Monday, December 24, 2012

Farthest Out


“And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not:  for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.'” Luke 2:17

            It could be that I have gotten one every year, though I don’t think so.  I opened an envelope last week containing a beautiful card picturing three Persian wise men visiting and bringing gifts to Holy Mary for the birth of Jesus.  “Congratulations on the birth of Jesus, the messiah and wishing you peace and blessing this New Year!”  All of that, plus some Arabic script which I could not read, were on the front of the card.  Inside, The Islamic Education Center had written that the Quran has only one chapter named after a woman, Chapter 19 entitled, “Mary,” or “Maryam” in Arabic.  They continue, “While Muslims don’t partake in Christmas celebrations, we believe in the awesome and miraculous birth of Jesus, in the miracles he performed by God’s Grace, and in the message of love and peace Jesus brought to the world.”

            None of this was news to me.  Although I consider myself as knowing very little about Islam, despite my efforts to learn more in recent years, I am fully aware of everything that the card told me.  Still I was impressed by this very laudable public relations effort on the part of the Islamic Education Center.  In a day when many Christians seem to be nearly hysterical about a supposed War on Christmas, and very eager to make distinctions between true Christianity and other faiths that seem to be competing with or antagonistic to Jesus, here is a group of Muslims obviously articulating some common ground they share with us.  Before you discount their card or deem me naïve for thinking that it was a lovely gesture (or think that I don’t realize that Muslim evangelism is just as self-serving as Christian evangelism, no more and no less so), take the message at face value.  Jesus, it says, is not the property of Christians only.  Jesus is for the world.

            And that, I do believe, is in the Bible.  “For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.”  It’s a bit odd, don’t you think, that a popular distillation of the Good News of Jesus Christ is that he died on the cross to save you from your sins, and that all of the benefits of his precious death are yours provided that you accept him as your personal savior.  I have nothing to say against any of that, except that like most distillations of the complex, it leaves a great deal to be desired.  But the thing so odd about it is that the accent falls so clearly on what you and I as individuals do with Jesus.  There is little notion that Jesus is the universal savior, let alone the cosmic Christ, reigning from before time and to the ages of ages.  The “personal” Jesus crowds all that out.  It is odd only because, for most of Christian history, up to and including the modern period, Jesus was seen to be the Savior of the world, not just the savior of a subset of individuals in the world.  To the extent that it doesn’t seem odd to us, we bear witness to just how pervasive the “personal Jesus” is.

            Rather than get on the defensive about Jesus and about how much I know he loves you and me because we adore him and follow him, I am in the mood tonight to celebrate.  Maybe you are too, because I doubt that you came to church on Christmas Eve wanting to do high-test theology.  What better a thing to celebrate than the truth that this birth, this messianic arrival, is something so unimaginably grand that we could not conceivably cheapen it by imagining that we somehow own it.  It makes no more sense to try to own Jesus than it makes sense to claim that we own the sun or the moon or the stars.  The salvation which was for all people, born that day in the City of David, was not then, is not now, nor ever shall be a parochial event meant only for the initiated or the qualified.  For, long before Jesus was born, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, saying about the people of Israel, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” [Isaiah 49:6]  A light to the nations!  That is what Israel was created for and re-created for! And that is what, through Jesus, Israel became:  a means through which God’s salvation might reach to the ends of the earth.

