Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Biggest Challenge

 At a parish church where I was celebrating the Holy Eucharist and preaching this week I had a conversation between liturgies with a church member in a position of leadership.  The conversation was kicked up by his response to my sermon.  I had entitled it “Lifesaving Skills,” and had based it upon a passage from the Letter to the Ephesians in which the writer asserts that Jesus broke down the “dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile by reconciling both in his body through the cross.  The part of it that seemed to hook my interlocutor was an old metaphor that I used that not so subtly describes the church as a lifesaving station that devolved into a series of exclusive clubs along a perilous seashore.  Theodore O. Wedel wrote a piece in 1953 in which he developed that rather elaborate metaphor.  Howard Clinebell used it in his first chapter in a book read by generations of seminarians, Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counseling.  In describing a lifesaving station that metamorphoses from a crude but effective response organism into a club that ultimately disavows the purpose of its existence—saving lives—Wedel’s metaphor stings anyone who is the least bit aware of the Church’s perennial tendency to forsake its mission in favor of turning itself into a cozy but largely irrelevant in-group unconcerned with others besides itself. 

The point of my sermon was to awaken (perhaps, I hoped) my hearers to a fresh awareness that the purpose of the Church is actually to create a humanity modeled on who Jesus was (or is, if you believe he lives) and what Jesus did, namely obliterate the divisions of all sorts with which human beings seem enchanted.  Now that I find myself not in the same congregation week after week but rather in a series of different places—maybe a dozen or more different congregations in a year’s time—I notice a recurrent theme in my thought and preaching. It is the incarnational notion that God actually makes a dwelling in human beings.  In a very real sense, human beings are just one of the myriad phenomena on earth or indeed in the universe, each and all of which are manifestations of that great creative force that brings all things into being and makes itself known in every atom and molecule, string and quark that inhabits space.  The thing about us humans that makes us special, if anything does, is that our peculiar brand of consciousness (if we can call ourselves a conscious species) is the universe reflecting on itself.  I don’t know, of course, whether we are the only instance of such reflection in all the galaxies.  I suspect not: we might in fact not be special at all.  But in our limited earthly experience it appears that we alone among creatures have evolved to reflect. Hence the quintessential thing that humans have developed is the art of storytelling in its multifarious forms as a means of transmitting survival information.  We humans tell and share stories in word, art, music, games, play, and so on, as our way of reflecting on the reality—ourselves and our context—that we are constantly perceiving. 

The conversation got me thinking more about the gap between my vision and the reality of the church I see.  In the first place, I don’t see the church as having an answer or an approach or a template for living in the world that is superior to anybody else’s.  The question for me is not whether it is superior or whether it is unique, but whether the fundamental core of the Christian reality works at all.  If Chesterton was right in his quip that the Christian vision has not been tried and found wanting but rather has been found difficult and never tried, then it follows that we don’t actually know whether it works or not. I’m not talking about whether some things that Christians believe and practice work for them.  I’m talking about whether this notion of being a new humanity embodying a reconciling love is something that can really be done, and, if done, effective in making this a better world at the very least—possibly even transforming it radically. 

St. Francis of Assisi: 
the most admired and least emulated
of them all
On my more hopeful days I ponder the story of great examples of Christian faith, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Columba, St. Cuthbert, Mother Teresa, the Little Sisters of the Poor, Desmond Tutu, Oscar Romero, St. Xenia of Petersburg, and I see a cloud of witnesses that together say, “Yes!  It can be done.  It works.” On other days I wonder why I can come up with relatively few people who seem actually to have followed Jesus in his radical renunciation of tribalism, in criticizing his own tradition, in growing personally to the point of seeing that there need be no barrier between Jew and Gentile, male and female, barbarian or Greek, but that all are children of the Parent of the Universe. 

