Tuesday, May 22, 2018

In a Sentimentality Mood - The Royal Wedding Sermon and What's Missing at Church

On Saturday, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached in St. George's Chapel in Windsor the liturgy of Holy Matrimony of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.  Sentimentality came crashing in. And Bishop Curry has something to say about it.

I have done a lot of thinking about sentimentality and the Church over the past few years and feel strongly that it is a major land mine for us.  We long for something meaningful in our lives so we go to church and then we try to turn everything about the Church into a sorority pledge song.
Or . . .
We leave the Church and hate the Church because it doesn’t give us enough of that warm-fuzzie-feel-good stuff we get from movies, pop songs, apple pie and popcorn.

So, I think the Church needs to step up to the mic and explain what the “love of Jesus Christ” is all about and differentiate that from gooey-feel-good kinds of love.                                                     

Oh, wait.  Michael Curry just did that.

And all the world is a buzz this week about his sermon and all that it meant to all who heard it.  Some have been fixated on their lack of understanding of his exposition on the images of “fire” and “raging flame” of the text on which he was preaching from the Song of Solomon (2:10-13; 8:6-7 ) which is one of the scripture choices for weddings in the Book of Common Prayer. The text the couple chose.

6Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. 7Many waters cannot quench love.

I’m not sure why he lost his audience there.  Or captured their hearts when talking about the “power of redemptive love,” a beautiful MLK quote, and clearly an easier topic to digest.
What no one is talking about however, is what he said about sentimentality, and I was struck by the many times he repeated statements like, “There's power in love. Don't underestimate it. Don't even over-sentimentalize it,” which he said in the sermon and later in an interview, “this is not just a sentimental thing, this is actually a          way of life” the latter in the context of his explanation that his sermon was simply about love, the love of Jesus Christ.  
I want to hear more from Bishop Curry about this.
I will be listening for it.

What follows is an excerpt from a paper I wrote in my doctoral coursework about sentimentality specific to liturgy and more specifically about our attitudes around the Holy Eucharist.  I have so much more to say about this and hope I find time to blog more on sentimentality and the Church soon.
The parish that formed me in my youth was a church of about five hundred active United Methodists who were struggling with the social issues of the nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies.  We struggled with issues such as civil rights, feminism, disability, sexuality and prayer in schools.  We did this in small group discussions and Sunday School classes. We sometimes heard our preachers speak to these issues in the pulpit, though not very often. 
As a young person, I witnessed a certain silliness come over the adults on high feast days.  There was an added excitement with the increase in pageantry but the two did not meet, nor did either the mood or the liturgy connect with mission.  I did not understand this at the time.  I have come to understand it as a misplaced affection for the community itself, not motivation for faith in action.

Sentimental is a term first coined in the eighteenth century by Sterne in his book, A Sentimental Journey through France, in which he used the word to mean, specific to moral decision making, a “refined and tender feeling.” This is a description of the stature of a gentleman at the time, one who was capable of appreciating beauty and art.
Sentimentalism, since the early eighteenth century, has evolved from a description of the emotional side of humanity, “of persons, their dispositions and actions,” to a particular avoidable state of bing “addicted to indulgence in superficial emotion.” This change in meaning has been mostly due to philosophical arguments during the Age of Enlightenment.
During this era sentimentalism was a reaction to rationalism. While 18th-century rationalism corresponded with the development of the analytic mind as the basis for acquiring truth, sentimentalism hinged upon an intrinsic human capacity to feel and how this leads to truth. This was a somewhat different use of the term than describing beauty and art. The term became synonymous in the pre-Romantic era with sensibility, but other eighteenth century terms emerged like sentimentality in literature and Empfindsamkeit in music.  
Tanner points out that the most famous use of the term is of Oscar Wilde’s attack of Lord Alfred Douglas.
The fact is that you were, and are I suppose still, a typical sentimentalist. For a sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. . . . The intellectual and emotional life of ordinary people is a very contemptible affair. Just as they borrow their ideas from a sort of circulating library of thought - the Zeitgeist of and age that has no soul - and send them back soiled at the end of each week, so they always try to get their emotions on credit, and refuse to pay the bill when it comes in.

