Saturday, December 26, 2009

Saying Grace

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, the First Sunday after Christmas, December 27, 2009.

John 1:16

“From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”

Grace is not a peculiarly Christian word, nor an especially Christian concept. One can experience grace, see grace, recognize grace, act with grace, dance with grace, exercise grace, and say grace without being noticeably religious at all. But grace does occupy a very unique place in the Christian vocabulary. In fact, I would go so far as to say that one cannot tell the Christian story without talking about grace, or some other word (if there is one) that means the same thing.

“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us,” Anne Lamott writes. I would hardly say that her sentence, good as it is, in any way competes with the majestic prologue of St. John’s Gospel. Yet it has a certain affinity with the song that John is singing. John takes a page from Greek philosophy and identifies Jesus with the eternal Logos, or Word. The Word, or λογος, had long been thought to be the animating principle in the universe. John thinks of it as the tonally perfect expression, the complete utterance of God, the creating word which God had spoken, “Let there be light!” That Word, by which all things came into being, became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus of Nazareth. John pictures this whole cosmic saga as a story of grace. Imagine that the λογος, or Word, contains the entire energy of the universe. Imagine that the Word is the power which we know as light. Imagine that the Word is the mysterious essence of life itself. And imagine that that is only the beginning! Packed, as it were, into the Word is every ounce of mercy in the cosmos, unfathomable love, the center and extent of justice, not to mention creativity, wholeness, freedom, peace, joy. And still we have not even begun to name all the things the Word-made-flesh embodies. We don’t have to go much further before we begin to get the picture: the Word is God. The Word was in the beginning with God. All things were made by the Word and without the Word absolutely nothing came into existence.

If you are used to thinking that Jesus is something of a super-human hero, a kind of oversized friend who, as the bumper sticker says, is your co-pilot keeping you on track and preventing you from getting lost, then this language will strike you as at least a bit strange, because it is so much bigger than your Jesus ever is. And if, on the other hand, you have your doubts as to whether Jesus was really all that special to begin with—hardly someone who could seriously be called “Son of God”—then this language will likely seem to you nothing short or preposterous. But what the Fourth Evangelist would say to both of you—well, to all of us really—is that there are two things we don’t want to miss. One of them is the astonishing glory of the great God of the universe and the other is that God has come to meet us in the person of Jesus. And, to use Anne Lamott’s phrase, God has come in Jesus to meet us as we are, but not to leave us there.

Grace upon grace. More grace than you ever dreamed of. Grace inexhaustible. But you must be saying, “Well, it all sounds good, but what is it, this grace?” Someone has said that grace is what God gives us that we don’t deserve and mercy is what God gives us instead of what we do deserve.” It is a little like Mark Twain’s saying that "heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” In the Christian vocabulary, grace means God’s favor, unearned and undeserved. Grace is a free gift, no strings attached. That is what is so odd, and ultimately so hard to swallow about grace. Grace comes when we least expect it. Grace surprises us—it has to, or else it wouldn’t be grace. We are accustomed to having to pay for anything that is worth anything, and there is a part of us that simply cannot believe that God would actually give us the world without charging us for it. But we have received from God the Word’s fullness grace upon grace upon grace and never paid a cent for it.

One day in about 1982, into my office in Newtown, Connecticut, walked Frank Johnson. Frank was in his 80’s, and had long since retired to his native Newtown from St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. “Can the church use a piano?” he asked me. My heart sank. I knew what was coming. He probably had some old Chickering upright, badly out of tune with yellowing ivory keys.

“Well, I rather doubt it, Frank,” I said. “We have a piano in the church, one in the choir room, and one in the children’s chapel. I don’t know where we would put another one.” His face fell. Wanting to extend the conversation a tad, I went on, “What kind of piano do you have?”

“Oh,” he said, “It’s a Steinway grand. It’s an antique that was in my wife’s family. It’s only problem is that its sounding board has a crack in it that needs to be repaired. It was reconditioned a few years back. About 1928, I think.”

My eyes widened. “Frank!” I exclaimed, holding on to my seat, “A Steinway grand, eh? I’ve never wanted anything so much as a Steinway grand. It’s about the only thing I’d consider going to hell for. Let’s talk. I might want to buy it from you.”

“Oh,” he said, “if you want it, it’s yours.”

“Oh, no. No. No way. I mean I couldn’t. No. Let’s talk. I’ll come take a look. We’ll talk. No, no way. I… no.”

“Oh, it’s yours if you want it. Come, take a look.”

So I went out to Frank’s house, sat down, played something in A-flat, a lush key that brought out the richness of the bass of the instrument,” and said that I would be delighted to own such an instrument. But,” I added, “you’ve got to let me think about it. Name your price.”

Frank looked at me from behind his round tortoise shell glasses. His gray eyes misted a bit. He swallowed. “It’s a gift,” he said. “My gift to you. We inherited it. I have had it all these years since Edith died. I want you to have it.” I looked down. I stroked the ebony.

That’s grace.

“A gift, eh?” I could hear the voice of my mother saying, “Son, if someone gives you something, including a compliment, the thing to do is to accept it. Just say thank you.”

“Thank you, Frank,” I said. “Thank you.”

And that is the other part of grace. In English we can’t hear or see it as well as we could in Spanish or Italian. “Gracias,” or “grazie,” would tip us off that grace and gratitude are inseparably linked. It is not that there is a charge for grace—not if it really grace. But there is an appropriate response. And that is to accept gratefully and graciously the gift. St. John’s calls it “believing.” “As many as believed him, to them he gave power to become the children of God.” But by believing he means something quite different from what you might think. To believe does not mean to give intellectual assent to an idea or a proposition. To believe means to give one’s love to (someone), and is related to the word meaning “dear.” Ancient forms of the word “believe” mean literally to give one’s heart.

Which helps to explain what grace has to do with Christmas. From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. So many gifts, and not just on Christmas morning. They keep coming and coming and coming, like multiplying bread and fish miraculously feeding multitudes. The supply never dries up. And we are left wondering,

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.
(Christina Rosetti)

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

God's Body

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, Christmas Eve, 2009.

Luke 2:1-20

Of all the religions on the face of the earth—old, new, past, present—Christianity is the religion of incarnation. If you haven’t been hanging around churches lately, let me state that a little more forcefully. Christianity is definitely a religion about the body. Our central teachings and our practices center on embodiment. That is what that passage in Luke, so familiar to four hundred years of English speaking people, is about: a human body which was born to live, hunger, thirst, suffer, love, work, laugh, sleep, and die like any one of us. In a few minutes we shall gather around a table and share a meal in which we proclaim what he proclaimed—that a little chunk of bread is body, and a cup of wine is blood. And we go so far as to say that we who are gathered here doing all this are in fact a body. No not just “a” body, but the body of Christ.

It is good to remember that because it is the most readily forgotten thing in the Church. We got our start in the ancient world where a fair number of people distrusted the body. It was not all that uncommon to find around the time that Jesus was born a good number of people who believed sincerely that matter was evil or at least bad enough to be the enemy of spirit. If God was spirit, the last thing God would do would be to get mixed up with bodies. Some went so far as to suppose that the Most High God could not even have been the creator of the world, so they talked about a demi-urge, a being with responsibility for making the material world including human bodies. Some took the stories in the Hebrew Bible and interpreted the creation of man and woman—indeed the physical world as we know it—to be a result of a primal disobedience—sin, if you will—resulting in the awful fate that we have to live in a material world in material bodies.

