Sunday, December 26, 2010

Spoken Word

Prayer as Transcendent Experience

John 1:1-18

John’s gospel begins with a majestic prologue, in which almost anybody who has ever cracked open the Bible will hear an echo of the very first words of the very first chapter of the very first book. “In the beginning.” That is, in fact, what Genesis means. And genesis—the genesis of Jesus, the genesis of creation, the genesis of life, the genesis of regeneration, the genesis of faith, the genesis of knowledge—is very much the central theme of the fourth gospel. “In the beginning,” begins John, and with one gesture he pulls aside the curtain of time and steps into a world behind the shadows and scenes of the present. Like the Pevensie children in The Chronicles of Narnia, we follow John through the wardrobe into a strange and yet somehow more real world than the one in which we daily live.

John did not invent that world. But you won’t find it sketched out in some other part of the Bible either. The cosmos known to the writer of Genesis in the sixth century before Christ looked very different from the cosmos that John understood. Sometime around the beginning of the Christian era, a Jew named Philo who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, came up with a blend of Hebrew and Greek thought. Among other things, Philo talked about a “logos,” which to him meant “creative principle.” Greek philosophy tended in the direction of seeing matter as imperfect. Hebrew tradition, on the other hand, saw God as the creator of everything. “Logos” for Philo was a way of bridging the material world and God. The Logos was God’s creative power that brought the world into being. If you have ever heard the Prologue of St. John’s gospel, and most likely if you have ever heard a sermon on it, you know that “the Word” is that Logos. It is that creative power of God that was with God in the beginning. When Philo heard God speaking, “Let there be light,” he was hearing the Logos, the Word.

So John pulls aside the curtain of the present and lets us see what is happening outside time and space. Now the interesting thing about the Logos is that, although it is beyond the world that we see and live in, it is responsible for the whole shebang. All things came into being through the Logos. Not one thing came into being without the Logos. And, like Philo, John sees that what has come into being in the Logos was life. The Logos has brought the world to life, in other words. Not only that, but the Logos is the light that enlightens every person. Don’t miss the importance of that. All persons, not just Christians or Jews or intellectual or spiritual persons, are enlightened by the Logos.

Imagine that right now you could step inside the space, as it were, where the Logos lived before being born in Jesus. Suppose you could just slip right now between your pew and the one in front of you and just disappear to the rest of us while finding yourself in another dimension. What do you think you would call where you were? Heaven, perhaps? All right, maybe not. But would you say that God was there? And, if so, then it really is what we call “heaven,” isn’t it? Would you be aware that if you could do this right now you would not have had to die to go to heaven? You would have simply slid out of this world and into another world. Or, to put it slightly differently, your body would be right here but your consciousness would be elsewhere.

Now some of you will not believe that that is possible. Others will say that even if you do fancy things like this with your consciousness, you have by no means “left” the ordinary world, because anything that the human mind does is by definition in the ordinary world. Fair enough. I’m not here to quibble. But what I am driving at is, first, that there more to reality than we commonly suppose; second, that God is everywhere and everywhere accessible; and, third, that you are perfectly capable of an experience that transcends your ordinary bodily existence. There is a common word to denote that transcendent experience. That word is prayer.

Most of us are used to a couple of notions about prayer. One is that it is a matter of asking God for one thing or another, or telling God something of which we think God might not be aware. Occasionally it is telling God thanks for something wonderful, and from time to time it is telling God that we are sorry for something we have done or left undone. Well, all of those can be prayer and often are. But at its heart, prayer, whether here in church or somewhere else, is not talking to God as if God were a great big Ear somewhere out in the universe, but actually entering heaven—which I am using as shorthand for the presence of God.

In one of Charles Williams’ novels some of the characters are looking for a London address. They go to the street where the building is located, but they do not find it. There is the number before and the number after. But the building is on neither side of the street and is nowhere to be found. Others, however, are able to find the building and enter. There is nothing particularly mysterious about it at all. They simply happen to be attuned to a dimension of existence that others are deaf to. It is not at all unlike the situation in the Harry Potter novels where to catch the train to Hogwarts one has to step courageously into a space between platforms 9 and 10. Muggles, oblivious to the world of magic, do not see Platform 9½. I don’t think that these images of Williams and Rowling are a bad way of understanding prayer. Prayer is stepping into that dimension where the Logos lives both prior to and after the Incarnation.

The whole story of the Incarnation of the Logos is the story of the Word becoming human that humanity might become divine. The Logos bridges heaven and earth, God and humanity. The point of the Incarnation is not to leave us interminably separated from God, but quite the opposite: to unite us to God. The Word joins together things earthly and things heavenly. As John puts it in the Prologue, “as many as received him, to them he gave power to become the children of God.” What the Word, or Logos, is by nature—child of God—we become by grace—children of God. Baptism brings us into union with the Logos. Eucharist keeps us there. Prayer is the practice by which the bonds of the union get stronger and stronger. Remember that prayer is not just “saying your prayers,” but entering that dimension where, as one of the collects of the Prayer Book puts it, the Spirit might lift us to the Presence of God, where we may be still and know that God is God.

As you know if you were here two weeks ago or again on Christmas Eve, my focus for preaching over the next number of months is going to be prayer. So there is no way and no need for me to unpack all that this might possibly mean right now. I hope you will be a part of the ongoing conversation about prayer as we explore it.
Some of you already have forgotten more about prayer than I will ever know. I do not pretend to be a master of prayer. But I do believe that we are created to be in tune—united in purpose and spirit—with the deepest truth of the universe. That the Logos would become one of us is magnificently wonderful. It is even more wonderful that the Logos would unite us to himself so that we can be as authentic, as real, as loving, as grace-filled as the Logos is. Don’t think that it will never happen. The most stunning thing of all has already occurred, namely that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Coming into his presence through prayer is not impossible. It is exactly what happens when we are born not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of human will, but the will of God.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2010

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Heart Warming

Christmas as Prayer

“But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” –St. Luke 2:18

In Advent last year, Marcus Borg, known to many of us as a refreshingly honest New Testament scholar, came to Washington to address us Episcopal clergy in a diocesan quiet day, a custom for which we gather in early December. Borg began by asking us quickly to recall some of our memories of Christmas when we were children. Several hands shot up including mine. Like the eager schoolboy I once was, I unrestrainedly confessed to my colleagues that when I was a boy, I was the decorator in my family. I saw nothing particularly funny about that, but my comment brought the house down, so much so that Borg commented that something must have been going on that was escaping him. When the laughter abated, I reminisced that every December I would go through the woods surrounding our farmhouse gathering holly and pine boughs which I would use to decorate the front door and the table in our living room, as we had no mantle.

Of the many things I remember about Christmases long ago, the strongest memories cluster about that holly, green at first but rapidly brown because my grandmother heated the living room to something like 80°. Taking my cues from the best source I had, namely the sentimental pictures on the Methodist bulletin covers at that time of year, I would place the family Bible in the middle of the living room table, open to the second chapter of St. Luke’s gospel, flank it with red candles in silver holders, and surround it with holly.

And, long before I knew the word “liturgy,” I liked nothing better than to gather the family in the living room and either read or orchestrate the reading of Luke 2:1-20. On some level the verse that struck me as perhaps the most mysterious was towards the end. “But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” I have a vague memory of my mother commenting on that at some point. And perhaps I heard our pastor, Mr. Hedgepath, preach on that text. It is somehow connected for me with the very first image of the Blessed Mother that resonated with me: a large, oak-framed sepia print of Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” which hung in my Sunday school classroom while I was out gathering holly.

Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. I imagined that the woman I saw on my Sunday school classroom wall was pondering, thinking about, the child she was holding, remembering all the strange things that were said about him and all the weird dimensions of his birth. What I could not have known at that age, but know now, is that Mary’s pondering all those things in her heart was her prayer. And it is prayer more than anything else which spells the difference between getting at the meaning of Christmas and forgetting it or never getting it.

Luke says that Mary “preserved” all these things. What things? What the shepherds reported that the angel had said: “born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” This proclamation fits with what the angel had said to Mary herself at the annunciation: “…and now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But then Luke goes on to say something that nobody fully understands. He uses a verb that we hear in English as “pondered.” But that is probably too weak a way of conveying the meaning. It is more like, “she tossed them together in her heart.” Somebody looked into the matter further and came up with the probability that the whole sentence might mean something like, “But Mary treasured all these things, tossing them over and over in her heart, trying to find the right meaning of it all.”

That’s interesting. Most folks I listen to, or whose ads and cards and donation requests I read, have it all figured out. I hear phrases like “the true meaning of Christmas” and it would surprise me if anyone has tossed much Christmas around trying to figure it out. Typically, Christians are used to hearing scripture like this and, unlike our Jewish cousins, assume that we are hearing history, not myth and poetry and symbol. The Nativity is too large to be understood factually. It is beyond the scope of The Washington Post, CNN, or even Fox News. It exceeds all that can be neatly computed and quantified. And here, embedded in the story itself, is a clue as to what must happen if we are ever to find the right meaning of it all: ponder it, savor it, chew on it, over and over in your heart, until it becomes a part of you.

