Saturday, April 18, 2009

Get Real. You Have Something to Say.

Apostolic Ministry

A sermon preached in St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, The Second Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2009

John 20:19-31

Most of the time the Scriptures we read on Sundays vary. There are a couple of Sundays, however, when we hear the same story year after year. This is one of them. Every year on the Second Sunday of Easter we hear the story of Thomas. Except that it is not the story of Thomas, exactly. It is the story of the Risen Lord’s encounter with his community. Because Thomas figures prominently in the story precisely because he was not in it to begin with, we tend to fix our attention on Thomas.

There is a reason why we read this story every year. It is John’s account of what we call Pentecost. Luke tells a story about how the Holy Spirit came to the disciples when they gathered at the Feast of Weeks, fifty days after the Resurrection. John, however, presents the Risen Lord recreating a community on the very day of his Resurrection. This story is of such importance that we need to hear it three times more often than other stories of the resurrection. We need to hear it and remember that at the heart of Easter is the new community that Jesus creates and sends into the world just as the Father sent him.

The other stories that we hear on this Sunday, however, are not invariably the same. Today the gospel is paired with two interesting stories. One is from the Book of Acts, telling us how for a time the Church in Jerusalem practiced a form of communism, sharing all resources voluntarily. The other is from the First Letter of John, accentuating the intimate connection between the fully incarnate and risen Lord and the forgiveness of sins. When we put all three of these together a picture of apostolic ministry and teaching emerges. Before we look at that picture, just run through your mind and see what images of apostle you are carrying. Saintly male figures in robes, worthy of stained glass? Beards, sandals? What about knives (Bartholomew), an upside-down cross (Peter), an x-shaped cross (Andrew), all instruments of exotic martyrdoms? I suspect that most of us don’t feel much intimate connection with the apostles as a group.

So, the picture that emerges: let’s look at it. First, the picture of disciples on the evening of what we call Easter Day, hovering in a room behind locked doors, out of fear. Into their midst comes Jesus. He speaks a word of Peace, the first account we have of the Peace being exchanged (or at least given) in the New Testament. Then he says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” And that is the making of an apostle. Up until now they have been disciples, followers and learners, attracted to their rabbi, Jesus, and attached to his teaching. But when Jesus sends them, they become apostles. That is what the word “apostle” means: one who is sent. “Αποστελλω,” I send, is the Greek equivalent of the Latin emitto. So an apostle is one who is sent out on a mission, and is therefore the same as an emissary, or, if you will, a missionary.

Notice, however, that the apostles don’t just jump up and run the minute that Jesus says, “I am sending you.” First, Jesus breathes on them. Just has Yahweh had breathed life into the nostrils of the proto-human, Adam, Jesus breathes on the disciples giving them the breath of New Life. He specifically gives them the authority to do what he has notoriously done: forgive sins. The point of this account is that apostles are filled with the Risen Life of Christ, which is synonymous with the Holy Spirit. They also have the power of the Risen Lord. They are connected with Jesus.

Thomas’ absence from the band when Jesus first comes is an important detail. But like all details in the Fourth Gospel, it has more to do with the message intended for the hearers (you and me) than it is about Thomas. Because we, too, are the ones who were not there when Jesus appeared, we, like Thomas, have the problem of responding to Jesus when we have no actual part in the appearance episode. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet who believe” is deliberately said for our sake. But we are not the only ones who weren’t there when Jesus appeared. I don’t have the complete list, but I am fairly certain that Paul was not there. And Paul, writing his letters in some cases decades later, begins them “Παυλος Αποστολος,” Paul, an apostle… Paul is able to call himself an apostle because he is convinced that his relationship with the Risen Lord is as real, as authentic, as valid, as palpable, as any relationship that any other apostle had. Furthermore, he considers himself “sent,” on a mission to the Gentiles. It is not certain, but fairly close to certain that there were others—Barnabas, Silas, for example—who were not privy to Jesus’ appearances but who became apostles just like the eleven.

Through our baptism, we are committed to remaining in the “apostles’ teaching and fellowship.” That means that we are apostles too. In fact, one of the reasons that our tradition lays such heavy emphasis on confirmation is that the bishop, as the successor to the apostles (and thus an apostle) lays hands on us not only confirming us but commissioning us as emissaries in the apostolic ministry. We are sent, and we go with “orders” to share our testimony, or story, of the Risen Lord and what he has done in our lives. Jesus has breathed his life into us, and we go in the strength of that breath to do what he has done. That is what it means to be an apostle.

So. You think you can do it? Do you want to? Or are you back where Thomas was on that first Easter evening? “Fine, folks, if you had the experience. But I just haven’t had it yet. Furthermore, I really don’t much believe you, and I don’t want to be made a fool of. Let me see some evidence before we get too strung out on this,” etc., etc. I want to compliment you if you are like Thomas, because whatever else Thomas is, he is real. I have a feeling (and legend tells us as much) that Thomas made a very good apostle not in spite of his hesitancy to believe but precisely because of it. He was authentic, and I imagine that his testimony was credible.