But tonight we gather to celebrate the truth that all that is a gigantic lie. Matter is not bad because nothing that the Creator makes is bad. All of it is good. Bodies are not evil. Bodies are good, natural, even spectacular, however short-lived most of them are. And how do we know it? By the telling of a story that once upon a time a human body was born, fashioned in the depths of its mother to be the person who would completely reveal God to the rest of his fellow-creatures. We celebrate, we dance, we sing, we laugh because that body became the three-dimensional representation of a wedding of humanity and divinity, one person in which the fullness of God and the completeness of a human being dwelt in total harmony. We celebrate this feast decked out in green and red: the green reminding us that it is not just the human body but the great body of nature, the body of the whole universe that the Creator cherishes so; the red reminding us that the baby Mary bore came like all of us out of the birth canal all bloody, and would leave life in this world with the same body again all bloodied. We celebrate this feast because it is not just about that body, his body, but your body.

Four years ago this night, a body lay in a bed three states away from here, dying. It was a body I knew well, though strangely not as well as you might think. It belonged to my father. I came to church that Christmas Eve at 5:00. Some of you know that Linda Kaufman, one of our priests who has presided at that liturgy for years, tosses out a sheet in the middle of this space, proclaims it a stable. Children, some prepared with costumes and some unsuspecting, quickly volunteer to assume parts in the birth stories from Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels. Sometimes there can be up to three Marys. Frequently there are cows and sheep and a donkey. I sat in the pew that night, devoutly wishing not to be a part of anything. But no one volunteered to be Joseph. I felt it coming. Linda asked me, “Frank, would you be Joseph?” I wasn’t about to say no to her, not on Christmas Eve, though I really would have preferred to be a cow, if I had to be anything. So I got up in my collar and leather jacket and proceeded to act the part of Joseph. For a little while it took my mind off that bed in South Carolina and the trip I would be making the next day to see him one last time. I like Christmas pageants well enough, but I have never thought that they did a particularly good job in helping us get past romanticizing Christmas, if not trivializing it. I’ve seen one too many shepherds do shameless things to one another by hook or by crook, wondered too many times if the angels carrying candles would set themselves or the church on fire, wanted to brain some pubescent boys for chewing gum in the middle of the thing, seen one too many wise men trip over his oriental drag, heard my fill of snide comments about who is going to be the blue angel or the pink angel and how she only came to Sunday School beginning in late November so she could be in the pageant. So this time, thanks to Linda, I entered the story, there in my collar and leather jacket, espoused to one or two Marys, whom I could accompany for a few minutes. I was remarkably nervous about the whole thing, as I recall.

I think I got through all that fairly well, ultimately grateful that I could shelve for a few minutes my preoccupation with Daddy. Not until we were singing “Silent Night” did I feel something happen in my body. It started somewhere in my chest, a sensation that became a knot which lodged in my throat. I was singing the tenor line at about “holy infant so tender and mild” when tears sprang. My voice quavered and I fell silent on “sleep in heavenly peace.” That is what bodies do, you know. They register this stuff in ways that I can hardly imagine disembodied spirits being able to. They tense up, they choke, they cry, they get goosebumps. And they remember. I heard him singing, the way he used to sing when I was 8 or 10, his voice effortlessly sounding bell-clear. They say you can only think one thought at a time. But suddenly there was with my tears a multitude of memories. I saw my little girl of 10 years padding by me in her sock feet, an angel stately carrying her candle in the Christmas pageant for the first time. I was in the back seat of the1949 Chevrolet, looking at the giant electric Christmas card in lights on the International Paper Mill in Georgetown, with Daddy singing and whistling, “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas,” and Mama beside him purring approval. Christmases on the farm, staying up late wrapping presents for the children, walking into the rectory on Christmas Eve in Newtown inhaling the scent of cinnamon, seeing the mantle decked in fruit and evergreens, going with Aunt Myra to church and hearing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” for the first time: oh, the bodily life is exquisite!

Every memory that flashed through my mind was only possible because of this collection of bones and muscles and sinews and senses that I am. I can get myself into a good deal of trouble, sickness, and pain both with the body and with the mind that lives within it. But all these fleshly things like songs and scents and signs are part of the world that (Christmas says) God chose to inhabit. No doubt there are better worlds, where Peace is more than a slogan on a greeting card and where folks actually hush their noise and cease their strife to hear angels sing. But this is the world that we know. For better or worse, it’s home. And to live in it necessitates having a body, God knows. And it was such a body that the Holy Spirit chose in which to tabernacle, in which a baby was conceived and carried. And it was such a body, pierced at the first with straw and at the last with nails, in which was assumed the whole of human nature just so that what he is we might become.

Tonight we hear, of course, only a chapter in the story of God’s body. We shall hear others in due time. In just a little while on Ash Wednesday, we’ll remember that we bodies are but dust and to dust shall we return. We shall see shortly thereafter the Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, on the tree, suffering and dying reminding us that it was a very bodily death through which we find the door to life. We shall gaze on the body of the Risen Lord on Easter, marveling at the scars that betoken his pain and our healing. We shall look for the body we can no longer see on Ascension; and while we wonder where in heaven’s name he has gone, we’ll see as if in a mirror that that ascended and glorified body is right here on earth, with eyes and skin and breath and blood, in the form of a community that loves and serves and heals just the way Jesus did.

And she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. A tiny body. A holy body. Just like yours.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2009.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It's About Time

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2009.

Text: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18

Somebody asked a couple of weeks ago where to buy an Advent calendar. I pondered a minute on the fact that I don’t think I have ever actually bought an Advent calendar. When my kids were growing up, we used a red and green chain made of construction paper. Inside each link was something to do to get ready for Christmas. Each of the four of us, and even the dog, had a special day during Advent. Then there were some feasts like St. Nicholas Day which we always celebrated in lieu of a big Santa Claus to-do at Christmas time.

It’s fun keeping track of time when you think you’re waiting for something special—as special as Christmas is to a kid. I don’t know that it is so much fun counting the days until you go in the hospital for surgery, or the weeks left before your case comes to trial. But we are creatures who are peculiarly attuned to time. We are conscious of past and future, although we only know of them in the present.

If you are waiting for Christmas, you can quite literally count the days, the hours, the minutes before it arrives. You can know precisely when it will be here, how many more shopping days left between now and then, and when it will be over with. That is because Advent calendars and date books and Blackberries and Palm Pilots all measure clock time. Χρονος it is called in the New Testament. But there is another kind of time, just as real, maybe even more real, than the time measured by clocks and watches. It is what the New Testament calls καιρος, and it has more the sense of “season” or “the right time” or “the favorable time.” It can also mean a fixed point in time, and can mean a period of time, such as the span of time when Pontius Pilate was procurator or when Augustus was Caesar. One of the things that καιρος means is the time of crisis or the last times. There is a good deal of interest in the last times, or the Messianic times, in the New Testament. People in general start thinking about the last times when they become increasingly convinced that things are bad and getting worse (and that is a good deal of the people a good deal of the time). When John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea preaching repentance, he appealed to people who were already on the tiptoe of expectancy, ready to welcome the arrival of the last things. Of course, the “last things” did not necessarily mean the end of the world so much as it meant a thorough housecleaning by the Coming Messiah. Wheat and chaff would be separated, good and evil sorted out, and a great big bonfire set to take care of worthlessness. If you are waiting for that kind of event you are definitely waiting for a καιρος, not a χρονος, moment.

