Sunday, December 29, 2013

Presenting Jesus

 This sermon I preached at the Celebration of the New Ministry of The Reverend Clare Fisher-Davies at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Providence, Rhode Island, on February 2, 2006.  
The strangest compliment I am paid when I do something in my priestly line of work is, “You missed your calling…  You should have been an actor.”  Well, perhaps that is right.  I am here tonight largely because I am friends with one who did not miss her calling but who heard her calling correctly to be both a priest and an actress.  Clare is a priest and she is an actress.  And, though I am not her agent and cannot speak for her (or charge for her), I am fairly confident in saying that while these roles are not confused for her, she would be the first to argue that they are not discrete departments in her life, utterly distinct one from the other.  Never was I so aware of this as when I saw her perform at a diocesan convention several years ago.  Being a priest and being an actor run together not only for Clare and for me but for many of us.  One of my favorite stained glass windows is in the refectory of the Cathedral College, formerly the College of Preachers, at Washington National Cathedral, which bears the inscription quoting its founder and patron, “If you do not dramatize the message, they will not listen.”  Those who do not particularly like theatre, especially what they would view as pulpit theatrics—and they are many—will want to stop and argue this point, and I want to press on to something bigger.  I want to suggest that Clare’s vocation, and St. Martin’s vocation, and indeed the vocation of all Christians, is about a presentation of Christ to the Church and to the World.  Shakespeare’ Jacques says in “As you Like it” that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”  Who am I to disagree with Shakespeare?  Yet I would say as well that this whole world is a theatre, and the women, men, and children in it an audience.  Our ministry, and this new one we celebrate tonight, is about articulating, and, if you will, dramatizing the message so that the indistinct “they” out there will listen, and ultimately be drawn into the play about redemption which is the best, if not the only, living theatre in town.

What kicks up this topic, or at least this connection for me, is the fact that someone—Clare or the Bishop—chose this date to be the time to celebrate this New Ministry.  It is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple.  But some of you may remember that it went by another name in former days, now relegated to alternative status in the Book of Common Prayer:  The Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin.  In some ways the whole story of the Church can be told in those two titles competing for dominance in the naming of this day.  One stresses Law and the other Grace. 

Most commentators that I have read appropriate the event narrated in our gospel reading as Luke’s way of telling how the holy family were scrupulous in keeping the Law.  Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day, and presented in the temple with the required sacrifice of the poor (the birds sufficed when a lamb was not affordable) as directed by the Law.  Indeed Luke returns to the Temple for the setting of this story, where he begins his gospel with the account of the annunciation to Zechariah of the birth of John the Baptist. 

But there is an inescapably dark side to this trip to the Temple, despite the good intentions of our Holy Family in keeping the Law.  That darksome dimension lies in the fact that St. Mary the Virgin was considered impure because she had had a baby.  Even when we make allowances for ancient mind-sets that associate bodily discharges with uncleanness; even when we have cut the Book of Leviticus some slack; even when we thoroughly understand the origin of the concepts of clean and unclean we are left with the fact that human beings are excluded from social contact, not to mention religious community, simply by being, well human: by discharging blood or semen; by ingesting the wrong sorts and combinations of foods; by touching a corpse.  Luke will show in the succeeding pages of his gospel how Jesus’ ministry was largely about setting people free from such binding strictures.  He will tell us the story about the healing of lepers, who were ritually impure.  He will tell us the parable of the Good Samaritan who, himself an outcast, risked even further isolation by stopping to inspect a body which might very well have been a corpse.  He will impress upon our memories the figure of the Prodigal Son, who had made himself impure in all sorts of ways, not least by feeding with hogs.  And in all of this Luke will reveal Jesus as the one who breaks down barriers of separation and who redefines purity with a radically new moral teaching, which he talks of in terms of God’s Reign.

