Monday, February 18, 2019

A Good Enough Life?

hen I was a boy of about 7, I discovered the Beatitudes. I didn’t know that the name meant “Blessed” but I knew I liked the name. They were, of course, the familiar eight sayings of Jesus from St. Matthew’s gospel with which in that gospel he is said to have launched his famous Sermon on the Mount. I associate the beatitudes with a little card I got from Sunday school. It had a little fuzzy red heart on it, on which was superimposed a plain light blue cross that glowed in the dark. I remember tacking it up on a wall opposite my bed where I could look up and see the cross glowing after the lights were off. For as long as I had the card—and I have no idea how long it lasted—it was a nightly ritual for me to look at the cross in the dark and to think about the Beatitudes, which along with The Lord’s Prayer were printed on the reverse side of the card.

Not quite the same as my card, but close.
There was a gap between my knowing about the Beatitudes according to St. Matthew and my finding out about a very different set of “beatitudes” from St. Luke. Luke’s are terser than Matthew’s. And for whatever reason, Luke’s sources told him that they were delivered not on a mountain but on a plain. These plain-spoken sayings are much harder to swallow than the better known ones from the other gospel. Matthew’s version mentions the Kingdom of Heaven a number of times. Luke’s mentions the Kingdom of God (same thing) only once. Matthew lists no woes to balance the beatitudes. Luke does. Matthew’s Jesus addresses the entire sermon to the multitudes. Luke’s Jesus addresses specifically his disciples. The question here is not which account is better or more accurate (we could never know). Much less it is a question of how to account for such differences by proposing two different sermons on two different occasions. To my knowledge I haven’t seen any little Sunday school cards bearing Luke’s version with or without a fuzzy heart and a glow-in-the-dark cross. They’re just not as sweet as the ones I first knew as a boy.

But let’s take Luke on his own terms. Rather than compare further his short Sermon on the Plain with Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, let’s hear what Jesus is telling his disciples in Luke’s story. They are the ones who are poor. They are the ones who mourn. They are the ones who are reviled and excluded. And why? Because they are associated with, even identified with the Son of Man, Jesus himself. They are called out from a great multitude of people who include Gentiles from Tyre and Sidon as well as Jews from rural Judea and Jerusalem. And it is they to whom the Kingdom of God has become a reality.

In my boyhood I learned to associate heaven with that place where I was going when I die. Only later did I learn that “heaven” was not a future reality that was going to start when I died and went there, but a present reality that was actually possible for me to live in and participate in. If you go further into this Sermon on the Plain, you will see that Jesus’ instructions to his disciples were eminently practical, if not easy. You’ll come across the apex of the entire thing:

Love your enemies; help people, and lend to them, looking for nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful even as your Father is merciful.

We hear “reward” and imagine that it is a prize that we’ll get when the game is over. What happens when we begin to see that the reward is immediate? Does it change anything? Well, yes. Beauty is its own excuse for being, and goodness is its own reward—a truth which you know from your own experience. Why? Because your soul cannot be fooled. It is your nature to be what you are created to be, and that is precisely what Jesus means when he says “children of the Most High.”

In fact it was about a year later when I was in third grade that my pastor taught me and other kids what turns out to be the most important theological lesson I’ve ever learned. The question in the catechism was, “Where is God?” and the answer was “God is everywhere.” And if God is in heaven, then where God is heaven is, and that is everywhere. But everywhere is different from ordinary life. It is like being in a room that you think is fully lit when someone comes in and switches on an entire bank of lights that you had no idea even existed, and it is as if the room had been black and white until suddenly all turned to vibrant colors. How did we miss it? We don’t know. We just did. It hardly matters. Now we see. And what a glorious thing it is really to see!

What shall we then say to the woes, if this is all what beatitude, or blessedness, is? That is a very difficult question for many contemporary Christians to deal with. We hear “woe” and we want to run the other way. Many of us are sick to death of religion that specializes in trying to frighten us into being good, shakes a finger at us if we fail to conform to socially approved norms, threatens with punishment or even annihilation if we don’t meet exacting standards of a God who is difficult to please. So we hear the warning “Woe to you…” as extraordinarily bad news, and imagine that no loving God could be involved in such a threat. Well, no. But the “woe” is not a threat but a statement that is a simple description of an inevitable situation. Look at them. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have your consolation already.” Is it not true? Give your life to money, gain whatever you can and justify it however you may, and it will give you exactly what you want. Except that what it gives and what you get is never going to last because money doesn’t last. Nor do possessions. Nor can they ever fill up the hole at the center of every living soul.