It is frequently said that when Jesus came people were particularly ready for him because they were expecting such a καιρος moment. That is partly true. We rarely experience καιρος time unless we are open to it, awaiting it, anticipating something different. That is one of the funny things about these καιρος events: they are frequently missed, dismissed, undervalued, and misunderstood if we are not attuned to them. But it is partly not true because there was a very old idea that God was going to show up in human history, and was going to look quite different from what Jesus turned out to look like. Our prophet in today’s first lesson, Zephaniah, was one of the clearer voices proclaiming the Day of the Lord. He did this six hundred years or so before Jesus actually appeared. (That is to say that Zephaniah was about as temporally close to Jesus as, say, Henry VIII of England is to us.) Most people don’t remember what was in the news three or four years ago, and couldn’t care less about what was happening a generation or two ago, let alone what somebody was announcing six hundred years ago. But this is exactly where our community of faith has a different sense of time and of reality from the sense that prevails in the world of ordinary human affairs. We think not so much in terms of χρονος as in terms of καιρος. What’s a year? What’s a century? What’s a millennium? These things don’t matter nearly as much as the coming to birth of a Truth, a Presence, a Reality that folks are open to, ready to embrace, eager to greet.

The Day of the Lord, Zephaniah said, was not pretty. It would be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry. He doesn’t sound too different from many a voice in the present period who are telling us about climate change and terrorism and global economic meltdown and endless war. And, generally speaking, Zephaniah was saying all these things with the hope of making a point: that Jerusalem—Judah—had to change, had to renew its Covenant with the Creator, had to change its ways. Think of Zephaniah as proposing a massive intervention in Jerusalem, much as we might confront an alcoholic or substance abuser. The point is not just to predict doom; it is to get a change in behavior. You can see the parallel between him and John the Baptist. John’s idea, like Zephaniah’s, was not to announce the great and terrible dies irae of God’s judgment; it was to confront and exhort people to repent. It was, after all, as Luke says, “good news.”

A piece of relatively good news is that this is not the only Advent season that we are likely to see. There will be others and others and still more, well past the lifetimes, I suspect, of everybody here. Of course, there are always predictions of Doomsday, and a great many people buy into them. The Mayan calendar runs out in 2012, and many see that chronological time as a kind of καιρος moment signaling the end of the world. Conservatives and reactionaries swear that as the old order crumbles, the world will simply go to hell. Some of them seem plenty pleased with that. But liberals, too, predict dire consequences of economic disasters and climate apocalypse. Nobody seems to be selling much hope.

Unless it is the faithful proclaimers of the gospel, like, I hope, you. With our eyes open and with clear heads, we are once more articulating an Advent message. “My spirit rejoices,” we say, “in God my Savior.” Sing aloud, O daughter Zion! The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst. Look at him: a victor dancing in the midst of you like a young, strong, vibrant warrior, far more intent on singing than on fighting, far more taken with his own dancing than with his enemies, for more enchanted with you his beloved than preoccupied with his enemies.

We keep talking this way because we believe it is the Truth. It may take six or seven hundred more years, or maybe not, for it all to come around. But we know. We have seen it before. When we thought there was absolutely nothing to be done and no hope for the morrow, a young woman conceived and brought forth a son. He showed us how life could be lived out of love and not fear. He came among us and washed our feet when we could only compete, forgave our sins when we thought we’d be stuck in therapy forever, taught us that in giving we would become rich, and that in learning to die we would strangely learn to live. In him, the old Day of the Lord stopped being something to dread and became something to celebrate. And we even believe that when we gather around a table today, hearing and seeing a new priest speak words he spoke, he is powerfully and surprising present, making out of many individuals one body capable of actually adding joy to the world.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Exiles Come Home

One of the themes of Advent is woven into that great hymn from the fifteenth century, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

…And ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lonely exile…

Why would we sing something like that? Or for that matter, why would anyone sing it in the fifteenth century? It certainly is not a historically literal idea. Israel was not in exile waiting for the Son of God to appear—not if you define exile as living away from one’s homeland. When John Mason Neale penned those English words in the 19th century, he was picking up on something greater than a piece of history. He was giving voice to a human condition that people know about the world over.

Exile has never gone out of fashion nor lost its power. Numbers and estimates vary, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees figures that about 16 million people were exiles from their countries last year. Add to that another 24 million who are exiled from their homes but who remain within their native countries. And that, of course, does not account for the people who are living in self-imposed exile, or who are driven from their homes for personal or family reasons.

But exile is not just a physical condition. And though we tend to think about it as a political situation, the roots of the idea of exile we can view most clearly in a religious or mythical context. Think of Moses. Think of Oedpius.[1] Such heroes as these experience exile and suffer the sense of alienation that exile brings. Running through the consciousness of humanity is the sense that we are in a real sense cut off from our spiritual home. That is the primary meaning of one of our primary stories, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It is not about history. It is about our condition. In a letter J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, “...but certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of exile.” This sense of alienation, of exile, is exactly what St. Augustine touched when he prayed his famous prayer, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” It is not just a Christian or Jewish preoccupation. Some native African religions have a story that once upon a time the gods dwelt at just about the level of the tree-tops. But something happened and they withdrew. People ever since have been in search of the vanished gods to reconnect with them.

I doubt very much that I have to sell you on the idea of exile, because I suspect you know as much as anyone does about it. We don’t go around every day thinking about Paradise Lost, to be sure. But you don’t have to live very long before you begin to sense that you are, in the words of spiritual writer Philip Zaleski, “living in the rift.” Whether you have moved to a new location, or changed jobs, or buried a parent, or lost a friend, or are battling illness, something has been lost. One of the purposes of Advent is to awaken this feeling, to bring it to consciousness, to invite us to embrace it and not run from it. That is the point of reading from the Book of Baruch today.

If you have ever heard of or paid attention to the Book of Baruch, you are a rare bird. It is not even in the Hebrew Bible. We have it in fact because someone translated a Hebrew text into Greek. It got combined it with other texts in that great ancient work called the Septuagint. Baruch dates most probably from the third or second century before Christ, at a time when Israel was experiencing not an altogether geographical but certainly a psychological and spiritual exile. Books like Baruch frequently look back to an earlier time for parallels, clues, and hope. So the author of Baruch takes the name of a prominent scribe in the time of the prophet Jeremiah, and retrojects some of his content into the period several centuries earlier when Israel was literally, geographically, and politically exiled. Jews—or Judahites—had been scattered all around the Mediterranean world and the cream of the nation had been deported to Babylon. Baruch in effect says to his hearers, “I know what you are feeling. You are feeling exiled. We have been there before.”

Now the problem with Baruch, if you read the whole book—short as it is—is that its theology is a kind of patchwork of the major religious thinking of its day. It is a kind of mild, none-too-original soup designed to work for as many people as possible across the entire spectrum of religious practice, liberals and conservatives alike. And maybe that itself is a sobering feature of this book about exiles. It seems to say that whether we are Democrats or Republicans or Libertarians, whether we are Anglicans or Baptists or Quakers or Unitarians, we are all exiles. None of us is exempt from the condition, and we are better off if we admit and embrace our fundamental unity. It is with a blaze of poetry that Baruch signs off, consoling the Jerusalem of Baruch’s day:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,

And put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.

Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;

Put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;

For God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven…

Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them.

Is it possible? Can we come home? Is there anyone who will lead us? Or must we remain exiled forever? There is a sense in which the sense of exile is not going to disappear. On a purely practical level, if it is not one thing it is another. Aging, for instance, brings with it increasing challenges and losses, each one of which can exacerbate the condition of feeling exiled, as when quite literally we are marooned amidst crowds when we lose our hearing or when we are alone in our apartments no longer able to walk freely or drive. Nor can we get away from the fact that some of the sense of the loss of paradise is the inescapable loss of innocence that comes with experience.

