Saturday, November 18, 2017

Is It All About Money?

Capitalism doesn’t come off very well in the Bible. Some Americans would be not only surprised but insulted by that statement, believing as they do that capitalism is a system that God particularly favors. Capitalism is not the same as wealth, of course. There are many wealthy people in the Bible—Abraham quickly comes to mind. But they are sometimes a part of agrarian economies, sometimes what we might call feudal systems, and sometimes wealthy by virtue of their status as, for example, royalty. This must be greatly disappointing to modern politicians who clearly believe that the fortunes of the whole human race are dependent upon increasing the assets of the wealthy so that they get to be to get more and more wealthy.

No, the Bible, including Jesus, takes a generally skeptical view of money and the accumulation of wealth. The Early Church, as pictured in the Book of Acts, practiced a kind of communism—or, if you don’t like the sound of that word, a kind of communal or shared ownership of goods and resources.[1]

So it is little wonder that people who are generally enchanted by capitalistic impulses would adore the parable that lands on our bulletins today, the parable of the talents. This is a story of investment, of earning, and it seems to sanctify the accumulation of money. It apparently praises shrewdness. And what is more it seems on the surface to validate taking away what little the relatively poor have and giving it instead to those who already have abundance.

And if we aren’t pleased enough by the implicit praise of capitalism in this piece of gospel, we have the notion of “talent” to cheer us. “Why,” some say, “this isn’t really about money at all, is it? It’s about talent. Everyone should use his or her talent for the glory and benefit of the Master,” who of course is God.

Meanwhile, those among the have-nots of the world must hear this story and wonder where the Good News is in it. At the end all they get is weeping, wailing, and the gnashing of teeth. Not a very promising scenario to say the least.

In point of fact the story is not in praise of capitalism at all, nor for that matter any economic system. First, remember that “the kingdom of heaven” is not an otherworldly place in some other life but rather the condition of living in what we might call the “kingdom of right relationships.” That is the main thing to pay attention to. And what happens in this kingdom or territory? Someone is taking a trip. He leaves entrusting his property to his slaves. Matthew has taken a story that other New Testament writers, notably Luke, also tell, and he uses it to shed light on what the Church ought to be doing as it awaits the fullness of Messiah’s reign, or the return of Jesus at the end of time.

"I was afraid, and I hid..."
Now, the spotlight falls inevitably on the man who had the one talent. And what was the matter with him? He was afraid. And there you have the point of the parable. Or rather you have the diagnosis that serves the point. Because if the issue is what to do until the Messiah comes, the obverse of whatever that is is to be paralyzed with fear. One can make a lot of connections and come to a bunch of conclusions about the talents, these huge sums of money that represent something like 15 years worth of wages. Get creative. Run some risks. Get cracking on some projects. Take your own assets, which are gifts to begin with, and use them wisely. Look for possibilities. But whatever you do, don’t just sit around and worry, fret, or fear—because that will most assuredly be the very thing that will come between you and the potential joy that the kingdom of right relationships promises—call it “the joy of your master.”

When we put the issue in those terms, it readily becomes apparent that money is incidental to the point. Whether you are a one-talent woman or a multi-talented rock star, the challenge is the same. Take what you have and use it creatively and aggressively.

I am not a worrier. Many people are. And if you are one who is a worrier, especially if you are looking for a way to justify the fact that you are, I’ll tell you right now that what I am about to say will quite likely make no sense to you at all and at worse will make you downright mad. But let’s try to see what it is about the realm of God—the life of the eternal NOW—the reign of Christ—that puts it squarely opposite a life of timidity and fear, not to mention worry. It comes down to one little five-letter word: trust Trust is the heart of faith. Faith has far less to do with what you believe than whom you build your life around. It has far less to do with what you give intellectual assent to than whom you give your heart to. And it has far less to do with what you accomplish than the love with which you do whatever you do. It is interesting that the one-talent guy has the master all figured out. He thinks of the master as always driving a very hard bargain—reaping where he didn’t sow and gathering where he didn’t scatter, and so on. In short, he lives in fear—fear of what might happen if he lets go and begins to live life trusting that all will be well in the end. He is scared that when the day arrives and he will be called to account that he won’t have what he should, so he hides his talent. And he probably hides it in the same place he hides everything else: his desires, his body, his deep sense of shame, his guilt, his thoughts and dreams and feelings. He feels none are good enough, not important enough to claim. And what would happen if he let go? People might laugh at him. He might get fired. His parents or his children or his few friends might disown him and desert him. The one-talent woman who lives in terror of what would happen if she let her guard down can’t bear the thought of sharing her fondest dreams for fear of looking stupid or feeling foolish. Every once in awhile when she is alone, she tries on some silly outfit that she keeps hidden away in a closet, and even dances a bit before a mirror, feeling a little girlish and snickering at herself. But the prospect of him showing up unannounced, the thought that her mother might walk in on her little scene: it is too much—or at least enough to shut down her fantasies. And so it goes for the man who is afraid to fail, for the academic who is afraid of what the critics might say, for the boy who can’t imagine telling even his best friend what he really loves.