Afghan young woman

            No one would have supposed that night in Bethlehem that the birth of this child would be of cosmic significance, or even of much interest.  In Luke’s story, Mary had known even before conception that the baby she would bear would be holy, Son of God Most High; that he would be great; that he would rule from the throne of his ancestor David a kingdom that would have no end.  Well, Luke may have understood the meaning of those words, but you may be sure that his character, the little virgin of Nazareth, had no idea what the angel Gabriel meant when he spoke them to her.   And certainly a bunch of shepherds in the middle of the night had no earthly idea of what the heavenly host meant by singing “Glory to God in the highest” or what these good tidings of great joy might mean to all people.  But this is just the point, in a way.  The way the salvation of Christ gets to be for the entire world—to all people, and even to all things animate and inanimate in the universe—is that little by little, beginning in Bethlehem, people tell each other about what has happened.  Just like those shepherds who (some say) started broadcasting what they had seen and heard, people tell each other the news about this special birth, and about their own birth to a new life through him.  A story begins to develop, and a community begins to tell it as its own.  Jesus calls people—at first a few fisher folk, then a few more—and first news you know, he has a community gathered around him, including women.  He dies and is raised from the dead and within a few years, not only women and Jews, but Gentiles and foreigners, Ethiopians and Greeks, slaves and freedmen, rich and poor, intellectuals and illiterate people, city dwellers and country folk, are a part something bigger even than a community, a movement in fact.  So the good news first told to the shepherds gets to be truly good tidings of great joy for all people.

... in all cultures and faiths
            Imagine what would happen if instead of trying to possess Jesus in stained glass and on dashboards, Christians on a huge scale determined to look for Jesus in all the unlikely places and people.  Imagine what might happen if we began to see Jesus not only in the Quran but also, as the Church Fathers did, in the Hebrew scriptures.  Suppose we made the leap, if we haven’t already, from seeing Jesus as a particular baby lying in a particular manger in a particular story, and began to see his footprints all over creation, his spirit in stories of gods and heroes of other faiths and cultures, his beauty in the music and art that knows nothing of the historical Jesus as such, his truth in patterns of living that express his teachings even unawares.  You will recognize, of course, that none of this is particularly radical, because Christian missionaries at their best have been doing all these things for centuries.  They have been recognizing the reality of Jesus implicit in cultures and beliefs that have not known him.  They have named Christ when they have seen him appear in places that have had no name for him, much as Paul did in the Book of Acts when encountering a shrine on the Athenian acropolis inscribed “To an Unknown God.”  Suppose our job were simply to make Christ known by acknowledging that in many cases he is already known if not named, present if not worshiped and obeyed to the ends of the earth.

            God is not about to lose the universe, not to evil, not to ignorance, and not to hate.  God is Truth, and that Truth will outlast the most stubborn and virulent of its opponents.  God does not need armies, either political or rhetorical, to defend God’s cause.  But God does need Marys who will say, “Be it unto me according to your word.”  God does need Josephs who will make the long trek from wherever they are to Bethlehem.  God does need shepherds, apparently, who are minding their own business but who have time to behold the heavens opened and a stunning intrusion of glory into an ordinary night of watching.  God seems to rejoice and applaud when people get up and go searching for the thing they have been told has happened that will bring unutterable joy to the world.   And God, who by definition should need nothing, needs a community of people who will adopt as their own the ways of the Christ who continually sees enemies as those to be loved and who says of potential competitors, “if they are not against us, they are for us.”

            So, Good Christian friends, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice.  The Good News that Christ is for the world is better than anything we could have imagined.  All people have tasted or can taste the Bread of his life and the Wine of his joy.  And it won’t stop until all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012

Monday, December 17, 2012

Lights On


Luke 3:7-18

             Somebody goes into a darkened room where a single spotlight illuminates a canvas.  Some paint being nearby, the person picks up a brush, dabs in color, and starts to apply it to the canvas.  Suddenly the lights come on in the room and the person is horrified to see that his impromptu little project has messed up a masterpiece, only a small corner of which had been illuminated.  That image, from J. B. Phillips, the great Bible scholar and preacher of the last century, has become my standard way of understanding what happens when the lights come on and the truth is revealed.  The word for that in the biblical vocabulary is judgment.  It is a word that, generally speaking, we hate.  Only unless and until we find ourselves in a predicament—plaintiff in a lawsuit, for example—looking for judgment in our favor, pleading for an act of justice that will set wrong to right, do we like the idea of judgment.  Otherwise we equate it with sentencing or condemnation, and few people like the idea of being sentenced or condemned.