While admitting that Wilde’s use of the term was within a political attack and not academic, Tanner hails Wilde’s point as an exceptional use of the term. After defining sentimentality as either attached to a particular original object or dislocated from the same, Tanner states his belief that there is a tendency for us toward auto-generation of emotion. He contends that “it isn’t so much inappropriate strength or object that is in question, but a disturbing autonomy which retains the cachet, if any, of the emotion when it was in more or less proper relationship to its object, which may have been a perfectly worthy one.”  He furthers his argument toward a definition of sentimentality as more than some sort of seeking of solace through reenactment of foregone good experiences or of bleating with remembrance of bad experiences, i.e. unrequited love, or jealousy.
Sentimentalism, when joined with religion has throughout history ended in distraction from mission at best and, at worst, violence. This is because of a certain clinging to the good old days. From worn out phrases like, “we’ve always done it that way” to scripturally based arguments in favor of slavery and against the empowerment of women, and now sexuality, sentimentalism keeps us complicit in sins of power abuse and oppression.
While writing this paper, I stopped to check my Facebook page and wandered into a video of a wedding proposal between two young adult counselors at a Christian camp for adolescents.  I was moved to tears to watch these young people celebrate love in the dining hall of their summer camp.  This home movie and my emotional reaction to it caused me to ask if this is not what people expect from participating in Christian assemblies which celebrate the eucharist.  We long to be moved by the celebration of love in a familiar, perhaps verging on exclusive, shared place with people whom we assume hold shared interests.  We participate in liturgical assemblies seeking solace through nostalgia rather than seeking to participate in the full community of Christ, a community that is commanded to serve the poor.  We continue to segregate ourselves because of nostalgia into groups based on issues like sexuality, race, or guns.
Ian Barns, in his discussion of the threat of technology, suggests several “conditions for the development of moral selves capable of civic virtue.” One of these conditions is “embodied particularity.”  Quoting MacIntyre he says: “One of the deep problems of modern conceptions of selfhood is that they seek to transcend particularity and to adopt a stance of disembodied universality - the disencumbered self.” Barns goes further to define the need for placement in membership of a particular historical community through which one is able to become “self.”  Membership in such communities, he says, “produces the virtues of patience, courage, and resilience needed to navigate the passages of life that our mortal bodies are subject to.”
There is value in membership described here as particular embodiment. There is also value in understanding the disembodied self of post-modernity discussed here as a threat to the development of civic minded adults capable of moral decision making. I would add that Christian formation is at risk and, in fact, has been to some degree lost, because of such disembodiment. I find that overvaluation of such concepts of membership opposing any hope of oneness (John 17:21) for the church. I contend that the best way to form moral adults is through the imagination of inclusive practice of an eschatological understanding of the eucharist.
This eschatological eucharist is an embodiment of the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ as the community of believers, the church, the people who partake of the sacraments. We can do this without aesthetic sensibility as Murdoch describes The Good and the embodiment of The Good as inseparable from the embodiment of beauty, but clinging to old or longed for experiences of the embodiment of the parousia in the eucharist is a refusal to inspiration.
What Farwell calls a complex presence, God simultaneously present and absent, both Alpha and Omega, is more than a liturgical emphasis or expression.  It is the sacramental moment.  It is the eschatological eucharist.
Saliers also touches on this in a discussion on liturgy as art.
Human beings are formed religiously, liturgically, and aesthetically at the same time.  Thus, any expression of religious faith in the gathering for praise of God requires a form of artistic embodiment, even if the plainest sort. . . . To put it bluntly, God is not adequately praised and adored with the showy, the pompous, the self-serving, the mawkish, the cleverly casual, or the thoughtlessly comfortable forms of art. . . . Liturgy is not a recital or for aesthetic enjoyment.  It involves the art of self-presentation, and hence the character of faithfulness counts as part of the ‘aesthetic’ of the action.

Sentimentalist liturgy is this sort of insincere attempt of aesthetic showiness.  So often well meaning Christians gather to try to recreate a feeling they had at some prior point in their lives, perhaps a childhood memory of Christmas eve or a mountain top experience from a spiritual retreat.  Or they attempt the opposite, to avoid a negative experience of liturgy like boredom as a liturgically uneducated child or contempt for a preacher expounding theological ideas with which they disagreed when in graduate school.  So they attempt to create a new and different liturgy that makes them feel right and in some way better about themselves. This is a failed attempt to imitate an aesthetic of the past.  To err in the direction of emphasizing the future is a type of religious expression that is like a liturgical expression of zealous attempts to get into heaven.
Both types of liturgical expression miss the mark by emphasizing past or future.  An eschatological understanding of the eucharistic feast as a meeting with the parousia, experientially in the moment would serve better to worship God in the art of self-presentation fully present and open to the presence of Christ.