Frankly, what I find thoroughly disturbing is that, for the most part, the Church in America, while certainly praiseworthy for a number of things, seems so timid and tepid when it comes to confronting issues that really matter.  Most of the time when somebody makes an assertion like that it seems to me that they think there is a serious shortage in works of justice.  I would agree.  But I think that there are other equally serious ways in which the churches constantly back away from addressing the real stuff of people’s lives. Whether we do what we can or not about it, we’ll talk forever about economic justice, racial justice, doing away with gender discrimination and homophobia.  But when it comes to talking about our bodies, especially our sexual lives, the Church blushes, stammers, and runs the other way.  We stick a naked man on a cross in front of congregations implicitly suggesting that he in that state is the central image of humanity in its most godly form, and yet we get hysterical if somebody is sunbathing at a nude beach a few miles away.  And now we have an even less tenable situation with a host of “Christian” people supporting policies that are rife with corruption, packaged in lies, and unabashedly designed to oppress the most vulnerable among us.  White evangelicals are at latest count in support of Trump administration policies to the tune of 80% in some cases.  And the narrative that people are using to justify themselves is that Trump is delivering on appointing anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court.  For the record, I find abortion as a form of birth control a horrendous choice, but that is not the point. When did we ever move so far into moral idolatry that a position against aborting fetuses overrides common human decency to  children who happen through no fault of their own to show up in America with their parents in many cases fleeing the economic oppression that US companies have been instrumental in creating and perpetuating?Apparently no amount of raising that issue is sufficient to dislodge white evangelicals from their support of a President who professedly and openly spurns the very core tenets of personal morality that they themselves espouse and teach. 

I could go on, working myself into yet another round of head-scratching impatience and depressive exasperation.  But to come back to the central point, there is nothing about Jesus that suggests support for hostility towards the poor, the wretched, the vulnerable. Nor is there a whit of evidence that he himself bedded down with political regimes of any sort. 

On a purely personal level, I continue to believe, or maybe it’s more that I continue to hope, that the Christian vision of a new humanity might actually catch on.  Surely there are people who are in perhaps increasing numbers signing on to that hope, sharing that dream.  At the end of the day I’m left with just myself.  I don’t know that I can give any account of myself at all, or whether I could pass even my low-bar test of Christian authenticity.  I surely don’t see myself as a model, an exemplar of the very thing I believe.  I share St. Francis’s name, but there the similarity ends, I fear. The small piece of transformation that I’ve claimed as mine to hold on to is a re-visioning of the place of the body in the scheme of redemption.  I think there is no place at all where God is not, and that includes everything on, in, or pertaining to the human body.  And as for being alone at the end of the day, that is only true in one sense.  I know that I am a part of all I have met and that all and sundry in the universe is a part of me. 
Reconciling enemies, creating a new humanity

Maybe the thing that really hooks me into the vision of a new humanity is that the Love of God, the love of neighbor, and the love of self are all part and parcel of the one love that sustains everything.  Thus, connected, I can enter into solitude knowing that solitude is only a different mode, a less obvious mode, of community.  Everything is connected.  And so everything is to be loved and accepted, even the people and the things that we find most repellent.

Even Trump and his followers.

Even Putin and his country’s efforts to sabatoge American democracy.

This thing of being a new humanity is more challenging than I’d bargained for.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Lifesaving Skills

“Come, let me show you my parish church.” My friend with whom we were spending several days is a devout Roman Catholic and I knew how important it was for him to show me his spiritual home. “I’ll show you the Episcopal church as well. It’s lovely. Really beautiful.” He went on to tell me that his church building had been dedicated on the day of his birth fifty some years ago. I was eager to see this place that functions so prominently in his life.

We pulled up in the parking lot of Sacred Heart Church at dusk. He mentioned that it used to be open all the time but he thought it was probably closed now. He spun around and headed down the street a block or two. There it was. A typical stone Gothic revival structure, a touch of an English village in this New Jersey town on the banks of the Delaware River: Christ Episcopal Church. I appreciated his gesture of taking me to see “my” church’s presence in the town. And frankly I was pleased that he thought it beautiful.
Christ Episcopal Church, Riverton, NJ

And that is what church is to many of us. A building. A symbol. A place. An anchor. Where life is knit together, its multifarious threads washed in a font, woven into coherence around an altar, their meaning articulated from a pulpit. I learned as a little boy in Sunday school that the church was not a building but a people. Then I learned as a priest that people can’t do without a building, say what you will. Not only must there be a building, but at least in the United States it must have pews, or at least chairs arranged in rows. If you ask them why, they’ll say something about how it’s necessary to seat people in a fashion that will highlight the entrance of the bride at a wedding. Even when people get outside a building called a church to have a funeral or a wedding or even an ordinary service of worship, they will arrange chairs in rows. It might be the natural thing to do, but it is contrary to what builds community, which is not the experience of looking at the backs of people’s heads but at their faces, generally speaking.