In this last week, the news has been full of a somewhat frumpy, plain, unemployed Scotswoman named Susan Boyle. Appearing on a show called “Britain᾽s Got Talent,” she shocked audience and judges when she opened her mouth and began to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables. Susan Boyle said to a reporter this week that she was totally “gobsmacked” at the response from around the world to her voice. One of my friends misheard her and thought that he had said, “God-smacked.” What a lovely thought! A God-smacked woman with a song that stands the world on end. Partly it is because the world loves the sound of her voice, and finds the song she sang beautiful. But the greater part of it is that Susan Boyle is real, unmodified and unpackaged by media, just being who she is, singing her song as truly as anything. That is what apostles do. They are touched with the genius, filled with the Spirit of Jesus, simply holy spirit. And they sing for the world their song of love, testifying to its truth, delivering its message.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

Demasiado Grande

Tu ministerio empieza al sepulcro

Un sermon predicado en la Iglesia San Esteban Episcopal, Washington, DC, el día de Pascua, el 12 de abril 2009.

San Marcos 16:1-8

El evangelio según San Marcos es un milagro. Marco nos dice que los discípulos no entienden nunca de la enseñanza de Jesús. Entonces, no es posible decir que si Jesús estuviera aquí con nosotros, podríamos tener más sabiduría y cambiar las ideas. Marcos da una cuenta muy simple y clara sobre Jesús, para clarificar que Jesús sabía exactamente lo que hacía, aunque nadie lo entendía, sino los demonios, una extranjera con una hija difícil, y también el capitán romano al fin de la escena de la crucifixión. Tal vez Pedro, que in el medio de la historia proclamó a Jesús el Mesías, pero inmediatamente después, mostró que no entendió nada de lo que Jesús pensó en eso.

¡Gracias a Dios por San Marcos y su evangelio! Porqué contando la historia del arresto de Jesús, el dice claramente que todos los discípulos—todos los hombres en el grupo—lo huyeron. Pedro es el único discípulo que furtivamente volvió, en tiempo preciso para cumplir la previsión que el gallo no hubiese cantado dos veces antes de él había negado a Jesús tres veces. Marcos nos dice que un grupo de mujeres estaban allá a la cruz y miraban donde se puso el cuerpo de Jesús. Cuando es el momento para un acontecimiento de la resurrección, el da una cuenta en los sonidos de silencio. Solamente oímos las mujeres que están murmurando en el amanecer sobre quien puede remover la piedra grande, a fin de que entren en la tumba para ungir el cuerpo. Entran en la tumba. Encuentran a un joven vestido de blanco (llámenlo “angel” si quieres, pero Marcos no le llama eso). Ellas se están asustadas. No dicen nada. Solo el joven habla. “No se asusten,” les dice. “Ustedes buscan a Jesús el Nazareno, el crucificado, no está aquí, ha resucitado; pero éste es el lugar donde lo pusieron.”

Tal vez nosotros nos preguntamos la consecuencia de ese mensaje para las mujeres dolorosas. Marcos no lo explica. Pero continua el mensaje del joven: “Vayan a decir…” Pero ellas no fueron y no hicieron. Salieron la tumba, asustadas y asombradas, por el miedo que tenían. El fin del evangelio.

Después de un poco de tiempo, muchas personas no pusieron creer que eso era el fin que Marcos había planeado. Entonces, supusieron que se ha perdido una pagina del libro y decidieron añadirla. Prestaron un poco de material de aquí y allá u hicieron la capitula 16 más larga y menos creíble.

Si. Es el fin. Las mujeres encuentran a un mensajero, escuchan las noticias, y se van, que tienen demasiado de miedo para hablar. Sin embargo, los lectores saben que algo pasó. La aparición de Galilea que el mensajero había anunciado claramente ocurrió, sino la cuenta de la previsión ciertamente se habría reprimido. Pero, hay algo que se puede creer sobre un grupo de personas abrumadas de tristeza y miedo para decir nada. Las mujeres parecen como nosotros exactamente.

A muchas celebraciones de Pascua, se proclama que Jesús ha resucitado. Pero, ¿qué más? Quizás está bastante cantar las aleluyas, ser asegurado de la vida eterna y una resurrección personal, y dejar con un corazón de alegría que hay una posibilidad de nueva vida. Tengo la idea que la Iglesia hoy (y quiero decir tan liberalmente que te incluye, no me importa quién eres) está sin palabras, y está miedosa como las dos Marías y Salome esa mañana a la tumba. Escuchamos la proclamación. Tal vez porqué parece imposible, pero pienso que es probablemente que parece frecuentemente desconectado de nuestras vidas ordinarias que salimos sino saber lo que necesitamos hacer. Está demasiado.

Yo hice un pacto con ustedes hace unos meses para examinar las escrituras de la perspectiva de ministerio. Debo explicar. Decir de ministerio no es hablar mucha jerga de la iglesia sobre clérigos. Ministerio, en el vocabulario cristiano es el terma que usamos para significar todo que somos y todo que hicimos. Su ministerio incluye todas sus relaciones, todas sus esperanzas, todas sus fuerzas, su trabajo, sus risas, sus sueños, y también sus pecadas. Lo que hice su ministerio cristiano, si es cristiano, es que todas las cosas de su vida expriman el muerte y la vida de Jesús, y que tu glorificas a Dios que Jesús revele y que revele a Jesús. El propósito de todo ministerio en el nombre del Cristo es hacer lo que Jesús pasó su vida haciendo: conectar el mundo a Dios, y en el proceso, abrir al mundo a su verdad más profunda.