But there is another sense in which the words of Baruch are just as pertinent, just as alive for you and me as they could possibly have been for Jews in the time of the Second Temple. “For God will lead Israel with joy in the light of glory” is a promise made to you this day. How can you have it, feel it, taste it, see it? How can it be more than a pious idea? The brilliant historian of religion Mircea Eliade described what happens when exiles have a sudden alertness to an inner call. Eliade called it “nostalgia for Paradise,” “the desire to recover the state of freedom and beatitude” before the exile.[2] When we begin longing to make contact with this God who seems so remote—when we begin entertaining the possibility that maybe there is something that can heal and restore us, something that we thirst for—long for—crave with all our being, then we can begin singing the song of Baruch even as own our exile and search for the way out of it. “God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.”

There is the possibility that we can get stuck blaming our exile on various captors: the culture, politicians, the media, the collapse of religious consensus. There is the possibility that we can try to get out of exile by means of a new narrative furnished by science or art or some other religious tradition. We can always go down the exile aisle with sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, or some variation of them. But there is also the possibility that none but Emmanuel himself will come and ransom the captives that mourn in lonely exile. Take one step and God will take a thousand.[3] Once we realize that Emmanuel—Jesus--is right here, right now, the exile is not nearly so painful or so lonely. God is with us after all. Lost Paradise is regained. Exile ends. Rejoice!

[1] Vine Deloria, Jr., “Out of Chaos,” in Parabola, x:2 (May 1985), 14.

[2] Philip Zaleski, “Living in the Rift,” Parabola, vol. x, number 2 (May 1985), 6.

[3] Ibid., p. 13.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

It All Comes Down To This

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, Sunday, November 29, 2009, The Feast of Christ the King

John 18:33-37

So this is what it has all come to.

A year has passed since last Advent when we began telling the story of Christ’s life, Sunday by Sunday, season by season, living it, walking it, reflecting on it, imitating it. Shortly before Advent last year, I reflected with the congregation on the place of priesthood in a community committed to shared ministry. Out of that discussion came a suggestion that we reflect together on ministry on a regular basis. So I set myself a goal of going through an entire year with you examining ministry. If you have been with us during any of this year, I hope you have concluded that ministry is inseparable from the life each of us leads. I hope you will never again think of it as being limited to those who are ordained as bishops, priests, and deacons. I hope you will always remember that your baptism, if you are baptized, immersed you in a ministry that is all about how your life is woven together with the life of Jesus Christ, and that your purpose, is about bringing the world and God together in a way that is dazzlingly transforming.

We have looked together at such things as being healers, pastors, prophets. We have focused on how we are apostles, evangelists, and theologians. We have peered into ourselves to see what our egos have to do with ministry and how the way we handle conflict shapes that ministry. Through all this we have seen two things again and again. One is that the whole of ministry belongs to the entire People of God—not to some but to all. The other is that ministry embraces everything we are and do. So what would the purpose of this year-long project be, if not to persuade folks to get excited about ministry, and to want to live a God-centered life?

Every year, taking Jesus as the model of choice for the God-centered life, we unpack his story episodically through the Church Year. Today we come to the culmination of all that, and is it ever a rude awakening! For this is the feast of Christ the King. The picture we see is not some triumphant, exalted Lord reigning over all the worlds that are and are to be, but Jesus under arrest. Even in John’s gospel, where Jesus always appears to have everything under serene control, this picture of Jesus is disturbing. Jesus directly confronts the imperial weight of the Roman Empire. Pilate himself says at one point, “Don’t you realize that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?”

If you think about this in the context of our ministry—and of our identification with Jesus—this is a heads-up that those who live like Jesus, and even those who live even remotely like Jesus, are headed for trouble. The reason really is quite simple. It is lodged in this conversation between Pilate and Jesus about Truth. “My kingdom is not of this world,” says Jesus. We continue to miss that point. I am not sure that we grasp at all what he is talking about. He is certainly not talking about pie in the sky by and by. No, he is talking about a basic orientation, an organizing principle, a way of living that is totally counter to what human society tends to prize and to promote, namely power, privilege, and prestige. Civilization has managed to do many things, but it has not yet successfully overcome our basic tendency as primates—indeed more generally as mammals—to define ourselves by where we are in the “pecking order” or the hierarchy.
So the higher up we are, the more power we have, the more control we can exercise over the food supply, the better we feel about ourselves. That is what an enormous amount of human behavior comes down to. The health care debate? It is essentially about money—who has it and who does not—and that in turn is about those in power protecting their control of the supply of food and other essentials—and that in turn is about how to make sure that abandonment and death remain remote threats instead of ever-present threats.
That is the kind of world that places a Pontius Pilate in charge of operations.

Jesus, on the other hand, really is about cutting through all that and getting to the heart of—dare we say?—Truth. For the truth of the matter is that the organization of the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the American Empire completely misses the point—in fact several points. It is not by swords’ loud clashing, nor by roll of stirring drums, but by deeds of love and mercy that the heavenly kingdom comes. Jesus’ way is about giving instead of acquiring. It is about forgiveness instead of revenge. It sets kindness above self-preservation; inclusiveness before tribal, family, or racial identity; and community over personal aggrandizement. In short, the Truth that Jesus speaks of to Pilate is nothing less than life lived by a set of values completely different from those of the ordinary workaday world. He says something to Pilate that echoes something he says elsewhere in John’s gospel: “Everyone who belongs to the Truth listens to my voice” makes the same point as “my sheep know me; they hear my voice; they follow me.” Living for Jesus means being tuned in to a voice that says, “Whoever would save life in this world will surely lose it; but whoever would lose life in this world for my sake and the sake of the gospel will find it.” Pilate does not understand that and quite likely never will. “What is Truth?” may be a flip, dismissive quip, but it can just as easily be a profound, sincere question. In either case, Pilate does not know what it is, but Jesus assuredly does. Essentially he knows that life is a gift to be celebrated extravagantly and shared prodigally, not hoarded and controlled. He knows that the center of the Truth of the universe is the God who lives in him and in whom he lives.

So that is what it all comes down to, this story of ours. It is a story we tell not so much because we believe its every detail but in order to believe the one whom it is about. It is a story we tell because the more we trace and re-trace the steps of Jesus the more we find ourselves doing the things he did—praying, feeding, teaching, forgiving, eating, healing, and above all living more and more free of anxiety and its offshoots, power-grabbing, manipulation, and depression. We tell of the Advent of a reign of peace and justice that is strong and real enough to inspire us to work for the end of war and to believe that there can actually be an end to global poverty. We tell of a Christmas that is not just the birth of our Savior but our finding New Life in unexpected places and unimagined ways. We tell of Epiphanies at Jordan and Cana and Mount Tabor that we see reflected in our own small mysteries when our vocations turn out to be the way lives are saved, or embarrassing circumstances become moments of grace, or our times of prayer streaked with flashes of transcendence. We ponder the desert experience of Jesus precisely to get to know our own demons, which turn out not to be so different from those that assaulted him. We walk slowly and deliberately through Holy Week because we need not only to watch Jesus do it but also because we have our own passions to undergo and sufferings to face and death to embrace. We shout our alleluias on Easter not just cheering him but cheering the human community he has managed to amass that keeps composing poetry when it would be easier to sulk and that insists on singing when it is easier to whine and that dances in the face of death because we flatly deny that death is anything to be scared of. We revel in Pentecost because we believe that the God that appears so visibly in Jesus every once in awhile seems startlingly alive in one of us, so much so that we have to recalculate our own potential to make the world a sweeter, better place just by walking by the Spirit instead of always by the rules of the flesh.