Parable of the Talents 

None of that leads to the joy of either you or your master. None of it is life-giving. And the saddest thing of all is that a whole lot of religion has fine-tuned the art of repression to the point that instead of freeing us up to enter the joy—the joy!—of the Lord it keeps us fearful of his own very talent, his life, that we hold in trust.

So this business about weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in outer darkness is not so far-fetched at all. These are not descriptions of life after death. They are descriptions of the decrepit spirit that is weighed down right now from being scared to death of being oneself.

What to do? That is the question. Especially if you find it difficult to be your real self, or if in fact you don’t even know who your real Self is, or if you have no clue as to how you might even begin to learn to imagine trust. Well, the irony is not to hop up and go out and invest a bunch of money—necessarily. It is in fact not to do anything. The kingdom comes not with swords loud clashing nor roll of stirring drums, but at the still-point of acceptance. And if you are looking for something to accept it is right there too close even to be in front of you. It is in fact you yourself. Begin with a daily practice of loving yourself, because to do so is to exercise the very thing that God lavishly gives you—a huge talent, you might say. Love yourself as God loves you. And when you begin, or begin again, to do that, you will find yourself doing deeds of love and mercy and kindness and forgiveness to others as well.

And one day, I promise you, you’ll look up to notice that there is a Presence that’s shown up in your life, one that has been absent for awhile. And you’ll be able to say, “Here, my Lord, here am I. I took your permission and your freedom to be wholly me. And look what I’ve made of it!” And despite all your old misgivings there’ll be an answer: “Good job. Well done. Enter into the joy of your Master.”

A sermon based on Matthew 25:14-30.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017

[1] Acts 2:43-47.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

What To Do Till the Messiah Comes

Once upon a time a woman came into my office bringing with her a very interesting book with an even more interesting title. It was called What To Do Till the Messiah Comes. Now what would you think the book was about? Prayer? Stewardship? Creative waiting? Not bad guesses and perhaps not entirely wrong. But it was in fact a book about massage. It was a pictorial manual on how to give and receive massage, replete with rich colorful photographs of various massage techniques. Frankly I was more interested in the pictures than the text. So I kept the book on the coffee table in my office for a good while until she reclaimed it.

I am at a very different place in my life and thought from where I was forty years ago when I saw that book. Today I am very much interested in massage not as a hobby or only as a remedy to muscular aches and pains, but as a potentially powerful experience of one’s own body.

That is not exactly where the gospel for today takes us, not for that matter the other scriptures. I don’t know that there is anything in the Bible at all about massage, and certainly there is nothing to suggest that any such activity might be an appropriate way to invest time as the church waits for her bridegroom to appear. Instead we have a story about ten bridesmaids. The point of the parable, whether it actually comes from Jesus or is an allegory of Matthew’s invention, is that readiness, preparedness, is what distinguishes wisdom from folly. The wise are ready for the bridegroom to come. The foolish are only prepared for the bridegroom to arrive on their own timetable. And the point of any parable is not to miss the point.
William Blake, "Wise and Foolish Virgins," 1826

It is difficult, however, in an age and place where the end-time appearance of Jesus is hardly on anyone’s radar screen, to assume that everyone will know automatically what it actually means to be prepared for his arrival at whatever hour that might take place. So we have some unpacking to do. Let’s get on with it.