Missional theology is a recent movement in the church that is espoused by many. Voices like Jones, Meyers and Koenig differ when discussing liturgy and mission.  Jones posits that we should do away with traditional liturgy and space completely and focus mainly on forms of personal prayer.  Meyers suggest we keep traditional liturgy but emphasize the collect and the dismissal over the eucharist as the center of sending forth. Koenig develops a poignant plea for us to renew table conversation away from electronics. Specifically trinitarian conversations during meals. Missional leaders are suggesting we form new and old Christians alike through relationship.
In our diocese we have focused on the work of Zscheile who argues that The Episcopal Church must move past enlightenment and establishment thinking into missional thinking. In order to do this, we must practice changing our language as means to changing our ideologies.
Rather than the church being focused on private spiritual needs, it can be a community of conversation and practice for the common good.  This means gathering around the important questions and challenges of the day and interpreting them together in light of the biblical story, the Christian theological tradition, and the best thinking from various fields of human inquiry.

In this way, Zscheile holds that we can move past sentimentality, as well as the pursuit of individual enlightenment or feel-good sustenance, by pursuing shared ministry through open conversation. He does not believe we need to do this outside traditional celebrations of the eucharist. He contends that this is the way to gaining an awareness of what we might leave behind when we move toward this sort of open and shared way of being the church. We must name what we need to leave behind and then leave it.

I propose that we identify sentimentality as the main attitude we need to leave behind.  If the church can return to inclusive common prayer then we might come to a place of true mission.  As Williams succinctly puts it:  “Sometimes, after receiving Holy Communion, as I look around a congregation, large or small, I have a sensation I can only sum up as this is it - this is the moment when people see one another and the world properly: when they are filled with the Holy Spirit and when they are equipped to go and do God’s work.” This is not a moment construed by our efforts to remain segregated to our own sentimental ways of worship and mission, it is a moment of openness to the Holy Spirit and willingness to listen anew to our calling as the assembly.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Real Mom

My mom was not a great mom.  She was not a good cook.  She was even worse at gardening.

But I didn’t know this at the time.  When I was a girl I thought I had the best mom in our community.  But I didn’t.

When I got out in the world I looked back and saw all of her faults.  She was not really good with boo-boos. (You’d get a bandaid but instead of a bunch of “poor baby” stuff you’d also get a “toughen up” lecture.) She was not one to offer wisdom or good advise, though she thought she was.  She was overly critical.  She sometimes even ridiculed me over minor tasks like my deficiencies with house cleaning or fashion.  This hurt.  It hurt a lot.

But Mom taught me something. She passed on to me the thing she was best at.
She was good a lots of things. She was club champion on the golf course twice. She always won at card games. She could kill in word games.  Crosswords, grammar rules and other word play - she was awesome. And she was cute with stories and anecdotes and nicknames and funny stories about people we knew.  She was popular, fun and as Dad always said, “a good sport.” But she was not really a great mom in those ways that TV moms are great.

Who is?

I was disappointed in her because of this. She never seemed to have the perfect thing to say to match my mood - and I had moods that could have changed the tides - so how could I complain?

But all of this said, all of the disappointments and frustrations and humiliations that may have left me wounded via the cutting eyes of my mother, I have to give her this one:  She taught me how to love the marginalized.

It was the basis of her sketchy Christian faith. She never talked much about faith.  I’m not sure she was a deep believer. But she was caring of others.

I’m not talking about the street people that she fed through the food pantry. It’s not the impoverished, ignorant, young, un-wed mothers whom she coached and encouraged when she was a community/school nurse.  It wasn’t even the children themselves, some of them in rags and filth, hungry and wayward.  She cared for folks like that in her goal to be a good professional’s wife, a good Christian, and a good nurse.  No. It was her love for the acquaintances in her life for whom she really made the difference.

I learned from a mentor in my early twenties the difference between friends and acquaintances.  Friends are close and few, the folks you can call in the middle of the night and tell the truth to.  Acquaintances are many and not so close. The relationships we have with our acquaintances are by comparison shallow.

This is a conundrum in the American, middle class world of relationships.  Most of our friends are really just acquaintances.  You know, those folks you sort of don’t even like but are nice to anyway.  It’s the middle class way - in the south at least.

