Saturday, March 23, 2019

But Deliver Us

In his introduction to his book, Speaking Christian, Marcus Borg tells us that when he left the Midwest and went to the West Coast to teach, he began one of his classes by stating that in order to understand Christianity, you have to understand its roots in Judaism. Immediately a hand shot up. “What’s Judaism?” a student wanted to know. Borg began to explain Judaism by referring to Moses. Another raised a hand. “Who’s Moses?”

I suspect that there may well be a good slice of this congregation today in the same predicament in which Borg’s students found themselves. You may know what Judaism is (or not) and you may know who Moses was (or not), but I suspect that few people could articulate exactly why we would be hearing about Moses on this particular Sunday.

So we have our work cut out for us. The second and third Sundays in Lent, this season in which we are moving towards a celebration of “the Paschal Mystery,” a name we give to Jesus’ death and resurrection, are invariably about Abraham and Moses. That is because in our holy history, Abraham and Moses represent the two pillars on which our covenant relationship with God rests. What Borg was trying to tell his students is that there is no way of understanding the importance we Christians attach to Jesus and the “New” Covenant made through him without understanding the “Old Covenant” in which God creates a people through Abraham and delivers them from bondage to freedom through Moses. By the way, “new” is not necessarily good and “old” is not necessarily bad. There is nothing shameful about being old, even if you are a covenant. I’m saying that because it has become fashionable in recent times to avoid calling the Old Testament the Old Testament or Covenant. No matter what you call it, it gets a certain amount of bad press in Christian circles because it is quite wrongly supposed that the Old Testament’s God is pretty wretched in contrast to the rather cuddly God of the New. Nothing could be further from the truth regarding either Testament.

Now the reason that all this business about Old and New Covenants (better known as “Testaments” in the sub-titles of the Bible), is that it is all one story. It makes no sense to skip act one of a play because all you want to see is act two, especially if there is no way of understanding the second act without the first. It can also work the other way around. Sometimes what it revealed in the second act or the third clarifies and indeed interprets what was happening in the first act. So Paul, writing to the Corinthians in the Letter you heard read a few minutes ago, uses the language and experience of the New Covenant to understand what was happening in the Old Covenant. I’m not so sure that Paul was all that successful in reinterpreting the Old Covenant, but give him an A for at least trying to see the relevance of past experience for his own time.

If we had to choose one chapter in the entire Old Testament that is the lynchpin of the whole thing, it would arguably be Exodus 3, the story you heard this morning. Why? Because the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt is the formative event in its history. Before that, we can’t even be sure that there was a history, to be honest. Yes, we have stories, important ones. But we can say with some assurance that the nation of Israel was born in the Exodus from Egypt. All the scriptures are written in light of that conviction. When centuries later a scribe wrote, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” he was writing about the God he knew from the story of the Exodus. The creator God was the liberating God.

Exodus: the way out, the coming out of God’s people. It all began one day when Moses was out keeping the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law. Moses had gotten there ironically because he had indeed escaped from Egypt and from a murder conviction that was likely coming his way. If you read the whole story of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush on Mount Horeb or Sinai, it is full of humor and pathos. We feel for Moses who is being called to do something indescribably difficult, namely lead a horde of slaves out from under the control of a very powerful state. But the guts of the story is not what Moses says but what God says. “I have observed the sufferings of my people in Egypt… I have heard their cry. I know their sufferings. I have come down to deliver them.” I have come down to deliver them. That one phrase sets the stage for all that is to come. God is a God of deliverance. God observes, hears, knows, and delivers.

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of those verbs, because from then on, the story unfolds a relationship that God has with the oppressed, with the downtrodden, with the marginalized, with the non-people, the outcasts, the vulnerable, the poor. We never ever hear the Bible saying that God somehow prefers that we should be slaves or downtrodden or oppressed. We hear instead how God makes a people and challenges them to share God’s concern for the little people—children, strangers, foreigners without citizenship, the socially outcast, the politically powerless. The scriptures make no bones about what God is up to. It is called righteousness. But righteousness in the biblical vocabulary has nothing at all to do with moral rectitude, let alone with personal purity. It has to do with right relationships, the goal of which is always to bring about a redress of wrongs, a healing of broken bonds, and the establishing of justice. That is in fact what justice means: the lining up of relationships in their rightful order and proper balance.