It’s hard to tell what Jesus actually thought about the end of history and his role in it. Most of the evidence it seems to me points to the likelihood that he understood, as did many of his contemporaries in Judaism, that the days of this world, it inhabitants, and their history, were short. There was nothing new about this. For generations a “Coming Day of Yahweh” had been anticipated and indeed predicted. It was closely associated with the redress of wrongs and a righting of the imbalance of power and justice that had for too long characterized human relationships. The prophets and the psalms are full of the notion that humanity’s inhumanity can’t and won’t go on forever. For Yahweh God comes to judge the earth and with righteousness to judge the world and the peoples with truth [Ps. 96:13]. Generally speaking, the worse things get for people in the world, the more they begin to long for some event, especially an event initiated by God, that will bring relief. And in first century Palestine, things had gotten pretty rotten for huge numbers of people. What oppression the Roman Empire’s power did not impose, religious authorities and local potentates made up for. It is almost more difficult to imagine Jesus not being a part of these hopes than to imagine him sharing them.

It is even more certain that Jesus saw his own life and ministry as authentically representing and embodying what God’s reign is all about. Indeed this parable today is an example of the bulk of parables in the first three gospels about the Kingdom of God, or the reign of God if you will. Matthew chooses to call it the Kingdom of Heaven, which suggests to almost all modern ears that he is talking about something that falls squarely outside this life and in another world besides the present one. Jesus could hardly believe that God was going to intervene in human history in a major show-down event and his not being a part of that. Or so it seems to me.

But what Jesus most clearly got that many of his followers have unfortunately missed is that the reign of God is not temporal but rather eternal. And if eternal, not time and space bound. And if not time and space bound, then immediately present here and now. So there is both a future to God’s rule in the form of a Coming “Day of Yahweh,” and also what Paul Tillich called “The Eternal Now.”

What happens if we try both of those understandings of the Coming of the Bridegroom (that is, Jesus’ eschatological Advent—his coming at the end of history) and see how each understanding works in the parable of the ten bridesmaids?

If we look at the Arrival of the Bridegroom—Jesus—as being a future event, then the issue is to be ready and prepared. The symbol for that preparedness in the story is oil. And oil has a bundle of rich associations in Scripture. It is associated with mercy, with deeds of love and kindness, with compassion, and indeed with the Torah itself. One has only to recall the story from the time of the Maccabees that is commemorated as Channukah, when oil miraculously kept the holy light burning for eight days. As in the parable of the virgins, or bridesmaids, oil is a symbol of light because it is the means of light. All of that suggests that those who await the arrival of the Messiah should be well stocked with deeds of love, mercy, compassion, and that they should not think the hour of Messiah’s arrival to be a foregone conclusion, but rather wait in expectation for it, prepared for either an early or a late arrival. When paired with the lesson from the prophet Amos today it is clear that those who wait for the Messiah should focus on Messiah’s values, namely justice and equity.

Holy Wisdom Blesses the Marriage of Christ and the Human Soul
Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Episcopal, San Francisco
If we look at the coming of the Bridegroom to be an event that is outside history, that is eternal, and that is what we might say is the territory of the human soul, how does that work with the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids? The emphasis then might fall on the waking/sleeping of the ten. All fall asleep—and that is to say that none of us, however wise or foolish we might be, can escape falling into unconsciousness from time to time. But something—a call, an announcement, a voice from somewhere beyond—splits the night air and startles us into consciousness. Suddenly we are faced with a momentous occasion—the coming of the Bridegroom—and the question is will we go out to meet him or will we instead be fiddling around at midnight trying to do what we’ve long put off but now decide must be done? Interestingly, no bride is mentioned in the parable. Where is she? Who is she? In the lore, the Bride of Christ is both the company of believers and the Christian soul. In the Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Episcopal, in San Francisco, the dominant icon over the Holy Table is that of Dame Wisdom countenancing the wedding feast of Christ the Bridegroom and his bride, who is the Christian soul. The two are dancing together, for all is now made whole. Divinity and humanity, the Sacred Masculine and the Sacred Feminine, the physical and the spiritual, heaven and earth: all are united. The coming of the Bridegroom is not the dreadful day of wrath and mourning peddled along with myriad other fears by thunderous preachers threatening their people. The coming of the Bridegroom is an earth-shaking event that would bother only those who for whatever reason—foolishness perhaps—simply didn’t show up to meet the Bridegroom.