Madeleine L’Engle authored an exceedingly lovely book telling in her own masterful words the story of Christ, inspired and illustrated by Giotto’s famous frescoes in the little Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. She entitled the book The Glorious Impossible, and wrote, “Possible things are easy to believe. The Glorious Impossibles are what bring joy to our hearts, hope to our lives, songs to our lips.” And I would add: the only thing to do with the impossibles is to take them into your prayer.

Notice that I do not say “prayers.” For the first several years that I lived in Washington, I had a spiritual director, a very wise woman, who would ask me periodically what I was doing with thus and such an issue in my prayer? I would typically take her to be asking me what or how I was praying about whatever it was. “No,” she would say, “not what are you praying—as in the words you think or say—but what are you doing with it in your prayer?” It took me many months to learn that “my prayer” was not the content of my meditation, let alone the words I say that begin with “Dear God” or something of the sort. My prayer is my continual pondering, cogitating, ruminating, considering, tossing around the events and images and sounds and patterns of my life, trying to find the meaning of it all. Some of it is words, and sometimes those words are anything but typically religious ones. But sometimes the only thing I can do about the beauty of a relationship is hug or kiss or hold. And sometimes prayer is a formal thanksgiving. But just as often it is humming a song or whistling as I walk down the street or singing something at the top of my lungs when I am in my truck and no one but the Maker of the Universe can hear me. Sometimes such pondering takes me to the piano and my oldest art becomes the medium in which I express myself. I have known it to drive me to a canvas, where something takes hold of me and delivers in color and form what eludes my reason. I have known it to happen in the garden or washing dishes or running or hiking or—yes!–decorating!

In Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” two little putti, who have been reproduced ad infinitum on Christmas cards and all manner of angel paraphernalia, are hanging on the balustrade, looking up, their backs turned to the action, yet still aware of the Mother and Child. One cherub is cogitating, its chubby finger on its lips. The other is enchanted, perhaps, or mystified, or adoring, or maybe even a trifle bored. I imagine that the faces of the putti, more than anything else in the painting, betray the prayer of the artist himself, painting this towards the end of his life. Like his little putti, he does not yet know what to make of it all. The magnificent birth eludes him. It is too wonderful for him, so high that he cannot attain it. In a way he is tossing around and around in his paint and form the possible meaning of the Gloriously Impossible, just as the Virgin herself is doing.

Now I know that what I was doing when I was eight or nine years old plucking holly from the woods was my prayer. Some part of a little boy was adoring the Christ Child as really as the Christ Child was adoring the little boy. He had to open the Book and place the holly around it because that was the only way he knew to weave together story and symbol. He could not grasp the beauty of his flesh any more than his little hands could grasp holly without getting stuck and bleeding. But bit by bit, over the years, the story told itself, and things began to sink in. He learned that the flesh which the Word became in being born was something to rejoice in, not to be ashamed of. He learned that the Savior born that day in the City of David had a peculiar pull on him that he could not shake. And he treasures now so many things that do and don’t have to do with what happened on the hillside outside Bethlehem or in the cave where Mary and Joseph camped with the animals. Little bits of boyhood, like the memory of a Christmas shopping trip with his grandmother; the memory of giving an engagement ring when he thought his life had finally come together; one Advent spent working to build a homemade substitute for the Barbie Dream House for his little girls, wondering if they would be at all enchanted by their parents’ creativity or put off by the substitution of craft for expensive toys (they were appropriately impressed!); falling asleep on Christmas morning in the arms of his beloved, too overjoyed at the goodness of life to say much more than “Thank you, God.” Sheep and shepherds and angels and New Life: the glorious impossible he treasures and keeps turning all of it, all of it, Christmas and brokenness, Christmas and healing, Christmas and joy, over and over in his heart, where the boundaries between story and symbol, heaven and earth, Jesus and the boy fade and disappear.

Take your life tonight and all that is in it into your prayer. Memories and hopes, forgiveness and irritations, surprises and boredom, excitement and joy: take them all into your prayer. Keep asking what the Child that was born that day in the city of David has to do with you, and how you ever came to hear the great glad tidings of the angels, and how the mystery of the universe ever became your own Glorious Impossible. Treasure it. And toss it around and around in your heart until you come by grace to your own moment of meaning.

©Frank G. Dunn, 2010

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pray Tell

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be honor and glory now and for ever. Amen.

There are three touchstones that keep me connected to the heart of my Christian practice: hymns, psalms, and collects. Of the three of these, the third is far and away the most peculiarly Anglican—if that interests you. If it doesn’t, you probably have no earthly idea of what a collect is. “Is he talking about the collection?” you might wonder. Or, you might have noticed the word c-o-l-l-e-c-t in the bulletin or Prayer Book and have wondered what it is, why it is called that, and where it comes from. Don’t think for a minute that I imagine this to be of enormous importance to anybody. But you would not be wrong in supposing that I am in the process of opening a door that I’ll bet you’ll at least want to look through if not walk through. But hold on a minute.

Back to collects. Collects are so called because they are a specific form of concise prayer offered over the “collecta,” the assembly, of worshipers. The one perhaps most familiar to us is the so-called Collect for Purity: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid….” Nearly always they comprise an invocation, (Almighty God), a description of the one being invoked (to you all hearts are open, all desires known…), a command (cleanse the thoughts of our hearts), a result (that we may perfectly love you…), and a conclusion (through Jesus Christ our Lord).

The reason I like collects is the reason that many people do, and maybe the reason they have outlasted many another feature of Christian worship. I like them because they are short, memorable, and useful. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child without any words to pray, even to speak under my breath to myself. And when I feel the need to connect to Something larger, I draw on the words of collects that I have known since I was a boy and hear myself saying, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts…” or “Remember, O Lord, what you have wrought in us and not what we deserve…” or “… that our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found….”

That brings us to today’s collect. For many years, and still in some parts of the Anglican Communion, the “stir up” collect was used on the Sunday Next Before Advent. It was one of a series of old collects which for a long time were used on all five of the Sundays before Christmas that began with the Latin, “Excita.” In many an Episcopalian’s kitchen on or about the Sunday before Advent, spoons and egg beaters began whipping and whirring overtime to stir up puddings and fruitcakes, which has about as much to do with the content of the collect as Jesus has use for Jacuzzis. But that is why “Stir up Sunday” grew in popularity. The collect is a prayer that God will “stir up” power, and with great might come among us. And, it notes, because we are sorely hindered by our manifold sins, we implore God to let God’s bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.

I want to side-step, just for a little while, the figure of John the Baptist and his message of preparation for Messiah long enough to look carefully at this collect. The door that I want to open is the whole matter of prayer. This is as good a prayer as any to initiate that discussion—to raise serious questions about what prayer is, why it is the quintessential religious practice, and why it is enormously important to Christians and to those of other faith traditions.

The most basic thing about the collect, it seems to me, is the phrase, “because we are sorely hindered by our sins.” Before you retch at the idea of sin actually being in a sermon, stop and consider. Don’t you know that it is true? Before you leap to cataloguing those personal thoughts and actions that you might call sin (either things that you are ashamed of or things that you think are nobody’s business but your own), think of the enormous power that seems to hold the world in its grip. Your list might be different from mine, but mine would include things like willful ignorance that tries to silence the truth of the global climate crisis, self-absorption that turns a deaf ear to the cries of the wretched, power hunger that tramples on the vulnerable, pride of race or nation that justifies killing and unspeakable cruelty, the delusion that any of us is able to be who and what we are without depending upon the rest of the human community, the thoughtlessness or worse that leads to the trashing of the natural world. That is enough to put me in clear mind of how it is that we—the world, the whole lot of humanity—are indeed sorely hindered. Tragically, we hinder ourselves and could easily let up if not stop the behaviors that defeat us. Add to those things the innumerable ways in which we as individuals allow our desires to take control of us so that we lose our balance, falling into various kinds of excess, fear-driven greediness, competition for affection, manipulating others’ emotions and usurping their freedom. Tell me we are not hindered by our sins!

But then we pray that God will stir up God’s power and with great might come among us. It is not a request. It is an imperative. The collect doesn’t fool around with a nice address to God, nor with the customary descriptor. It just goes straight for the verb, the command: “Stir up your power!” What on earth is that about? What do we mean when we pray such a thing? Do we seriously think that God is like some dragon hiding in a cave at the end of the world, snoring through the centuries, ignorant of all that is going on in the universe? Do we think that our prayers, for example, are sharp darts we shoot between the dragon’s scales to arouse her so that she will roar to life, snort some fire, wing her terrible flight through time and space, come to wreck our world, rid it of evil, fix it for all time? Is such a prayer in fact a piece of fairy-tale fiction? Suppose it were true that God is the Being that we hope to heaven will intervene and fix things (we are used to believing that about politicians, for example). Who do we think might suffer, if not we ourselves who are our own chief hinderers? Are we really sure that we want that? There are those that we would laugh to see punished for their wickedness. But are we ready to pay the price we might ourselves owe were our hands pried loose from all we grasp and squeeze and cling to?

This is not what the collect envisions, however. We find ourselves praying that God’s power having been sufficiently stirred up, God will with great might come among us not to beat us up, but with bountiful grace and mercy to help and deliver us. What do you think that might look like were the prayer “to come true,” as my six-year-old daughter once put it? The truth of the matter is we do not know. We can dimly imagine, perhaps, what it might be like if the world were really at peace, if people learned to get along, if we did not go around picking fights with one another, if people were courteous even to strangers, if in short human beings lived on an even slightly higher level than we generally do.