Now if you can get that far, then it is perhaps possible to begin to see why it is that God is so intent on delivering people. Sometimes people simply need to be delivered from oppression, and they need someone to intervene on their behalf. Note that God apparently cannot, or will not, do this alone—at least not among humans. It seems to be the divine preference that people, Moses for example, be called up and enlisted in the program, because it is through humans that humans are most likely to be delivered and thus to be changed. That is not to say that God is not a hands-on God; but it is to say that God works within the very limits, as well as with the capacities, that we humans manifest. After all God made us and the world the way we are, not the way we might wish to be.

Let me be clear about what is at stake here. The overarching story, not only about Moses and the Children of Israel, but about Jesus and us, is a story about deliverance. The whole kit and caboodle is about deliverance, all kinds of deliverance on all levels. It is about deliverance from bondage, deliverance from oppression, deliverance for the power of evil, deliverance from our own self-sustaining neuroses, deliverance from illness, deliverance from sin (we’ll come back to that one, so hold on), deliverance from evil, deliverance from death, especially deliverance from death as a scary monster whom we have to fear. Trouble is, most of the time we are not only aware that we can be delivered; we don’t really imagine that we need to be delivered. I know I don’t speak for all of you, but really: if you are relatively affluent—rich by the world’s standards—have what you think you need or at least able to get it without too much trouble; if you are white, straight, well-educated, or some combination of all of that, what on earth do you need to be delivered from? And what would you like to be delivered to except more of what you already have? If you are already relatively powerful, accepted, affirmed, why would you find deliverance an attractive notion at all? Does it not sound like the title of an old movie, a concept more at home among the snake-handling sects of Appalachia, the province of weird exorcists than anything you identify with?

Ah! You may think that because you don’t fit the mold of this litany of characteristics I’ve named, you are immune to being blasé about deliverance. But, truth be told, you and I are most likely in need of deliverance from things we at best vaguely recognize. And usually they are not the problems that we’d put first on our list of priorities to be addressed: good job, good money, decent housing, affordable health care, happy family life, personal fulfillment. Let me share with you a telling example. Several years ago I was working with a small group of folk in St. Stephen and the Incarnation Parish on the matter of violence, especially gun violence. We drafted a letter and shared it with a number of church leaders in our diocese, calling on our diocesan council to look carefully at the way we invest church funds. Our belief is that the church ought not to be making money off of firearms, munitions, and other means of killing people. Someone pointed out that our position might be untenably broad. After all, were we suggesting that not only private guns but military weapons not be the subjects of investment? Good question. But the person, a very thoughtful person I might add, went on to ask if we were prepared to argue for disinvestment in Quaker Oats if they were somehow themselves involved in companies that produce ammunitions and weapons. What is more, how can we draw the line? That well illustrates the fact that, like it or not, we are enmeshed in an endless complex net that cannot be easily untangled into “good” and “bad.” That is the story of the world in which we live. Whether it is personal life or business life or corporate involvement or government programs or the judicial system or the educational system or the banking system or the medical world, we are involved in networks that far transcend individual human initiatives. Even the best of them corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and not just human creatures. It is not just personal sin that we need to be delivered from. That is relatively easy to deal with compared with these vast and powerful economic, political, and social systems in which we are usually pawns and players, no matter how personally powerful—or good—we might be.