Now there is nothing wrong with being clean.  And there is nothing wrong with being ritually pure.  Both are good ideas.  But there is something fundamentally flawed about seeing human beings as unacceptable, even if temporarily, simply because they are carrying on perfectly natural bodily functions.  I admit that the text makes no issue of this matter.  But taken in its larger context, it seems to me inescapable that this story signals an end to the old regime run by those whose regulations, attitudes, led to oppression.  Since he was in the temple, Simeon is presumed to be pro-priestly and pro-levitical.  We imagine that he had been praying all those years for the liberation of Israel from Roman clutches.  It would be absurd to think that Simeon would have known what true messianic liberation would look like as it was to take shape in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  But Luke knows.  Luke knows about the issue of table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles that threatened to rip the infant Church apart.  Luke knows about the legalism that his companion and possible mentor Paul fought.  Luke knows the gospel that “to freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”

            The question that intrigues me is why this impulse to purification, and its shadow side the avoidance of human contamination, so compelling for religious people.  We are not living in a primitive, taboo-laden, society driven by undifferentiated fears, are we?  Yet an enormous amount of energy is invested in trying to keep the Church or society unpolluted.  When I was a child in the South the issue was race.  Then it was women.  Now it is sex.  Around each of these things, people have energetically built walls to keep other people out, in one sense or another.  The impulse to Puritanism is not about to disappear.

            But there is a Messiah, come to save us from all this.  And the wonder of this Feast of the Presentation is that the Messiah is brought to the Temple.  He is presented.  Interestingly enough, there is no requirement in the law that the boy be presented in the temple, only that the mother be purified.  So, in a sense, we can say that presenting Christ is a voluntary act. 

            That is the vocation that Clare and the people of St. Martin’s have been issued:  a call to volunteer to present Christ.  The question is how are you going to present Christ.  How are you going to speak the message? How can you dramatize the message so that people will listen?
            Take a cue from Luke.  Simeon announces a messianic theme when he tells Mary and Joseph that the child will be the cause of the falling and rising of many.  Jesus is not some sentimental wimp that is basically about making people feel good.  Jaroslav Pelikan in his fascinating book Jesus through the Centuries demonstrates how each age gives Jesus a makeover in its own favorite image, so that we have in the Constantinian period Jesus the Emperor and in the Middle Ages Jesus the Monk who Rules the World.   We will never get it exactly right nor ever do him complete justice.  But it is fair to say that Jesus is not your favorite drinking buddy, the enforcer of upper-class snobbery, the one who hates the other political party as much as you do, the cheerleader for American causes, or the endorser of your resolutions at diocesan convention.   And it is also fair to say that there is some variety in the portraits of Jesus in the New Testament.  If we are going to present Jesus to the Church and to the world, we need to give ourselves to studying the character.  While my view is certainly not definitive, here are some things that strike me about the Jesus I would present:

·      I see Jesus as a person of authority, whose authority comes from his own sense of who he is and what his life is about.  He inherited a 400-year-old script that called for Messiah to be a military hero.  Instead I believe  he drew from a little noticed passage in Isaiah that inspired him to be a suffering servant.
·      I see Jesus as courageous, never once willing to capitulate to the forces that  would have squelched him and his message
·      I see Jesus as compassionate.  Never once do I read a story of his saying to someone who is distressed or beleaguered or sick or fragile or psychologically vulnerable, “You know, it is a good idea for you to be weak or sick or frightened or distressed.  It will do you good.  Buck up!”  Instead I hear him asking, “What do want me to do for you?” and “Do you want to be well?”  and,  “You give them something to eat.”
·      I see Jesus as taking no foolishness when it comes to caring for the poor, the outcast, the marginalized.  A study of his parables shows that well over half of them are on the theme of inclusivity.  A study of his teachings in general reveals that the subject most on his mind was wealth and poverty.  A study of his miracles reveals an astonishing concern for those without effective medical care.
·      I see Jesus as a light to enlighten the Gentiles—the nations. One of my life texts is from St. John’s Gospel, “The true light that enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  I have no trouble believing that the Light that is in Christ is in fact what dwells in and enlightens everyone, which leads me to conclude that the Chinese man and his American compatriot who rode with me on the train to Providence today have something to teach me.  And when Renaldo begs money from me on Newton Street in Washington, I dare not forget that when I give or refuse, a man bearing the image of God and the Light of Christ has come into my circle.
·      I see Jesus as the glory of his people Israel, the one who is utterly dedicated to the God the Creator and God the Liberator.

If you don’t like my portrait (and this is not all of it), I challenge you to create your own.  More than that, figure out what kind of life you have to live in order to present Christ to the world so authentically, so dramatically, so compelling, that those who see you will actually listen. 