You may take me to task here, voicing the position of the orthodox Christian, claiming that of course we know what it would be like if God came among us with great might because that is exactly what God did in Jesus. Well, yes. And look what happened to Jesus. All that grace and all that mercy that Jesus embodied and modeled and talked about just seemed to evaporate like the dew under Good Friday morning’s sun when the forces of darkness revved up and got poised for a crucifixion. In a sense that is exactly what the gospel today is telling us. It is not only possible for the seriously wicked to miss the point and presence of God’s might in Jesus. Why it was none other than John the Baptist himself, Mister Forerunner, Prophet of the Kingdom-of-Heaven-is-at-hand who was shaken by Jesus’ performance! “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is enough to tell us that we would not necessarily recognize God’s great might among us, especially if that might did not match our preconceptions, as clearly happened when Jesus appeared.

Now I must tell you. This sermon will not fully answer the question of what we think we are doing when we pray. I don’t know that any sermon could. But my purpose today is to crack open this subject so that we can begin thinking and discussing what we think we are doing when we pray. To some of you that is obvious. To others of you it may be pointless. But to many of us, skeptics and believers, agnostics and orthodox, prayer must have a point or else it, and the God it is addressed to, deteriorate into utter triviality, leaving us mired in the stuff of sin and shame (though we may try to excuse it), or else trapping us in a silly religious charade that only pretends to be real. I want to spend at least from now until Pentecost pushing us to be ruthlessly honest about prayer; to look at all the various pieces of the Christian story through the lens of prayer—healing and prayer, forgiveness and prayer, desire and prayer, art and prayer, ethics and prayer, resurrection and prayer. I want to see if we can come to understand prayer as less about words we say or even ideas we form than it is about living and behaving in the presence of Truth, that Truth we see most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ.

So this is only the beginning of the discussion. But it is a beginning. Which is to say that this is a kind of Advent in itself. And at its core Advent is not just a season of the year but a season of the heart. Advent is when the heart yearns, sighs, groans, prays, prays, prays to God, please for God’s sake, stir up your power and with great might come among us. Come among us. We have made a royal mess of things, but we know deep down that we can do better. On our best days we know that we do unimaginably splendid things, like giving up ourselves for the sake of others and treating other people as if they are sacraments of your very own divine presence. Come among us with great might, dear Lord. And let your bountiful grace and mercy—which we see in various ones among us, like the Schweitzers and the Mother Teresas and the Buddha and the Prophet and most clearly in Jesus and occasionally in the pew beside us and in the mirror––let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us. So we pray.

So we pray.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

¿El Fin del Mundo o el Fin de Temor?

San Lucas 21:5-19

Me pregunto: ¿que piensan ustedes y que escuchan cuando el evangelio se estaba leyendo esta noche? ¿Imaginan ustedes que Jesús está advirtiendonos por esas palabras? Y, si la repuesta es sí, ¿qué es su propósito?

Este pasaje es un buen ejemplo de como podemos hacer una pausa para reflexionar sobre como leer y entender la Biblia. La Biblia es un libro un poquito complejo, por qué en la Biblia hay muchos pasajes cuyo significado no es exactamente lo que se podría pensar.

En primer lugar, San Lucas escribió su evangelio después del acontecimiento posible lo más importante en la historia de Israel, la destrucción del Templo en Jerusalén durante la Guerra Romana. Entonces, cuando los primeros lectores escucharon esta profecía de Jésus, ellos saben que ya había sido destruido el Templo, más o menos así como Jésus habido predicho. La profecía se habia cumplido. Por otro parte, ellos se habían encontrado muchos de los desastres y persecuciones que Jesús habia dicho. Muchos de los Judíos cristianos habían huido a las montañas durante la guerra. Ellos se habían negado a luchar por la causa judía. Y por eso ellos habían causado la ruptura definitiva entre los cristianos y los Judios. Los lectores de Lucas sabían lo que era para sufrir la situación de ser entregado por los padres, hermanos, parientes y amigos. Ellos conocieron gran sufrimiento. Entendieron lo que Jesús describió que ser odiado por todos a causa de su nombre. Las congregaciones que leyeron o escucharon el evangelio de San Lucas supieron todo de eso. Las palabras de Jesús sonaban tan claras como una campana.

Además, Jesús no tenía la intención que sus oyentes tengan miedo de las cosas espantosas que continuarán sucediendo hasta el fin de los tiempos. Al contrario, Jesús daba a su comunidad un razón de tener esperanza y coraje durante las dificuldades y los tiempos dificiles. Tambien el les daba un aviso. No creyan ustedes a todas las personas que van diciendo que el tiempo está cerca para el fin del mundo. Especialmente, no sigan a ellos que usurpa mi nombre diciendo, “Yo soy el Mesías.” Jesús asegura a sus oyentes que hay todo tipo de catástrofes que va a durar mucho tiempo. Ellos no deben ser alterados o extraviados. Se trata de recordar sus palabras. Se puede recordar quiénes son. Se trata de recordar su fe. Ellos no deben ser desviados por miedo.

El propósito del pasaje es inspirar a los nuevos cristianos a mantener centrada, a permanecer fieles durante los tiempos difíciles. Ustedes entienden este mesaje, ¿no? Casi todas las personas en esta congregación han tenido mucha experiencia en tiempos difíciles. ¿De qué piensan ustedes cuando escuchan, “…los tomarán a ustedes presos, los perseguirán, los entregarán a los tribunales…”? Supongo que ustedes recordarían el viaje peligroso a EEUU, o imaginarían la situación de vivir sin documentación, con el temor constante de ser arrestados o deportados o peor. Y aunque no exactamente podrían ser perseguidos por causa del Nombre de Jesús, ya saben lo que es tener la fe puesta a prueba.

¿Qué conclusion sacaremos? Que el mayor mensaje de la Biblia se puede decir, “Con todo, ni un cabello de su cabeza se perderá.” Dios nos ama. ¿Por qué tenemos miedo? ¿Por qué debemos dudar su gracia? Su amor por nosotros se manifiesta en la muerte y resurrección de Jesucristo. El punto no es calcular el fin del mundo, sino permanecer firme en la fe a fin de que nosotros podamos ser salvos. Aun no tenemos una causa para ansiedad por eso. Pues, como San Pablo dice en otro lugar, “Quién nos separará del amor de Cristo? ¿Acaso las preubas, la aflicción, la persecución, el hambre, la falta de todo, los peligros o la espada? Pero no; en todo eso saldremos triunfadores gracias a Aquel que nos amó. Yo sé que ni la muerte ni la vida, ni los ángeles ni las fuerzas del universo, ni el presente ni el futuro, ni las fuerzas espirituales, ya sean del cielo o de los abismos, ni ninguna otra criatura podrán apartarnos del amor de Dios, manifestado en Cristo Jesús, nuestro Señor.


© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Plain View

Luke 19:1-10

I met Zacchaeus some years ago. I had known about him for a long time but I had never known him. In fact I had discovered Zacchaeus as a child. He was one of my favorite characters in the whole Bible in Sunday school, probably for the reason that most children like him: “Zacchaeus was a very little man and a very little man was he.” (So goes a children’s song which, incidentally, ends with a very Anglican notion as Jesus stops and calls the little man down out of the sycamore saying, “I’m going to your house for tea.”) But beyond this I did not know Zacchaeus.

Perhaps it helped that I at least knew his name. We don’t know the names of many people in the crowds that Jesus encountered. They are for the most part an anonymous parade of individuals whose personalities and biographies are lost to the ages. But a few made it into and through the oral tradition and finally onto the pages of scripture. They are so rare that we have to wonder why. In Zacchaeus’ case, there was no particular reason why he should have been known at all. He was neither a leader nor a person with a special place in the narrative of Jesus’ life. Nor was his city, Jericho, especially important, located as it is fairly far from Galilee where the bulk of Jesus’ ministry took place. Of course, the story itself tells us why Zacchaeus was well known in Jericho. He was well known because he was well hated. He was among that despised lot of people known to first century Palestinian Jews as tax collectors, cogs in the wheel of Roman occupation and oppression. Not only that but he was head of the local tax office, and thus a profiteer. That was why he was rich—rich off other people’s money and misery. But every town had its tax collectors, and we may suppose that Zacchaeus was no richer and no more despicable than the rest.

So what was it about this man that makes him memorable to the point that people prerserved not only the story but the name of the man in it? If you ask me it is because this episode is functionally Luke’s version of John 3:16. If you ever were a Baptist you learned that verse by heart; and if you grew up in The Episcopal Church prior to 1976, you heard it every time you went to communion. “So God loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” It has frequently been called “the gospel in miniature” because it sums up the whole message of the New Testament. But that is John. This is Luke. Luke is interested in a cluster of themes, but none more clearly than the punch line which he gives this story: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Consummate storyteller that he is, Luke anchors the greatest theme of them all in an episode made more memorable because we know the name of the quintessential lost man.