            Friday morning the lights came on in a place I know well:  Newtown, Connecticut.  You now know the name of that town, and you are not likely to forget it.  It will now quite likely become a reference point in a thesaurus of places and dates, ranking alongside or even above Columbine, Laramie, Oklahoma City as the cite of an atrocity past all comprehension, too horrible for words.  I lived in Newtown, Connecticut during a formative period in my life.  For thirteen years I was Rector of Trinity Parish, which sits atop Church Hill, squared off in front of the Newtown Meeting House, the famous flagpole in the middle of the street between the two of them.  In this idyllic town I often say I grew up.  My two daughters did in fact.  One of them played soccer sometimes on the field at Sandy Hook Elementary School, now a place of unspeakable emotional wreckage.  Newtown is still a major place in my psychic landscape, as my soul still wanders in my dreams among the stores and houses there, revisits the events that punctuated my life there, touches the spirits of friends I still cherish there. 

            The shadow side of Newtown has long been the fact that people expect life to be ideal in such a place, and are always somehow puzzled that horrors happen and tragedies strike, shattering the peace and quiet of the town.  Of course, the ideal is an illusion; for the forces that devastate Littleton and Denver and Portland and New York City and Washington, DC are lurking insidiously in the crannies and caverns of the hearts of Newtowners just as they do everywhere.  Perhaps that has something to do with the heaviness of my own heart today.  I know how awful it is to find that evil and chaos have been unleashed in one’s own Eden, wrecking the heart of creation, and taking grief to depths unfathomable. 

            Yet still the lights come on.  And this time they come on for the nation as well as for Newtown.  The vulnerability of even the “best” communities, model neighborhoods, exemplary school systems:  exposed.  The inadequacy of accessing our mental health system:  exposed.  The bitter fruits of a violence-soaked culture:  exposed.  The cowardice of politicians:  exposed.  The insistence of people that the right to own a gun supersedes the right to be safe from one:  exposed.         

                  I   Responding to Judgment

            Let’s look first at how we respond to judgment and what happens when the day comes in whose awful light all these things and more are exposed.  That is exactly what today’s gospel confronts.  John the Forerunner appears in the desert of Judea proclaiming nothing short of judgment.  Notice, however, that, though he predicts a wrath that is coming, his is in fact not a message of doom.  Rather, his is a call to repentance.  “Produce fruit, fruit worthy of repentance,” is hardly a sentence or a condemnation.  John’s counsel is utterly practical.  Don’t start making excuses, he warns.  Trees need to produce good fruit, and so do people.  The effect of John’s preaching is to turn on the lights.  His purpose is to prepare the Way of the Lord by inspiring change of heart and life on a massive scale. 

            Note that the crowds are not full of questions about what the awful wrath is going to be like.  Actually they have only one question, which they ask insistently:  “What shall we do?”   That rings true.  People all over the country today are asking, “What are we going to do to change all this violence?”  And we are off to the races.  We already know what the debate is going to look like.  Some will argue for more and better gun control.  Some will argue that that is no answer at all.  Some will vilify the opponents of gun control and make them out to be demonic.  Others will swear that President Obama arranged the whole thing as a pretext for taking away the guns from those who have a right to bear whatever arms they want to.  And on and on and on.  Taking a cue from John the Baptist, we can conclude that there really are some things we can do to respond to this judgment, this exposure of the truth, and they are not all that hard to figure out.  Share your tunics and your food, collect nothing under false pretenses, be content with wages and don’t resort to extortion and blackmail:  these were the simple answers that John gave a crowd anxious to know what to do.  Renew the ban on assault weapons;  make it impossible to sell guns, even in private shows, without a license; set safety standards for all guns the way we set safety standards for dolls and teddy bears; make the mental health care system accessible not only for those who seek it but, for example, to parents of mentally disturbed adults whose behavior may well be presage violence.   Listing these things is easy.  Accomplishing them is not necessarily so.  Yet these are some of the things we can do to respond to the awful cloud of judgment that erupted in Newtown and now rains down upon us all.