Eso es un reto muy grande. Unas personas tendrían muchas dudas y dirían, “No gracias. Tal vez debo investigar otra religión, y abandonar la causa de religión completamente.” Pero es exactamente este punto cuando el testimonio de Marcos sobre la resurrección nos encuentra. Escuchamos la proclamación y estamos confundidos. ¿Vaya y digan? ¿Qué decir? Si Marcos lo planeó o no, es el resulto que el fin extraño de su evangelio puede causar. Tenemos figurarlo, y nadie va hacerlo para nosotros, aún Jesús. Si se puede juntarnos con él a Galilea, por ejemplo, ¡tenemos empezar empacar!
La piedra grande que nos causa nuestra estar nerviosos en la madrugada ya no nos importa mucho. ¡Debemos irnos!

Marcos nos invita a cumplir la historia con nuestro ministerio. ¿Que es eso? Vamos a contestarlo en pocos minutos. Vamos a viajar a la fuente de baustimo, como nos acostumbramos en la iglesia San Esteban. La fuente, entre otras cosas, significa la tumba. El jueves santo en la noche, pusimos el cuerpo de Jesucristo, en la forma de pan y vino, en la fuente, diciendo gráficamente que la fuente y la tumba son iguales. Pero la tumba, al fin, es el lugar donde nuestro ministerio comienza, porqué es allá que el hogar de muerte está lleno con el agua de vida nueva. ¡Somos bautizados, crisitianos! Fuimos sepultados con Cristo en su muerte por bautismo, y por las aguas Dios nos ha levantado, nos ha resucitado con Cristo.

Ese ministerio, como la vida de Jesús, consiste en cinco cosas que prometemos muchas veces. Prometemos que continuaremos en comunidad uno con otro, en la fracción del pan y en las oraciones. Prometemos que proclamaremos por palabra y acción que Dios nos da perdón y no nos da condenación. Prometemos que daremos toda nuestra energía para cuidar a todas las personas lo mismo como a Cristo. Prometemos que no dejaremos antes de justicia y paz extienden a todo el mundo. No hay ministerio más que eso.

¿Que pasa cuando sales a la tumba hoy? ¿Las palabras se pararán en su boca? ¿Estará demasiado?

Polly era una amigo muy querida de mi. Era mi directora espiritual hace más o menos 25 años. Me dijo que una noche, unos años antes de conocer, estaba yendo en su carro del Connecticut a los Berkshires. Solo durante el tiempo largo, estaba rogando para muchas personas en su vida que le han pedido sus oraciones. Muchas cosas terribles estaban pasando con sus amigos, sufrimiento, tristeza, dolor, violencia, todos de un gran montaña de problemas. En sus oraciones, ella se dejó. Gritó en el silencio, “Dios, ¿porqué, porqué? ¿Porqué permites todo? ¡Es demasiado grande!” Ella dijo en el silencio que sigue, escuchó una voz—no voz humana, pero que lo parecía—diciendo, “Es mi intención que sea demasiado grande.”

Si nuestro ministerio no sea demasiado grande, nosotros podríamos desarrolar la fantasía de que podemos hacer todo por nosotros mismos. Podríamos salvar la tierra, terminar las guerras, sanar las enfermedades, porqué somos inteligentes y santos. Pero no. No somos nosotros mismos que servimos en este ministerio, pero el poder de Dios que vive, la presencia de Cristo en nosotros. No se preocupe. Habrá días, posible de esta semana, en los que se dirá, “Simplemente demasiado.” ¿Porqué tratar de eso? ¿Porqué intentarlo? Dios mio, soy solamente muy pequeño y el reto es tan grande. Cuando lo dices, recuerda la proclamación que escuchaste a la tumba. Su Señor ha resucitado. Y el mismo poder que le resucitó de entre los muertos, te dará la vida nueva también.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

Is It Just Too Much?

The Ministry That Begins in a Tomb

A sermon preached on Easter Day, April 12, 2009, in the Episcopal Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation, Washington, DC.

Mark 16:1-8

One of the God’s best miracles is the Gospel according to Mark. Were it not for Mark, we would not know so well that the disciples of Jesus were a bunch who never got it, dispelling for all time the notion that “if Jesus were only here” people would somehow have access to deeper insight and might actually change their minds. Mark tells a no-frills story about Jesus, making clear that he knew what he was doing but that nobody else actually did, with the possible exception of the demons, a gentile woman with a problem daughter, and a Roman centurion at the end of the crucifixion scene. Allowance can be made for Peter, who mid-way the gospel proclaims Jesus as the Messiah, only to demonstrate in the next breath that he understood nothing about what that meant in Jesus’ mind.

Thank God for Mark! In telling the story about Jesus’ arrest, he says flatly that all the disciples—the males, that is—deserted him and ran away. Peter is the only one who sneaked back, just in time to fulfill Jesus’ prediction that the cock would not crow twice before he had denied knowing Jesus three times. Mark tells us that a band of women stood by and watched the crucifixion from a distance, and were on hand to notice where the body of Jesus was placed. When times comes for him to tell the resurrection story, he does not pull out the trumpets, like Matthew, or the violins, like Luke, or the camera like John (I say that not to disparage, but to compliment the richness of the other three). Rather, Mark tells his story surrounded by an eerie silence. We only hear the women muttering in the early morning about who will roll the stone away, so that they can get into the tomb to perform the anointing of the body. They enter the tomb. They encounter a young man in a white robe (call him an angel if you will; Mark does not). Alarmed, they say nothing. The young man does the talking. “Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.”

We may well wonder what effect such a statement had on three grieving women. Mark does not go into that quite yet. He continues the messenger’s message: “But go, tell…” And that they did not do. They went out of the tomb, full of terror and awe. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. End of gospel.