Interesting that Zacchaeus does not fit the profile of many another character on Luke’s pages. He is not poor, not sick, and not a woman. He is rich, however, and Luke is very much interested in what rich people do with their possessions once they come into contact with Jesus. And he is an outcast, made so not because of leprosy or mental illness but because of his status as a tax collector and thus a “sinner.” Zacchaeus is thus “lost.” But how “lost”? Lost because he is short, lost because he cannot see. Don’t miss the double-entendre here. He “was trying to see Jesus,” but could not because of the crowd. People get lost when their vision is blocked. Few things can be so frustrating, or so effectively marginalizing as the inability to see and thus to connect. But even more interesting is that Zacchaeus does not give up on the notion of seeing Jesus. He forfeits dignity (grown men of some prominence don’t run and climb trees, even in first century Jericho) for the sake of seeing Jesus. And, doubtless, on his perch the last thing he expects is to be spotted, called out, called down.

But Jesus comes to the place, looks up, and sees him. Maybe there is more in that detail than there would seem to be. Zacchaeus ironically has found a way in his life to compensate for his stature. He has climbed to the top of the heap in Jericho. Whether he is liked or respected or not, he does have some power and money. It is not stretching a point to say that Zaccheaus is strangely exalted, and not only in his sycamore situation. And Luke is ever interested in seeing how the exalted are humbled and the humbled exalted. So it is not exactly surprising that Jesus would come to the place and “look up.” One can imagine two feet dangling from a branch, a face partially hidden behind leaves. Jesus calls him by name. Luke no doubt wants us to think that Jesus has the kind of omniscience that would supply Zacchaeus’ name. But you might well imagine that on seeing the dangling legs, Jesus stops, points, and forms a quizzical look as if to say, “What’s with the legs? To whom do they belong?” Heads turn. Suddenly the little man is explosed. “Those legs?” someone says. “Oh. They belong to Zacchaeus. He’s our chief tax collector. [laughter].” Whatever. Jesus seizes the moment. He calls him by name.

And that is when I met Zacchaeus. On hearing that feature of the story, I realized that Zacchaeus was none other than I. Because I have heard that voice myself, sometimes when I have least expected it or least wanted to hear it. And though it has never been exactly an audible human voice, there has been that moment when I have realized that some pedestal I am on of my own making is vulnerable to something or to someone who calls me to come off it. Or, by the same token, when I have taken to hiding behind status or convention or regulation or some form of pretense, I have from time to time heard a distinct voice saying something that sounds like, “Frank,” the way my mother might have said it or “Frank,” the way Joe might say it when I am being uncharacteristically absurd or uncommonly outrageous. Jesus invites Zaccheaus to come down, and in so doing he immediately has a relationship with him. That he would invite himself to stay at Zacchaeus house should strike us as the bizarre thing that it is. But this twist, too, is not to be missed. That is what incarnate deity habitually does. It takes up residence in the life and soul and “house” of the one it has called out of anonymity into its own marvelous light. And strange things begin to happen.

Jesus does not lecture Zacchaeus on the requirements of salvation, nor does he squeeze out of him some confession of faith or sin. From what storyline we have, Zacchaeus needs no more than to be accepted to become accepting, no more than to be welcomed to extend a welcome. While the crowd is still grumbling, he immediately knows that his life is all wound up in ways that don’t sit well with the hospitality that he has received as well as given. So a reckoning begins. Luke makes it very clear in story after story that the gospel opens up not only our mouths but our wallets. The very experience of Jesus is antithetical to hoarding, withholding, self-protection at the expense of others, accumulating power or wealth or influence. Not very many people seem to understand that, which is I suppose what “lost” actually describes. But I would want to go further than the generosity dynamic and suggest that fundamentally the conversion of Zacchaeus, and therefore of me or you, is about something more basic. The Son of Man who seeks us out challenges us by his very example to live according to the Truth. Salvation comes to the house of Zacchaeus precisely because it does not leave Zacchaeus merely a short man with a short man’s attitude. There is a Truth and this exchange of hospitality between Jesus and Zacchaeus fleshes it out. The Truth results in changed lives. Generosity is one result. Wholeness is another.

So salvation can come to the house of Zacchaeus, who as a child of Abraham, has as much chance of being at God’s table as Jesus is at his. Male Jewish tax collectors can come into the reign of God and practice the life of God as much as anyone. There are no distinctions in that realm, only a banquet to which all are invited. The point is never who we are that qualifies us, but who we become once touched by God’s grace.

Perhaps that is enough of Zacchaeus and his story. Maybe nothing more needs to be said. Yet I can’t let it go without asking, “So what?” It could be that the point of the whole thing is a moral one: change your life and your lifestyle and make sure that they accord with the values of the Lord you serve. But I think it more than that. If the Zaccheaus I have met is as familiar to you as he is to me, I suggest that he suggests you find yourself in his story and therefore where you are in your own. Maybe you really can’t see what all the fuss is about. Maybe you have some inchoate suspicion that there is something about Jesus and his gospel that could mean something, or something more, to you if you just could lay your eyes or your hands on it. Or perhaps you are either watching the spectacle from a safe distance or indeed hiding comfortably above and out of view, detached, let’s say. Or maybe you are even this moment hearing something that sounds like a voice but feels startlingly like unimagined joy bidding you to come join a life where you will never be quite the same. When at times the noise of the crowd seems to drown out even your inmost thoughts that slither down the crevices of a life you never have completely figured out, you just might see yourself standing and saying things like, “Yes. This is it. This is really it. And I am it and it is now.” Then you know, don’t you, that salvation has come to your house. Today.


© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Sinking Feeling

A little known passage stuck in one of the more obscure books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, is this little tidbit:

There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded.’ [9:14-16]

Forget wisdom, just for a moment. Just get in touch with what it is like to be the lone voice crying out in a desperate situation. What is it like to be inside a city that is virtually helpless against immeasurable odds? Have you ever been there? Have you ever felt thoroughly inadequate, worse than inadequate, totally choked by the enormity of some wrong that held everyone in its fist?

A part of my story that I rarely talk about is that I grew up in an alcoholic family. I suppose I don’t talk about it much because, for one thing, over the decades a great amount of healing took place. Daddy’s sobriety took root about the time I was in my mid-twenties, although there had been a stretch of good years while I was in junior high and high school. Although the resolution and the healing delivered me from an unspeakable burden of shame and certainly from massive anxiety, I have very clear memories of being a little boy in a family that was consistently besieged by a formidable demonic power, not knowing what to do, feeling utterly powerless to affect any positive change, scared, bewildered. A few times I have been in less dramatic, and certainly less protracted scrapes, some of which I have had some means of controlling. Yet a part of my psyche, my soul was shaped on those hot and tortured nights when I was a child shaking with terror, a sinking feeling in my young gut.

I suspect that a good many of you can relate to my vignette. You have no doubt been there too, on that proverbial ocean so great in your boat so small. Small, yes, and being swamped by billows past any bailing. Or, to return to the Ecclesiastes metaphor, a little lone person in a city being battered by forces that any minute will vanquish it and utterly lay it waste. Do you think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that that is very close to the way I feel, and the way you might feel, up against the enormity of global climate disaster? We can argue from now till the cows come home about the degree to which human beings are contributing to global climate change; but there is no arguing with the fact that earth’s climate has changed and is changing dramatically. Nor can anybody sane argue against the effects of global climate change in increased drought, far more frequent and severe hurricanes, rising sea levels, more extreme temperatures, and the all but certain disappearance of species, especially large mammals, who will be gone in a few decades if trends continue, unable to adapt to the swings in weather.

Add to that the weighty problem that there are hosts of people who believe that the climate crisis—global warming—is a bunch of claptrap invented by American liberals. I am never quite clear on why it is supposed that people would want to make up a lie about such a thing or what it is that would be gained by doing so. I suppose if you yourself are used to making up lies and disseminating them for popular consumption it is relatively easy to believe that everyone else is doing the same thing. If you doubt the strength of such reaction, I suggest you simply spend a little time on YouTube, for it is full of documentation that the whole so-called global warming is a total hoax.

The whole thing gets me down. It appears that the words in Isaiah 24 were written sometime about three days ago:

<4> The earth dries up and withers,
the world languishes and withers;
the heavens languish together with the earth.
<5> The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
<6> Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled,
and few people are left.

Except for the “few people are left” detail, this is fairly descriptive of the situation at hand. The situation is far graver than “just” global warming. The amount of non-biodegradable trash in the world is astonishing. I have been in some developing countries where the streets and streams are full of plastic, styrofoam, metal, glass, and all manner of things in piles mounting higher and higher. Of course, some of that happens in this country. Indeed it happens in Washington in places. But the scale of the trashing of creation is monumental.

It is precisely at such a juncture as this that faith makes a difference. We have every reason to despair, simply because the mounting disaster is so terribly severe and its threat so impossible to defuse. But, as Koheleth, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, saw, wisdom is stronger than might, witness that one poor wise man in a besieged city. Koheleth does not tell us what the wise man did to deliver the city, only that he was wise. Wisdom and faith are certainly not synonymous; but faith can take a chapter out of the book of wisdom, so to say. Certain forms of faith can be awfully foolish—such as the notion that it does not matter what we do with the natural world, God is going to end it all soon anyway. Or the notion which is just about as bad that God is going to pull us out of the mess we have made of the earth so that we won’t have to reap the consequences. We need not just to be faithful, but to wise up.