                  II  Practicing Repentance

            But, second, let’s get down to the hard stuff:  practicing repentance.  John preached repentance.  That does not mean getting down on your knees and saying you’re sorry.   Repentance means changing one’s heart, mind, and direction.  Ronald Heifetz in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers distinguishes between a technical fix and adaptive change.  The challenge for this society is that we frequently opt for a technical fix when what is required is a systemic change.  There are sometimes when a technical fix is exactly what is needed, as when you have a broken bone and it needs to be set.  But in the case of the violence now so thoroughly exposed to be the danger and the evil that it is, more is needed.  A change of attitude, a change of heart, a complete shift in cultural attitudes would be true repentance.  And it can be done.  We have done it before.  Take, for example, the matter of smoking.  Plenty of people still do it.  But about 1970, American society began to take a turn towards a systemic change in the way we approached cigarette smoking in particular.  We could scarcely have imagined then that the day would come when in major cities cigarette smoking would be banned in public buildings, restaurants, and countless venues.  The tobacco industry was a powerful lobby.  But that did not stop a gradual, persistent process that led to enormous social change.
            The problem with gun violence and the rest of the cluster of things exposed so gruesomely in Newtown is that a great many people want to prescribe or proscribe what others do rather than to look critically at ourselves.  Unlike cigarette smoking, the culture of violence, which nurtures acts of carnage, is far more insidious.  Not only is it linked to war (how many times do we unleash American firepower to do in places like Iraq and Afghanistan like horrors to what Adam Lanza did in Sandy Hook?), but also to sex role stereotyping (we support guns for little boys to play with and glorify as heroes males who commit violent acts), to the entertainment industry where cartoons, video games, and movies glorify violence and demonstrate how to perpetrate it.  Do we want to change?  The axe is laid to the root of the trees, and we have felt its gash.  What more do we need?  Terror and horror are not going to disappear from our lives unless and until we create a culture that will sustain and support peace as a viable way of life. 

                  III  Deepening Community

            But there is a third thing we might think about today, and that is the way of deepening community.  See yourself for a minute standing among the brood of vipers that John the Baptist thundered at on the Jordan riverbank.  Israel of John’s day was hardly a unified community.  They were a factious bunch.  Pharisees practiced a strict interpretation of the Torah, the Law, built on deep commitments faithfully to keep the Covenant that they understood firmly to be God’s will.  Sadducees were another group, if anything more conservative than the Pharisees, less willing to embrace new interpretations of old scriptures and practices.  Zealots were those who were convinced that violent revolution was the only plausible option towards running the Romans out of town.  And just a stone’s throw from where John was doing his baptizing, the Essenes were a monastic community busily composing what we now call The Dead Sea Scrolls, awaiting the appearance of a new order inaugurated by God.  Soldiers, tax collectors, and ordinary Jews, not to mention foreigners and Gentiles here and there rounded out the society, contentious and fragmented.  It is not easy to undo or redo that kind of social reality. 

            Yet in forming a community initially by calling disciples and teaching them the basics of living and praying together, Jesus threw in his lot with a new community under the rule of a single commandment, to “love one another as I have loved you.”  That is what the Church needs to be doing all the time:  being a community that models how to be inclusive, how to live with differences, how to be in communion despite disagreements, how to put common endeavor above individual achievement, how to pray together, how to make safe spaces where people do not have to hide their identities nor tell lies in order to survive, how to confront one another in love, how to confess and be wrong, how to confess and be reconciled.  These things are the staples of our life together.  Our country and the world need us to share them.  It would be wonderful if everyone without a faith community were to find one, but that is not going to happen.  The question before us now is how to tell our story convincingly and helpfully to people who need to hear a word of hope and to see how living justly and peaceably actually works.