After awhile people simply could not believe that that was the end that Mark really intended. So they decided that a page must have been lost from his book, requiring that they make up something to round the story off. And they borrowed some stuff from here and there and gave chapter 16 a bit more length and a lot less credibility.

So that is how it ends. Women encounter an angel, hear the news, and clear out, too scared to talk. Readers know, of course, that something happened. This Galilee appearance the messenger had announced must certainly have happened or the report of its prediction would surely have been whited out. Still, there is something immanently believable about a group of people too overwhelmed and scared to say anything. In that sense, the women are just like most of us.

If you are like me, you have been to a few Easter celebrations, and all of them have proclaimed that Christ is risen. But then what? Maybe it is enough to sing the alleluias, to be reassured of everlasting life and a personal resurrection, to come away with a gladdened heart that no matter how bad things get, there is always the possibility of new chances and new life. I have more than a feeling that the Church today (and I want to define that liberally enough to include you, whoever you are) is just about as speechless, as stymied, and frankly as scared as were the two Marys and Salome on that morning at the tomb. We hear the proclamation. Perhaps because it seems so unlikely, but I think maybe moreso because it frequently seems so disconnected from our workaday world, we turn to leave and simply don’t know what to say or do. It is just too much.

I made a pact with you some months ago to look at the scriptures from the perspective of ministry. I must explain. To talk of ministry is not to talk churchy talk about clergy. Ministry, in the Christian vocabulary, is the word we use to talk about everything we are and everything we do. Your ministry enwraps all your relationships, all your hopes, your efforts, your work, your laughter, your dreams, and even your sins. What makes your ministry Christian, if it is Christian, is that all the stuff in your life is in someway expressing the death and life of Jesus and glorifying the God whom he reveals and who reveals him. The point of all ministry in the Name of Christ is to do what Jesus spent his young and short life doing: bringing the world to God, and in the process, opening up the world to its deepest Truth.

That is a tall order, and one that not a few people right here would shake their heads at and say, “Wow. Maybe I better check out another religion, or maybe abandon religion entirely.” But it is exactly at this juncture that Mark’s resurrection story intersects with us. We hear the proclamation and we stand confounded. Go and tell? Tell what? Whether or not Mark intended it, that is exactly the effect that his gospel’s weird ending can have. We have to figure it out, and nobody is going to do it for us, including Jesus. If we are to meet him (in Galilee, for instance), we have to get a grip. We have a trip to make, and perhaps a hundred other things to do. In retrospect, the stone that we worried so about earlier in the day seems pitifully insignificant now. We ourselves have to get rolling!

Mark invites us to finish the story with our ministry. And what is that? We are going to answer that question in just a few minutes. We are going to make a pilgrimage to the baptismal font, as is our custom in St. Stephen’s. The font, among other things, symbolizes the tomb of Jesus. On Maundy Thursday night, we placed the Body of Jesus, in the form of Bread and Wine, in the font, saying graphically that font and tomb are one. But tomb turns out to be the place where our ministry begins, because it is there that what was the place of death becomes filled with the water of life. We are baptized, people! We have been buried with Christ in his death by our baptism, and through those waters God has raised us to a life united with our risen Lord’s!

That ministry, which is startlingly like Jesus’ life, consists in those five things that you and I keep promising over and over again. We promise that we will continue in community with each other, breaking bread and praying. We promise not if, but when, we fall away, we will repent and return. We promise that we will proclaim through what we say as well as what we do the Good News that God is about forgiveness, not damnation. We promise that we will spend our lives treating everyone as if even the dumbest and the worst were Christ himself. And we promise that we will not rest in the fight for justice and peace until the dignity of every human being (and I would add all creation) is assured. That’s it. There is no other ministry than that.

So what happens when you leave the tomb today? Will the words stick in your throat? Will it just be too much?

Polly Wiley was one of the dearest friends I ever had. She was my spiritual director about twenty-five years ago. She told me that one night, years before I knew her, she was driving the long and dark way up Route 7 in Connecticut to the Berkshires. Alone for several hours, she was praying for a host of people in her life who had asked her prayers. Some awful things we happening to some of them: intense suffering, grief, tragedy, all piled onto one another. In the middle of her prayers, she stopped. Gripping the steering wheel, she shouted out, “Why God, why? Why all this? Why do you let it happen? It is just too much, too much!” Polly said that in the silence that followed her outburst, she distinctly heard a voice—not a real human voice, but a voice as real as if it were—saying, “I mean it to be too much.”

Were it not too much, this ministry of ours, we should fall too swiftly for the fantasy that we could do it all ourselves. We could save the planet, stop the wars, end the suffering, cure the illness, all because we are just that smart and just that holy. But no. It is not we who live and work and do this ministry, but the power of God, the living Christ within us. Don’t worry. There will be days, probably even this week, when you will say, “It’s just too much.” Why bother? Why try? My God, I’m just so little and the task is so big. And when you do, remember the proclamation you have heard at the tomb. Your master is risen. And the selfsame power that raised him from the dead, raises you.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Until We Laugh

A sermon preached Maundy Thursday, April 9, 2009, in the Episcopal Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation, Washington, DC

John 13:1-17, 31b-35 Three-year-old Savannah cried every day she was in the parish day school. Sometimes she would wail. At other times she would whimper. Her incessant crying got worse when she would come to chapel.