It all comes down to this: that the ministry of each one of us is nothing more and nothing less than the ministry of Jesus. And that in turn is a perennial scattering of light and joy wherever there is darkness and grief. It is enough to make us all feel enormously buoyed to the point of outrageous pride, all this glory that we share. But telling the story has the strange effect of making us know how in the end we are just dust, a truth which is delightfully all right. For that is exactly the cosmic stuff in which we began our great journey with the One to whom we bow, who lives and reigns for ever.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Blind Begin to See Again

Vision for Ministry

Mark 10:46-52

Sometime in the last generation, no small thanks to Judy Collins and Joan Baez, “Amazing Grace” entered the list of top ten hymns. People who rarely ever go to church know at least the first verse. Some say it is the most popular hymn in the English language, and it has been translated into a score of others. “I once was lost but now and found, was blind but now I see.”

Blind, but now I see. Blindness is, of course, not only a physical condition but a psychological and spiritual one. We may not be physically blind, but we know we can be blind to reality, blind to truth, blind to conditions, blind to dangers, blind to what is obvious to everyone else. In Mark’s gospel there are two accounts of Jesus’ healing the blind. Interestingly, they are not the major examples of blindness for Mark. No, the real blind people in Mark’s gospel are the disciples! They put to rest once and for all the silly notion that if you could just be with Jesus and see for yourself what he did you would have a better crack at being faithful or at least understanding Jesus better than somef us living in the 21st century. The disciples just don’t get it. They do not understand the nature of real hunger, and so miss the point of the feeding of the five thousand and later the four thousand. They do not understand the nature of messiahship, and so try to talk Jesus out of the notion that he is to suffer and die. They shoo away the children, when in fact it is to such that the kingdom of heaven belongs. They fail to stick around at the crucifixion and they don’t show up for the resurrection. They miss the point of Jesus’ ministry, which is not about performing miracles as much as it is about spreading the Good News that God has intervened in history. Mark does not call them “blind” in so many words; but clearly that is what they are. Once when Jesus is talking to them, he points out that his habit of talking in parables is to have them understand the secret of God’s reign, while others will look and not perceive. But the more we encounter the disciples the more we suspect that it is the disciples who look and do not perceive.

Along they come to Jericho, the last stop in the Jordan valley before Jesus begins the long, steep climb to Jerusalem and death. As they are leaving, a blind beggar, Bartimaeus, finds out that Jesus is passing by. He calls out, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” The crowds try to shut him up. He shouts out all the louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Son of David. Bartimaeus is blind, but somehow he has the insight to see that Jesus is more than an ordinary rabbi. This is a messianic title, and the use of it is quite possibly dangerous, and might explain why the crowds want him to quiet down. Jesus calls him. Throwing off his beggar’s cloak, he springs up and comes.

“What do you want me to do for you?” asks Jesus.

He replies, “My teacher, let me see again.” Let me see again. Bartimaeus had not always been blind apparently. He had lost his sight. He wants to be able to see again.

With words that he frequently uses when he heals, Jesus says, “Go. Your faith has made you well.”

Mark places the story at a climactic and transitional moment. Bartimaeus not only recognizes and confesses Jesus as Messiah, in effect, but, once healed, he follows him on the way. And that way is tough. The road is not easy to walk, especially if one has been sitting for long hours and days begging, and especially not easy if one is old—as Bartimaeus might have been. But none of those things is exactly what Mark has in mind. Disciples who make bold to call Jesus “Teacher” follow him. They follow his example, his leadership, his life. They make it their own.

In Mark’s story, Bartimaeus stands in contrast to the rich young man who shortly before had come to Jesus asking what he needed to do. When he heard the answer—the call—to come follow, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Bartimaeus has nothing but his old cloak, and he even leaves that behind when he comes to Jesus. He does what the rich young man does not do. He leaves it all in Jericho and follows Jesus.

So Bartimaeus becomes in some ways the model of discipleship in this gospel. In order to do the ministry of Jesus, we need vision. Or more precisely, we need to regain our vision. We once could see but now are blind, Mark might be saying to us. It is the story of the Church. There is another story of a blind man in another gospel. The religious authorities, scandalized because the healing takes place on the Sabbath, say to Jesus, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus answers them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” Which is to say that the worst blindness is the one that does not recognize itself. We can amble along in the darkness not seeing, not believing, not recognizing the opportunities for service, not noticing the hungry and thirsty of the world, unaware of our own potential and of our limitations, and we can perhaps do a bit of good here and there despite our blindness. But in order to do the ministry of Jesus we need vision.

“Without vision,” says a verse in Proverbs, “without vision the people perish.” But exactly what vision do we need and can we have? I have been doing some work, as some of you know, with your rector and vestry, assessing where St. Dunstan’s is and where you might be being led in the next year or two. Several Sundays ago, we had a conversation after church in the parish hall and I asked folks to name one or two dreams they had for this church and what it would look like for those dreams to come true. Many of you were there and answered the question. But even if you weren’t, you probably know what people said. Some dream of expanded outreach. Some dream of a larger, grander music ministry. Others dream of a parish that grows in numbers and spiritual depth. These are examples of visions that quite possibly can shape and tune ministry for the next decade.

But we have to be careful. For not just any vision will do. Sometimes our memories of a bygone era pass for vision. It never works. No one ever moved into the future by successfully replicating the past, because it simply is never possible. More likely in suburban American (I have spent most of my ministry right where you are in suburbia), what passes for vision is whatever is popular or trendy. When we begin asking, “What do people want?” it is almost a sure sign that our vision is beclouded by the notion that it we could just deliver consumers their goods we would we doing good ministry. It is not that there are not people with real needs. And it is not that we should not try to meet them. But that is not the vision that the gospel both calls us to and supplies us with.

The vision that the gospel makes possible is the vision of a world where healing is possible, where people actually work for peace, and where reconciliation, forgiveness, respect and kindness govern the way we behave towards those who are closest to us as well as towards those who are most unlike us. I have a Facebook acquaintance who recently wrote a note describing the dissonance he feels between his head and his heart.

“At this stage in my life, my mind (politics) and my heart (faith) are really coming into conflict with each other. As I wrote a few months back on this blog, my position on the death penalty changed when my belief that everyone should receive a New Testament forgiveness (heart) superceded - after much internal debate - my desire for harsh, Old Testament punishment (mind). Many of my friends and I have debated the current health care reform efforts in Congress, and I am torn between my belief that everyone should have health care coverage (heart) with the belief that the government shouldn't be the body responsible for running the program (mind). I am conflicted about the fact that something should be done to end world hunger, disease, and poverty (heart) versus the thought that we shouldn't leave it up to organizations like the United Nations (mind).” My friend is honestly struggling with vision. What he describes as a conflict between heart and mind is what I see as the struggle between two competing narratives, each with a distinctive vision of reality and of the future. One is the narrative that I would name “American Self-reliance” and the other is a narrative that I would call “Christian compassion and justice.” What my friend is discovering is that these are two very distinct visions. The two may be reconcilable, or they may not be. Sometimes we simply have to say, “You know, I really feel like the rich young man who went away from Jesus sad, but still committed to protecting his own self-interest; but instead I am going to spring for new vision. I am going to take my cue from Bartimaeus and go after a new vision. And I am going to let the new vision set me on a path of following Jesus wherever that road might lead.” Individuals can say that. So can parishes.

Does it cost? Of course it does! The pull of the familiar is incredibly strong. It won’t be long before Bartimaeus finds that following Jesus is not all it is cracked up to be, because, like other disciples who have known and followed Jesus, he will most likely want to run as fast and as far as he can from the suffering and death that ministry sometimes entails. Will he miss his old life of begging? Very likely. Will he even lament the loss of his blindness? Well, it is hard to imagine, but stranger things have happened. Our forefather and foremothers of Israel, once they were in the desert wandering around with scorpions and snakes and hunger and enemies and nothing but quail and manna to eat for days on end, began to think about how good the old slavery in Egypt had been. Vision is wonderful, but it does not necessarily make life a bed of roses. In 2006, the U-2 rock star Bono, addressing the National Prayer Breakfast, said,

“A number of years ago, I met a wise man who changed my life. In countless ways, large and small, I was always seeking the Lord's blessing. I was saying, you know, I have a new song, look after it… I have a family, please look after them… I have this crazy idea… And this wise man said: stop. He said, stop asking God to bless what you're doing. Get involved in what God is doing—because it's already blessed.”