            Theodore Dreiser’s character Sister Carrie is a girl of modest means from a little Midwestern town who makes her way to Chicago.  She refuses to sink into financial ruin, as does the man she is married to.  Carrie is a survivor.  She is a scrapper.  Little by little she gets first one part and then another on stage, incrementally building for herself a career.  She meets Ames, who befriends and encourages her.  Ames says to Carrie,

“The world is always struggling to express itself—to make clear its hopes and sorrows and give them voice.  It is always seeking the means, and it will delight in the individual who can express these things for it.  That is why we have great musicians, great painters, great writers and actors.  They have the ability to express the world’s sorrows and longings, and the world gets up and shouts their names.  All effort is just that.  It is the thing the world wants portrayed , not the portrayer or writer or singer, which makes the latter great.  You and I are but mediums, through which something is expressing itself.  Now our duty is to make ourselves ready mediums.”

            The thing the world wants portrayed, is dying to have portrayed, is in fact the Light that enlightens the Gentiles and is the glory of Israel.  The world wants to hear about hope, not damnation; to see compassion, not selfishness; to experience generosity, not greed.  We in the world—and in the church—crave to see someone, some people powerfully present a Christ who is not psychotic or neurotic or precious or unreal, to whom they can relate, whom they can follow, and who will call us to a higher, truer life.  You and I, Clare and St. Martin’s, are but the actors through which the Divine Character is expressing himself.  Our challenge is to make ourselves ready to dramatize the message not only with our lips but in our lives.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2006

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Intruder

 Luke 2:9

            “And the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.”

            There are good reasons to be afraid.  Who doesn’t know the feeling?  Fear is more than likely the first emotion that we experience.  Some of us never quite get over it.  We live all our lives out of a context of basic fear.  What will happen that I am not prepared for?  What will I do if I am pulled up short?  What if disaster strikes and catches me off-guard?  And, most important of all, what will people think? 

            But there is fear and then there is fear.  Not all fear is the same.  I learned, perhaps incorrectly, in elementary school that there were only two fears we are born with:  fear of falling and fear of loud noises.  We have evolved to have a great many fears that cause us to respond by protecting ourselves.  But the fears of the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night cannot be so easily parsed. The story is about how those shepherds are filled with fear because they are visited by an angel and then surrounded by glory. 

            Is it fair to say that on our short list of things we fear most, being visited by an angel and being surrounded by glory would not appear?  To speak in a bit (but only a bit) of hyperbole, half of us have decided that there is no such thing as angels and nothing remotely resembling otherworldly glory.  The other half of us have thoroughly domesticated all the tools of transcendence so that the only angels we know are the ones sitting atop Christmas trees, and the magnificence apt to dazzle us is what humans make and sell at high prices.  Ah, that is too cynical a thing to say on Christmas Eve, don’t you think?

            Let’s change the subject.

            Several years ago when our grandson Grady was two or three, Joe and I gave him a little crèche, one of those Fontanini crèches to which one can keep adding quite lovely but unbreakable figures.  Grady, now six, and his sister Frannie, three, like to play with the crèche when it comes out during Advent.  Last week their mother heard a conversation going on between brother and sister in the next room, which did not seem to be going all that well.  Frannie marched into the kitchen holding Joseph in one hand, the other hand on her hip.  “Mom,” she asked, “is Mary married to this guy?”   Her mother confirmed that she was, whereupon Frannie threw Joseph down onto the floor exclaiming, “That’s not right!  He’s not her true love!”  It turns out that Frannie had determined that Mary’s true love was the handsome shepherd boy.  She was not about to let go of her notion.  So later, when her mother went into the den, here was Joseph atop the stable, while Mary and the shepherd were on either side of the manger tending the Baby Jesus. 