Is it possible to be delivered from such a predicament at all, short of the total destruction of society as we know it? Short of our own death? Well, no, and yes. If you read our own holy story, you will see that, although the Israelites had an exodus out of Egypt, they did not necessarily become immune to other kinds of slavery. Over the coming centuries they were to experience corruption, rebellion, massive government dysfunction, wars, forced labor, deportation, exile, serious religious regression, and spiritual malaise. From any one of these they needed deliverance on a level they themselves could not supply. Over and over again they had to turn to God, learning many things that affirmed the old ways, but many things that pushed them across new and frightening frontiers. And still these our fathers and mothers found themselves trapped in behaviors and mindsets that defied anything but the most radically divine deliverance—witness Jesus.

But there is also the “yes” answer to the question of whether we can actually be delivered from our predicament. And it might not be quite what you think. When St. Paul, writing to the Romans, asked, “Who will deliver me from this body of sin and death?” he was not merely talking about his human body. He was talking about the entire existence of life in this world lived apart from God. It is personal and it is also communal. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” he exclaims. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, breaks through the net that has us trapped. And while we still have to live, inevitably, within this trap where good is on the defensive and evil is always lurking to subvert good purposes to its own twisted ends, we can little by little find deliverance by getting on the side of God. We can intentionally harken to the drumbeat calling us to act like God—defying Pharaoh, listening to the cries of the distressed, paying attention to the sufferings of the world (not just our own), even enlisting in Operation Deliverance ourselves. That is what it means to be baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. That is what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. That is what it means to thumb our nose at the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.

In C. S. Lewis’ famous story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan the magnificent lion lies on the great stone table having given his life for the sake of freeing Narnia. You and I understand that Aslan is in fact Christ, bound by the cross. And we might well understand that Aslan is also in a sense you and I, tied up in systems that choke and stifle us, bound by forces that keep us enslaved. Susan and Lucy, two of Aslan’s admirers, grief-stricken at seeing the great animal muzzled and tied by the spiteful rabble that has killed him, want to untie him in one last act to respect his dignity.

They are unable. But there is a tiny movement going on in the grass under their feet. It turns out to be mice, which the girls think are rather pathetically trying to untie Aslan not realizing he is dead. But as the sun rises in the dawn, dozens and even hundreds of little field mice gnaw through the ropes that have bound the noble lion. Suddenly there is a shattering noise, the great stone table on which he lay is broken in two from end to end, and Aslan appears behind them, free, alive, real, risen, strong. All those little mice had played their part. They had in their own way contributed to his deliverance. And because Aslan was delivered from his bondage, he is free to bring Susan and Lucy and all who follow him into his own freedom.

That is our story. You never can tell what unlikely creatures or mysterious developments will deliver you and set you free. But you may be sure that if you throw in your lot with the God who has come to deliver the world from its bondage, you will finally be free and there will be no turning back.

A sermon preached the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C of the Revised Common Lecionary, on Exodus 3:1-15.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013, 2019

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

God in Ashes

iturgy is acting out what we believe.  Any of us can attest that it is almost impossible to go through an entire liturgy, even one that we’re familiar with, and not find something that is at odds with what we truly believe.  On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that any one of us could consistently go through a liturgy day after day, week in and week out, that was totally at odds with what we consciously believed.  It would be odious in the extreme. 

I suspect that the Ash Wednesday Liturgy is a mixed bag for many who attend it. I remember a little girl years ago drawing back in horror as I went down the altar rail imposing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful.  In a stage whisper she said to her dad, “That Father Dunn’s not going to dirty up my pretty face!”  That might have been what I was unconsciously remembering many years later when I was faced with holding chapel for about fifty kids in a parish preschool on Ash Wednesday. How do you honestly impose ashes on the foreheads of three and four year old children saying the traditional words?  It isn’t that kids can’t understand mortality. Nor need we project adult fears of death onto the very young.  But how does Ash Wednesday—I asked myself—square with the overarching gospel of love that we’re trying to articulate for children all the rest of the year?  I think that if the gospel can’t be understood by a three- or four-year-old then it probably isn’t the real gospel.  So I told them how we made ashes out of palm branches and how we used them to mark the beginning of Lent, which ends in Easter.  I talked about how we all get dirty from time to time, sometimes from play, sometimes from work, sometimes by accident.  And I spoke about how ashes are really messy, and always result from something being destroyed by fire, either on purpose or by accident.  And then I said, “No matter how dirty we ever get, or what we do, or what we say, God will always love us.  And that’s what I’m thinking about when I make the sign of Jesus’ love on my forehead”—I then put ashes on myself—“Remember no matter what you do, God will always love you.” Almost every one of the children stood in line to receive ashes.  I’d like to think that somewhere deep down some of them are remembering today, nearly twenty years later, that message as their foreheads are being smudged with ash.
"Remember no matter what you do, God will always love you."