The book lodging on my coffee table with its curious title turns out to be prophetic in its own way. What might we do till the Messiah Comes? Jimmy Carter once said that we should live as if Jesus were coming this very afternoon. So I have come to believe that the question is not so much what to do but how to live till the Messiah comes—mostly because the Messiah is already here. The hippie book my friend loaned me long ago had a point. Get a massage. Give a massage. Have a dinner party. Read a book. Spend time with a child. Feed the hungry. Visit a museum. Demonstrate for justice. Organize your neighbors to fight for their rights. Spend time admiring, not criticizing, your own body. Hold a dog’s face close to you and look deeply into the dog’s eyes. Write a poem. Put on some music and dance. But whatever you do, do it with those things that Messiah taught us. Do it with gratitude. Do it with grace. Share it. Don’t fake it unless you need to fake it till you make it your own.

Live with the Messiah that you already have until—well, until you are gone. And the one thing you never have to worry about is whether Messiah will be pleased that you did. You’d be surprised at how much Messiah will recognize himself in you. When the door is shut you won’t be on the outside banging desperately to get in. You’ll realize that by simply being yourself as best you could you were already in and never had a thing in the world to fear.

A sermon based on Matthew 25:1-13.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017


Saturday, November 04, 2017

Surprising Vision


That sharp-tongued genius G. K. Chesterton once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”[1]

Well, not quite. There are a few who have actually tried it, but such a few it should make us blush to celebrate the feast of All Saints. So what is a saint and what manner of people are those we call saints?

First is the way that we speak of exemplary people of faith. In the strict sense, “saints” as the Christian Church uses the term, are those people who have been exemplary in the way they have lived the Christian life. They are the people that have believed when it would have been easier to lose faith, those who have persevered when it would have been easier to give up, who have loved when it would have been more natural to hate, who have given generously when everyone said it was foolish, who have risked life and limb when it would have been easier to run for safety, who have stood for justice when the mass of people cried out for vengeance, who have been cheerful when everything in them knew that their situation was desperate, and who have never asked for credit, who have seldom been recognized as particularly good until they were dead, and who have honestly thought of themselves as quite ordinary people following a quite extraordinary God. It has never been easy and it still is not.
Dancing Saints
Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Episcopal
San Francisco

A second use of the word saint is associated with persons who have endured great suffering. The Book of Revelation, reflecting an age of persecution in which it was composed, speaks of “those who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” In that sense, saints are martyrs, and martyr means “witness.” They have borne witness to the Power of the Crucified Lamb of God, and they have paid for their witness with their lives. So they are before the throne of God and worship God day and night with palm branches of victory in their hands. Indeed they are a polyglot bunch, from every family, language, people and nation.

And a third use of the word “saints” or “holy ones,” the ‘αγιοι of the New Testament, is to denote the entire people of God. You see this usage when St. Paul, for example, begins an epistle by saying, “Paul…to all the saints who are
Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa
at Ephesus,” or some such place. He means the entire assembly of Christians there.

It is pretty clear that All Saints celebrates all three categories of persons. But precisely because saints are seen to be moral and religious exemplars, most of us are generally uncomfortable with the idea that we could seriously think of ourselves as saints. And perhaps that is not altogether bad. Because if we walked around thinking of ourselves as any more exemplary than we already do (in some cases, not in all), we would have one huge problem of a world even fuller of inflated egos.

Yet there is a great big fly in the ointment. The irony is that the more reticent we are to see ourselves as holy, the more likely we are to give ourselves permission to oppose not just holiness but goodness as well. Drink that in for a moment. The more reticent we are to see ourselves as saints, as holy people, the more likely we are to give ourselves permission to oppose not just holiness but goodness as well.

How so? You and I both know that we have seen individuals, including our very own selves, who can be shockingly insensitive, downright mean and nasty, perfectly hateful one minute, and turn around the next and do something generous or nice or helpful. One of the mysterious qualities of many of us is that we can be as sweet as pie on an individual level—never coming close to doing something cruel or unkind to a person we can actually see—but then turn out to be virulent haters of people who are different from us that we deem unworthy of ordinary human decency, let alone mercy. We continue to imagine that people who are personally congenial and polite to friends and close associates wouldn’t think of lying or cheating or stealing or taking advantage of the vulnerable or powerless. The truth of the matter is that much of the time good behavior is popular because it is socially approved, not because of some notion that it is connected with holiness or sanctity. We are good generally because it pays to be good, and we get complimented when we are. We are trained to be good and most of us are—to a point. More bluntly, we are ready to be good when it suits us to be, but ready to excuse ourselves from goodness when we find it inconvenient or taxing.

