Saturday, September 24, 2011

Lows and Highs

Prayer and the Mind of Christ

Philippians 2:1-13

“Son, don’t act like you’re going to die just because you are feeling a little puny,” my mother said on more than one occasion. “You’re just like Uncle George. The minute he got to feeling bad, he was moaning and groaning and telling Aunt Nora that he wasn’t long for this world. Just like him.”

Although I am not one of these people who hasn’t been sick a day in his life, I have been remarkably healthy for the most part for over five decades. Yet when I feel the first scratchiness that presages a sore throat, and especially if I succumb to lying in bed with a virus, as happened twice several winters ago, I begin to hear Mama’s voice overriding my own moaning, “Son, straighten up. You’re just like Uncle George.”

Mine must not have been the only mother who says such things, nor mine the only family where people get pegged as copies of ancestors. We come to this earth not only trailing clouds of glory, but, like the little girl on the Morton salt box, pouring behind us indications of undeniable DNA. I hear myself talking sometimes and have to stop and think if the voice I hear is really mine or if it belongs to my father. Or my mother. Or Uncle George.

In a very real sense, the project of Christianity is the project of changing human beings. As a faith system, Christianity is about transformation, a remolding or remaking the human person to be different. Partly, of course, it has to do with our moral training, despite the fact that many Christians remain dreadfully confused about exactly what is moral. Simply put, the entire effort of the Christian Church is essentially about the creation of a community that so catches the Spirit of Jesus that we manifestly live in a way that is unmistakably like him. Not to put too fine a point on my mother’s dictum, it is as if someone might see or hear us, observe us as individuals or as communities and say, “You’re just like Jesus, no kidding.”

Now the second thing you may want to say to this is, “No way.” The first thing you may want to say is, “But how do we know what Jesus was like? How can we be sure?” Hold on a minute. There is something more fundamental at stake here than our rush to react to what might seem a dubious proposition.

That fundamental something is the fact that Jesus deliberately gathered a community. For the average Christian, this is so unremarkable as to be taken for granted or ignored entirely. But did you ever wonder why the disciples were even necessary? Forget the canned explanations. Ask yourself why Jesus would even have bothered with them. He selected what seems to have been a monumentally obtuse bunch, don’t you think? Yet the tradition is not the least bit in doubt about the fact that Jesus chose a community to share his ministry and in some sense taught them. He did not choose instead to be a lone ranger. Christianity is not about individual projects of personal salvation; it is about a community in where all the members work out their salvation together, even if it means doing so with some trepidation and nervousness. Why? Because we are all in this together. It is the nature of humans to form community because we are interdependent, no matter what some politicians or the financial establishment argue to the contrary.

So when Paul writes to the Philippians, in the warmest epistle he ever wrote to a community, he betrays a certain concern that perhaps they still have the a bit of the Old Adam in them, what Mark Twain called, “ordinary human cussedness.” It was likely coming out in the form of petty jealousies and rivalries, things that are the very best ways to undermine community. Why else admonish them to “be of one mind, being of one love, sharing accord” among themselves? Then he launches into one of the most sublime passages in all his letters, perhaps in the entire New Testament. Maybe he was quoting from a hymn that he knew churches like the one at Philippi frequently sang in their worship. Or maybe it was a creedal poem that he or someone else had written. “Have this mindset, or attitude, or frame of mind,” he writes, and then proceeds to describe the “mind” or “thought” that Jesus had. The community is to exhibit the character of its mentor and master. Or, to borrow from one of Paul’s metaphors elsewhere, the body was to follow where the head led. Since there is plenty of encouragement in Christ, since there is the incentive of love, since there is mutual participation in the life of the Spirit, since there is shared affection, there is plenty of reason and abundant strength on which the Philippians can build a more solid community.

This “mindset” or “orientation” that Jesus had is not so easy to get a grip on. The essence is this: Jesus had every opportunity to be or to remain exalted, since he pre-existed this life as God. But in fact he chose not to “grasp” or “cling” to equality with God, but did the opposite. He emptied himself. The rich for our sake became poor. The powerful divested himself of all power. He submitted himself so thoroughly that he became the willing slave of all, humbling himself to experience the totality of human life, including death itself. And not just any death, but death on a cross, the ultimate badge of rejection and dishonor. It is totally counter-intuitive for human beings even to imitate that, let alone to choose to do it because we want to. Quite the contrary. We are taught, especially in this culture, from day one that the goal of life is to succeed, to acquire, to compete. It is not too much to say that the very narrative of Jesus has been warped and twisted by knaves to seduce many a marginal population into servitude on the strength of the notion that to be relegated to scut work, to be underpaid, to be knocked around and ripped off is to be like Jesus, or at least to be like the poor who he said would be with us always. But the essence of Jesus’ community is not to be cringing dogs who slink away from abusive masters, but rather self-giving individuals whose identity is not what we can get for ourselves but what we can give for others.