The current issue of Time carries an article about Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In 1977, long before apartheid ended, Bishop Tutu, 45 years old, addressed a crowd of 15,000 at the funeral of a murdered black consciousness leader. “The powers of injustice, of oppression, of exploitation, have done their worst, and they have lost,” he declared. “They have lost because they are immoral and wrong, and our God…is a God of justice and liberation and goodness. Our cause…must triumph because it is moral and just and right.” If you know anything at all about Desmond Tutu, you know that he did not fold into a little heap of piety believing that God was going to intervene like the deus ex machina making a surprise appearance in an ancient play. No, Bishop Tutu worked tirelessly to deliver a besieged people from the weight of a powerful oppressor. He built alliances. He thundered against oppression. He refused to submit to a racist curriculum and lost his teaching career. He kept on going. In the nasty fights in the days of apartheid, he would walk between protestors and armed police, persuading both to walk away. He disarmed people with humor, laughing, dancing, taking God very seriously and himself not seriously at all. Certainly he did not bring down apartheid single-handedly, but like the poor wise man in the besieged city, he had a peculiar combination of faith and wisdom that helped to seal the fate of oppressors. “In the end,” says Tutu, “the perpetrators of injustice or oppression, the ones who strut the stag of the world often seemingly unbeatable—there is no doubt at all that they will bite the dust.” And he laughs, saying, “Wonderful, wonderful!”

That is exactly the kind of dedication, the sort of courage, the quality of faith, the exercise of wisdom that needs to inform those of us confronting this giant global challenge. One by one, parish by parish, diocese by diocese, community by community, we can raise consciousness, build alliances, start letter writing campaigns, explore ways of living green, pressure the politicians to act and industry to change. I’m far less certain that the planet can be rescued from environmental disaster than Desmond Tutu is certain that the forces of repression will ultimately be vanquished. But I refuse to believe that despair and paralysis and gloom are a better alternative. Blog. Talk. Call. Write. Organize. Give. Pray.

Already a couple of people have surfaced in the last couple of weeks who are willing to work seriously on changing the face of energy use right here in St. Stephen’s. They don’t yet know what we’ll do and neither do I. But it is a start. And when the forces of carelessness or greed or hate or stupidity are banging against the gates of a fragile, vulnerable planet, the only hope we have is that there will be at least one wise person whose wisdom will mean the planet’s deliverance. In South Africa, one such person was Desmond Tutu. In 2010, that person just might be you.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

All Creation

Every once in awhile the Church does something that must leave people wondering, “What on earth was that all about?” I suppose you might ask, “So what are you smoking that would have you thinking that it is only ‘once in awhile’?” Those of us who plan liturgies, who preach, who are the “professionally religious,” together with those who as someone has aptly put it have church as their hobby, frequently make the mistake of imagining that what we do is crystal clear to all who come. Or we sometimes have been known to think that a little mystery is a good thing—that it never hurt anybody to puzzle a bit about religion.

Probably the most frequent remark I have heard made over the years about sermons, for instance, is something akin to this: “I want a sermon to connect with what is happening in my daily life.” I hear it as a more general ache that somehow religion might try to come into our lives and connect with us rather than work to get us out of our lives and into some ethereal space in which, for heavens’ sake, we can’t do much earthly good.

I would say it is precisely for that reason that we are embarking today on a six-week venture to focus on probably the most quintessentially relevant topic you could imagine: the future of this planet. We are calling it “A Season of Creation.” Rather than have you after one, two, or all six weeks shaking your heads wondering, “What is all that about?”, I’d like to answer that at the outset.

The future of the planet is, of course, rooted in the past. In order to understand what is at stake, we have to look at how we got to where we are. One of the most interesting accounts of human history is the recent Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. Diamond’s research shows how civilizations have grown up in relation to the spread of plants for food; and how they have died because invading conquerors, notably Europeans, brought germs that debilitated whole societies. Weaponry is probably the biggest single development ensuring the ascendancy of some humans and the demise of others. Human history is complex, as is the more general geological history of the planet, and there is much we don’t know. What we do know is that throughout the world, peaceable peoples have been no match against marauders. Perhaps not all invading tribes of all times have been arrayed against the natural world—the Celts come to mind as a particularly nature-centered group—but the truth of the matter is that in the Western world ultimately there came to power a civilization that understood itself as being fundamentally different from, superior to, in control of the natural world. That is the irony of Western culture, both its gift and the seeds of its destruction.

Christianity has done more than its share in aiding and abetting this western proclivity to power and domination over creation. There are several reasons why that has been true. First, there is built into Judaeo-Christianity the notion that God is primarily interested in human beings, not so much with the rest of creation. And human beings have long told themselves the tale that the natural world is their playpen and its goods theirs for the taking. Second, Christianity and its Jewish parent long ago bought into some eastern dualism that essentially saw the world sliced into two: the material world and the spiritual world, the physical seen as clearly inferior to the spiritual. A third reason why Christianity has frequently fed a deep suspicion of the worth of creation is that there has been an element of thought—sometimes a major one—that holds to the notion that this world is passing away, soon to be replaced by a better one. One version of that belief is the notion that what human life is about is principally getting into heaven, that other world, not about fitting into this world.

This is not all there is to Christianity, however. Some of our formative stories, frequently misunderstood as support for the domination dynamic, are anything but that. The creation stories in Genesis, for example, make clear that human beings are set within a larger context of the natural world. Not only that, they are given a permission (eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden), a prohibition (except the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), and a vocation (till and keep the garden). Clearly there are limits on human beings. While it is true that in the first creation story, God gives dominion over the earth and its creatures to humans, it is clear that humans are accountable to and subordinate to God.

Without an appropriate understanding of creation, Christianity gets into a heap of trouble. We need to understand that, as today’s epistle puts it, everything in creation is good. Not just the purple-headed mountain and the river running by and the tiny little wings of things bright and beautiful. Included are the snail that eats your caladium’s leaves, the wasp that stings, the copperhead lurking behind a log, the wind’s tempestuous shocks, the hurricane’s high tides. The creator made them all and pronounced the whole thing good. There is nothing the matter with matter. It is not inferior to spirit or to energy. This is key to our understanding of the work and nature of Jesus Christ. When we say in the Creed “by him all things were made,” we are talking about the Second Person of the Trinity, namely Jesus. We perceive him to be the Word, the creative expression of Godhead, who existed long before all worlds, the one by whom they came into being. Why is that important? Because when we discuss who he is in the flesh, it is critical to proclaim that the human body of Jesus was as important to his identity as his spirit, his soul, his personality, his divine nature. That is why the bookends of Christian theology are the doctrines of incarnation and resurrection. Both have to do with the physical. Both have to do with the body. Both are interlaced with a doctrine of creation that holds that the one who made all things was the one who thoroughly identified with creation by becoming a part of it and who thoroughly healed it by uniting not only human nature but the whole physical world to the divine life he embodied.

Don’t think that we are talking literally and historically here. We are instead talking on the plane of symbol and metaphor. But that is not a cheap brand of language, less reliable than the language of fact. It is exactly by means of the language of Christology that we are able to paint a picture of how the created world is intimately connected with God and humanity.

You might well be wondering if I’m not straining at gnats and swallowing camels here. Why the fuss? Is it not quite enough to assert that we have an obligation to be stewards of creation? Actually, that is not enough, and I am not sure that “stewards of creation” adequately describes what our calling is. We are, by reliable accounts, standing on the brink of environmental disaster. Some argue that we have already gone over the brink. Species are struggling to stay alive. Oil is running out. We are so committed to fossil fuels that we cannot extricate ourselves from their use without seriously damaging our fragile economy even further. Climate change wreaks havoc in weather patterns. Land use becomes more and more problematical as the need to house and feed the planet’s human population becomes more difficult each year. Potable water is still a serious problem in much of the world, the poorest regions being the most vulnerable to polluted and disease-carrying water.

What’s a body to do in the face of so much planet-wide distress? Over the next six weeks we are going to be looking at that question and trying on some answers. One thing is to take care that we are living in a way that reflects the value that our faith tradition places upon the natural world. Another thing is to work towards amassing sufficient political power that we can together make a difference in the future of the world. A third thing is to practice living out of the context of Sermon on the Mount, which is the source of the gospel for today.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

That is where and how Jesus solidly comes down on the side of living in simple harmony with creation, which is the alternative to living in a spirit of acquisition, control, and domination. It might be that we simply do not believe that we can live differently—and for people whose whole culture is based upon domination (of resources and people) that is a great challenge. But the life of earth depends upon it. And the vocation that God gave humans is still the same: till the garden and keep it.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Real Presence

Psalm 139

Q: What is the most frequently read book of the Bible?
A: The Book of Psalms. It is read at nearly every liturgy in nearly every church, at Holy Eucharist, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Compline. Monasteries and convents use the psalter four or more times a day. And since the Psalms belong to both Jews and Christians, it is quite likely that no other book is quite so widely read the world over.

Strange, then, I say to myself, that in nearly forty years I cannot remember ever preaching a sermon on the psalms. But today I break with precedent and offer to guide you in reflecting on one of the most beautiful poems ever crafted, and hands down my favorite psalm of all the hundred and fifty: Psalm 139. Some years ago I spent something like a month daily poring over the verses of Psalm 139, savoring them, using them as grist for meditation, as launching pads for journaling. As I frequently do when I find myself attracted to a poem, a song, an object, a place, or a person, I wonder what it is that my soul is rising to respond to. What do I see there, feel there, hear there that speaks to me deeply and powerfully?