But are we saintly? Holy? Not only are we reluctant to see ourselves as either of those things, but few of us aspire to be much different from what we already are. Unless, of course, what we are is so uncomfortable for us that improvement seems to be the better course. What would it mean to be saintly? To be holy? To take seriously our vocation to live—dare we say it?—as the baptized persons we actually are?

Christ dancing, Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa
That is actually how saints are made: by baptism. But not because baptism is something magical that transmutes common people immediately into examples of holiness. It is because to be a baptized person is to be on a lifelong pilgrimage to explore what the Life of God is all about and how we can embody that life as Jesus did. You see, Jesus was not about pointing to himself as an object of worship, but rather modeling for humanity what a life lived in union with God is truly like. That is what holiness or sanctity really is: taking on the characteristics of the heavenly One, and living as nearly as possible as God is. That is why, by the way, that Jesus is so indispensable to the would-be lover of God sharing God’s life: he demonstrates in his words, life, and death just what it is for a human being to embody God. Impossible? Of course. But in and with God, all things are possible, even the transformation of quite ordinary people into very extraordinary human beings.

In the Baptismal Covenant we answer five questions after we have confessed our faith.

·      Will we continue in that faith, the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers of the Church?
·      Will we, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
·      Will we proclaim not only by word but also by example the Good News of God in Christ?
·      Will we seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbors as ourselves?  
·      Will we strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?[2]

Baptized in the River Jordan
If you want to know what being a Christian is, there is your answer. Do those things and you will be following Christ. Do those things and you cannot help but move in the direction of becoming more and more like the God who created you. Do those things and you will find that your false self, the ‘you’ that fears letting go of control, the ‘you’ that worries about whether you are enough and whether you have enough, the ‘you’ that is never really sure that you are worthy of love will slip further and further away. Instead there will be born in your body a new person who trusts more easily, frets less, quarrels less viciously, speaks the truth, and takes up causes like justice for the powerless that once frightened the starch out of you. Do those things and you cannot avoid becoming more and more holy. Indeed you will be on the road to sainthood though you may know nothing about it and in fact never have believed it possible. Faith is not about believing the possible. It is about trusting that the glorious impossible is worth giving one’s life to.

St. Dallán Forgaill
One way to put it is to let the vision of God be your vision for yourself. That is far from having an ego two sizes or more too large. It is indeed a way of losing your life—that is your cramped, false self—in exchange for the true Self that amounts to becoming the Christ who already lives within you. There once was a man known as a saint who left the world some words that have inspired thousands since they first were spoken and written in the 8th century, or maybe as early as the 6th, and translated into English and other languages in the early 20th century. Their supposed author is Saint Dallán Forgaill, who was said to be have been blind, which would make them even a more powerful prayer, since they are about true vision.

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
Naught be all else to me, save that thou art,
Thou my best thought by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping they presence my light.

Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true Word,
Thou ever with me and I with thee, Lord,
Thou my great Father, thine own may I be,
Thou in me dwelling and I one with thee.

Be thou my breastplate, my sword for the fight,
Be thou my whole armor, be thou my true might,
Be thou my soul’s shelter, be thou my strong tower,
O raise thou me heavenward, great Power of my power.

Riches I heed not, nor the world’s empty praise,
Be thou mine inheritance now and always,
Be thou and thou only the first in my heart,
O Sovereign of heaven, my treasure thou art.

High King of Heaven, when victory is won,
May I reach heaven’s joy, bright heaven’s Sun.
Great heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be thou my vision, O ruler of all.[3]

Eastern Orthodox Baptism: candidates are naked and fully immersed
symbolizing union with Christ's death, burial, and resurrection 

[2] The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing Company, 1979), 305-306.

[3] “Be thou my vision,” Irish ca. 8th century, translated by Mary Byrne (1880-1931), versified by Eleanor Hull (1860-1935), as found in The New English Hymnal (Norwich: The Canterbury Press, 1986, 1997), 339, and adapted by comparison with the text in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1982), 488, and other translations. A history of the text may be found on the internet at, accessed November 4, 2017.