Savannah was blind. Maybe because she could not see, the strangeness of school frightened her. Or maybe her emotional problems had nothing to do with her blindness. For the priest, leading a chapel service with Savannah in it was challenging. Her moaning seemed to be a poignant commentary on the emptiness of words.

Maundy Thursday came. The day school director asked me if I would come and explain to the children about Maundy Thursday. “Let’s do a foot-washing,” I suggested. I gathered the children around. “Jesus looked for a way to show his friends how much he cared for them,” I began. Savannah began to cry. “The people where Jesus lived had a way of showing their guests respect. When people would visit them, generally a servant would take off their sandals and wash their dusty feet.”

“Jesus wants to wash your feet,” I said as I poured water into a basin. “He wants to show you how much he loves you. He wants you and me to understand that there is nothing better or more important to do than to love one another as he loves us. And as a sign of that, he wants to wash our feet, as if he were a servant whose only job was to do that.”

I had no idea how children would react to foot-washing. Would it seem silly? Invasive? Too strange? One by one they took off their shoes and socks. They all held their feet over the basin. I poured warm water over their feet, washed and dried each one. Some giggled a bit. Most were mesmerized. “Remember to love everyone as Jesus loves you,” I said as I washed each little foot. A few hung back. The room grew quiet, but for the sounds of water washing, the clink of my ring on the side of the pan.

A teacher held Savannah, who was strangely silent, but for a little sniffling. She bent down, holding Savannah’s bare foot over the basin. I poured water. “Savannah, remember…” Savannah let out a little giggle. And another. Then she threw her head back and laughed deeply. “Again,” she said. I poured more water, pressed her foot between my palms. She laughed and laughed. Then another couple of children picked up the laughter, and like a blaze it spread across faces and foreheads till the whole room was laughing with Savannah.

The water of life runs over fearful hearts and stony, runs down the cracks and crevices and gets to places that nothing else can reach. Teary places, scary places where no light ever comes. Lord, do not wash only my feet, but my hands and my head and my heart and my soul and all the places where I hide from the truth and all the places where I keep my bad dreams. Wash me through and through in the places where my secrets weigh me down. Wash away my sins, but wash away my fears as well. Let me feel you holding my feet, even when I cannot see you. Wash me, Lord, wash me, until I laugh again.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

Hasta Que La Risa

Sermón para Jueves Santo, predicado en la iglesia de San Esteban y La Encarnación, Washington, DC, el 9 de abril 2009

San Juan 13:1-17, 31b-35

Savannah era niña que tenía tres años. Todos los días lloró a la escuela para niños de la parroquia. A veces gemía. A veces lloriqueó. Su llanto incesante empeoró cuando venía a los servicios en la capilla de la escuela.

Savannah era ciega. Tal vez porque no podía ver, la extrañeza de la escuela la asustó. O tal vez ser ciega no fue la causa de sus problemas emocionales. Para el cura, la dirección de un servicio en la capilla cuando Savannah estaba allá era difícil. Su lloriquear parecía un comentario muy penoso sobre palabras vacías.

Jueves Santo ocurió. La directora de la escuela me pidió venir y explicar a los niños la significación de Jueves Santo. “Que lavemos los pies,” le sugerí. Cogí a los niños. “Jesús esataba buscando una manera para mostrar a sus amigos cuanto se preocupaba para ellos,” yo empecé. Savannah comenzó llorar. “La gente que vivía en el país de Jesús tenían un costumbre para mostrar respeto a sus huéspedes. Cuando personas les visitaban, un siervo tendría sus sandalias y lavaba sus pies polvorientos.”

“Jesús quiere lavar sus pies,” yo dije mientras vertiendo agua en una palangana. “El quiere mostrarles tan mucho los ama. El desea que entendamos que no hay nada más importante que amar a los demás como él nos ama. Como un símbolo de eso, quiere lavar nuestros pies, como fuera un siervo de quien el único trabajo era hacer eso.”

Yo no tenía la menor idea de cómo los niños reaccionarían al lavado de los pies. ¿Le parecería una tonteria? ¿Invasivo? ¿Demasiado extraño? Uno por uno se quitó los zapatos y los calcetines. Cada niño puso sus pies sobre la palangana. Vertí agua tibia sobre sus pies, los lavé y sequé. Algunos se reieron. La mayoría estaban cautivada. “Recuerde a cuidar a todos como Jesús te ama,” yo dije como lavaba cada pie pequeño. Algunos dudaron. La capilla creció tranquila, a excepción de los sonidos del agua de lavado, el tintineo de mi anillo en el lado de la sartén.

Una maestra tuvo a Savannah, que estaba tranquila extrañamente sino un poco de lloriquear. La maestra dobló hacía abajo, y puso el pie de Savannah sobre el cuenco. Vertí agua. “Savannah, recuerde…” Savannah comenzó a reirse un poco. Luego, se rió más. Ella tiró su cabeza hacía atrás y se rió profundamente. “¡Otra vez!” me dijo. Vertí más agua, apreté su pie entre mis palmas. Ella se rió más y más. Luego, otros niños empezaron reirse, y como un fuego, rapidamente las risas se extendieron sobres los rostros hasta todos en la sala se estában reyendo con Savannah.