            Early do we learn to weave stories that delight us and re-enforce the things we believe or would like to believe!  Suppose Frannie could for a moment enter the world of the shepherd who she is convinced is in love with Mary.  Aside from the probability that the shepherd would not look like someone on the Georgetown crew circa 1934, and would be smelling of sheep dung and whatever beans he had eaten for supper, the shepherd might actually tell a tale that would shock our little Frannie.  (Or not, since children are not so easily rattled as adults.)  The shepherd might talk of something as mysterious as anything Frannie and Grady have seen in Star Wars movies, more riveting and compelling than the high fashion to which Barbie alludes in movies called by her name, harder to believe than the most mesmerizing of Santa myths.  That shepherd might take Frannie on his lap and tell her a story about how in the middle of the night once upon a time, he and others of his friends and brothers were abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock.  He might tell in halting whispers how terror-stricken he was that a being of light had invaded his pasture, when he was all but certain that if there were a God that God would certainly have no more use for him than the priests and Levites scurrying about their duties in the remote Jerusalem temple.   And this hunky, bulked up shepherd, might startle our little Frannie by sharing how shattered and scared he and his buddies were when suddenly the skies were alive with buzzing little beings zooming here and there, singing doxologies that were now impossible to describe. If only her shepherd had a tongue up to the task of telling the tale! 

            Easier not to admit the intruder Mystery.  Easier to bar the entrance of what Madeline L’Engle called “The Glorious Impossible.”  Make of the shepherd a character in a sentimental play about the birth of a baby that has all the credentials of a god but who changes virtually nothing in a hell-bent world dedicated to war and violence.  Make of the shepherd a toy that little boys—or girls—can play with along with GI Joe, or that little girls—or boys—can imagine falling in love with Princess Mary. 

            For the glory of the Lord shines round about us, Frannie, and we are sore afraid.

            The glory comes through moments when old, cranky people get unexpectedly caring treatment from caretakers who cut through their own natural reactions and responses, reaching out to those living in the darkness of Altzheimer’s and the shadow of death.  The glory comes in eerie silence following meditation.  The glory shines round about those in sweat lodges pent up with fellow human beings for hours in a ritual that moves them beyond the ordinary into deeper connectedness.  The glory comes when a little human being learns to share a toy or respect a friend.  The glory comes when someone of great power and stature comes before her people and admits making a mistake.  The glory shines when people who walked in darkness finally see the light of day, and when a Nelson Mandela walks into freedom, and when people rise up and say no to oppression, and when one by one the dividing walls of hostility come tumbling down.  And why should we be afraid?  We might fear that we have far too much to lose, especially if we are invested in all the structures that glory eclipses and obliterates.  But we also might fear that if we get our hopes too high, or talk too much about the Presence of the Divine here or there, or get a bit too attached to the notion of glory, we’ll all awake some morning to find that it was all a ploy, a fake, a trap, a dream, a chimera, and we’ll be worse off for having let our guard down.  We’ll be sorry that we let ourselves believe that there was a Deep Presence in the universe that could put things to rights, when what we have after all is the same-old-same-old.  Yes, of that we are sore afraid.

            And that fear is perhaps the main thing that keeps the Christ from being born in the first place.  It is not that we are such sinful creatures, if by sinful you mean basically animals doing what animals do.  It is that our favorite method of survival is to build tight narratives of what is what.  And the very nature of the glory of the Lord is to surprise us with—guess what?—the truth that things are not what they seem.  All the great promises of the gospel are surprises.  Nothing is to be taken for granted.
            So, what can we do about all that?  I suppose we could decide not to be afraid of glory after all.  Just embrace it, figure that paradox is something we can live with, that our rules and regulations and predictable sameness is fairly vapid and uninteresting.  Well, deciding not to be afraid of glory is hardly a viable option.  It is sort of like deciding not to be afraid of earthquakes.  It is all quite fine in theory, especially if an earthquake has never affected you.  But that decision is apt to be upended when a real one comes along.  But deciding to be open to mystery, especially to this mysterious glory, is an option.  Some religious people are credulous and are ready to believe anything. Miracles are just going off like popcorn over heat.  Others can't imagine God doing a new thing. Marriage?  It has always been thus and so.  Equality of the sexes?  Not possible because no one in the Bible imagined it.  Climate change?  Can't be true because God wouldn't allow it, etc.  We do not have to live that way.  We can learn to live with ambiguity, with paradox. Not everything fits neatly into pre-assigned categories.  And not all shock is horrible.  

