered with no little nervousness. Much was at stake, not the least of which was our future. We were knocking on the door of the Church hoping that we’d be told at some point that we’d be welcome to become priests. It was on the whole a lot easier in those days to get the desired answer than it was later to be. But none of us knew that at the time. We were three postulants for ordination at our first meeting with the examining chaplains of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, a group of senior clergy to whom Bishop Marmion and the diocese had entrusted the task of vetting us young squirts who thought we just might do that impossible job.

One of the senior, trusted clergy picked up his big fat black leather briefcase sometime about 3 in the afternoon, stuffed some papers into it, and announced that he had a meeting to attend at Lynchburg College where he was on the faculty. He struck me as a man of serious purpose and few words, pleasant but somehow a little inscrutable. But that was less about the man, The Reverend Doctor William Potter Parrish, than it was about me, a newish convert to The Episcopal Church still wondering how to navigate in a system that was largely strange to me. Everyone was inscrutable and everything a bit daunting.

What I didn’t know as I watched him pack his briefcase was that I was looking at a man who would come to have a profound impact on my life in ways I could never have imagined then. I didn’t see Bill for the next several decades. In 1992, I answered a call from the vestry of St. John’s, Lynchburg, to become rector. One thing or another had taken the entire clergy and professional staff away from here, so I came on the alert to find somebody fast to help me lead the clergy end of things. I’d hardly unpacked when the then Senior Warden, Jim Peery and his wife Doris had a small gathering to welcome Barbara and me to our new community. Two folks came up to me and said, “You know, Frank, you might be aware that a great priest is available and might be willing to give you some assistance at St. John’s. His name is Bill Parrish. Ever heard of him?” I remembered the black briefcase being shut and the man who had packed and carried it from the meeting long years before. Sure enough, within a short time, I asked and Bill agreed to come here as pastoral assistant.

And what a great day that was, not only for me but for hosts of people in this community. Bill worked several days a week and usually Sundays as well for the next twelve years and then some. He was the mainstay of clergy presence by many a sickbed, in hospitals and retirement homes, up and down the halls and in living quarters at Westminster-Canterbury. He organized a group that we came to call “Daybreak Bible Study” but which the members of it called “Bill Parrish’s Bible Study” that lasted for years. But what few parishioners knew was that Bill kept the staff smiling and the rector supported with an unfailing sense of humor, good judgment, sound counsel, and unflagging faith.

We have a way of looking back over the years and can only be breathless at the patterns we see in retrospect that were barely discernible as events unfolded one after another. I think back to mornings with the staff on Manton Drive, to conversations in weekly meetings, to moments when we’d share pastoral information, to a sermon preached on an Easter morning, a hike along the Blue Ridge Parkway with a hurting knee eventually to be replaced, dear Jackie’s final illness and Jonathan and Minou’s wedding celebration, Herb’s untimely death and young Bill’s fortuitous return to Lynchburg. Those are just a handful of moments that are a part of a pastiche of grace in which his soul rose to its full height and brought the souls of others to stand at attention. You know much more than I do. You know how he touched your life. You know what he taught you. You know what witness he bore as he shared his understanding of the Truth with you. You are here today because of him whose life directly or indirectly brushed or more substantially shaped yours maybe thousands of times, may just a few, maybe only once.

That is the grand mystery pressing upon our consciousness that causes words to form such as these:

Lord you have searched me out and known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up.
You discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting places
And are acquainted with all my ways.

The only way we ever discover such a wonder is in the details of our own lives. And the marvel of it is that such awesome love makes itself obvious not so much in the carefully scripted ways we imagine will bring us happiness and fulfillment, but in the jolts and tumbles that we’re least prepared for, twists and turns we never plan and wouldn’t in a thousand lifetimes choose. Deaths and losses and changes and revelations, challenges and dilemmas that leave us exhausted: these are the moments that alone can crack our false sense of self-sufficiency. Ultimately they form the school in which we learn whatever we learn of the power of God, the use of grace, the hope of glory.

Make no mistake. Bill Parrish didn’t get to be the priest or the teacher or the scientist or the friend or the father or grandfather that we honor him for by breezing through life going by someone else’s playbook. Like you and me, he found God showing up in the most unlikely moments, many times surprising with unexpected joy and just as many times bringing clarity through the sheer toughness of necessary change. How do I know? Not just because Bill and I spent a dozen years quite close to each other, but because it isn’t a secret that only through testing do we know what lasts, only through struggle that we experience anything worth calling victory, and only through dying to our ego-bound self that we are ever born into newness of life.

                        Where shall I go from your Spirit?
                        Where shall I flee from your presence?

                        If I climb up to heaven you are there.
                        If I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

All of that is theory and someone else’s experience until life overtakes you and you find it true because you’ve lived it or you are living it. You don’t have to worry about whether you can do it, or whether it is true for you. Nor do you have to take Bill Parrish’s or mine or anyone else’s word for it. All you have to do is look at your own life and you’ll see appearing before your face, indeed closer than your nostrils, that you haven’t really learned anything to compare with what you’ve learned when you’re pushed against the wall, undeniably out of your head’s inventoried resources. You can tell from your own experience that even in joyful times, delightful moments, you never experience pleasure while you’re busy holding back, you never know what it is to rise until see that your white-knuckled holding on is all that keeps you from rising even higher. And letting go of our ideas, preconceptions, judgments is what ultimately brings us to know what trust, the core of faith, is all about.

So it goes.

                        If I take the wings of the morning and dwell
                                    in the uttermost part of the sea
                        Even there your hand will hold me, and your right hand hold me fast.

It is true irony that when we come together, as we do today, to celebrate a human life that in many ways has been beautiful, a life that has made ours richer and fuller, the mass of us generally only knows the most superficial things that made such a person tick. The same will be true of you when your days are over and the love you’ve inspired and left behind brings together those who will honor you. We don’t know now and they won’t know then but a tiny fraction of what has really been your journey. At best they will, as we do today, intuit from the experiences they’ve had the richness of your life, its meaning, the import of your story.

And all of that is just as it should be. The soul loves mystery and rests best in silence. All words of laud and honor will be a faint tinkling in the breeze of memory. It won’t be important. What saves us is not what we’ve done nor really what we’re remembered for. What saves us is Love, the Power that brought us here and receives us back again, the Love that gave us birth and receives us again into its own deep and dazzling darkness.

It is thus with William Potter Parrish, child of God. That was and always will be quite enough.



A homily based on the text of the 139th Psalm. All quotations are from that text.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019.  Copies of this may be freely shared.  Quotations in print or online from this text should be credited to the author.  Thank you.