El agua de vida desciende sobre corazones temerosos y pedregosos, desciende en las fisuras y grietas y corre hacía abajo a los espacios donde no se puede llegar nada más. Lugares de lagrimas, lugares de miedo donde la luz no viene jamás. Señor, lávame no solo los pies, sino también las manos y la cabeza y mi alma y mi corazón y todos los lugares donde me oculto de la Verdad y en todos los lugares donde guardo mis sueños malos. Lávame completamente en los espacios donde mis secretos me pesan mucho. Purifícame de mis pecados, pero quitame de mis timores también. Dejame sentir que tu tienes mis pies, aun cuando no puedo verte. Lavame, Señor, lavame, y dejame reirme otra vez.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Moment You Have Been Waiting For

Ministry and Evangelism

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, March 29, 2009

Text: John 12:20-33

You have just heard what has to be one of the most confusing passages in all the New Testament. On days like this I sometimes think we should change the response to the gospel reading to something like, “Praise to you, Lord Christ, we think.”

Some Greeks are attending the Passover in Jerusalem. It is clear that they are not just Greek-speaking Jews but are in fact Gentiles, most likely converts to Judaism. They ask Philip, who happens to have a Greek name and to come from a generally Greek-speaking area of Galilee, to speak with Jesus. For whatever reason, Philip goes to Andrew, the other disciple with a Greek name. Andrew then does what he is frequently pictured in the gospel narratives as doing: he brings people to Jesus, along with Philip with whom he frequently works as a team.

The careful reader of John’s gospel will have noticed that for the last several chapters, Jesus has been saying things that suggest a universal appeal of the Good News. He has sheep other than the fold of Israel who will hear his voice and come to him, so that there will be one flock, one shepherd, for instance. The arrival of the Greeks, who come looking for him, marks a climactic moment. Their very coming is so important that the gospel writer leaves them standing there as he delves into the meaning of their arrival. Like Nicodemus in Chapter 3, the Greeks are left to drift off the pages of the gospel without the benefit of a conclusion to the narrative that brings them there.

The other gospels deal with the arrival of the gentiles in different ways. Matthew tells the story of the Magi, thus presenting the gentiles as having been among the first beyond the holy family itself to recognize the true identity of Jesus. Mark tells his story in such a way as to reveal the gradual dawning upon Jesus himself of the mission to the gentiles, presenting as a climactic moment the appearance of a Syrophonœcian woman (another Greek-speaking gentile) who seems to have caused a kind of epiphany for Jesus, not just an epiphany of Jesus. Luke writes the most gentile-directed gospel of all, and overtly places the notion of a gentile mission in the birth narratives by having the aged Simeon at his presentation in the temple refer to him as “a light to enlighten the gentiles.” So this is the way John handles the idea, by telling an account of how, in his narrative, the first gentiles come to Jesus.

The point is that what distinguishes Jesus’ ministry more than any other single thing is that it blasts open the wall that separates Israel from the rest of the world, and brings to the table of Abraham all those who were formerly left out. And, speaking of Abraham, this very notion is embedded in the Covenant with Abraham, where the promise of God is to furnish descendants of Abraham as numerous as the sand on the seashore or the stars in the heavens. Isaiah picks up the theme by saying that the vocation of Israel is to be a light to the nations. Jesus fulfills these hopes and promises by willingly laying down his life by being lifted up on the cross so that he might draw the whole world to himself.

You may recall that I have bargained with you to look at Sundays’ scriptures through the lens of ministry. What does this passage have to do with ministry? What light does it shed on what you and I do as disciples of Jesus? In large part, the way we answer that will depend on how we read the story. Is the story, for example, about how we have been included? Perhaps. But consider another narrative. I once lived in an idyllic New England town. Its very name—“Newtown”—suggested an imaginary place that existed a bit outside the everyday world. It was not uncommon, I found when I moved there, for the topic of party conversations to be, “Don’t you just love Newtown?” People would frequently swap stories about how they were glad to have moved to Newtown, how much they liked—no, loved—it. But some of us noticed that there was an element in the “I love Newtown” story that went like this: “Now that I am here, I want to make sure that I am among the last to come here. Let’s do everything we can to keep the town from changing. And that means we need to limit who comes in.” I say all this publicly because it was no secret. During the thirteen years that I lived there, some of us, led by the churches, had to talk openly and persuasively about the kind of exclusionism that that attitude bred. In order to do ministry there, we had to prick the bubble of illusion that somehow we were without problems, without pain. And we had to work to dismantle the wall that separated Newtown from the “gentiles,” the others, who were unable to come in.

The single biggest reason that Jesus got nailed to the cross was his penchant for including the outsider, the other. And nothing is better attested about his ministry than that. Whether it was a teaching about a Samaritan, the healing of a woman who was ritually impure, a conversation with a morally questionable Samaritan woman, his open table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, his ministry over and over crashed the presuppositions that folks behind the religious fences were safe from invasion. Whether he believed that from the start or whether, as Mark seems to suggest, he came to that position gradually, clearly by the end of his brief ministry it was clear: no one was excluded from the realm of God.

And nothing less can characterize and shape our ministry. Like Philip and Andrew, our job is to bring people to Jesus. For us, it is not just a matter of escorting a delegation to Jesus for an interview; it is bringing into his presence and community all people who show the slightest interest in being a part of it. And it is even moreso our responsibility to issue invitations to people to come meet Jesus by meeting his community, the Church.