Ashes have a very specific value on Ash Wednesday:  they symbolize our mortality and penitence. Let’s take those referents one at a time. 

First, our mortality.  It is easy enough not to miss the connection between ashes and mortality because the words with which ashes are given to us recall the words at the grave, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  Is that scary? Perhaps so, because nearly everything and every system we know conspire to shield us from the reality of death, starting with the medical profession. But we are mortal and designedly so.  We might use euphemisms such as “passed away” or “expired” to speak of death, but they do not take away the fact of death. Everything in all creation is subject to destruction, from stars that die to the rocks of the earth’s crust that are forever being broken down into grains of sand.  And everything broken down potentially becomes a part of the opposite process of construction.  Human beings are no exception. 

But the ashes come onto our foreheads in the form of a cross, and there is a reason for that.  The cross means preeminently one thing: that Jesus embraced his own mortality, not giving in to the temptation to escape his fate either by softening his radical message or by colluding with the powers of this world that pretend invincibility or by falling for the illusion of security. It is precisely the embrace of mortal body makes resurrection of that body possible. The ashen cross witnesses to the truth that when we follow Jesus, becoming obedient to death, we are raised to real life.  As we will say in the Litany of Penitence on Ash Wednesday, “By the cross and passion of [Jesus], [we come to] the joy of his resurrection.  That resurrection he shares with us in these mortal bodies.

So mortality is a gift, not a curse.  And so is penitence, believe it or not.  But in order to see, let alone believe, that penitence is a gift, it’s necessary to reimagine it.   Instead of penitence as breast-beating, it is turning around and facing a new direction.  Instead of weeping and wailing for our sins and transgressions, penitence is seeing that there is indeed no mistake that does not provide a lesson to be learned, no sin that is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  Ashes on our foreheads remind us rightly of our brokenness, the utter failure of our attempts to be perfect, the myriad ways we mar our own beauty with hatred, bitterness, and self-contempt.  And, wonder of wonders, God reveals God’s very self in our weariness with the frustrations of living.  God is not an escape from reality, but the supreme Reality alive in everything, including both physical ashes and all that ashes symbolize.   If penitence is anything at all, it is reminding ourselves of the abiding love of God, or as those kids once heard on Ash Wednesday, “No matter what you do, God will always love you.”

God shows up in such unlikely places—a manager, a cross, a tomb, in bread and wine, and in ashes.  Most of the time, it is, as Moses once saw, the backside of God that we see—the hind part visible only when the moment has come and gone, sometimes gone for a long, long time.  Yet occasionally, once we have practiced and practiced seeing eternal things through the mortal mind’s eye, we can glance down at our hands and know that they and whatever they handle is full of God, or at our feet and know that they and wherever they go and on whatever they stand is full of God.  And sometimes when we’re least expecting it, we can taste something like bread or wine and think, as for the first time ever, “My God!  You really do live in me, don’t you?  And you’re fine with making your home in me, aren’t you?”