King David’s desire to build a temple and the Prophet Nathan’s intervention to dissuade him from doing so is a very interesting story because it captures the tension between institution and spirit.[1] It is not my bias that institutions are all bad or inferior to some other arrangement of human beings. It is my experience that institutions settle on an agenda for survival and thus frequently lose sight of any purpose beyond survival itself. It is as if simply existing and doing what they habitually do is the point of it all.

There is an old but telling metaphor that describes what I’m talking about.

On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for those who were lost. Some of those who were saved and various others in the surrounding area wanted to become associated with the station and gave of their time, money, and eort to support its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.

Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building.

Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on life-saving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in the club’s decorations, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club’s initiations were held. About this time a large ship wrecked o the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwrecks could be cleaned up before coming inside.

At the next meeting, there was a split among the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station. So they did.

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.[2]

The parable needs no explaining for anyone familiar with the contemporary church, either inside or outside it. What is not so plain, however, is what might be done about it short of cutting loose from whatever establishment you’re a part of and starting once more something that purports to be in line with the authentic and original purpose of the church.

That is where we might find Ephesians a useful resource.[3] At first glance, it is only about the relationship of Jewish and Gentile Christians in Paul’s time. But it is more than that. It is about the creation of a new humanity, a humanity that obliterates the dividing walls and hostilities that separate us into camps of “rescuers” and “victims” for example. In plain terms, the church is not a place but a community, formed in Christ Jesus who has reconciled all the different factions among people in his one body through the cross. There is a sort of “building” that can be called “church.” But it is not built of bricks and mortar, glass and wood.  It is indeed a
“house:” the
household of God, the dwelling place of the holy.  Its foundation is the  apostles and prophets.  Its  cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself.  There is a structure, one that is joined together and grows into a holy temple. The church is that temple. You are that temple.  We are that temple. And that temple is the dwelling place of God.

Think about that. We are the dwelling place of God. Bishop Tutu once said that we should be genuflecting to one another because each of us is a tabernacle in which the Body of Christ lives. C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity memorably said that it was the vocation of each Christian to be a “little Christ.”[4] An old hymn that I knew as a Methodist teen ended with the words, “Fill with thy spirit till all shall see Christ only, always, living in me.” Sometimes I can hardly get through the words of the old Prayer of Consecration in Rite One so moved am I by the words, “…made one body with him, that he may dwell is us, and we in him.”

We cannot be the Body of Christ and not act like Jesus. We cannot let ourselves off the hook by saying that he is an impossible model. He is not. Nor need we beat ourselves up because we aren’t perfect, or berate ourselves for being real, or feel like phonies because we have shadow sides that rise up to twice the size of our conscious will to be nice and good. No, to be like Jesus requires a daily practice of turning to him just as we are, owning every piece of ourselves, and setting an intention to be as accepting and loving of everything human as much as we possibly can, beginning with our very own selves. Someone once marveled to Mother Teresa how she loved the poor so lavishly and asked what she would recommend to someone who wanted to change the world. She is said to have replied, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” Anyone that has any experience living in a family realizes two things. One is that loving one’s family is about the hardest job there is in the world sometimes. The other is that that job can be done with plenty of grace and a good sense of humor.

That is what being the church is all about. It is not making a pretty building in which God can be trapped for our own purposes. Being the church is embodying in ourselves the new humanity. It is to do what Christ did by breaking down the dividing walls of hostility and manifesting a reconciling love in his body.

When we begin taking seriously our vocation to be the dwelling place of God, as was and is Jesus, we won’t even need a course in lifesaving skills. All we will need to do is simply to be present, responding to each situation that arises. Do that, and you will see before your very eyes the church change from obsessing about its own survival to bringing life and healing right and left, just as the Master himself did.

That’s a promise.

A sermon preached on July 22, 2018, on Proper 11, Year B: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018

[1] 2 Samuel 7:1-14a.

[2] Dr. Theodore O. Wedel wrote the original version of this parable in 1953. This slightly altered version is on the internet at, accessed July 21, 2018. Ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1930, Theodore Wedel was Canon Chancellor of the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC, and from 1943 until 1960 was Warden of The College of Preachers. He served in the 1950’s as president of the Episcopal Church's House of Deputies.

[3] Ephesians 2:11-22.
[4] The entire quotation from Mere Christianity, runs thus: “Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always existed and always will exist. Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life we also shall be sons of God. We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy Ghost will arise in us. He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has—by what I call "good infection." Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.”