The project does not extend only to the people who happen to sit in church on Sundays. It goes well beyond the borders of the community. The Church in fact exists not for itself alone but for the sake of the world that Christ died to save. If he emptied himself, so do we. If he gave his life for the sake of the world, so do we. This is what the Church has not learned terribly well. In many places we still cling to old behaviors and old mindsets, which, though not necessarily divisive and destructive, are desperate measures to hold on to what we have and to who we have been. The model of Christ is just the opposite. Let go, let God, let grace guide us into continually spending ourselves for the sake of the world.

Fine. We can say those things and even maybe believe them for a few moments during a sermon. But how can we actually live them? Can we actually live them? And, if so, how? Notice that Paul, who is no stranger to scolding people, does not wag a homiletical finger at the Philippians trying to shame them into behaving differently. The whole point he is making calls them to ground themselves right where he grounds his argument: in the foundational story of Jesus. Think as he thought. Do as he did. The community can hardly do that without being committed to serious prayer and assiduous practice.

The truth is that if transformation is to happen, we have to open ourselves to the process of change. Prayer pries us open. Praying opens us up, of course, to the suffering of the world when we notice and care enough to intercede for those who hurt and ache, indeed for the entire creation that is groaning in the pain of abuse and misuse. But praying is not just, or even primarily the opener of the soul in that sense. To have the mind that we see in Christ Jesus involves our constantly turning to and gazing upon Jesus himself. Obviously a place to begin is the gospels. But Jesus is not just found there. Jesus is also present when the community gathers to share bread and wine, his body and blood. Yet Jesus is not just there either. Jesus, if you believe what he says, is present when two or three are gathered together in his Name. But Jesus is more than that, too. Jesus is in the faces of the poor, the dispossessed, the oppressed, the marginalized, the condemned, the executed, the hosts of men and women who are dragged through the courts and sentenced to die just as he was. Prayer sharpens both our sense and our senses to behold the Body of Christ in every part and every cell of his creation, each of which bears the unmistakable stamp of the Word which calls all things and all creatures into being. And prayer can also be shutting off the lights, turning down the sensory data, stilling the tongue, putting down the pen, pulling the shades down so that we, retreating into our deepest selves, meet the One who is resplendently alive in the heart of darkness and silence. It is not one kind of prayer or the other, but both. Activists need contemplatives and contemplatives need activists, and no matter which we are, we probably need to practice some of what does not come so easily to us in our prayer, just so that we can learn something of the fullness of him who emptied himself and submitted to death.

It is interesting that the Philippians hymn goes on to say that God has highly exalted Jesus as a consequence of his self-emptying. God has given him a Name that is above every Name, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father. You may think that that piece of it has nothing to do with you. And perhaps you are right, inasmuch as it really goes beyond what Paul is saying about unity in the Church. But maybe there is something embedded in this old hymn, this majestic poem that is so true that it goes beyond even the confines of the Jesus story. Maybe the Truth, as heavy as gravity itself, is caught up in the paradox that giving is oddly the way of receiving; that abasement is followed by exaltation; that emptying oneself of power and prestige is the true road to glory, not just for Jesus but for all. Don’t count on the world to document that terribly finely. But every once in awhile somebody bothers to believe it and it makes all the difference. You can almost count them on your fingers and toes, they are so rare. Jesus, Buddha, St. Francis, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, St. Margaret, St. Elizabeth,… No, you can’t count them. The numbers stack up. There are more than you would think, more than you can number. Some are sitting right here who have given up a day to be arrested in the cause of justice or who have given up an evening to intercede for Troy condemned to die, who have gone to Israel to wage peace, who slug it out for the spurned immigrant. Long grows the list of ways in which ordinary folk do not count themselves as the darlings of God, but empty themselves and become obedient to the most human of all things, the leveler Death. Wherefore their names, united to the Immortal Son of God, are written in heaven.