            The very same heart of mine that is broken over the Newtown tragedy is a heart that found peace and healing in Newtown time and again when people taught me some basic lessons of Christian community.  Some of my hardest moments in ministry included times I sat on the lawn and listened as teenagers grieved the death of classmates in automobile accidents; when I stood at the altar and celebrated a eucharist for a woman brutally murdered; when I wept in the sacristy after a particularly painful annual meeting.  It is in such places as those that we practice and thus learn to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the things that last from the things that ultimately fail us, the wonderful way in which Christ Jesus baptizes us with the Spirit of a holy consolation and at the same fires us to get up and do something to help the nation and the world heal.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012


Monday, December 03, 2012

Just Community

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36


            “I understand you have had a death in your family.  May I be of help?” I asked over the telephone.

            “Pastor, I don’t know where to turn.  My aunt died.  She had no money, left no money.  I have what the District of Columbia allows for a funeral, which is just enough to cover cremation.  She didn’t have a church.  I don’t have one.  I want to give her a little service.  I was talking to this woman I work with and she said, “You know, St. Stephen’s buried my nephew years ago.  Maybe they would work with you.”

            I told her that we could certainly arrange to have a funeral for her aunt.  She was audibly moved.  We agreed on a meeting time the following week when we would plan the details of the service. 

            On the morning we met, I took her into the chapel and showed her where the simple service would take place.  She couldn’t thank me enough.  “You know, there is a congregation that worships here,” I said.  “But they don’t own this place.  We’re here as much for you as for anybody.  As far as we are concerned, if you step across the threshold of this place, or even make a contact, you’re as much a part of this place with as much claim on us as if you were here all the time.  So we’re glad to do this for you, and you don’t owe us a cent.  I’m happy I’m here.  I’m happy you’re here.” 

            Her aunt turned out to be not her aunt at all, but someone she had taken into her home because the woman literally had no place else to go to get out of the stark and shadowy place where she lived.  The aunt’s ashes would be ready in a day or two.  She would pick them up and call me so I could meet her at the church.  She didn’t call.  One, two, three days went by.  It was the holiday weekend and I thought it strange, but didn’t think much about it, figuring that we had time enough before the day of the service. 

            On Sunday night I picked up a message.  The voice was that of the woman’s sister, telling me that her sister had died—“passed” was the word she used—the preceding Friday.  Her grandson had found her.  Maybe a heart attack.  They didn’t know.  But we’d go forward with the aunt’s funeral on Tuesday.  I was stunned, but scarcely as much as they.

            Five people showed up for the aunt’s funeral: the sister, her husband, two friends, and I.  I read the gospel and began talking about it.  Intuition told me that they needed to talk more than I.  So the homily became a conversation.  I acknowledged that they must have been soaked more in grief at the sudden loss of Jane than by the death of the aunt.  And so ensued a rather open airing of the kind of grief that settles at the bottom of the heart’s dark basement.  “We five people have never been together, and we may never be together again,” I said.  “But here we are.  We are a community.  That is what we have to do.  That is what God enables us to do.  We have to form communities however and whenever we can.  We have to connect with whomever we can connect with.  We bear each other’s burdens, and share each other’s joys, and today is a day of burdens.  That is what the community of Jesus does.  Because that is what he does.”


            You might have noticed that there is an ongoing debate in American society about the primacy of the individual versus the primacy of community.  There has been for generations now a doctrine of “Rugged Individualism,” classically articulated by Herbert Hoover in the peroration of his presidential campaign of 1928.  If you were to read it today with the author and date blocked out, you would swear that it was written in this last presidential campaign, so persistent are the arguments supporting the rugged individualist point of view.  But there is another strain in American society, that of communal solidarity.  Most of us have encountered that current, or been a part of it.  Our ancestors got together on the frontier and raised barns for each other.  We can point to compacts, conferences, colleges, consortiums, consociations, and constitutions as implements of community.  Although some of us may argue vigorously that we are on our own, the truth is that we are creatures of community.  We are primates, after all; and like our primate cousins we are made to live together.  One can be a rugged individual, but only for so long.  Sooner or later the rugged individual must come to terms with community, or die.