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2019

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019

Monday, March 04, 2019

Guardrails and Grace

Mount Tabor
o one knows which mountain it was on which Jesus was transfigured; but from the fourth century, the traditional site has been Mount Tabor, smack in the middle of the Valley of Jezreel.  Dome shaped, looking much as if an ethereal ice cream scoop might once have scraped it from the crust of the earth and plopped it down atop an otherwise level plain, Mount Tabor has been the destination of pilgrims and tourists for centuries.  Our bus took us from the Bedouin village at the foot of the mountain to a parking lot perhaps a quarter of a mile up.  We spilled out of the bus and into a half dozen beat-up taxis, therein to be transported up the mountain in a series of switchbacks, with nary a guardrail in sight.  Flying up the mountain at breakneck speed, our Palestinian taxi driver knew how to handle his old Mercedes, and knew as well how to give travelers fits.  At every hairpin turn exclaiming, “Hallelujah!” and chuckling, he had every one of us laughing and screeching like kids on a roller coaster.

It didn’t do a lot for my devotional life.  By the time we reached the windswept summit, my major connection with the Transfiguration was the fact that we were white as bleached sheets.  I lamely suggested that we build three booths and avoid the trip down.  But the trip is worth the effort, white knuckles and all.  Atop the ruins of a fourth century basilica (can you imagine hauling all the stone for a church up such a peak?) twentieth century Franciscans built a magnificent edifice designed by the brilliant architect Antonio Barluzzi.  He depicted the Transfiguration with bi-level altars.  The upper altar, reached by side stairs, beams with magnificent mosaics like a jewel, symbolizing the divine nature of Christ.  Below, is a much simpler altar, made to recall Christ’s human nature.  And in the towers on the north and south sides of the church are two chapels, one for Moses and one for Elijah. 

It would be easy, and maybe a little cheap, to go down the path of exploiting the irony of the church and its three naves, mirroring the rather stupid remark of Peter suggesting the building of three booths, perhaps for the Feast of Tabernacles.  But alternatively I would like to focus on how the Transfiguration of Christ, his own seminal religious experience, if you will, and how it somehow called for witnesses. 

Statuary niches in the hillside at Caesarea Philippi,
near the ancient shrine of Banias 
You have noticed, perhaps, that within the band of The Twelve disciples there was an inner circle consisting of Peter, James, and John.  The first three gospels tell several stories of how Jesus chose these three taking them with him on some occasions, of which the Transfiguration is one.  Nothing in the story suggests that Jesus was at all aware of what was about to happen to him.  What the narrative does suggest, however, is that there is a link between what had happened about a week before.  Jesus and his group had gone far out of their accustomed circuit to the headwaters of the Jordan at the foot of Mount Hermon, the highest peak in the country.  According to Mark and Matthew, at a place called Caesarea Philippi, associated with the Greek god Pan or Baneas, Caesar, and the House of Herod the Great whose son was the Philip who built the city there in honor of Caesar Augustus, Jesus asked the question, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”  The place itself, though perhaps on the much-used highway to the sea, no stranger to rumbling armies, was rather desolate and still is.  Awash in all the symbols of power and tradition—Roman, Jewish, and the waters in which Jesus himself had been baptized—Caesarea Philippi became remembered as the place where Peter confessed the answer to Jesus’ question:  “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”  And all the gospels say that Jesus heard that response and immediately—“sternly,” they say—ordered his disciples to tell no one, explaining that ahead of him lay the road of suffering and death, not the glorious kingdom expected to be assumed by Messiah.