It is a profound sense of Presence. We have no way of knowing just how or when the consciousness of humans developed to the point of imagining that the gods were not remote from human life, or localized in some particular place, or capricious deities that darted in and out of human experience leaving us baffled and fearful. But the composer of Psalm 139 clearly has grasped the idea that God is spirit, unlimited by time and space, pervading all creation. God is closer to us than the air we breathe.

That is not necessarily good news for those who believe that “God” is purely a convenient construct with no objective basis in reality. Nor is it especially happy news for those who imagine that God is essentially a moral police officer interested in keeping score of all the good and mostly the bad things that human beings do. Having God pressing upon us behind and before, laying a hand upon us could be a terrifying thought. (Which is enough to nudge the skeptical into the camp of thoroughgoing unbelievers.) But for me, and maybe for you, it is good news that the universe is not just the physical world. There are other dimensions of reality, too––probably more than we can count. And at least one of those dimensions we may call “presence.” There is something intensely personal that responds to us out of the vastness of the universe.

I am not asking you to believe that if you already don’t. Or at least I don’t think I am. Some of us seem to have receptors for such a Presence and some of us clearly do not. A few years ago I read The God Gene, by Dean Hamer. His and a book by Nicholas Wade called The Faith Instinct both discuss the possibility that human beings have a certain genetic predisposition to religion. Hamer had to admit that there is no conclusive evidence for a “God gene,” but that there is plenty of reason to suppose that there might be. It could be that, if there is such a gene, religious meaning might be limited to those human beings who carry the gene. Exactly what the gene does or might do is not at all clear. Wade, on the other hand, sees that religion has a kind of utilitarian purpose in the whole evolutionary scheme of things. He argues that we are social because we are religious, not religious because we are social. In other words, religion helps people get over things like selfishness in order to live in community. Whether he is right or not, his arguments certainly seem to occupy a very different space from what we believers would say we experience, both negatively and positively. All this is very interesting, but what is the point? The point is that if our minds and eyes are open to the possibility of the Presence of God, we can begin to understand and to appreciate that that Presence is at once something that far transcends our individual selves and is also something quite intimately connected with us.

Like the Bible, I am not interested in asking the question of whether God exists. I am interested in asking this question: God exists; so what? If God makes no difference, I cannot see the point in wasting time worshiping, pondering, worrying about, musing about, imagining God, any more than I could justify inventing the notion of a Great Big Rabbit, let’s say, and building one’s life around something that is fundamentally optional to say the least. But in fact, the God that exists is not a million light years remote from my world; God is in my very being. And yet God is not just another name for the stuff of which I am composed. God is Presence. “Lord, you have searched me out and known me,” says the psalmist. The older I get, the more I know that there is something at the bottom of my being that is the bedrock of my spirit, my soul, my personality. And I’ll bet that is true for you, too, be you believer or skeptic. When we are young, we imagine that we know a good deal about ourselves (I seem to recall). When we grow older, we become at once more familiar with ourselves and simultaneously more surprised at parts of ourselves which surface unexpectedly. (I’m thinking of the mid-life crisis, which is no more a joke than adolescence is a joke.) Thus the notion charms me that there is a Presence so thoroughly knowledgeable about and conscious of me that I can say of that Presence, “you have searched me out and known me.” I do not know myself all that well; but you, Lord, know me perfectly. You see the coherence of my various parts, often clashing discordantly, that leave me confused and bewildered. “So what?” is a question that has an answer. And the answer is: so there is a Presence that understands me. And thus there is the possibility that I might come to understand myself, or at least live with myself in a more or less peaceable way.

The Latin Vulgate, incidentally, translates that first verse in a way that has been rendered into English as “thou knowest my death and my resurrection.” Imagine! God has in mind your death as well as your life, and already holds in the eternal mind, as it were, your own eternity, your own resurrection. The psalmist then builds on this experience of intimacy. “You trace my journeys and my resting-places, and are acquainted with all my ways.” He means that there are no back alleys that he can go down, no racetracks he can cut loose on, no secret passageways that are hidden from the all-seeing Eye. I used to think that such a thought served to put the so-called “fear of God” in me, to make me scared not to keep my nose clean. Now I understand that the “fear of God” is not at all about being afraid—it is about living in awe that this strange and wonderful Presence never leaves me. I am as close to God in the DC Eagle as I am in church, as near to the divine in Bed, Bath, and Beyond as I am in Sunday School. Why? Because there is not a word on my lips (including my curses as well as my prayers) that God does not know. And the Presence is the one dependable thing in the midst of so much that is undependable, a whole lot of which is fast passing away.

Such knowledge, I will admit, is too wonderful for me. It is high. I cannot attain to it. In fact, thinking about it moves me to tears. I cannot fathom living in the presence of such a Presence! And stranger still is the idea that I am living in the hand of One who, though knowing everything about me, loves me as if I were the only being on the entire planet. I cannot flee the Presence, because the Presence will not flee me. If I climb up to heaven, lo, God is there. And (as the King James Version puts it) if I make my bed in hell, God is there. That is an astonishing thought! Don’t you wonder what all the folks who are forever threatened by hell, and threatening others with it, make of that? Neither heaven nor hell, neither sea nor darkness, neither night nor day can separate us from the Presence of the one who created our inmost parts, who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs.

But, so what? To believe, or even to consider believing such a possibility as the psalmist’s sense of trust, is almost certainly to move towards seeing that we are as present to God as God is present to us. I don’t mean that as a simple tautology, but as a way of pushing the thought of the psalmist to a new level—one that I hope is not incompatible with his majestic poem. The psalmist edges beyond the comfort zone of his culture and his religion by seeing that God is both transcendent and intensely personal. But we now can see that ours is (if we allow it!) the consciousness gazing back at the Presence which is gazing at us. It is not unlike what we say about icons. They are windows through which the Divine beholds us and through which, just as really, we behold the Divine.

In their book entitled Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society, Peter Senge and his fellow-authors play with the idea that the whole is manifested in its parts. A human organization is not a whole that is made up of many parts because living systems, such as your body or a plant or a river or an eco-system, create themselves. They are constantly growing and changing. They note that for the 19th century German writer and scientist Goethe, the whole is “something dynamic and living that continually comes into being ‘in concrete manifestations.’” That is not far away from Psalm 139. The Presence which we know as the all-embracing God is not apart from the creation, but dispersed throughout it. And we creatures, in turn, can practice that Presence by gradually opening ourselves to its gentleness and its power, letting go of our fears and defenses, and becoming more like the Presence that embraces and loves us.

Maybe that is what impels the psalmist to say, at the end of his poem, “Search me out, O God, and know my heart;; try me and know my restless thoughts. Look well whether there be any wickedness in me and lead me in the way that is everlasting.” The entire point of the Presence is that all the parts of creation, including you and me, can in fact become more and more like the one who made and knows and cherishes us through and through.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Good Faith

A sermon preached in The Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation, Episcopal, Washington, DC, August 8, 2010

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Faith. If only I had it.

Have you ever heard yourself saying that? Or somebody else saying it?

Let me ask you something. If you had more faith (assuming you want more), what would you do with it? What would it do for you?

Once upon a time, according to Luke, though not in today’s gospel, the disciples asked Jesus: “Lord, increase our faith.” And he answered them, “If you had the faith of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘be uprooted and planted in the middle of the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Another version of that story appears in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is provoked at his disciples for having so little faith. They have tried unsuccessfully to perform an exorcism. After Jesus upbraids them and takes over the project himself, the disciples ask Jesus why they weren’t able to cast the demon out. “Because of your little faith,” he said. “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’”

So is that what we want if we want more faith? To be able to do the impossible? Or is faith something else?

The writer to the Hebrews clearly had some idea of faith, and I am not sure that his was exactly what Luke’s Jesus had in mind. That writer (whose identity we do not know and can only speculate about, but who was most certainly not St. Paul) wrote out a long, sustained argument, the longest in the whole Bible. He set out to demonstrate conclusively that Jesus on the cross had performed once and for all the sufficient sacrifice that had never been done and could never be done in the Jerusalem Temple. The writer with good reason takes his time in recounting what might be called the “faith history” of Israel.

We do not have to guess what was in his mind. He tells us. Christ is the great High Priest who has made atonement, unlike any “high priest” that there ever had been. By a single offering Christ has reconciled humanity and God. Sins are forgiven. There is no need for any more sacrificial offerings for sin. Incidentally—and this is totally parenthetical to this sermon—that is an extremely good piece of news, even if you don’t understand or buy into the Hebrews theology of sacrifice. What he is saying is that Christ’s sacrifice is full, sufficient, complete, unsurpassed, perfect. This should relieve quite a bit of anxiety about how we stand with God. That a great many people remain anxious, or that some are totally uninterested, does not detract from the goodness of the news.