© Frank Gasque Dunn

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years After 9/11/01

The following is a speech I made at the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, on September 16, 2001. I shared the program with at least a dozen other clergy, most of whom invoked the Bible as a warrant for retaliation against the enemy. It was assumed by nearly everyone there that we would certainly go to war, which turned out to be accurate. But that is not the only thing that was accurate, as it turned out.

I speak in the name of God, the Creator of all, the Redeemer of all, the Sanctifier of all.

When the nation was clamoring for revenge and retaliation for civilian American lives tragically slaughtered by the enemy, and every avenue to avert war had been exhausted, the President of the United States signed the Declaration of War. Then he put his head down on the cabinet table and wept.

The President was Woodrow Wilson. The year was 1917. And the day was Good Friday.

America entered a war that had begun with a terrorist act: an organized assassination. It was the cruelest and ghastliest of all wars this planet had ever known. You can read the Books of Remembrance in British churches and see page after page of names of young men who were slaughtered in the trenches of France. Literally a generation of the young was wiped out in the horror that ensued.

I don’t know why the President wept on that Good Friday afternoon. Did he weep for himself? Did he weep for America? Maybe it was because he knew, as he told a veteran news correspondent and editor, “Once lead this people into war, and they’ll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance….” Or was it because he sensed the deep irony that on that very day when the Christian world was remembering the death of Jesus, he was signing the death warrant for Christ to die all over again in young doughboys who would lie beneath crosses in places like Flanders Field?

We meet today at the monument of the turning point of another great war. We meet in a town where an incredible number of young lives were wiped out in an invasion that ultimately would mean liberation from a regime of unprecedented horror and evil. America entered that war only when, on a quiet sunny morning, enemy bombs had made mincemeat of The United States fleet. President Roosevelt was outraged. The country was shocked. December 7, 1941, is still a day that lives in infamy.

Today we are faced with another momentous occasion. This time, another sneak attack. This time, an act of obscene hatred and violence carried out again against unarmed citizens. But this time, a complicated enemy hard to detect, difficult to pin down, capable of cloning its own violence hundreds of times. And an enemy convinced in righteous indignation that it has God on its side; that its acts of terror and destruction are not only justified but also holy; that its program of retaliation is compelling enough for its warriors gladly to yield their lives to fiery deaths, so right they are.

I talk today about history because human history is exactly what the Judeo-Christian tradition understands to be the sphere of God’s activity. And if we are going to speak about God, we have to look at history, God’s lesson book.

What have we learned? One lesson that we have learned is that violence breeds more violence, and terror begets more terror. We cannot play into that! If, in the best judgment of our leaders, this nation must engage in military action, no doubt the country will support them—no doubt at all. But do not be deluded into believing that that violence will not come at great cost! Far more than the lives we will lose in any one military action, the cost will spiral into an ever-broadening wildfire of hatred and revenge. Through our cries for retaliation and revenge, in so many throats this week, we need to hear and heed the words of Ghandi. He said, “If we live by the law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be both blind and toothless.” Pour out instead your prayers for peace and healing as you have never done before. Envision a world wrapped in its Mother’s arms. If this dreadful attack is a wake up call, let it rouse us to double our efforts for peace: peace in our hearts, peace in our homes, peace in our nation, peace for our planet.

What have we learned? We have learned that religious intolerance and hatred, no matter of what stripe, are tools of evil. Hear me carefully. I speak in the name of the Prince of Peace. If we, individually and as a nation, turn against one another in disrespect and outright hatred, we are replicating the same bigotry and self-righteousness of the terrorists themselves. There is no difference between Islamic fanaticism and Jewish fanaticism and Christian fanaticism except the labels. All are life denying and peace shattering. God calls all people of this world into unity with God and one another. Let there be no place in this society, under attack in part because of our openness and acceptance, for finger pointing and blame laying and scapegoating. Reach out in support to Arab Americans. Join with Muslims as with all others in the family of religions and assure them of your good will. Live with courage the words of the hymn, “Who loves the Father as his child is surely kin to me.”

What have we learned? We have learned that God shows up at the least likely of times and in the worst stenches imaginable. Julia Ward Howe wrote that we have seen God in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps. Well, this week we have seen the face of God: in exhausted firefighters, in strangers reaching out to hold the grieving, in physicians and nurses and technicians aiding the wounded, in hands digging down into the rubble to clear a path for life where there is life. “Where charity and love dwell, God is truly there.” In the Persian Gulf War, when some Iraqi soldiers finally came out of their bunkers expecting to be killed by Americans, they found themselves instead washed and fed and treated humanely. That is the spirit of Christ. That is the face of God.