Headwaters of the Jordan River

So what is that all about?  It seems to me that Jesus was struggling with identity and vocation, a somewhat familiar struggle to many of us.  Who are we and what does our life mean?  If you read the gospels, especially the first three, you can see how deeply Jesus wrestles with those questions, although many of us miss that, imagining that he was somehow immune to human struggles.  In Luke’s narrative, although Caesarea Philippi is absent from the tale, Jesus is praying with his disciples near him when he asks that question, suggesting that the question itself might have been the subject of his prayer.  Who am I?  And if I am Messiah, the Chosen One, how does that square with this sense of destiny I have to suffer, to be rejected, to be killed, and to rise again?  There are no maps telling me how to get there, and I am not sure how to do it.
After this episode of prayer, as happens in both Mark and Matthew, Jesus selects the inner three and takes them with him to a high mountain, apart.  And there something very strange happens.  We call it the Transfiguration, but in many ways it was Jesus’ confirmation.  It was his own unique spiritual experience that springs from the roots of this question, “Who am I?”  Christian theology takes the route of understanding Christ as one person of two natures, divine and human.  Do with that what you will.  The struggle of the self, his Self, is in some sense the struggle of the world of the crowds, Caesars, and gods of the nations wrestling with and against the divine world of God.  The scriptures today remind us that transfiguration is something that had happened before, to Moses, for example.  And Christian history contains other examples of similar, if not identical, experiences of ordinary people, St. Seraphim of Sarov being one. 
 Transfiguration of St. Seraphim of Sarov
Russian Icon
Be that as it may, when they arrive on the mountaintop, Jesus enters into prayer again, and in that moment his appearance changes and even his clothes become radiant.  The story tells us that not only Jesus is different but that somehow the veil separating the world of the crowds from the world of the divine is pierced.  So Moses and Elijah appear, not to Jesus only, but to the on-looking disciples.  It is the realm of eternity, not time, where past and future have no meaning.  Moses and Elijah are speaking of what we would call future—the “departure” that Jesus was to accomplish in Jerusalem—but they know as much about the future as they do the past, which is to say that they belong to that timeless realm that is then and there on the mountaintop colliding with the realm of flesh and blood that is generally ignorant of any other realm than that of common, everyday goings-on.

There are lots of things to be learned and gleaned from the story of the Transfiguration.  Almost always we naturally focus on Jesus, which is doubtless the point of the whole episode.  But notice the obvious.  Jesus took with him three disciples.  Thus there is an audience for this great epiphany, and a community to share it.  Why did he take them?  Perhaps for company—reason enough if you are going to hike all the way up Mount Tabor or some similar peak.  But the story is reminiscent of Mark’s account (which Luke had read) in which Jesus called these three out from among the others and took them with him deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane where he prayed in his agony to be spared his time of trial.  Jesus felt the need for company during critical hours.   And simply because they are there on the mountain, Peter, James, and John themselves get swept up in the overshadowing cloud, terrified as they find themselves in that awful space where time runs into eternity and flesh is saturated with glory.  The voice that comes out of the cloud, unmistakably the same voice that spoke on the day of that other epiphany, Jesus’ baptism, speaks not to him but to them.  “This is my Son, my Chosen.  Listen to him!”  Listen to him.  Open your hearts, your minds, your souls so that you can not only hear but pay attention, and follow.  The road downhill will be harder than the climb, because it leads to suffering and rejection, denial and cross.  The Chosen One is chosen not for domination but for submission, not as ruler but as servant.  And if the Chosen One chooses you, it is so that you may be like him.  Get your cross and take it up and follow him.  Listen to him.

Jesus with Peter, John, and James

They kept silent and told no one in those days anything that they had seen.  What else could they have done?  Those whose minds are sealed in the world of the crowds and crows and Caesars are seldom impressed with tales of glory.  And even if they be enchanted, they ponder the unearthly, rarely imagining that transfiguration or any such thing could be for them.  Peter, James, John, their fellow disciples, and countless others were soon to come to see something more magnificent than the Transfiguration, namely Jesus’ Easter, his spring, his Resurrection.  They would only get there by  
listening to him and following him on the road that led through Gethsemane to Calvary, through agony and death. But they would catch on in due time to the fact that what had happened to Jesus on the mountain was their destiny too. Time would come when they would tell freely what they had seen there, convinced that the world of the divine penetrates the world of the crowds on every level. The day would dawn when they and their sisters and brothers would be the community showing what could happen to the world when it but listens to the Chosen One, takes up its cross, and follows him in the way that seeks Love in an exhilarating journey where there are no guardrails, only grace.

The road up Mt. Tabor

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary

Luke 9:28-36

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013, 2019