But Mom was an unspoken champion of such relationships.  She lectured her children and grandchildren to practice compassion above all else, to listen to others more than talk and to take interest in other people’s plights, stories, dreams.  She taught us to be listeners.  And, for the most part, we all are.

This is why I became a therapist and a priest.  I followed her advise and her passion for seeking out the sojourner.  I learned to value others above self in a true way - not a social climbing way.  In Mom’s way.

My mom really was a great mom.  Not like a TV mom, but a real mom.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Here's an audio of our 2nd annual BlueGrass Mass!  More to come!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Laughing at Strangers, a Proper 6A sermon

Proper 6A, 2017
Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)
The Rev. Kathy Kelly Dunagan
All Saints, Norton

I was quite taken by the story yesterday (6-17-17) of 35-year-old Patrick Hale of Murfreesboro, Tennessee who was called a hero for helping police arrest two Georgia fugitives on Friday evening. Did you see this story? The fugitives escaped from prison in Georgia on Tuesday and killed two law enforcement officers before leading police on an intrastate man hunt all week and at least one high speed chase which included shooting at police. The convicts had invaded another home in the area and stolen that couple’s car after tying them up and stealing food and a car from them. They threatened the couple as they left telling them they had nothing to lose and that they expected to be dead within 24 hours. I guess that meant they were planning suicide by cop if they got cornered. They took that couple’s car and police caught up with them ensuing the high speed chase. The fugitives wrecked that car on the interstate and ran onto Mr. Hale’s property. Mr. Hale said that he was home alone with his young daughter and saw the men approaching his house on foot.  He said he loaded every gun he owned in order to be prepared to defend his home and daughter but that he then decided to flee the house in a car.
Mr. Hale’s car apparently looked like a patrol car. So, when he backed out of his garage, he came face to face with the two fugitives. After a touch and go moment, the fugitives decided to surrender. Mr. Hale apparently had been listening to all of this unfold on TV or radio. He said later of that moment this: “I realized I had two ex-cons wanted for murder who had just shot at law enforcement who had nothing to lose, and for some reason they surrendered and laid down on the concrete in my driveway. If that doesn’t make you believe in Jesus Christ, I don’t know what does.”
Now, when I read that over my tea and newspaper yesterday morning I laughed out loud.  I’m not sure why, except that it seemed silly to me to equate faith in our Lord to luck - in this case the luck that these fugitives had left their weapons behind in the wrecked car, luck that they apparently mistook Mr. Hale’s car for a patrol car, luck that 45 other officers showed up 3 minutes later, a corner the fugitives knew they were in and luck that they decided to lay down and surrender, a last minute change of plan from suicide by cop. That’s all just luck, right?
I’ve been working on practicing reconciliation intently over the past year or so. In our national situation of great division, I have been working on listening to the other, listening to that opposite opinion or both sides and trying to understand. I believe this is what we are called to do by Jesus - to seek peace, to seek unity, to seek the love of God in, among and for ALL people. I’m a pacifist.  I don’t like guns. I don’t understand why some folks want to own arsenals. I also hold a personal faith that emphasizes Grace and mystery.  I am usually suspicious of Christians who practice a faith that emphasizes personal salvation and prosperity. But in this practice I have come to understand that these other perspectives are not necessarily bad theology nor are they necessarily bad practice. 
So I decided to listen to more of Mr. Hale’s story and to discern why his statement made me laugh. As I learned more about his story I came to think a bit differently about Mr. Hale’s statement in the long run.
The initial news story from the Associated Press said that Mr. Hale held the men at gun point during that 3 minutes of waiting for police and that made him a hero. That story went out fast and was all over the television news.  Mr. Hale held a press conference a few hours later in order to clarify some things. Primarily, Mr. Hale wanted it to be known that he did not see himself as a hero, that the press had put an untrue spin on his story because he did not hold those men at gun point. He had loaded all of his own guns, he had prepared, he had one weapon with him in the car. But he decided to take his daughter away from harms way instead of getting into a shooting match.  He was in that car backing slowly away from the men on foot hoping to keep his distance and flee to safety while keeping an eye on their next move. He answered some questions at that press conference and said that he had not thought of reward money only the need to protect his home and family. He talked about how he had prayed for safety as he made his get away and he repeated his sentiment verbatim that the way things turned out left him more certain of his belief in Jesus Christ.
His wife beside him, his little girl was apparently behind the podium as he made this statement. You could hear her inquisitive little voice and her parents gently hushing her as he set the record straight but you couldn’t see her. At his last answer, to the question of what he was thinking during his ordeal and why he made the decisions he made he lift up the toddler in his arms and said, “This is why.” 
This is a wonderful story. It is a wonderful story for Fathers Day. A wonderful story of a man driven to protect his family who prayed for God to intervene and keep them safe. In the end he was grateful that no violence came to his home or his family. There is nothing wrong with that.  This is also a story that goes well with today’s lessons which are at root about Father Abraham, the father of the Abrahamic religions, the prototype of all believers. These are stories of the beginnings of the multitude of God’s people, the blessings that come from being hospitable to strangers. But the theme here that I want to lift up is our identity as Christians. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What does it mean to believe?
As we begin ordinary time this year, I think it is important to stop and check out where we are in our story telling, and in our story living.  At this point in the season of the church we have come from waiting on God in Advent through the joy of the Incarnation at Christmas, through the solemnity of Lent through the joy of the Resurrection of Easter and also through the mystery of the Ascension. At the beginning of Lent I challenged you to contemplate what it means to be this community rather than focusing only on our individual sins, to focus on our collective repentance, our collective discernment of God’s call for us to mission.  Remember that?