“Woe to those who are well fed now, for you shall go hungry.” That strikes even closer to home. I’m well fed. And I predict that I won’t ever go hungry. Well, maybe not for food. But there is a deeper hunger of the heart that food cannot satisfy. “Woe to you who laugh now.” I don’t much like that. I laugh a lot. I love it when people laugh and I especially love it when I say something or do something that makes them laugh. Is that so bad? Woe to those who laugh because they can’t get through life without facing pain or sadness or failure or decline or death. They will know loss, and that loss will be acute if they have a house built on sand with no foundation deeper than the pleasure of the moment. “Woe to the popular, woe to those of whom people are enamored and of whom they speak well.” There is no crowd more fickle than a flock of friends who like you as long as you speak words they agree with and do things they approve of and support their positions and prejudices and preferences. The minute you begin differentiating yourself from those in your closest circles whose expectations you cannot or will not meet, you will likely see how it was not you whom they loved but their ideas of you and their expectations that they could count on you to be in their court no matter what. Being true to your deepest self is being true to the God who lives within you, and Jesus is saying that you cannot do that without paying a steep price.

Exactly at this point we get really fidgety about the gospel, which is never about stasis but always about change and growth. It would be so easy if the gospel aligned neatly with society’s needs, desires, and customs. So we continue to try to make the two dovetail or match exactly. It is a project doomed to fail. The more we anesthetize ourselves from the dissonance between life in Christ and ordinary life driven by our deep need to survive and to succeed, the more likely we are to avoid the very pain of being born (or giving birth) to new possibilities.

We’d like, wouldn’t we, to get rid of the woes, the warnings and make life just a simple process of doing well and being happy. Well, guess what? We can do exactly that. Only we cannot do it by turning the gospel into a feel-good program that smoothly blesses what the advertising industry tells us that we want and need to make us happy, prosperous, secure. In this country churches by the hundreds and preachers by the dozens tell us we can do exactly that—and it isn’t just the case with Christians either, by the way. Everybody is looking for a painless and easy road to follow.,The surprise is right here in Jesus’ words. It is by identifying with the poor and the powerless that is the road to deep freedom. It is by letting go, not by acquiring, that brings true riches. Or, in a phrase that we are more familiar with, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Can you imagine?
Lest you think that this is a sour, dull, unpromising proposition, altogether at odds with anything you could recognize as a “good life,” take a look at Jesus in the gospels. He is not a life-denying, up-tight, all-work-and-no-play kind of person. In fact he’s always getting into trouble. Plucking grain on the Sabbath, inviting himself to dinner with outcast tax collectors, friend of prostitutes and riffraff, fishing, delivering free health care right and left, paying attention to little kids who he consistently said were modeling what the Reign of God is really like. This is not a man saturated with sorrow and woe, but one who is free and who invites us into that same freedom. And despite what hosts of people want to make him—namely the guardian of conventional morality and the high priest of prosperity—Jesus is thoroughly human, in truth a God-soaked man who is very down-to-earth.

The question for you and me is whether Jesus’ kind of life is good enough for us. Truth be told, it scares the powerful so badly, including many professional religious people, that like the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky’s novel, they tell Jesus to get out, to go back where he belongs, to stay out of the religion business altogether because he simply messes up the racket that is working well for them. Good enough? If what’s important to us is to be rich, entertained, and popular, well, maybe not. But if we’d like to be free—

If we’d like to be free—

A sermon preached on Luke 6:17-26, Epiphany 6 C, 2019.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019

Monday, February 11, 2019

Body Worship

he story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is a resurrection story, one of a handful in the gospels that purport to be records of encounters with the Risen Lord. But more is going on in this story than a report of a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. I believe it has something to do with worship and how we understand—or whether we understand—what worship is all about. And if we understand what worship is about, chances are we come closer to understanding what Christian life is about, and what it has to do with the life we are actually living.