Monday, July 09, 2018

You and Your Power

Power.  Nothing is more attractive to the average person than power.  People pay big bucks to go to empowerment seminars.  Most coaching that I know of is about how to convince people that they are engines of power for whatever purposes they choose.  The advertising industry is enchanted with images of power.  Apparently Americans are in love with firepower.  Witness all the bombast on a Fourth of July celebration.  Bombs bursting in air is a national icon. 

Power comes in many kinds and types. There is power over, power under, power to, and power for. Power is energy and as such it is neither good nor bad.  It is always the purposes for which power is used that determines its value or its danger.  Lord Acton famously remarked in a letter to an Anglican Bishop, “Power tends to corrupt.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  He was referring to political power, the kind of power that is “power over” others.  If he was right, then the signs of these times suggest that we are in for a rough ride over the next generation or two, for authoritarianism across the globe is on the rise.  The two and a half centuries dominated by the world’s great democracies are sliding into darkness, it would appear.  Many are in the fray as well as on the sidelines cheering the demise of democracy, whether they like to admit it or not.  You or your friends might be among them. But no one that I know is in any fight for or against democratic values that is uninterested in power flowing in his or her direction.  It takes someone quite extraordinary to be interested in divesting himself or herself of power and its perquisites. 
The scriptures we hear today[1] present an interesting interplay of power and weakness. Nowhere is the irony of power displayed more plainly than in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. In the middle of a long passage in which he takes on some false apostles masquerading as ministers of Christ, Paul exposes them as puffed up self-promoters and counters by saying that he too will boast—but of his weaknesses. It is then that he pulls out the intriguing tale of his powerful spiritual experience that he describes as being “caught up to the third heaven” where he heard things that he cannot even repeat. But the climax of the passage, which has us wondering what on earth he might be talking about, is nothing about the character of the revelations. Rather, it is the fact that to keep him from being elated he experienced what he calls a “thorn” or a “sharp stake” in the flesh. He does not say what that thorn is, and we might as well spare ourselves the trouble of wondering because what it was is not the point either. Paul says he appealed to the Lord three times about whatever the problem was, and he heard the reply, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

If there were one phrase that described the entirety of God’s revelation, including the whole story of Jesus Christ, nothing more apt could it be than this: “My grace is sufficient, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  And that is precisely why Christianity, as G. K. Chesterton said, “…has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult and never tried.”[2] Nowhere is this more sadly true than in America in the 21st century. Hosts of people who call themselves Christian apparently have no idea that the example of Jesus Christ, meant as a pattern of life and not as a ticket to an afterlife, is precisely the kind of emptying oneself of power that is made perfect in weakness. We simply don’t believe it could possibly work. It is far too threatening to imagine actually living that way. Everything in us recoils at the idea that weakness could ever be good, let alone the very place where true power is manifest. 

Look at it more closely.  We have just celebrated the Fourth of July.  Most of us know that this country is not perfect, but you have to look long and hard to find someone who would seriously argue that American power (or “exceptionalism” as some call it) would be made perfect in weakness. This, people say, is not the way “the real world” operates. Of course it isn’t! And that’s the point. It will never work that way.

I once stood in line to buy a train ticket in Grand Central Station, New York City. I could not understand what the woman behind the glass was telling me. She was trying to tell me to swipe my card, which I clumsily could not manage to turn so that the magnetic stripe could be read.  After trying repeatedly, I finally understood the woman to be saying, “Turn it around.  It will never work that way.”  That is the story of why it is that trying to play political and military power games and pretend that they are not in direct conflict with the gospel is doomed. “It will never work that way.” “‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways,’ says the Lord.”[3]  If you seriously want to be on, continue on, or embark upon a journey with God, be aware that you cannot have your cake and eat it too.  That journey will lead you to places of bliss that you cannot imagine, even to being caught up in the third heaven to hear things you couldn’t possibly put into words they so far surpass human language.  But that journey will also break your heart, dash your hopes, and land you in places that you’d never imagine yourself going.  There is only one thing strong enough to sustain you and it is this: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.”[4] And what does this mean?  Just what is the Spirit of God?  How do we know it, and how do we get with it? Well, it is written all over the Bible.  And even if you never read the Bible, it is written all over nature. Birds sing it.  Lions roar it.  Chipmunks scamper about manifesting it. Blooming flowers hail it. It is love, joy, peace.  It is patience, kindness, generosity.  It is faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  If you want to see a spirit-filled life, read the Gospel of St. Luke or any of the gospels, because that is what Jesus’ life was. He broke every barrier down that he could possibly break: the barrier between Gentile and Jew, male and female, rich and poor, hungry and well-fed, intelligent and ignorant, sex worker and religious authority. You can’t catch Jesus abusing children, cursing foreigners, siding with those who are powerful and moneyed against those who have no money and no power. What makes us think that when he asked us to follow him that we could ignore his example and align ourselves with the powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, even helpless children? 