Christ’s sacrifice is thoroughly effective. “Therefore,” states the writer, we have confidence to enter the sanctuary (that is, the presence and life of God) by the blood of Jesus. And we can approach with a “true heart in full assurance of faith," simply because all the barriers to our being with God and living in God have been removed by Jesus. But there are some cautions. (How could it be the Bible and there not be?) We must know that if we willfully persist in sin after having received knowledge of the truth, we bring judgment on ourselves. Still, the author calls his audience to remember the struggles they have been through, the abuse, the persecution. He exhorts them not to shrink back, but to live in full confidence that the loss of nothing is nearly as great as what God has promised. This, he says, is how the righteous live and have always lived: by faith. He begins calling the roll of those who in the holy history have been examples of faith: Abel, Noah, Abraham, Sarah. “All of these,” he says, “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” They were, he says, like foreigners on earth. They knew that they belonged to a different land, a different reality. They could have looked behind and moaned sentimentally about all that they had lost and left behind, and could even have returned. But they kept pressing on towards a better country, a future with God, a heavenly country. And indeed God had prepared a city for them.

What is his point in all this? To get his Christian audience to take heart! To inspire them to keep on moving, going, growing; not to give up; to follow the examples of their forebears, not to mention the example of the pioneer and perfecter of their faith, Jesus, who pressed on through cross and shame and suffering to be seated at God’s right hand in glory. “You can do it!” he says. “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet….” Faith is the quality, very closely related to hope, that keeps people from giving up.

But that is not the only thing that faith is. Not, at least, according to the Bible, which is something of a textbook on faith and faithfulness. Let’s consider faith a verb, first. To have faith can mean to believe in something, to be convinced of something. It can also mean to give credence to a proposition, an account, a possibility, or someone’s story. More than that, to have faith frequently means to put one’s trust in somebody. Are you beginning to get the picture? It is beginning to dawn on me that maybe we don’t really know what faith is. When we say we want or we need it or we have it, might it be that we are talking about just a sliver of this rather complex thing called “faith”?

Press on. Think of faith as a noun, a something, a quality. Faith can be a solemn oath, a promise, a proof, a pledge. It can mean trust, confidence, especially in God. It can mean giving your heart to somebody, even at the risk of having it trampled and trashed. Faith can be believing something that you have no evidence for, only a hunch about, or less, or more. Faith can be practicing piety like saying your prayers and going to church, or it can mean the things you believe or the persons you follow, whether they are religious or not. Faith can be virtuous or it can be pig-headed. It can make life sweet when it works like a charm, and it can be a bitter disappointment when faith turns out to have been sadly misplaced.

Are you still sure that you want some faith? Or more of it? Or are you totally turned off by the whole idea? Some of you will tell me that you have all the faith you need and that what you have works perfectly fine for you. I’m sure you do, and I rejoice that it works well. Others may say that you don’t see what it is all about. Faith is about as appealing to you a root canal. The truth of the matter is that we can’t live very well without faith. By that I do not mean a particular set of beliefs, let alone a specific body of dogma. I am talking about faith as a matter of trust. I am thinking even more specifically about faith as a quality of taking risks, like Abraham and Sarah, the practice of striking out occasionally into the unknown, for which you have no guarantees, and in which you have no charts or road maps. It is true that a great many people—you may be one of them—have an aversion to taking risks, and who can convincingly argue that they do very well staying on the safe side of things. I’d be lying if I didn’t say to such folk that I’d like to rattle their cages a bit! But this gospel we proclaim is not one that we can use to slam the timid and retiring—or anyone else—suggesting that somehow they count less than the brave-hearted. Yet, the writer to Hebrews has a point. People did not get to be models of faith by hedging their bets and pulling punches. The way of God demands some element of cutting loose and letting fly, for God’s sake! No one in the entire roster of faithful people gets to be in the Bible because he or she sat musing on the possibilities of adventure, vacillating about whether or not to join the innumerable caravan moving into the future with determination, analyzing to death the pluses and minuses of getting balled up in the hard stuff that comes from a challenging God.

If we, two thousand years later, were to add to Hebrew’s gallery of faithful heroes and heroines, we would quickly see that faithfulness is not a matter of particular content, nor of a particular vocation. We would find all sorts of people who have lived faithfully, from the hermit, St. Seraphim of Sarov, to the wandering Johnny Appleseed, from the cloistered Julian of Norwich to the activist Dorothy Day. So the problem is not that Hebrews, or I, or the Church, or the Bible, is setting up some kind of high bar of special performance or personality characteristics that assures only those who reach it can be in some kind of exclusive club. The idea is that whoever you are, you can be faithful. You can be a person of faith.

A great many people have stopped believing that. Some have been jerked around by the religious establishment to the point that the have spiritual whiplash, and only want it to stop. Others have wandered away from the faith, convinced that the requirement of being faithful means to tax their brains with credulity (the readiness to believe about anything without much or any evidence) and their consciences with confessing falsehoods. Still others only slowly wake up to the realization that there is more to life than conforming to social expectations (be they set by gangs in the ghetto or Vogue magazine or Oprah), totally unaware that life is a many-layered thing, and that some of the best layers are invisible to the naked eye, known to make the heart quiver, and the spirit do a somersault. It is just this kind of insight that nearly everyone on the Hebrews all-star line-up exhibits. Our author says that they knew their true native land was somewhere besides the front porch. They listened to a Voice that called them away from the familiar towards another country, a heavenly one.

My own take on most of the people on the Hebrews list is that they were not in fact motivated by a dream of an afterlife. Most of them did not know what that was, including Abraham, the prototype of faithfulness. But they did have a notion of “heaven,” if by “heaven” we mean where God is and if heaven and therefore God is everywhere including as close to you as your nose or your forehead or your buttocks. Being faithful is not dreaming of some airy fairy world. When it comes right down to it, being faithful is taking the presence of God in your own life quite seriously.

We need people of faith, real faith, as never before. I say that quite deliberately and literally. We are facing issues and battles today of unprecedented proportions. This dreadful oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a mere harbinger of what is going to happen if we continue to rape the natural world. The arguments that are flying back and forth about the economy ignore some very difficult truths that the entire planet is still perilously near economic trauma. Given the way things in this country are currently structured, General Eisenhower’s warning about a military-industrial complex is hauntingly observable, as even would-be Peacemakers find it practically impossible to extricate us from never-ending war. The planet heats up and people either refuse to believe it, or believe it and refuse to alter their attitudes. Meanwhile we let the religious crazies, at home and abroad, hijack our faith traditions and dictate the terms on which we decide to be faithful or not. We are looking at every bit as dangerous a time as Hebrews ever saw: a slow collapse of social institutions, a debasing of education, the triumph of anti-intellectualism, a fickle electorate that is run largely by fear, cynical people who lie big enough and long enough and steadily enough that hosts of people find it easier to believe the lie than to pull up stakes, like Abraham, and hit the road for the One who is True.

What will you do? Turn aside and fiddle? Turn back and regress? Turn and follow the one who has gone before you and opened up a sanctuary that is no longer the province of the professionals, but one where you can boldly enter yourself, and be yourself, and find in so doing that God is not ashamed to be your God?

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

Friday, July 30, 2010

Why We Lie | Psychology Today

Why We Lie | Psychology Today

Letting Go

A sermon preached at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Dupont Circle, Washington, DC, on Sunday, July 25, 2010, on the occasion of the leaving of The Rev. John Dwyer

Hosea 2:1-11

I am greatly honored to be here today at Nancy Lee’s invitation to preach. It is a bittersweet occasion for me as well as for St. Thomas’s Parish. There is a part of me that does not want to see John Dwyer leave here. Partly that is because I know how much he means to you and how much you mean to him. Partly that is because I have a hard time saying goodbye to anything and anybody. Even after many years of trying to learn how to let go, I feel something in me instinctively stirring to grab and clutch when a familiar part of my world breaks off and begins to float freely away.

For the last couple of years I have had the privilege of serving on a three-person team supporting and mentoring John on the first leg of his journey as an ordained person. Along with Dean Martha Horne, recently retired from Virginia Seminary, and Bishop Michael Creighton, retired from the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, I have come to know John as a colleague in ministry. And precisely because I have seen John grow at close range, another part of me understands, approves, even cheers his leaving, because I know that growth demands it. But true as all of that is, it does not sweeten the experience of parting, does it?

Getting going with the unfamiliar seems to be the theme of life. We can make an argument that most organisms in fact flourish in familiar surroundings where the work of adaptation can go on somewhat smoothly. And yet significant leaps in evolutionary progress come about when organisms are tested by unfamiliar challenges to which they must adapt, not by a trouble-free environment which spares them the challenge of adapting. You may know, as I do, people who find a niche, get comfortable in it, and stay there all of their lives. A friend of mine lives in a community where I once lived too. We used to hang out a lot together. Every now and again I would suggest that we go to a restaurant that was out in the country, but couldn’t have been more than seven miles from his house. “Why do I want to go all the way out there?” he would say to me. “It’s outside the city limits.”

Sometimes in order to get a new compass reading of exactly who and where we are, somebody has to venture beyond the limits. Do something strange. Experiment. Stretch. Hosea, one of the prophets in ancient Israel, heard a very strange voice one day urging him to get a move on. “Go take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom,” said the voice. That, even by biblical standards, is odd. “The land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” Oh, so that’s it. This is one of those parables that is acted out. It is as if God is saying, “Do you want to know what it is like to be the God of Israel? Well, I’ll show you. Go marry a whore.” I feel a little embarrassed about that. It sounds crude, don’t you think? It also sounds sexist and politically incorrect and maybe even misogynistic. And imagine—if you have to imagine—what you would be experiencing if you were all a congregation of people, say, in a half-way house or a jail where a good slice of the population were or had been prostitutes. But shake that off, for the moment at least, and hear what Hosea is trying to tell us.