Rembrandt, "Road to Emmaus"

Many are the motivations for people to worship. But far down the list of many churchgoing Christians is Jesus’ resurrection. It would strike many as phony to give that as a reason for worship, as opposed, say, to being able to pray, getting some practical guidance from a sermon, being in a supportive community of like-minded people. Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that if you are such a churchgoing person you don’t believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. I don’t for a moment imagine you have missed the connection between his triumph over death and what the Church has taught you about how that somehow is the lynchpin of what the whole Christian enterprise is about. Furthermore, you might even be convinced that the entire purpose of the Church is to get you ready to go to heaven when you die, a fate that awaits you precisely because Jesus actually died to make that possible.

But there is indeed a problem with Christian worship—and it is far deeper than sermons that don’t speak to us, or music we might not particularly like. The problem is that the Church through the ages has by and large failed to understand the real thrust of resurrection. This is exactly why this 24th chapter of St. Luke’s gospel can really be helpful in our understanding what worship and therefore Christian life is really about.

Take a close look at the story. It begins with two disciples walking along on a Sunday afternoon—the day we call Easter—who are clueless about the resurrection of Jesus. They were part of the company of disciples who had heard from some women earlier that morning who had been to the tomb and, not finding the body, had seen a vision of angels declaring that he was alive. Luke has already told us that those who heard the women’s testimony did not believe a word of it, which to them was just an idle tale. Up comes a stranger our of nowhere who joins them on the road.  These two do not recognize him. He begins what is known as a midrash within this story which itself is a midrash—an interpretation, largely symbolic—of biblical texts and the events they cite. That sets the stage for the two men to invite him to stay and have a bite to eat. There is a gap in the story at that point. We aren’t told how this stranger who is a guest suddenly got to be in the position of host, whose place it was to take bread, bless and break it. But it is in that very action that their eyes are opened and they recognize the stranger to be Jesus himself. Immediately Jesus vanishes. Then it all falls into place: the midrash about Messiah, the effect that his exposition of scripture had on them, the way the mysterious appearance of Jesus tracks with the women’s story of what the angels had told them. They rush back to Jerusalem to report what had happened. They find the other disciples, discover that by this time Jesus had appeared to Simon, and as the disciples are talking about all this, Jesus himself comes and stands among them.

That is enough of the story to get at least the major points Luke is making. One is that the resurrection body of Jesus is not to be confused with his spirit in a non-physical appearance: he is not a ghost. Second, the resurrection body is not a resuscitated corpse, because he is able to appear and vanish at will, regardless of space, time, and circumstances. Third, there is continuity between Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified and the risen Jesus, inasmuch as the resurrection body bears the scars of his passion and death, which fact the disciples see in the passage immediately following the Emmaus story. Fourth, a transformation has taken place, because, though the body belongs to Jesus, it has changed to the point that he is not readily recognizable.

Now we will never know until we get to the great seminar in the skies exactly what happened to Jesus between his death on Friday and sunup on Sunday. But one thing is for certain. Something happened to the physical body of Jesus. And thus any resurrection we want to talk about has to do with the physical body, our physical bodies. And we know well enough what is going to happen to them, don’t we? They are going to die; and one way or the other they are going to return to the nothingness out of which they came: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But the church has been letting itself off the hook of talking about the physical body for too long by transmuting resurrection into immortality. The issue of what happens after death might be of great importance, but the more important thing is what the resurrection means for this life, here and now. Even the most devoted believer in an afterlife, of whatever kind, will tell you that what happens there is directly tied to what we do here. From that I conclude that it is wise to make a short list of things not to worry about and put afterlife first on that list. Concentrate on living life joyfully, lovingly, gratefully, kindly, and the afterlife, whatever shape it takes, will take care of itself. You have my word on that.

Michael Triegel, "Resurrection of Christ"
What we miss by appropriating resurrection as simply about life in another dimension called heaven or some similar name is that nothing of such a life is dependent upon the body. Think about it: there is no earthly reason why a resurrection of a body is necessary for a living presence to be experienced from the other side of death. Examples are far too numerous of apparitions, ghosts, spirits, and other nonmaterial beings. Very likely a number of people who are reading this could give a detailed account of having experienced one or more such things.