Now lest you think that all of this is about somebody else out there and not relevant at all to you, let me say plainly that I say nothing to you that I don’t say to myself.  In my case it is not so much willfully participating in power games as sitting on the sidelines in horror, disgust, or moral paralysis without the nerve to do anything remotely resembling the intervention of God through Jesus Christ in the lives of a suffering and starving humanity. And then, every once in awhile, I have a revelation all my own, but it looks nothing like being caught up to the third heaven. 

Let me tell you about one such moment. When I moved to Washington 14 years ago I was living in a real urban environment for the first time in my life. Nothing challenged me more than the constant barrage of persons asking for help, for money, for something to eat. I learned a long time ago that I couldn’t be responsible for the whole world, but every time some beggar would thrust a plastic cup with a little change rattling in it in my way as I passed, I felt disturbed. So I shared my dilemma with a friend who had lived in the city for a very long time.  He said something quite helpful. “Ask yourself this question,” he suggested. “Do I want a relationship with this person?” So I began doing that. And within a short while I did have a relationship with a handful of people who lived near me. I cared about them. I responded to them.

She annoyed me.
One day a woman appeared in the neighborhood. She asked me for help. I stopped and told her where if she needed food she could go and almost immediately get a hot meal. She seemed to brush me off as not interested. Yet she stayed on the streets day after day asking passers-by for a little change. Frankly she stank with the odor of stale urine and sweat. Every time I would pass her I could feel my blood rising.  She annoyed me. 

I was on my way home from an early morning mass on some Holy Day in the spring. I had on my collar. There she was. Somewhat embarrassed to pass her by in a collar, and feeling exceptionally good having just come from ingesting the Body of Our Lord, I stopped.  Something told me that it was time I had a relationship with her. “I’m Frank,” I said.  “And you are…?”

“Dee,” she answered. 

We had a brief conversation. I gave her some money, no questions asked.  But one day soon after, I saw Dee and decided I’d go a step further. “I see you out here in all kinds of weather.  Can you tell me what you need?” And she told me. “I am trying to get enough money to buy my medicine,” she said. She was diabetic. I grew to respect Dee. In snow, 100° heat, pouring rain, and bone-rattling wind, she was out on the street. Fundraising. Had she been raising money for the Free Clinic or some other charity, I would have respected her. Why should I respect her any less because she was fundraising for the sick, namely herself? 

One day I noticed that it had been awhile since I had seen Dee. She never reappeared. Probably in the morgue; or, if there was someone to bury her, in a cemetery no doubt in an unmarked grave. 

You’d think that a story like this would be about me, that somehow I’d be the hero telling you about how I had come down off my high horse and met somebody in the name of Christ, a St. Francis embracing his leper, a St. Martin splitting his cloak to share half of it with a beggar. No such thing. Dee is the heroine of the gospel. It was she who manifested power made perfect in weakness. I have no idea whether she knew Jesus or not, but I know this:  grace and sheer grit got her out on the street trying to keep alive, and that grace was sufficient for her, though mine and others’ support fell far short of what she needed. And I would like to think that somehow somewhere she found before she left this earth that on some level she was an incredibly strong woman, weak as she was.

Dee is one of millions. They are the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the refuse and off-scouring of lands frequently despoiled by rich and powerful interests that speak perfect English but have not love. And whatever we do to one of the least of them, we do to Christ, because they are in fact the flesh in whom Christ appears, quite apart from any religion they might articulate.

My power is made perfect in weakness. Think about it. Let it sink in.

And see if it doesn’t offer you another vision of what in this world your life—your power—is really for.

A sermon preached on July 6, 2018, on the text of 2 Corinthians 12:2-10  (Proper 9B)

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018

[1] 2   Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13 [Proper 9B, in the Revised Common Lectionary].
[2] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World, found on the internet at, accessed July 67, 2018.
[3] Isaiah 55:8-9.
[4] Zechariah 4:6.