            The story the shepherd tells is quite likely a story that would have been impossible to imagine had he and the others simply trembled among themselves and, to quote another Bible passage, told no one in those days anything of what they had seen and heard.  But that is not the story.  The angel said unto them, “Fear not.” There is an underlying dependability in the universe, a presence that defuses our fear.  God is not the enemy.  “For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”  There is nothing to be afraid of.  The impossibly good thing is that the shepherds in Luke’s story are the first to go to Bethlehem and see this thing, which has come to pass.  And that is the way a life with God begins.  First you go see a baby, and you get a taste of the glory in the unlikely place of a manger.  Then you see the lame walk and the lepers cured and the blind see.  Then you see the hungry fed and the prisoners freed and the poor respected.  And suddenly you find yourself in the middle of what might seem a magical kingdom where impossible things happen all over the place.  Even the dead are raised.

            And then you come to understand that the mystery is about you, not about some remote God.  The point of it all was that God jumps into the fray on the side of human beings and becomes flesh, like yours, to help flesh, like yours, become God.  

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013


Matthew 11:2-11

            In my sophomore year in college, an art history survey course introduced me to great masterpieces that were to become part of my soul.  One of those was Picasso’s “Guernica,” his 1937 depiction of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War experienced in the Basque village for which the painting was named.  I think because the professor hinted that it would likely be on the final exam, I memorized the details of “Guernica,” so much so that, had I been asked, I could have created a sketch detailing how the artist had constructed the painting.  What I never paid any attention to was the dimensions of the painting.  Several years later, I was in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  I rounded a corner, entered a room, and, startled, saw before me the “Guernica.”  Instead of something the size of a post card in my art history textbook, I stood in the presence of the majestic gray-and-black-and-white original.  I could hardly believe what I was seeing:  something indescribably more beautiful, more powerful, grander, far bigger than I had imagined. 

            Had I not internalized the image of the “Guernica,” I would not have been arrested by the real thing.  It was exactly because I had a preconception of the painting in my mind that the real painting stunned me completely.  Now by no means did “Guernica” disappoint me.  On the contrary, it was one of the most memorable of many occasions when the great gap between my preconceptions and reality has jolted me.  Sometimes the encounter has gone the other way, as when reality has revealed itself a pathetic chimera of what I had imagined as great and good.  Something about the experience of being shocked by the difference between our imagination and reality can be overwhelming, disconcerting, troubling.

            Can I forget that as a lad just about to enter adolescence I had steadfastly believed in Santa Claus until I heard in the wee hours one Christmas morning Mama inching down the stairs, knowing in my boy mind what she was up to, feeling a kind of sickness that the Santa Claus I had kept alive in my head didn’t exist?  I wanted my myth to be right, to be factual, to be dependable, to be true.   And it turned out to be Mama, not the jolly old elf himself, a fact which I found irritating.  It did not help that I had known it all along, so to say.  Is nothing what it seems?  Is nothing what they say it is?

            And that is not far from the dilemma of John the Baptist who sends a delegation from his prison to address to Jesus to check out, “Are you the one who was to come, or shall we look for another?”  John, like everyone else in his generation, knew perfectly well what to expect of Messiah.  The script was plain, public, and predictable.  Messiah was supposed to come and clean house.  Drive the Romans from the block.  Inaugurate a new age.  Take the reins of the House of David.  Separate the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, knock heads.  Was John wrong about the one about whom he had said, “One is coming who is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry”? Jesus was not acting too much like a Messiah.  Something was wrong.  And yet—and yet. “Go and tell John what you hear and see.  The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them.”  This was the Messianic Age outside the preconceived contours.  This was something more powerful, much larger, more magnificent than anything that had been dreamed by Israel’s most audacious prophets. 

            I doubt that many of us are terribly interested in the narrative about John the Baptist and Jesus.  But we are interested in the way that our expectations do or don’t get met.  And it just might be that we can be interested in the way that God continually surprises us with startling disconnects between what we think we know or want or believe and what God turns out to be. 

            Some years ago I learned a song that Harry Pritchett, an Episcopal priest, wrote, that goes like this:

Well, surprise, surprise,
God is a surprise, right before your eyes. 
It’s baffling to the wise.
Surprise, surprise, God is a surprise.
Open up your eyes and see.

Moses tended sheep upon a mountaintop.
He hardly noticed when a burning bush said: “Stop! 
Set my people free and take them to my land.
“That couldn’t be my God,” he said, “He’d have a better plan.”

Well, surprise, surprise,
God is a surprise, right before your eyes. 
It’s baffling to the wise.
Surprise, surprise, God is a surprise.
Open up your eyes and see.

