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