Well, today I want to challenge you to consider what it means to be Christian in the first place and to begin new ways of discerning what to do about that.
I laughed at this stranger’s story because he seemed to have an understanding of Christianity that seemed silly to me. One focused more on the prosperity of the individual than the mission of the community. But as Joe and I discussed Mr. Hale’s statement over lunch yesterday, we were able to name multiple times in our lives when we were frightened and feared even for our lives. At such times one is apt to pray for safety and when the crisis has passed one is also moved to pray prayers of thanksgiving.  Why not indeed praise God at such moments with clarity of belief in Jesus and belief in salvation?
I once counseled a man who told me that he was “raised in a very conservative Christian home and church.”  I’m not sure what that meant exactly, but it was something he went on to tell me that he wanted to leave in the past, something harmful in some way, something he wanted to “recover from,” as if his faith practice had been like an addiction.
He told me that the fathers of this past church experience told him that the key to faith is to be able to claim, on a personal level of faith the phrase “I know, that I know, that I know.”  Then he told me that he had come to believe, in his nearly thirty years, that he more values the mystery of Grace than a theology of certainty and that he was struggling to learn how not to “know” so much.
Well, I figured I knew all about what he meant by living into a faith built on God’s Grace and mystery. But I was left pondering what it would be like to personally claim the phrase, “I know that I know, that I know.”
I imagine for those first followers, who actually witnessed the Resurrected Lord and the Ascension of our Lord, those men and women who were so blessed, who didn’t have televisions, iPads, laptops, or Google. I imagine for them it was merely a memory.  They knew that they knew that they knew because they stood there and heard Him in person ask God in prayer “That they may know you, the only true God.”
At the beginning of his earthly life, when he was first conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ humbled himself by becoming fully human, without losing his divinity.  In the Ascension, when his life on earth came to an end (not in death, which was not the end, but in exaltation) Jesus Christ was glorified, without losing his humanity.  This has profound implications for the rest of us, for what it means to be a Christian but even more so for what it means to be human. (previous paragraph quoted from here)
But my question is not what to do in order to feel closer to a God who seems to drift away, but how it is that we experience the God who knows us – God, the God, who is and always was right there at home in our hearts.
Whenever I preach myself into this particular corner, I tend to pull out my favorite Christmas movie.  I know.  It’s hokey and there’s 190 days left until Christmas, but I love the story of George Bailey who get’s to live out for us the fantasy of the quintessential second chance of his Wonderful Life.  
George Bailey prayed, in a moment of desperation, that he wished he’d never been born.  He is awarded this wish.  He then spends the next few hours in the Scrooge-like hell of encountering all of his family and friends to whom he is now a stranger.  No one knows him.  No one loves him.  No one accounts for him and he ends up in trouble.  It is in the penultimate scene in which his second prayer – to live again – lifts this curse and he encounters his friend Bert the police officer, when George finally knows the gift of being known. Bert the cop finds the lost George on a bridge staring at the icy water below.
Bert: [shouts] Hey, George! George! You all right? Hey, what's the matter?
George Bailey: Now get outta here, Bert, or I'll hit you again! Get outta here! 
Bert: What the sam hill you yellin' for, George? 
George Bailey: You... [suddenly stunned]  George ? . . . Bert? Do you know me?
Bert: Know you? Huh. You kiddin'? I've been looking all over town trying to find you. I saw your car plowed into that tree down there and I thought maybe you - hey, your mouth's bleeding. Are you sure you're all right? 
If you’ve seen the movie, you know the rest.  If you haven’t seen the movie, you probably have at least seen the famous last clip of a joyful family gathered for their prodigal celebration.  You know the part where George holds his youngest little girl in his arms as she plays with the bells on the tree.
It gets me every time.  I watch this 60 year old movie every Christmas and cry every time!  But it’s not watching George Bailey run through the snowy streets of his beloved home town, nor the Christmas carols, not even the rejoining of all those relationships you’ve just spent ninety minutes watching break apart.  No, what I love about this movie is just this scene, when this lost soul hears a friend call him by name.  He is known, he is found, and so he knows, that he knows, that he knows.
In my retelling of this story today, I am thinking of fugitives running from past sins and wrecked cars and lost people desperate for some grace. And of Sarah laughing at the gifts of strangers. And of being sent out out “like sheep into the midst of wolves,” maybe taking on the risk of getting lost too. Maybe Mr. Hale was not the only one saved on Friday night. Maybe salvation and protection and mystery and Grace and even certainty are ours for the receiving.
On the other hand -  it’s not just through sentiment that we know and are known.  Faith in God comes out in action as discipleship, not sentimentality.  Staying home watching exciting news stories or sappy movies is not a celebration of the incarnation, resurrection and ascension any more than sitting here now without considering what to do when we leave here.  The reason I am so deeply moved by lost George Bailey shouting out the line, “You know me, Bert?” is because it is my connection, my hermeneutic, to the larger story and joy that God knows me.  What’s your connection to the story? Who are we as Christians? How are we best known?
We gather in this place to practice our faith in these sacraments and traditions. We long for others, for so many others to join us. We look for ways to join them. And in the end we find that we are all the same, all afraid of violence and all seeking safety and salvation. We are already one.
And we know, that we know, that we know.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Listening for The Good Shepherd's Call

