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.