Monday, August 11, 2008

We Have a Story to Tell, and it Won't Wait

Practicing Proclamation:
We Have a Story to Tell, and it Won’t Wait
A Sermon Preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, August 10, 2008

Raymond Thigpen, my piano teacher, let it be known that he would not waste his time trying to teach youngsters who would not practice. I had been taking lessons from him for over a year, enough time for me to begin to push the envelope a little bit. Or maybe a lot. I came in for a lesson one Wednesday, sat down at the piano, and played the highly unpracticed Bach Two-Part Invention Number Four. I slogged my way through it and finally arrived at the end.

“Frank,” he said with a pain in his face and voice, “Frank, that is the absolute worst I have ever heard you play. And the worst I have ever heard anybody play that Invention.”

There ensued a talk about my practice habits. All I remember is that I went home and worked overtime to learn what I had so colossally blown that week. The next week I played the piece better, much better, if not well. “That’s more like it,” Raymond said.

This is the second sermon in a series I began week before last on Christian Practices. I want to interest you in what the Christian life actually looks like, how it is lived, and how we act differently because we are living it from how we might otherwise act.

You have just heard a rather astonishing and mind-stretching story. Of all the metaphors that come from The New Testament suggesting something downright unbelievable, surely “walking on water” is near the top of the list. The very phrase has come to mean a kind of absurd review of people who think more of themselves than they ought to think, or the ridiculous adulation that some folks engender when others start thinking they can “walk on water,” or do the impossible.

Verna Dozier, a Washington educator, who after her retirement taught The Episcopal Church much about how to read the Bible, used to say that, after we have asked what a Bible text says, we then have to ask why it was preserved. If this particular story was preserved to inspire courage in the infant Church, it is likely that the Church had begun to discover that the only way it was going to become courageous was to act courageously. Not Jesus but Aristotle had taught that “moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” I want to suggest that this whole story is told for the Church, the community of faith, at a time when they were huddled in a very small barque on a very stormy sea, without any palpable benefit of the Presence of Jesus to keep them non-anxious. It is a story fundamentally about fortitude, the courage required to believe in the possibility of the presence of Jesus even when Jesus is absent. It is a narrative about the faith that Jesus will in fact show up in the darkest part of the night, appear to his community, quell the storm, and show himself to his worshipers to be true God. And, guess what? The only way courage is going to become real for the church is for the church to act courageously again and again and again.

That is what a practice is. It is a set of actions continuously and systematically done over time, with a purpose in mind. In a word, that purpose is to bring us to excellence. But the essential ingredient in a practice is virtue. Think about it. If you just keep doing something over and over again you might get really good at it. But the question remains, is it good for you? When I sit in a Starbucks or ride the Metro, for example, I frequently watch hosts of young people fiddling with their cell phones sending text messages. Some of them can do it, or play computer games, at the speed of light. Human beings are that way. Do a thing over and over again and again and we get to be lightening fast at it. We become experts. We become excellent. But is the practice at hand (text messaging) a good thing? Maybe. Depends on whom we are texting and the messages we are sending. Suppose we become adept at something that is destructive. You see where this is leading, don’t you? A practice is a good practice when a virtue is involved. A virtue is one of those things that human beings need in order to be truly whole and good.

Now we have three things in play. First we have a story, the mysterious Presence of the divine Christ in an hour of crisis. Second we have established that the story is told for a purpose, namely to inspire fortitude , that strength which encounters danger with coolness and courage, to bear up against danger or to endure trouble. And third, this virtue of fortitude is what we want to acquire by practicing courageous acts.

Let’s now move in closer to this business of practicing courage and endurance. Ultimately, the reason we want to be courageous is so that we can become who we are meant to be. And our model of that is Jesus Christ. As Carl Jung put it, “Christ is a symbol of the Self.” Jesus manifests the wholeness, the balance, and all the virtues that you and I need in order to become who we are. In Bible scholar Walter Wink’s terms, Jesus is “The Human Being,” the model of the free and authentic person. Or as one of our hymns has it, “He is our… pattern.” So becoming Christlike is the long-term goal of the Christian life. Keep in mind that becoming Christlike means becoming more truly yourself, not an imitation of some willowy Jesus in a Victorian stained glass window.