What we have yet to learn is that Jesus was not joking when he said, “Love your enemies.” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who persecute you, pray for those who abuse you.” That is the lesson that the world needs to hear, and that is the way to the healing that we so deeply seek.

Whatever the reason, President Wilson was right to weep, just as he was right to sign the Declaration of War. Sometimes we have to do what we most fear. But, in the end, if we are as open, as humble, as loving as we can be, then, in the long march of history the world will become as God created it to be: free, and whole.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

Good Behavior

Praying and Living Forgiveness

Genesis 50:15-21
Matthew 18:21-35

When I was in elementary school, we got report cards every six weeks. Six weeks zooms by now, but in those days it was like a semester, a term of months on end. As the weeks dragged by, I was never ever worried about what grades I would get; but sometimes I sweat bullets about what comments the teacher would write on the back. The word “conduct” named the category that was my greatest challenge. Teachers would threaten to write bad reports to parents if we talked out of turn, broke into line at lunch or recess, took up unnecessary class time with silliness, or were generally impolite to other students. I am not sure what would have happened had we spoken disrespectfully to a teacher herself. Such was so far from anybody’s mind that it was never discussed.

One grading period, my second grade teacher, Eva Stone Long, otherwise known as “Sister Long,” wrote a comment on the back of my report card. Among a couple of compliments, she noted, and I quote verbatim, “…likes to talk too much.” I was horrified. Not because it was not true, of course, but because I knew I would catch it when my parents read it. And I was totally right. Interestingly, I cannot remember what Mama said, although I am sure it was plenty. But Daddy, I recall, virtually came uncorked. The message I got from his protracted lecture was that it was fine to make any grade I made, but what would never ever do was to get a “conduct” comment. The least I could do, he pronounced, was to go to school and behave.

Good behavior generally means conforming to somebody’s idea of deportment, like Mrs. Long’s. Those of you who have grown up in a more permissive society probably have no idea of the weight that people my age and older (and maybe some a few years younger) carry around in the form of ethical baggage. It really isn’t ethical, of course. It is internalized fear of being called down for misbehaving. Now, to be sure, some people have escaped that heavy burden by kicking over the traces and becoming utter nonconformists. Such people are not likely to show up in church, not at least until they have made a bit of peace with social expectations, even in a rather freewheeling place like St. Stephen’s. And the reason is rather obvious. They see the Church as being in the business of policing people’s behavior, and they don’t necessarily want theirs to be policed. It is all right, of course, for the Church, like other institutions—school and court, for example—to nurture good behavior in other people (including our children) inculcating in them good behaviors and sharpening their distaste for bad. At the same time, this idea that the Church is all about making people nice and culture gentler is exactly what draws some people to it.

Something is terribly, tragically wrong with all this. And it is wrong not because there is anything the matter with being nice and well behaved (I want to say nothing to discourage either), but because we have somehow managed to warp the notion of good behavior to mean conforming to prevailing social expectations and specifically to exclude several kinds of behaviors that Jesus seem to think were pretty important. One of those practices is forgiveness, a theme that fills our scriptures today. I do not mean to say that forgiveness is not integrated into the fabric of societal expectations, because to some extent it is. Polite society expects that folks will apologize for oversights and mistakes, and that generally those apologies will be accepted. But forgiveness in the radical sense described in today’s gospel or in the Genesis story about Joseph and his brothers is far past anything that can be described as accepting an apology. It comes out of a different way of looking at reality. It reflects values so qualitatively different from our cultural norms that this kind of forgiveness can be rightly called subversive.

As some of you are aware, my sermons this year all look at the practice of prayer from some angle, and today’s focus on forgiveness is no exception. In its simplest state, prayer is practicing the presence of God. It is practicing being Godlike. Right there emerges some boundaries of what we do and do not pray for. To the extent that we know anything about the nature of God—and we Christians claim to know a right good bit, inasmuch as we have identified Jesus as the embodiment of God—we can say with assurance that one does not pray for the destruction of one’s enemies for example. No, one may pray for protection, for the enemy to have a change of heart, for strength to withstand the assaults of the enemy; but the Christian stops short of praying for the destruction of enemies for the simple reason that Christ commanded us to love them. He did not, by the way, suggest that we do so because it would be immediately rewarding or because it would save us lots of time resolving conflicts or yet because it would be a popular practice or easy.