What will happen when St. Dunstan’s begins to say, “We want to see again? We want a vision of the Kingdom of God that will transform us, beginning with the oldest and running through us till it has touched everybody to the youngest in this whole place. We want to go where God is acting in the world? We want a vision that will send us to the poor that are playing house in cardboard boxes under bridges or where elderly people are tired of living and scared of dying?”

It is interesting that Jesus asks Bartimaeus what he wants. Jesus could have easily guessed. But he gives Bartimaeus the chance to say for himself, “I want to see again.” And he gives today to you and your parish the chance to say, “I want vision of what it would be like to follow you, Lord. With my money, with my time, with my talent, with my body, with my energy, with my soul: I want to join what you are doing in the world. I want to follow you on the way.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Surprising Point of Halloween

Affirming Death, Celebrating Life

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, on All Saints Day, November 1, 2009.

John 11:32-44

The story of the raising of Lazarus is perfect—for Halloween. Look at it. You have everything you need: a cemetery (of sorts), a grave, a corpse—looking something like a mummy—and a raising of the dead to life. I mean the gospel no harm by pointing this out. At first sight it is a stretch, however, to find something in this story that fits the theme of All Saints.

That is so because the Church has been busy telling itself for a generation or two that All Saints is about us. And, of course, to a large extent that is true. As we will sing later in the liturgy today, “They were all of them saints of God and I mean, God helping, to be one too,” the thrust of All Saints has been our being saints, or at least in becoming saints. It is a good thing that we be inspired to live virtuous lives. The great roll call of saints our litany powerfully trumpeted this morning not only stirs us to remember how many heroes stand beside us whispering words of encouragement, cheering us on, but also impels us to join that great caravan and become models, mentors, and guides ourselves.

But we would miss something enormously important if we simply took All Saints as a call to become satisfactorily, or even outstandingly, moral. We would miss the vein running through this entire celebration: the plain fact of death. There is no escaping death, and Christianity, beginning with Jesus, knows it. All those heroes, all those ancestors whom we invoked to stand beside us have one thing in common. Shot or tortured or burned or peacefully buried, all of them died. So that is why a story about death is particularly appropriate on All Saints Day. It reminds us that there is a deep connection between death and sainthood. But exactly what is that connection?

Things are not always what they seem. That is the underlying truth of the gospel. Sometimes something looks for all the world to be life-giving—wealth, status, prestige—and it turns out to be the very thing that saps Life itself. And sometimes something looks to be very clearly an example of death—letting go, giving oneself away, laying down one’s life for one’s friends, forgiving one’s enemies—and that very thing shows itself to be the opposite of death, an instance of true Life asserting itself. It is easy to get all mixed up about these things, because there is something counter-intuitive about the truth. What looks like life is really death and what looks like death is really life, so how in the world do you tell what’s what?

When we begin to get confused (as inevitably happens when we start to become conscious of complexities), our instinct is to simplify things. We categorize things easily as good and bad, helpful or dangerous, and we affix labels onto them that frequently don’t ever fall off. They stick. This tastes good, so it must be life-giving. That feels like loss and danger, so it must be the way of death. So we begin to divide the world into light and dark. The next step is that we begin to make stories out of our labels. Then we start believing our stories. Suddenly we have whole narratives of what we need to live—property, status, power, money, security, romance—and equally potent narratives of what we must avoid—giving in, compromising, letting go, giving our stuff and ourselves away, being shunned.

One of the best metaphors, to my mind, for seeing how this all plays out is the metaphor of mask. We wear masks, as it were, to conceal our vulnerable selves. Deep down we must have a suspicion that somehow we have it all backwards, for the simple reason that all those things that keep promising life turn out to be drearily disappointing more often than we’d like to admit. And every now and again we do in fact surprise ourselves by running some risk, taking some stand, acting out of some courage, showing some unnecessary love, giving away something precious to us, and we discover how thrilling and fulfilling it is to quit protecting and pretending and to live exuberantly and joyfully.

Leo Leonni, a writer of children’s books, composed a story called The Green Tail Mouse, in which he tells of a group of field mice. One day a city mouse happens by and tells them all about Mardi Gras. Enchanted with the idea, they decide to have a Mardi Gras celebration. They make themselves masks, with faces of monstrous bears and lions and tigers and cougars. They like their masks so much that they don’t stop playing. They become the ferocious animals of their masks. They frighten each other. This once peaceful community begins to be driven by fear. One day a mouse happens by. Someone cries out that a giant mouse has appeared, and they shudder for fear. “You silly mice,” says the newcomer, “I’m no giant. I’m a mouse like yourselves. And you could see that I am just like you and you are just like me if you would take off those idiotic masks you’re wearing.” So one by one they begin to take off their masks. They build a great fire and burn them, and have more fun becoming just plain real mice than they ever had wearing their masks.

Leonni’s is a story that gets at the truth through a different route than the story of Lazarus, but it is the same truth. Someone appears who sees clearly and who speaks the Truth powerfully. Jesus appears at the tomb of Lazarus as the Resurrection and Life, strong enough to pull Lazarus out of death into life. “Unbind him,” Jesus orders, “and let him go.” Lazarus is set free. But the story is not just about a dead man coming to life again. It is about a Truth-telling, life-giving power that names the death-games which, like Leonni’s mice, humans play all the time. Someone appears who is who he is, not wearing a mask, not pretending. “Take off those silly masks,” he says. “Quit playing those death-games.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if you were beginning to see what all this has to do with Halloween and death, All Saints and life. Before Hallmark got ahold of Halloween and made a season out of it, and before the Christian right began to lose its mind and get all crazy about the demonic on Halloween, we had a festival, an occasion which poked fun at death. It also did something else, which one day we might recover. Halloween used to give us permission to become monsters and tricksters and ghouls and goblins for a night. Children didn’t know it, but grown-ups knew, if they were conscious at all, that there were parts of us that acted like monsters, and that we were capable of being every bit as fiendish as any fiend whose mask we wore. Halloween functioned as a rite of reversal. We embraced our mischief and our meanness, but only for a night. When All Saints dawned the next day, the King of Saints called us in a loud voice to lay aside our masks, to lay off the death-games, and to reclaim our baptism into freedom and truth. He called us to come out of our tombs and into the light of day. And he made us dance.

That is how saints are made. Christ does not call us to be two-dimensional plastic goodie-goodies, but to be real people who have dark sides and monsters in them but who have learned to take off their masks, embrace their humanity, and live in freedom and peace. One year in one of my parishes we gathered together for the youth group’s annual Halloween haunted house, all the kids and some of the adults in costumes and masks. But at a certain point in the evening we all formed a circle around the altar, read some lessons (including the raising of Lazarus) and then pulled off our masks to celebrate and receive Holy Communion, reminding ourselves that we are not only dust, we are also glory; not only hideous, but also beautiful; not only ghouls and goblins but also saints of God in the making.

Baptism reminds us that the only death we have to worry about is not the death that will end our earthly life, but the death-games we play with utter seriousness to puff up ourselves and frighten others. Baptism flows like a river through the universe, sweeping away all our masks, baggage, and armor, leaving us washed and ready to put on the garments of justice and holiness. And through the raging flood calls the voice of one who is what he is, with no pretense and no mask, saying, “You can be as real as I am, and as holy. Come forth. Live in the light. Be free.”