I am going to assume that that point needs no further elaboration. But I think we do need to spell out what specifically it looks like when we practice a kind of hospitality and outreach that mirrors Jesus’ own ministry. First, there is nothing wrong or offensive about inviting folks to come with you to your community of faith. It all depends on how you do it. “I’d like you to join me this Friday for supper at our church,” is one way. “Would you like to come with us to St. Stephen’s?” is another. Second, respect the fact that the answer might well be no. Folks may wish to decline. And if you have ever been cornered by someone’s insistence that you do something you don’t want to do, you know how uncomfortable that can be. So leave plenty of room for someone to say no, thank you. Respect for boundaries is a basic tool of hospitality.

But what about a more pointed matter, sharing your faith? The courteous thing to do is to invite someone to share their faith—or lack of faith—before we start sharing ours. To begin with, we frequently find that someone who we might have thought didn’t have much faith actually has a good deal of it. And not uncommonly, our own faith is enriched by someone else’s. I try to make it a point to ask questions rather than make statements. “What gives you strength?” “What do you value most?” It is not surprising that when we practice asking questions, we usually inspire others to ask them too. And when someone asks you a question, that is your entrée, their invitation to share your faith. What does give you strength? What is important to you? Where do you go to look for meaning?

You might well be wondering what all this has to do with what Jesus says at this climactic moment when the Greeks come seeking him. I don’t know that his parable about the seed falling into the earth and dying so that it can produce much fruit has much to say about expanding the boundaries of the community of faith. But there is something about his response that addresses our reluctance to do the ministry of evangelism (did you know that is what we have been talking about?) or anything else that might seem hard or off-putting. Jesus lets us know that nothing of worth happens without considerable risk. “A little of us has to die in order to grow again,” says El Gallo in The Fantasticks. And it is true. The only way we will ever follow Jesus is by letting go of our fears and preconceptions, and by daring to follow the example of his authenticity.

Don’t be surprised, when you find yourself doing that, if you have the strange sensation that “the hour has come.” It might be that you begin to taste what it is like to be doing what your were created to do, and finding an unutterable beauty and freedom in doing it.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2009

Things Are the Opposite Of What You Think

Ego, Self, and Ministry: An Explosive Possibility

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, March 8, 2009

Mark 8:31-38

If we were to make a list of gospel passages that we might wish had never been said, the passage from the gospel today might well lead all others. “If any would come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” Doesn’t this trouble you?

You might be just vaguely aware that there are hosts of people who nurse their victimhood because they think that in doing so they are behaving the way Christ wants them to. Think of the woman whose alcoholic husband beats her and verbally trashes her, who, fearing for her life, takes refuge in the belief that by staying in her marriage she is doing the will of Jesus, just carrying her cross, just carrying her cross. Or think of the hosts of men and women through the centuries who have tried to lower their sense of self-importance by wearing hairshirts, flagellating the skin off their backs, sitting atop pillars for years, starving themselves nearly to death, cutting off body parts, all manner of things. You don’t know anybody like that? Well, believe me, those are live examples, and not all of them in the distant past.

Generally, the harder the saying the more trustworthy its authenticity. So this one must really be authentic! Jesus seems to have been utterly serious. Somehow he had gotten the notion that his vocation involved suffering and denying a shameful death. Peter pulled him aside and argued, “Master! You can’t talk this way. This is no speech for a Messiah to be giving. You’ve got bullies to beat, enemies to conquer, kingdoms to set up, justice to meet out. What’s all this nonsense about suffering and dying? Don’t you think your followers are owed a little consideration? Keep on talking this way, and you’ll do in your own movement.”

And Jesus responds, “You’re thinking the typical human way, Peter—er, Satan—you and that tempting tongue of yours.” (Or words to that effect.) And then he gives us, in the middle of this hard saying, a clue as to what he really is talking about. “Not the way God thinks…,” he adds. There is another way of thinking about these matters. And, frankly, it is a way that isn’t too familiar to the average, virtually unconscious human.

So much of the gospel message depends for a right hearing on how carefully and accurately we understand a couple of basic things. One of those things, which this passage itself defines and illuminates, is that things are not always what they seem. Take death, for instance. Everything that appears to be death is not death, nor is death itself a bad thing. In fact, death is a part of the created order and thank God it is. But, ironically, the very things human beings do to insulate themselves from death frequently only create an illusion that death can be managed or banished. Some of those things, like accumulating power, amassing fortunes, protecting security, and extending life expectancy, look to be life-giving, but in fact are not. They are quite often parts of the program to which Jesus referred when he said, “those who would save their lives will lose them.” Or you can take life, for another instance. Everything that appears to be life is not life.
Sometimes life is lost by those who invest most deeply in the things that are easily identified with the very best things possible: good looks, great intelligence, lots of money, plenty of things. And Jesus is by no means alone in saying that “those who lose their life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it.” For all religious traditions, in one way or another, point to the truth that there is a way to live that is not altogether obvious and which must be consciously sought and chosen.