Easter 4A, 2017
Acts 2:42-47
1 Peter 2:19-25 
John 10:1-10

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

There is a story about an Easter pageant at a Christian school. The little boy had just one line in the play it was “He’s not here, he is risen.”  He must have been playing one of the angels depending on which version they were doing. But the little boy was nervous and excited and not sure he could remember his line and the teacher and his mom were there helping him. (Here’s my chance for a shout out to all those moms since I won’t be here next week. Thank you for everything, including helping us get through scary stuff like school plays!) So the little boy practiced, and practiced, “He’s not here, he is risen,” “He’s not here, he is risen,” and just before the performance of their play he said he felt confident he could do it and so they started. But, when they got to his line he froze. He got out the first part - “He’s not here,” but then he just froze. So his mom was whispering his line to him from the wings, “He’s not here, he is risen.” And she said it again, “He is risen.” And finally the boy came to himself and he said, “Oh yeah,” and then he said loudly, “He’s not here, he’s in prison!”

So today we arrive once again at what we affectionately call “Good Shepherd Sunday,” the fourth Sunday of Easter.  These readings are packed full of imagery and metaphor. The focus of this portion of the gospel of John, however, is on Jesus as the door or gate of the sheepfold.  Now, the image of Jesus as shepherd makes for a far more natural comparison than comparing Jesus to a gate. These two images are part of a richly layered, extended metaphor that speaks of sheep, shepherd, gate, gatekeeper, strangers, thieves, bandits, and wolves. All of these, except for the wolves, are introduced in the first ten verses, and all of the elements of this extended metaphor contribute to understanding who Jesus is, and who we are in relation to him.

But Jesus begins by describing who he is not. Those who climb into the sheepfold in a sneaky way are thieves and bandits who do not care about the sheep but only about their own gain (10:1). By contrast, the shepherd enters the sheepfold openly, by means of the gate (10:2). He is recognized immediately by both the gatekeeper, who opens the gate for him, and by the sheep, who know his voice (10:3). When he calls his sheep by name, they follow him, and he leads them out to pasture (10:4) where they can graze and roam safely. The sheep will not follow a stranger but instead will flee from one whose voice they do not recognize (10:5).

The function of the gate is to keep the sheep together in the sheepfold during the night, safe from thieves and predators. During the day the gate is opened so that the sheep can go out, following their shepherd, to find pasture. The gate and the shepherd work together for the well-being of the sheep, so that the flock thrives. Jesus is both the gate and the shepherd at the same time; he guards and protects his sheep from danger, and he provides for their nourishment, for their life in abundance.