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Getting at the Source of the Problem

Ministry and Justice

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, October 11, 2009

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Once upon a time a tribe lived along a swift and treacherous river. They were a peaceful tribe, gentle in their ways, temperate in their manners. One day, while fishing in the river, a member of the tribe heard a heart-splitting cry. A woman, terrified and helpless, was being savagely swept along in the whitewater. Running downstream, the tribesman called for help. Villagers came running. Soon two or three unmoored a barque, fought the current, and managed to rescue the woman. They brought her to shore, treated her wounds, fed her. She did not speak their language. They had no idea what had happened that nearly caused her death in the river. Some of the tribe, used to extending hospitality to strangers, gave her lodging. After about a week, the villagers missed her. She had disappeared.

Incidents mounted. Every few days another person, usually someone vulnerable, would be pulled from the river. Occasional drowned bodies the tribe would pull from the river and give its burial rites.

The tribe was pleased that they were able to provide help and shelter for the victims. Someone suggested building a structure out over the water to make rescue efforts easier. Others got to work constructing a first-aid station of sorts, stocked with medicines and bandages for the wounded. Some men and women organized rescue teams so that round-the-clock emergency aid could be extended. Lights were set up along the riverbank to make it safer. And, as the number of victims multiplied, various alarm systems were put in place. Pious members of the tribe erected a small chapel in memory of those whose lives were lost in which their priest offered daily prayers for successful rescue efforts.

One day a girl, a member of the tribe, announced at a village meeting called to discuss an expansion of the rescue efforts that she had discovered a very important secret. She had come to know one of the victims, who, less timid than the rest and able to communicate a few words, had confided a terrible tale of what was happening upstream. Villagers sat stunned as they heard a gruesome tale of a fierce and violent group that had taken numbers of people captive, and whose custom was to throw disabled, weak, or useless captives into the river. Some villagers were shocked. A few were outraged and immediately wanted to go upstream and put a stop to it. But most simply argued that the girl’s secret-telling was totally out of order, and urged that the village get on with its work of rescue. That is what had come to define them. They had a mission and nothing was going to distract them.

A few managed to organize a small band to head upstream to investigate. Some never returned. A few came back and tried in vain to interest tribe members in organizing efforts to intervene on behalf of vulnerable tribes being decimated by the marauders. But there was no interest. Instead, the tribe became better and better at rescue efforts. Until, of course, one day, there came a band of horrifyingly fierce warriors who sacked the village, took most people captive, and threw the old, sick, infirm and even some young braves into the river.

Hearing that story, we may take the longer view and criticize the tribe for its insularity and short-sightedness. But the truth is that they are not all that different from many a constellation of human beings who become attached to doing good so much that they unwittingly participate, or even enable, injustice. The Church is no exception. In fact, we are often a model of how this tale comes to life. Rescue efforts are good, even necessary. But somebody ought to be investigating why so many people are drowning. And somebody ought to be willing to stop the tragedy at its source, or die trying.

Amos is, I suspect, the Hebrew prophet most popular with progressives. Martin Luther King famously quoted Amos: “Let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos was, by all accounts, the first prophet whose words were written down in a book. After that, he slept for centuries before many people paid much attention to him. Both Jews and Christians paid a little homage to Amos every now and again, but nobody got terribly excited about Amos until in the last century a Progressive movement arose. Suddenly, the words of Amos came to life and inspired liberalism. They helped the cause that became known as “the Social Gospel.” But, in fairness to Amos, he was not about founding a reform movement. His message was essentially one of doom. A southerner who had gone north to preach, Amos, a Judean shepherd, a dresser of sycamore trees, appeared in the Northern Kingdom’s capital, Samaria, and began to preach a hard message against militarism, profligate immorality, economic inequity, and flimsy piety. These, he thundered, were the undoing of Israel, and the result would be the ruin of the nation. The priest, Amaziah, intervened and told King Jeroboam that the land was simply not able to bear the words of wild-tongued Amos, prophesying death to the king and exile for the people. “Go back south to Judah,” said Amaziah. “Work there, prophesy there; but don’t you come up to the royal sanctuary at Bethel ever again.” Israel had had quite enough of Amos and his prophecies of national ruin.

Amos’s book, while never a best-seller, lasted because his prophecies came true. No doubt it was preserved in Judah, where someone saw that perhaps Amos had a good idea. Maybe justice was, after all, an idea worth doing, and perhaps by doing it, Judah, the southern kingdom, could avert the fate that their northern cousins had eventually suffered at the hands of Assyria.

And that, frankly, is why Amos has something to say to us today. We do not read him because we need to hear prophecies of doom, but in order to hear and ponder what he has to say about justice and righteousness. So we need to listen closely to exactly that. Let’s talk—or let Amos talk—a little about justice. “Woe to those who turn justice (mishpat) into [the indescribably bitter plant] of wormwood,” he says. Courts are being used to exploit the weak and poor. Something is systemically toxic, infecting the entire judicial system and thus poisoning the possibility of redressing any wrong. Those who are using the poor are not only turning justice to wormwood, they are trashing righteousness, the quintessential quality of God’s life and activity. Righteousness is the source of justice. One does righteousness (rather than “is” righteousness) by living up to the demands that any given relationship makes, and thus by “doing right by” those in relationship with you. One does righteousness in two ways: by doing right by God, and by doing right by one’s fellow human beings. If the very structures that aid righteousness on the human-to-human level are themselves corrupt, the entire social order is perverted. If laws and courts and political systems serve the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and weak, and if no one does anything to correct them, the whole system collapses. In Amos’ terms, the Justice of God simply won’t let it go on forever. History bears him out.

With that much in mind, we can revisit the story of the tribe by the river. They were not living unjustly: far from it. They were doing acts of mercy, and so much the better. But so totally committed to their good works were they that they did not see that grave injustice was taking place, causing in fact the very harm that they were busy addressing. The world needs rescue missions, but the world also needs people who will fearlessly contend against the forces that imperil people to begin with.

Just as there is no hard line between righteousness and justice, so there is no firewall between justice and mercy. But for the purpose of understanding the need for both, think of mercy as pulling drowning people from the raging river and justice as work of intervening to stop the tragedy in the first place. We need both. We need to serve food at Loaves and Fishes, but we need to fight the causes of hunger and malnutrition. We need to offer hospitality to the homeless, but we also need, through our work with Washington Interfaith Network, for example, to identify and to address the forces that make and sometimes keep people homeless. The reason most people gravitate towards works of mercy and away from the work of justice is that mercy is easier to understand, easier to see, and easier to get your hands on. To take on systems, to ask hard questions, or—in the terms of our parable of the river tribe—to take on the evil of the marauders who keep throwing people into the river—are difficult, scary, sometimes complex, time-consuming tasks. Doing justice is rarely a simple matter of rounding up some bullies and putting them in jail, but of changing economic or educational or juridical systems that are checkered with both good and bad qualities, hard to sort out. Not infrequently, in addressing the evil that has infected systems, we find that we ourselves are complicit with the evil. We often profit from corruption. So the health care system might be unjust, but tackling it is no easy matter.

Ministry is not about doing one thing or the other so much as it is about both. Nor does everyone necessarily have the same ministry. That is why we are a community, combining many gifts and many forces so that we can both rescue the perishing and combat the forces that cause so many to perish.