People of Israel were looking for a king.
If God could save that way, then freedom bells would ring. 
Along came Jesus, a man who’s poor and weak.
“He couldn’t be our God,” they said. “He’s nothing but a fake.”

Well, surprise, surprise,
God is a surprise, right before your eyes. 
It’s baffling to the wise.
Surprise, surprise, God is a surprise.
Open up your eyes and see.

Peter and the rest of that straggly little band,
they all ran away when darkness hit the land.
Whoever heard of a humble, fumbling boss? 
“He couldn’t be our God,” they said. “He’s hanging on a cross.”

Well, surprise, surprise,
God is a surprise, right before your eyes. 
It’s baffling to the wise.
Surprise, surprise, God is a surprise.
Open up your eyes and see.

Seek our God in hope, moving as he goes
with justice, grace and love in anything that grows,
In anything at all he suddenly may be,
‘cause everything is his, you know, especially you and me. 

Well, surprise, surprise,
God is a surprise, right before your eyes. 
It’s baffling to the wise.
Surprise, surprise, God is a surprise.
Open up your eyes and see.[1]

            Jesus does not upbraid John or shoot John’s messengers.  Instead he has some complimentary things to say of John.  “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at,” he asked, “when you went to see John the Baptist?”  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way before you.”  That is a kind of surprise, too.  It had become commonplace to think that Elijah the Prophet would return to usher in the Messianic Age.  People were reluctant to identify John the Baptist as Elijah.  People always have a hard time loosening their grip on whatever they have come to believe.  But, surprise, surprise.  “Elijah” was the prototype, John the real forerunner. 

            But surprises don’t end there.  Jesus goes on to say, after praising John, that no one born of woman had arisen to be greater than John, but that “the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” is greater than he.  What on earth does he mean by that?  The Kingdom of Heaven is the gospel writer Matthew’s term for the new age inaugurated by Jesus, an age characterized by a radically new ethic, a redefined relationship of people with God and each other, and most of all by the kingship of Jesus who defines kingship anew.  Matthew is an interpreter of Jesus’ ministry.  As such, he sees that John the Baptist is the last and greatest figure of what we might call the “old age.”  Everyone who follows Jesus, who becomes a disciple, and who lives a life empowered by the Resurrection is living in this Kingdom of Heaven.  And to do so is infinitely better than being the best of the best of the old age. 

            In our own time, the question is not so much “old age” versus “new age,” but one of simply whether we follow Jesus or not.  And here is the trick.  Following Jesus is not, in fact, to have every question answered, one’s vocation all neatly laid out, the GPS running smoothly to take you to where God has already ordained that you go. Following Jesus is not to live in a predictable, ordered, way any more than it is to live uncentered, undisciplined, and untethered to the Wisdom of the past.  Following Jesus is to be on the path where only a few things are certain, where faithfulness demands great flexibility and openness, and where God is constantly a surprise.  The advent of Jesus is not a discrete event that happened once upon a time long ago, but one that continually occurs every hour of every day.  And that advent happens in all sorts of places and under all sorts of conditions: in mangers, in tax season, in arguments and fights, in wars and at peace tables, in vestry meetings and at choir practice, in supermarkets and bars, in traffic and in hospitals, and on crosses.  Christ shows up in unlikely places, and even sometimes pops up in church. 

            Some of you know that for the last several years I have picked a theme to serve all year long as the interpretative lens through which I view scripture, inviting you do the same.  This year’s lens is—surprise!—Surprise.  Life among even the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is surprisingly challenging, surprisingly joyful, surprisingly painful, surprisingly wonderful.  It leaves us not infrequently asking ourselves, if not Jesus himself, “Are you the one?  Or shall I look for another?”  Don’t be afraid to ask that question.  Just be aware that as long as you follow Jesus you are on the road to the land of rare beasts and unique adventures, as W. H. Auden put it.[2]  You’ll see and hear about the lame walking, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the incurable being cured, the dead being raised, and the poor jumping for joy over the good news preached to them.  And blessed are you if, instead of taking offense, you simply hum to yourself, “Surprise, surprise, God is a surprise...”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013

[1] Harry Pritchett, “Surprise, surprise, God is a Surprise,” online at, accessed December 13, 2013.
[2] “For the Time Being:  A Christmas Oratorio,” in W. H. Auden: Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York:  Vintage Books, 1991), 400.