It is important to note that the metaphor of the gate is not one of exclusion, it is not a license to think of ourselves as Jesus’ true sheep while we think of others as outsiders. If we use it that way, we become like the Pharisees. The purpose of the gate is not to keep out other sheep. Indeed, Jesus says (in verse 16), “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  The purpose of the gate is to guard against all that threatens the well-being of the sheep -- thieves, bandits, and wolves.

Much has been written about how sheep are rather unintelligent animals. It is true that without a shepherd, they will not necessarily be able to find food or water, and that they will easily get lost and not be able to find their way home. However, the thing that Jesus emphasizes about sheep is not that they are stupid but rather that they know the voice of their shepherd. Whatever else one can say about the mental capacities of sheep, they have this in their favor: they recognize the voice of the one who cares for them. They follow their shepherd, and they won’t follow a stranger whose voice they don’t know.

A Story: 
Winnie the Pooh went for a walk one winter morning.  Piglet saw him from a ways off while sweeping the snow from his front stoop and decided to join him.  Pooh Bear seemed to be walking in circles and Piglet was curious to see what he was up to, maybe, even if it was hunting Woozles.
Hallo!” said Piglet, “what are you doing?”
“Hunting,” said Pooh.
“Hunting what?”
“Tracking something,” said Winnie-the-Pooh very mysteriously.
“Tracking what?” said Piglet, coming closer.
“That’s just what I ask myself.  I ask myself, What?”
“What do you think you’ll answer?” asked Piglet.
“I shall have to wait until I catch up with it,” said Winnie-the-Pooh.  “Now, look there.”  He pointed to the ground in front of him.  “What do you see there?”
“Tracks, Paw-marks” said Piglet, with a jump.  And then, to show that he hadn’t been frightened, he jumped up and down once or twice in an exercising sort of way.  “Oh, Pooh!  Do you think it’s a-a-a Woozle?”
“It may be,” said pooh.  “Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.  You never can tell with paw-marks.”
The two went on from there around a spinney of trees until they came upon another set of tracks.  With increasing anxiety and excitement, they ventured on discussing at first the possibility they might be tracking “Hostile Animals” and then later they talked about trivial things to distract themselves from fear.  Around they went twice more finding more tracks each time.  When they came upon a fourth set of tracks Piglet couldn’t take it anymore and invented a lovely reason for returning to his home saying he just remembered something he forgot to do and just then, Pooh heard a noise above them, someone whistling.
He looked to the sky and saw none other than Christopher Robin sitting in the branches of a big oak-tree above them.  Their dear friend came down from the tree and comforted them with merely his presence while Pooh tried to explain why he and Piglet were walking in circles around the tree examining their own tracks in the snow.

This is my favorite story by our beloved A. A. Milne and it takes me back to a time in my life when I lived each day in childhood’s bliss of no worry but only excitement about the next adventure I might enjoy.  It was a time when I was surrounded by family and friends and everything in my life seemed cohesive.  

Here is another story from that time, a memory.  We were at a church camp, near Damascus.  I can’t remember the details, but I remember an experience I had one summer evening that has stayed with me for life, as lessons learned through experience are apt to do.

We were finishing up our day and were playing one last game.  It may have been Tag, or our more elaborate favorite, Fox and Hounds, or some new game, I don’t remember, but there was a “get ready, get set, go” called and a group of about 12 children took off running scattered into the woods.

It was a sparse grove of tall hardwoods that seemed to have spilled out of a thicker forest beyond.  I took the lead ahead of my two best friends.  We were strategizing and giggling as we ran.  I was pushing myself to run as fast as I could, probably trying to beat the boys to whatever the goal was, when it happened.

I stopped cold and realized that dusk is much darker in the woods than in the meadow I had just run from.  I was suddenly afraid to go on and turned to tell my friends but they were gone.  It was as if they had vanished into thin air.  I guess they found the ball, or whatever the goal of the game was or the game had ended, and they had returned to the meadow.  But I was left behind.  I could see no one.  In fact, I was very much alone in the dark woods.  I could hear voices in the distance, but they seemed miles away.  I stood there frozen, aware only of my panting breath and the touch of a cool evening breeze from the river nearby.