            So on this First Sunday of Advent, I am following my custom of the last four or five years.  Today begins a year in which I plan to preach perhaps some eighteen sermons.  Through them all I will be looking at the scriptures through the lens of community.  In a way, that is hardly novel, because all of the scriptures were written by, for, and to a community of faith.  I think, however, that we will hear them differently if we approach them with an ear for what they say to us as a people rather than just to me and you and you as individuals.  My sense is that we most often come to church thinking of ourselves as individuals with our own particular set of needs and concerns, with our ears pricked up for something that will speak to us and help us on our individual paths.  That is not a bad thing, and it is probably inevitable, given the way we tend to think about ourselves.  But what might happen if we tune ourselves again and again to see how through everything and in many different ways, God is building community through us? 

            Look at the snippet from Jeremiah that we read today, for example.  “‘The days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the promise I made to the House of Israel and to the House of Judah.  …I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.’”  God makes promises to a community.  That is because God deals with communities.  Individuals may be called, sent, given tasks to do, supported and confirmed as individuals, but it is always within the community, be it nation or religious community.  The oldest story that we have about community is the story of the Exodus, the story of the deliverance of a community from slavery into freedom.  It is against the backdrop of that story that everything else is written and read.  So, for example, when we read “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” we are reading and hearing the words that describe the God that the communal audience knows as their Great Liberator.  And when we read the first story in the Bible that belongs to what we can call “history,” it is the story of Abraham.  God calls Abraham in order to create through him a community.  The way the Bible is put together, that call comes precisely because the experiment with Noah to save civilization had bombed badly.  God settled in for the long haul, determined to work out the human story through creating a community.  Sometimes that community would fail badly to get even the most basic ideas right.  Occasionally someone would come along who would be able to bring the community into line.  The Righteous Branch of David, whom we know as Jesus, would be one such person, one whom we can look at and say, “He is our Lord, he is our righteousness, because through him we are strangely made right with the deepest truth of who we are—we do, in fact, get right with God.”

            Move over to the gospel and listen to it.  “Jesus said, ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and of foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.’”  The interesting thing about this is not that you can run to today’s newspaper and read articles that will make you think this passage is coming true before your very eyes.  It has been coming true for more than two thousand years.  No, the interesting thing is that by the time Luke wrote them down, Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all [these] things have taken place,” was in fact out-of-date.  That generation had passed, and still the Church was waiting for their redemption, the Second Coming of the Son of Man.  So what made them relevant?  Why were they preserved?  They were preserved because the world was in fact still falling apart, just as it is now, and in the middle of it was a community that not only needed hope but was itself the source of hope.  And I suppose, if the kingdom of God is near when Jesus’ generation, or Luke’s, or ours sees the world flying apart at the seams, then that kingdom is near at this very moment.   We should know.  The fig tree is in full leaf, so to say.


            The message is not to assorted individuals who may be motivated to hear it and internalize it.  It is a proclamation to a community on whom, quite literally, the world depends.  The community must be on guard, not lolling around dissipated and drunk on this, that, and the other distraction, weighed down with worries about, among other things, how to keep itself afloat financially and how to protect itself politically, or how to take its power and manipulate the rest of the world with it.  The community needs to be alert, praying that it may have strength to weather the storms, and to stand before the Son of Man.”  That community is yours and mine.  And if we do not know how, we need to learn how to practice that kind of watchfulness, that quality of prayer, that sort of centeredness, no matter what is going on in the world around us. 

            And we need to show the world how to be a community, how to make community, how to practice living in community.  Not only that, but we need to be conversant enough with the things that destroy community, like insidious conflict and squabbling over leadership, like power plays and disrespect for the vulnerable, to combat them effectively.  It’s imperative, too, that we faithfully practice self-examination and repentance regularly enough to be able to recognize when we ourselves begin destroying community, and disavow our behavior that does that.  And we need to be generous enough to recognize that hosts of people want not to be hassled but to be embraced, need a shoulder or two to lean on, and sometimes just need a community when they have to bury their dead, or when they get scared to death as they see signs and portents that their lives and their world are coming undone.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012