A third instance of things not being exactly what they seem on the surface is the matter of self. While it is true that Jesus and the gospel writers do not share our preoccupation with “self,” which has come to be a major topic of investigation and discourse through the centuries, it is nonetheless true that at rock bottom, this passage is talking about two different ways of approaching one’s self. Mark uses the word that means “soul” to mean “life.” It is a word that you know: ψυχη or psyche. And, in the New Testament, it frequently means the whole living person, or “self,” if you will. Thanks to depth psychology, we have developed a way of differentiating between the “Self,” by which we mean the core reality of the human being, and the “ego,” which is the conscious, willing self, the “I” that we use to refer to ourselves. (See how tricky language gets?) Ego sometimes gets bad press in places like churches, and it is wrongly assumed that the ego is a bad thing. But the ego is a natural, normal part of us, and we need it to be strong. (If you want to see lots of weak egos, visit a mental hospital.) The problem is that the ego can sometimes get inflated out of all proportion. When that happens, ironically the ego becomes immobilized or ineffective. You can picture the hapless ego as the driver of a stagecoach, unable to control and restrain a team of wild horses, so powerful are the unconscious drives that direct and rule the person. With this in mind, we can take Jesus’ saying to mean: “Those would be my disciples must absolutely come to terms with their egos, and decide not to live an ego-driven life. Because all those things that inflated egos seek spell the death of real life. On the other hand, letting go of the ego and living out of a deeper, truer Self is precisely the way to Life. It involves taking up a cross, which is to say that it is difficult. You will identify with things that your ego would normally run from, like suffering in the cause of Truth, forgiving when all you want to do is keep on hating, and sacrificing for the sake of Justice. But, though you may well lose your life literally, you will in fact find what it is truly to live.”

So far, so good. We now are able to put Jesus’ saying into language that makes a little more sense than a notion that can be used to justify permanent victimhood. But you might remember that you and I are in the process of reading scripture like this from the point of view of what it has to say about ministry. This leads to a very interesting question: is there any such thing as ministry without ego? And, if so, why are great big egos sometimes drawn to ministry, which might look like a way to give up everything but frequently is not that at all? (And I am not talking about ordained ministry, by the way, but about the way we organize and live our whole lives in the service of Truth, with a passion for Justice, guided by Love.)

There is no such thing as egoless ministry. God redeems the ego right along with the rest of us. But if ministry—specifically being a disciple of Jesus—involves living from a different center, acting not from an inflated ego but from a deeper place, how? How do we do it?

We can take a number of approaches. Some will seek authorities—Church tradition, manuals of discipline, books such as The Purpose Driven Life or the old classic In His Steps or the even older classic The Imitation of Christ, celebrities of various kinds, philosophers. One of those authorities may become your guiding star. Others will insist on the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount of some other passage from the Bible. And that may work for you, too. I suggest a third alternative. Focus on a couple of basic practices that can keep you grounded.
The first of these might be to build into your life a regular practice of reflection. Some journal. Some meditate. Others pause and take stock daily in prayer. Others have a spiritual director whom they see periodically. All of these are examples of ways that one can practice being reflective. And why is that important? Because if we don’t stop and look at our lives somewhat objectively, chances are we will continue, like Peter, to think in purely human, ego-driven terms, never seeing the higher way nor hearing the deeper call. We’re apt to get stuck doing the things that our tribe or family or political alliances tell us we ought to do in order to be accepted, and as a result we will live somebody else’s life rather than our own, which we will surely lose.

Another way to ground yourself is to study Jesus’ life diligently, attentively, inquisitively, critically, honestly. You will, of course, ponder the gospels frequently. But also look at what St. Paul—who never knew him personally—has to say about life in Christ. That will lead you into places like Romans 8, in which he discusses “walking in the Spirit of Christ,” and Philippians, in which he describes what it is like to count everything else as so much trash in contrast to knowing and responding to the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. You might try styling your life along the lines of a list in St. Paul, where he enumerates the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Most of those things are virtues, and you only acquire them by deliberate actions, such as random acts of kindness, or even planned acts of kindness. You and I both have known a lot of people who gained the whole world but never found the beauty of life, but I’ll bet that between us we can’t name one person who has diligently lived a life of kindness, patience, gentleness, and goodness who could tell us that they were so thoroughly disappointed because by doing all those things they had somehow missed out on life. No. Because those things are the abundant life which Jesus came to give us, and which he promises we will in fact find if we stop holding on to our fear of death, let it go, take up this strangely beautiful way of the cross, and follow him.

Sometimes, frankly, I understand those who always have something better to do than to go to church, those who find following Jesus a quaint idea that is quite silly in a world where there are so many other attractive options. I understand how some people are so beat up by churches and stupid hierarchies that they want no further part of anything vaguely Christian. I too find Buddhism attractive with its forthright dealing with suffering and its counsel to detach. I find the option of Judaism compelling with its warm conversations with the Master of the Universe. But when I look into my own heart I see sometimes a fear, not unlike that of John Donne, whose sin of fear was that when he had spun his last thread he would perish on the shore. This Dunn’s fear is that some day this body will cease to work for me, this body I have learned so hard, so late to love. What if, like my mother and her sister and others of my relatives I wind up crippled by a stroke, no longer able to run or walk or paint or write, maybe even like Jean-Dominique Bauby, my ψυχη, my life sealed in a frozen body, unable to communicate or even, like him, to dictate by winking my one working eye a whole book called the Diving Bell and the Butterfly? I fear losing life as I know it and I want to save it (don’t you?). And then I flip through the annals of Christ lovers and find the story of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky. He was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity, came to this country in the 1850’s, and wound up becoming a missionary to China and eventually Bishop of Shanghai. Facile in languages, he had taught himself Chinese on the voyage to the Orient. Translating the Bible into Wenli, he determined to carry on his work even after devastating paralysis caused him to resign his see. So for the rest of his life he pecked out on a typewriter (100 or more years ago) using the middle finger of his partially paralyzed hand over 2000 pages of text. Before he died, he said, “I have sat in this chair for twenty years. At first it seemed hard. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.”

All who would lose their life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it. Would you rather have it that way, or gain the whole world?

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009