So what does the resurrection have to do with your body? And what does all this have to do with worship? Well, first, remember your baptism. What do we remember when we forget everything else about baptism? It is “down under and back up again.” It is a ritual death and resurrection. (We are in the land of metaphor and symbol here.)
Orthodox Baptism
When we are, as it were, pulled up out of the water we are united with the Risen Lord in the resurrection. Yes, it has a future, that resurrection life, beyond our mortal death. But it certainly does not wait for death in order to begin. So whatever we do with our life in Christ we do in the very body that is reading these words right now.
Edward Knippers, "The Resurrection of Christ"

Second, what baptism symbolizes with water, bread and wine symbolize in food. The same reality, namely New Life, is expressed in both the sacraments. And because they are sacraments, baptism and eucharist are means by which we receive God—called “Holy Spirit” in Holy Baptism and called “The Body and Blood of Christ” in Holy Eucharist. The second most obvious thing about sacraments is that they are physical means of receiving God. The most obvious thing of all is that you can’t receive a sacrament without being a body.
Font, pulpit, and altar of St. Stephen and the Incarnation
Episcopal Church, Washington, DC

What do we make of Jesus’ identifying himself with Bread, which he is reported to have done more than once? Why would he have chosen wine to identify with? I suggest that these things that were in first century Judaism never used the way Jesus used them in his Last Supper (bread as human body, wine as human blood) are the key to unlocking God’s own identification with the human body. And not just the human body, but the human body as one instance of all creation. We are so used to thinking, even arguing, that God is totally distinct from the natural world that it is challenging for us to see that “God” literally makes no sense apart from something to be God of. If God is pure Being, or pure Spirit, or pure Energy, or pure Consciousness, then that Being-Spirit-Energy-Consciousness must have a receptor in order to be meaningful at all. So, in a real sense, what we proclaim about the Bread and Wine in today’s eucharist, namely that they are the means by which we receive the real presence of Christ-God, is true of everything in the entire cosmos, including you. The Incarnation neither started nor stopped with Jesus. God has been expressing God’s self from the Big Bang onwards in that enormous Body called the cosmos, the universe. And that means that there is no place where God is not, nothing in all creation that does not tingle with the atoms and quarks that come straight from the heart of Being itself, nothing animate or inanimate that is too mean to be the home of the Holy.

Priest reading The Holy Gospel
Father Sam Desordi-Leite, Sr. Priest, St. Stephen and the Incarnation
Episcopal Church, Washington
If you don’t believe it, just read the gospels, including the non-canonical gospel of Thomas. In that gospel Jesus says, “Move a stone and I am there. Split a piece of wood and I am there.” And Jesus is forever affirming people, loving life, enjoying friendship, going to the tables of friends and strangers and having a meal, drinking to the point that in his words they call him a glutton and a winebibber.  This is not the picture of someone who disdains the material world, not the profile of someone who woos us away from our bodies so that we can go off somewhere and lead a “spiritual” life apart from the bodies we are created to be.

And that is what makes good worship. Worship is acting out what we believe. And good worship does that well. Bring your entire self into the act of worship, leaving nothing out. Bring art, bring music, bring dance and celebrate life. Bring your arthritic knees, the pain in your neck, or the cancer you’re being treated for. Bring your muscular body and your tattoos.  Bring your overweight body or your anorexia. Bring your babies to be baptized and your corpses to be buried. Bring your aspirations and your shame, your vulnerabilities and your pride, your sexual experiences and your attempts to repress them. Bring your laughter and your tears. As the Ash Wednesday collect reminds us, God hates nothing that God has made. And in the words that Anglicans have been saying for hundreds of years, “Here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” When we do that, the Bread of Life is mysteriously broken open and broken up, and our eyes from time to time recognize the One who is living within us, who only vanishes from our sight to reappear again and again, always more gloriously present with us than we’ve ever imagined.

Based on a sermon on Christian worship preached on February 10, 2019, at St. Luke’s Church Episcopal, Bethesda, Maryland.

©Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019