In the middle of his dark prophecies Amos did say a word or two of hope, hope that still inspires those who work for justice, who seek to do right by their neighbors:

Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

© Frank G. Dunn

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Ministry, Plans, and Changes of Plans

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, September 6, 2009

Mark 7:24-37

A novel I began reading this week opens with a scene of a Swiss professor walking across a bridge. He sees a rather distraught looking woman who suddenly appears to be on the verge of jumping off the bridge. He is ready to intervene when suddenly she stops, turns, and writes on his forehead a telephone number that, lacking paper, she wants to remember. She follows him to class. He only has the briefest conversation with her, but it is enough to impel him to leave his teaching post and travel halfway across Europe to Portugal, where she had come from.

I can’t tell you more because I have barely read more. But I don’t need to. It is a weird beginning, in a way. And yet it is thoroughly believable. Not because it happens every day: it does not. Yet there occurs in nearly all our lives an occasional incident whose effect on us is out of all proportion to its content or circumstances. It contains the power completely to rewrite our scripts, to alter the ways we look at the universe, or at the very least thoroughly to shake up our plans.

Such an incident forms the gospel for today. If you are tracking Jesus in Mark’s gospel, you can tell an enormous amount about the meaning of the story simply from knowing the geography of Jesus’ travels. Jesus and the disciples have crossed the Sea of Galilee a second time. They have gone to a deserted place, presumably on the eastern bank. People have followed on foot the several miles around the northern shore of the sea. It is there that he feeds them by multiplying the loaves and fish. The group comes back across the sea, and lands at Genessaret, where immediately a throng besieges him, begging for his healing power. After going around the farms and villages and cities to the north and west of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus encounters a deputation of religious leaders who upbraid him for his and his disciples’ being careless about matters of ritual purity. Then he does something that, up till now in the story, he has not tried. He heads into Gentile territory. He moves away from his native stomping ground in Galilee, and heads towards the Mediterranean coast. Mark’s readers are aware that Tyre and Sidon are largely non-Jewish centers. The notion seems to be that Jesus is on retreat. He enters a house—we don’t know whose—and he specifically does not want anyone to know that he is there.

We cannot say what Jesus’ plans really were, even in the context of Mark’s narrative. But we do know that this is not the first time in this gospel that Jesus has encountered a Gentile. The first incident happened a few chapters back on the first trip he and his disciples took across the Sea. Now that is significant in itself, because the land to the east of the Sea of Galilee was also Gentile territory. We know that it was because it was near Gerasa that Jesus encountered the demon-possessed man out of whom he drove the demons into a herd of swine. Jews don’t raise hogs; Gentiles do. The pigs promptly ran down the bank and into the sea and drowned. It is a terrifying story, and does not do much to show deep sensitivity to a Gentile farm economy, this exorcism. Nonetheless, after only this one incident, in which the demoniac is healed and ordered to stay on his side of the lake, Jesus and his disciples cross back over to Jewish territory.

So, while he is visiting in this home somewhere near the coast, comes this woman who is identified as a Syrophoenician, a Gentile. Her little daughter has an unclean spirit. The woman bows down at Jesus’ feet, a gesture of obvious humility and supplication. She begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter. Then Jesus says something that to many ears sounds utterly incomprehensible, given the usual suppositions about Jesus’ universal inclusiveness. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Choke! Might it not be that Jesus, good Jew that he was, actually saw the world in these terms? What we can say with some assurance is that at this point, Jesus’ ministry takes a decidedly different turn. He does not in fact, return to the familiar towns of Galilee, but instead heads through Sidon to that eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the Region of the Decapolis, more Gentile territory.

Assuming that Jesus was not playing games with the Syrophoenician woman (some commentators have suggested as much), she clearly had an impact on his ministry, and quite likely on his self-understanding. Certainly, her persistence that he heal her daughter caused him to change his mind and attitude towards her. And it was not just her persistence, but her willingness, as a foreigner and outsider, to state her claim on Jesus’ power and attention. Matthew tells the story a bit more elaborately. There the woman is like the importunate widow elsewhere in the gospels, clamoring for attention, bugging the disciples, annoying them beyond their patience. In that account it is clearer that the woman is outside her rights to insist on a healing when she is not even a member of the household of Israel. Mark simply says that Jesus tells her, “For saying this you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

As the story continues, it seems clear that this encounter has changed the nature of Jesus’ mission. For when he goes to the Decapolis, the Gentiles bring one of their own, a deaf man with a speech impediment, to be healed. He does not respond by arguing that the man has no claim on healing or other blessings because he is not a Jew. No, this time Jesus has not entered Gentile territory fundamentally to get away from it all, but specifically for the purpose of ministering. Now the interesting thing about this deaf man is that he embodies exactly what Israel thought of Gentiles. One of Israel’s poets, contrasting his faith with that of the Gentiles, wrote,

Our God is in heaven; Whatever he wills to do he does. Their idols are silver and gold, The work of human hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak; Eyes have they, but they cannot see; They have ears, but they cannot hear; Noses, but they cannot smell; They have hands, but they cannot feel; Feet, but they cannot walk; They make no sound with their throat. Those who make them are like them, And so are all who put their trust in them. [Psalm 115:3-8]

In almost no other healing account in the gospels do we get so graphic a description of Jesus’ healing as we do in this one. He takes the man privately, places his fingers in his ears, spits and touches his tongue. We have come a long way from Tyre when Gentiles were accorded the status of dogs.

There is no doubt that the most significant achievement of early Christianity is that, instead of remaining a sect within Judaism, it consciously, if at first hesitantly, embraced the Gentile mission. If we think that the Church is wrestling with explosive issues today in the realm of human sexuality, we should remember that these issues hardly compare with the gigantic breakthrough of the Early Church in smashng down the wall between Jew and Gentile. The way Mark tells the story, it is clear that Jesus himself is the origin of that movement. And how did that come to be? The key incident is that one day a Syrophoenician woman implored him to heal her little girl, resolved not to take “No” for an answer, and argued that, if she were a Gentile dog, she could still gather up the crumbs that fell from Israel’s table.

Ministry, yours as well as mine, is frequently about revising our plans and notions, even those we are completely committed to. That itself is something that a great many people have trouble seeing. Humans hold on to the past with a vengeance, whether it is a personal past or a social or religious or political past. Often the impulse to preserve what has worked well serves to protect and to extend important learnings. But all the great breakthroughs in any sphere of life are by their very nature events that blast open the confines of previously accepted wisdom. They are breakthroughs precisely because they break through barriers and ceilings and take us to new places. Yet those new places are always scary to a great many of us. We don’t know how to think or how to behave without familiar charts and conventions. Our pattern is usually to resist, and ultimately to fall back into the more familiar patterns, at least for awhile. Thus, the Early Church had its Judaizers, seeking to undo at least the thrust of the Gentile mission’s insight that the center of our freedom is in a Risen Christ and not in keeping kosher. The Reformation on both sides did not take long to devolve into a new orthodoxy, in some ways and places as rigid as the old. Vatican II, which many of us remember as shaking loose the ossified establishment of Western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, has been followed by decades of retrenchment.

Nor is religion the only place we see the dynamic at work. Scientists are notoriously slow to revise their mindset when an Einstein or a Heisenberg comes along with an unorthodox notion that challenges established theory. Much of what we have been seeing this summer in the way of political overreaction in the health care debate is the clash of undeniably new thinking with people’s patterned responses which they employ and defend despite all reason.

Jesus could certainly have made a case—indeed we see him making one—in Tyre which would have left the Gentile woman with a mentally ill daughter indefinitely, a case based on his own plans and the received mindset of his people. Instead he allowed himself to be changed.

Yes. Even Jesus learned what it meant to take a deep breath and look into space and say to himself, “Ephphatha! Be opened!”