The parable of the unforgiving slave is crystal clear. The slave is enjoined to treat his fellows as the master has treated him. God shows mercy on us, therefore we show mercy on others. “Forgive us our sins” is a prayer that is predicated on the assurance that we will forgive those who sin against us. Now how it is that we can pray such a thing day after day, week after week, year in and year out, while harboring grudges, driving wedges between ourselves and others, collecting injustices, hating those who have wronged us is, well, not so big a mystery. Quite simply, we do not believe what we say. We do not believe what we pray. And when we come right down to it, we don’t believe Jesus.

Need I point out that ten years ago today the People of the United States of America—certainly not without exception, but on the whole—gave to their government permission to wreak vengeance on our enemies. You may argue that the teachings of Jesus are no way to conduct a foreign policy, and I suspect Jesus would indeed agree with you, disinterested as he was in the foreign policies of empires. But that does not get us off the hook, because the hook is consistency and honesty. If you are going to wage war, wage war; but don’t try to baptize it and call it “Christian.” It you are going to hate your enemy, whoever he or she is, go ahead and hate; but don’t turn around and expect that God will show you mercy when you show none yourself. Punish your enemy if you must; but be aware that it leaves you defenseless when you pray a hollow prayer, “…as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

That is strong stuff! You will no doubt point out to me that nobody can live this way; that the nation would be in tatters if we tried it and your own life would be untenable if you risked it. Moreover, I suspect that some sitting right here could point out that the preacher today has no earthly idea of what it is to suffer untold abuse at the hands of tormentors, that your own experience of victimhood qualifies you as an exception to the ethic of forgiveness. Fair enough. I could respond by saying, “You know, you’re right. This is too hard a teaching to take really seriously. It is after all an ideal, one of those many that the gospel—indeed the Bible—is packed with. God, being really sweet, has no intention of making us feel bad about our propensity to hate, but wants us rather to feel quite affirmed. Thus, the notion of being forgiving is a nice one but altogether unworkable, a fact of which our Omniscient God must surely be aware.” And so forth.

But something else is in play here. Look at it this way. Why do you suppose that God would actually care whether we are forgiving or not? What does it matter? Why would Jesus have put so much emphasis on forgiveness? For an answer to those questions, I turn to the last chapter of the Book of Genesis, in which Joseph and his brothers finally come to terms about the brothers’ dreadful misbehavior in selling him into slavery and then lying about it, and Joseph’s response to it all. Years have passed since the brothers conspired to get rid of their pesky little arrogant sibling. Still more years have passed since famine had driven them from Canaan to Egypt in search of grain, only to find there that the presumably lost Joseph has become vizier to Pharaoh. All this while the brothers have had an uneasy conscience about their guilt, and now with the buffer of their old father gone, they wonder if Joseph will cash in on the grudge he might rightly bear against them. So they first send him a message, restating what the old man had said about how Joseph ought forgive their trespass. Joseph responds by weeping. They get up the courage to go see him, and kneeling down, present themselves as his slaves. Then Joseph says something profound. “What you meant for evil against me, God meant for good.” With that statement the story utters a profound truth. God is bigger than our projects and prejudices. In the long sweep of human activity—indeed of the world itself—the very guilt behind the heinous crime, the evil intention, the awful deceit: God has pulled all this together into the great pageant of salvation in which nothing is lost. Through the whole tragedy, God has caused a remnant to be saved, bringing long-term good out of short-term evil. Joseph thus has no effective choice but to forgive his brothers, for to do otherwise would be to pose himself against the very Word that God had already spoken.

We do, I hope, get the message: that forgiveness is the very nature of God, because God’s purposes are always to bring about good. That is what the world cannot give through the machinations of empire and the assertion of one group or one person over another. For God’s good to happen on a human scale inevitably entails more than a few Josephs who can see beyond the moment to the overarching Providence that holds all souls in life and all the world in its healing embrace.

That is the real ethical agenda of the Church. It is to continue to be the community that God has created to express this urgent push towards life, to embody the fierce compulsion to save. One cannot join or long belong to the forces of good if one’s focus shifts from forgiveness to revenge, from community to tribalism, from merciful to unmerciful. God’s work is healing and wholeness, and so the vocation of Joseph and of you and me is that same healing and wholeness that conquers hate and evil, bit by bit, when we live the words we pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”