So what gets in the way? Storms threaten to throw disciples off track. They get scared. They despair. The only reason they need fortitude is precisely that they won’t survive as disciples if they don’t have it. And the only way they can become brave, if you will, is by acting brave. Eleanor Roosevelt put it this way: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.”

In a way, you could look at this image of disciples huddled in a boat on a stormy sea and think: the Church has come a long way! No longer are we defenseless, scared creatures. We have enormous power and influence. But interestingly, this narrative of the Church doing battle against the prevailing winds of society has become central to the Church’s self-understanding. And that is true no matter what your stripe or denomination, regardless of your politics. At the Lambeth Conference , the worldwide gathering of bishops in the Anglican Communion, recently ended, I am quite sure that conservative African bishops, for example, see themselves buffeted by the immense winds coming from the West, which seem to threaten everything that the Gospel is about. But I was one who paid money to Integrity, an organization of Gay and Lesbian Episcopalians and our allies, so that we could have a presence at Lambeth precisely because it feels as if we are the ones who are in a pretty vulnerable boat blown about by the winds of social resistance that always sees some value, like unity, as paramount to justice and equal treatment for all.

So, if the narrative of the disciples in the boat about to go under tends to be a formative vision of the Church, no matter its situation or politics in this century, why do we need courage is pretty obvious. We need to tell our stories and speak our truth. For Matthew’s church at the end of the first century, that truth was of a resurrected Jesus who called people into a New Community opposed on the one hand by the old religious order and on the other hand by the prevailing imperial secularism. For us, it is really no different. We are called not just to tell, but to proclaim—that is to tell clearly and forcefully—the Good News of God in Christ. We say so in our baptism. We are faced with it every day.

The debate in the Church is not about whether we need courage, but about the Story we need to be telling. I think it is highly unlikely that we will ever reach the point where there is no conflict around that issue. Certainly if the history of the Church proves anything, it proves that if it is not one conflict that divides us, it will be another. This then is the “storm” which has been and will continue to rage all around us. But in the middle of it, we have a proclamation to make. It was in the middle of the storm called the Civil War when Lincoln decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves. Why not wait until the conflict is over, and then carefully assess the pros and cons of issuing a big Proclamation? Because sometimes the proclamation won’t wait. The Gospel has to be proclaimed. The story has to be told.

What is the proclamation that won’t wait today? I want to say that it is my own notion of the Good News. But I think it is deeper than that. I think the Proclamation, the story, that aches to be told all over the place is the story of how human beings can change our way of being human. Bishop John Shelby Spong gave the title to one of his more recent books, Why Christianity must Change or Die. But it is not just Christianity that must change or die, it is the whole human species and its behavior that must change or die. We cannot continue to heat up the planet and survive. We cannot continue to use war as a response to settling differences, and still survive. And nothing requires courage quite so much as massive and uncomfortable change. To call people to do the hard work of adapting to a new way of behaving, and to proclaim that change is possible is nearly as hard as walking on water. And it is clearly as hard as believing that Jesus will in fact show up when there are no signs that he will.

That we can behave differently is the proclamation of the Good News, not just that we have to. In Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean cuts across all kinds of social, political, and psychological barriers to proclaim the Good News to a man awaiting execution. But even more she exercises courage by calling into question society’s love affair with violence and revenge. She calls us to do the hard work of change and she does so courageously. The same can be said of Al Gore in his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. It is precisely because the truth is inconvenient that makes the practice of proclamation of it depend on fortitude, courage, to keep calling for massive, global change. It is true, too, of Jeffrey Sachs’ efforts and calls to get us to believe that we can end worldwide poverty. Sachs knows that we will never get there unless we believe that we can change.

So we’re not so different from the disciples in that little boat on a stormy sea after all, are we? We have a proclamation to make which requires a whole lot of fortitude, because people never ever want to do the hard work of adapting, of changing. The only way we’ll ever get good at proclaiming the Good News is by doing it over and over and over again. Whether we’re more like Frank who hasn’t practiced the piano, or like the kids on the Metro with their fingers flying at text messaging will depend on how dedicated we are to keeping at it.

Want to give up? As Marion Wright Edelman once said, “Who ever told you you had the right to give up?” Still you want to?

That is the point at which to remember the one who comes in the middle of the night, while it is still a long way from dawn and the shore, saying both words of encouragement to us and in a way summing up the proclamation itself: “Take heart. It is I. Don’t be scared.”

© Frank G. Dunn, August 11, 2008