Hosea, of course, does what he is told. That is how he got into the Bible. He goes and marries Gomer. Immediately she has a son, then a daughter, then another son. Hosea names them the symbolic names that he hears in his head the Lord telling him to name them. And they are god-awful names. “Jezreel.” “Not-pitied.” “Not-my-people.” Little wonder with that kind of family dynamic that Gomer quickly has about all she can take of this weird man Hosea. She misses her trade. She leaves Hosea with the dishes and the children and promptly takes up, as my grandmother would say, with somebody else. From all of this Hosea is learning. This is what it is like to be God? This is what it must be like to be Yahweh, God of Israel, in a relationship with a people who have forsaken the Covenant with Yahweh and adulterated it with Canaanite Baal worship.

Then the plot thickens. “Go, woo her back,” says the Voice. Get a taste of it, Hosea. See what that’s like! So Hosea goes looking for Gomer and gets the message that this is what God is doing for Israel. God goes hunting for the lover that has swapped the true God for false gods and who has an appetite for their ritual raisin cakes. Fifteen shekels of silver pays Hosea for Gomer, together with a homer of barley and a cask of wine. In other words, Gomer is not cheap.

He brings Gomer home with him. They put their marriage back together. And that is the way Israel will do, Hosea sees. They will return and seek the Lord their God. They shall come in awe to the Lord. And God will have pity on her who was not pitied, and to the poor child who was called “Not my people,” God will say, “You are my people.”

Before dismissing this as just a bizarre biblical tour de force, think of what a reality show this is: a high-risk marriage, an untamable partner addicted to tricking, a persistent husband with a serious case of religion, a quixotic journey to locate and entice out of active prostitution someone who is probably bringing in quite a bit of income to her pimp, an unlikely bargain that buys Gomer’s freedom, a rehabilitation conducted by Hosea that includes sexual abstinence, the rebirth of a marriage against all odds. When you get past the barley and some of the other details, this all sounds fairly contemporary to my ears.

What is different about this is not plot but theology. Hosea’s learning through all of this is that his experience mirrors God’s experience. In the process he does a couple of interesting things. First, he gives us a theology of marriage. For it is here, like nowhere else in scripture, that we find the notion that marriage is a covenant. But Hosea does something even more radical. He adopts the idea from Baalism that a god has a spouse and thus gives a unique twist to Israel’s theology by seeing that God is married to Israel. They had had a wedding on Mount Sinai, when the covenant was sealed. These two ideas ultimately come to mean that marriage is a primary metaphor which captures the nature of the relationship between God and humanity: God is in love with God’s people. And nothing will stop God from pursuing every avenue to win Israel back!

All of this, of course, is about faithfulness, and that is the whole point of Hosea’s biographical essay. Faithfulness is a quality of God. We might be unfaithful, turning to this or that idol or to some god-substitute. But God is faithful in pursuing us. God is true to the God-nature, and we can carry that to the bank. But what of our faithfulness? It is not about what we believe. (We’re wrong about what we believe about half the time anyway, if not more so.) Faithfulness is about whom we give our hearts to. And whom we give our hearts to we become like. We follow. We emulate. We begin to mirror. (That is true no matter who you are or whether you are the least bit religious.) So if we, like our forefathers and foremothers of ancient Israel, give our hearts to false gods, listen to the voices that whisper promises of security or success or painlessness or unmitigated pleasure in exchange for our souls, we will begin to look and act like the gods we bow down to. If, on the other hand, like Gomer, we find ourselves bought out of slavery and we come home with the one who loves us ravishingly, we begin to take on the characteristics of the Great Lover who sets us free.

Ironically, this movement in following God continues to bring us to places where we find ourselves shedding things that keep weighing us down. For Gomer, it was a life of prostitution. For others of us it might be addiction or destructive behavior or drivenness to achieve or the desire to play it safe and not run any risks. And always it comes down to some decision, such as John’s: to search, to grow, to live; and like yours, to let go, to trust. William Blake put it in a memorable quatrain:

He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

We never can tell where the Journey will take us, and that is not the point anyway. What we do know is that the Journey is led by a faithful God who never stops searching for paths and ways to bring us home. And we know that the more we follow, the more we come to embody the faithfulness of the selfsame God who loves us far too much ever to give us up.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Vintage Wine

To Paul Crego and Isaiah Poole, on the occasion of their marriage in the Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation, Washington, DC, July 24, 2010

John 2:1-11

What you have just heard is quite possibly the most widely referenced biblical passage in all of Christianity. Scarcely a wedding takes place in any of the major Christian traditions that some reference, however slight, is not made to the wedding at Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle (according to St. John’s Gospel). If you were to listen carefully to the opening address in the Book of Common Prayer, the model for all those other marriage rites in the English language, the one that begins with the familiar “Dearly Beloved, we have come together in the Presence of God,” you could see that the Church is footnoting its sacrament of Holy Matrimony with a reference to the Bible showing that Jesus obviously approved of marriage because he attended one. And not only did he attend one, he saved it from being a total flop by miraculous changing water into wine.

The reason that the Church got into the habit of giving a lengthy rationale for marriage at the beginning of every wedding was that, believe it or not, there was always some question as to whether marriage itself were something that the Christian community ought to be blessing and calling holy. It took something like thirteen centuries before the Church officially numbered marriage among its sacraments, so deep ran the understanding that marriage had to do with property and contracts and families and heirs—not to mention sex—and thus belonged to a part of life that did not seem to fit nicely into the Church’s business. You would never know all that listening to American debates in the last twenty years where scores of people assume that marriage itself floated straight down from the clouds with God’s signature on it as the principal plan for everybody.

But, like a lot of things, the story of the wedding at Cana started out serving one purpose and today serves a slightly—or perhaps very—different purpose. For in choosing this story to be read as the climactic lesson in their wedding today, Paul and Isaiah have given us the quintessential story about the miracle of change. It is in fact perhaps the very best story in the whole book about how the ordinary is transformed into something quite extraordinary. It is Christian alchemy at its highest: the dazzling news that there is a Power in the universe that takes the common and makes it holy. And this Power is none other than the Word made flesh, the one who looks and acts like every bit the human being that he truly is, and yet at the same time is the sublimely creative energy that brought all water and all wine into existence.

If this wedding today is about anything, it is certainly about change! Who would have believed, even a year or two ago, that in a church in the District of Columbia a group of people would gather to witness and bless the joining together of two men in marriage? And yet, water has become wine! The gloriously impossible has become real! And those of us in The Episcopal Church have been filling the water jars for the rites of purification for a long time. They have been standing, waiting, waiting, waiting for the moment to come when those who have had no taste of marriage joy could at last drink the same sweetness that all the other guests imbibe.

None of us thinks that this wedding is principally about the politics of marriage, or even about the wondrous social change that makes the marriage of two men or two women legal. It is about something far deeper. For Isaiah and Paul’s marriage is about their being transformed. Their transformation has less to do with the government of the District of Columbia than it has to do with the Holy One who soaks their life with meaning, who works quietly and mysteriously to produce growth, who opens their hearts to unexpected reconciliation, who touches common moments and makes them sparkle.

In his novel What’s Bred in the Bone,* one of my favorite writers, Robertson Davies, made the wedding of Cana the symbol of almost unimaginable power. Francis Cornish, dead before the story begins, came from a strange, mixed-up, somewhat shame-blighted family. But at an early age he knew he was different. He had a talent: painting. So off he went from his native Canada to England and then to Central Europe where he learned to paint in the style of the old masters. He became an internationally known art critic and specialist, and wound up in the center of intrigue, saving great masterpieces as the European art world was being ravished by the Nazis. In the center of all this was a mysterious painting that no one could exactly date, a stunning statement of the union of opposites that seemed to belong to the Reformation period. Was it real or was it a fake? And if the latter, who could have pulled off so marvelous a fake, and why? The painting depicted the wedding at Cana, the changing of water into wine. It turns out not to have been a forgery, but deeply authentic—though the world is never sure it can trust real authenticity. Francis Cornish himself was the artist. The genius that was bred in his bone came out on the canvas in a composition so stunning and colors so rich that people would have never believed that anyone short of a Rembrandt, say, could possibly have created something so powerful.

Isaiah and Paul, the wedding of Cana is the marriage of God and the human soul. The wedding of Cana has been going on in your lives now for some time, as you would be the first to say. Your wedding, this wedding, is the wedding of Cana, where the Power that created you and sent you forth on a journey has finally brought your marriage to the place where you can fully and freely celebrate who you are, where with all your guests you can serve and drink the very best wine of all—the wine of authenticity. No longer is your life a rich work of art that the critics can cheapen by questioning its legitimacy or its reality, let alone dare imagine that yours is a clever copy of the real thing. Yours is a marriage which is touched by the Master’s hand, the great Creator who made you the way you are and loves you as if you were the first two human beings or the last two on the planet. Yours is a marriage where ordinary stuff becomes holy, where bodies convey spirit, where the cracks in your hopes and deeds become the places the light of God shines through. You and your marriage are the authentic thing, this wedding of Cana. And through it and through you the rest of us are able to glimpse the unexpected joy of the young Lord whose hour has come and now is.

• Robertson Davies, What’s Bred in the Bone (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985).

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010