All I had to do was follow the voices back to the meadow where my mother would hug me and my father would carry me to the car.  All I had to do was follow the still laughing voices of my siblings and friends.  And I did.
But for that brief moment, I was lost.  And I knew it.  And I realized how easy it would be to get lost for good and not have such an easy way of finding home.

So, Jesus is not in prison. He is risen.  There is no need to go looking for him, he will always be there, looking for us. But it is important for us to remember to be watchful for thieves and bandits who do not care about the sheep but only about their own gain. Still, the best route in our effort to follow the Good Shepherd is not in obsessing about our own tracks in the snow but rather in listening for His voice, that voice we recognize in our hearts and when we do this we will know what to do next.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

On Methodist grandmothers, Episcopal ordination and theology discussed over a pitcher of beer.

Maw Maw died the same day I was confirmed. I have often thought she meant to spite me. I came from Methodists, staunch Methodists.
There were two Methodist bishops in Maw Maw’s lineage and as far as she was concerned, Methodism was the only way to follow Jesus. So, when I decided to seek out my discipleship in the Episcopal Church, I didn’t tell Maw Maw.
I was in seminary – as a Methodist.  It was not a good time to change horses. I could say that the reason for my conversion was that I was called to The Episcopalian Way, and this would be true, but mostly it was because I thought the Episcopalian seminarians were so cool. These were the smart ones, they took challenging classes and every Wednesday the entire group (which was small in our Methodist seminary) would celebrate the Holy Eucharist together, then walk over to the pub and discuss theology over a pitcher of beer. I wanted to be like them. It wasn’t the beer, it was the way that gathered. No one judged, no one squabbled, no one was ever absent. They really loved each other.
I wanted that kind of belonging and that is what I found when I made the switch. When I first came to The Episcopal Church I found a wonderful sense of belonging that eased the angst of my seeking. Once I learned the prayer book, the hymns, the history and doctrine and learned when to sit, kneel or stand, I felt I had come home. Most converts put it this way, that we have found our home after some searching. And there was a significant feeling of specialness in the fact that I was making the choice.
Then I found out about the hurtful things Christians do to each other. Belonging was turned into elitism. I observed power abuse, arguments over "rightness,” divisions and much weeping and wailing. And I saw lots of "belongers” leave. I learned that changing denominations doesn’t free you from pettiness and bickering. In fact, drawing this kind of "us and them” lines in the sand creates the kind of culture that can lead to getting caught up in such division.
My sense of belonging was threatened by other opinions and I wanted to fight to defend it. I wanted to stay under the steeple sipping the wine, wafer and word as if it were medicine meant just for me to feel better about me. I wanted to enjoy the fellowship in the same way, to lap up the love amongst the vestments and flowers. But, though we must "rejoice in the power of the Spirit” we are also commanded to go "forth into the world.” There is work to be done. And it is not always easy nor pretty.
Stanley Hauerwas recently said, "The greatest threat to the church today is not atheism, it is sentimentalism.” This has helped me to realize that my desire to stay under the steeple and dance and sing as if church were just a party was keeping me from following the work of my calling.
It is good to enjoy the beauty of our buildings, vestments, ancient prayers and music but what I have learned that is the most important thing about being a Christian is the imperative to seek ways to care for the poor, the sick, the lonely, the widows and orphans. This is the only way to respond to what we receive in the beauty of holiness. And it is in the response to our Lord’s command to go into the world that we are most likely to find belonging, regardless of denomination.  Changing denominations isn’t the cure.  The church is changing, following Jesus means learning to flow with the changes. Following Jesus out into the world is the way to belonging.
In response to the vision proposed at annual council by Bishop Bourlakas, to become a more missional diocese, I have experienced increased hope that we are indeed on our way to caring more for the poor than for our sentimental journeys and in the process we are reviving our parishes and our souls.
Maybe I didn’t need to leave the Methodist tradition to learn this, but I’m glad I did. As for Maw Maw, she made it to 100 and lived a good life. I’m sure she’ll understand if I find a new way to follow Jesus.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Ben Bullington Memorial

This post is the manuscript of a sermon from the memorial service for Ben Bullington that was held at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Roanoke, VA this morning, the church where Ben grew up.  He was an amazing man, according to his obituary and eulogies done by two of his siblings.  It was a lovely service and I was honored to be a part of it.  My husband was on the bulletin to preach but I felt moved to tell the story of my unlikely encounter with Ben, five days after he died.  It is a brief sermon and worth the time to dig through to the story of this encounter and what I learned from it, about Ben and about myself.  Peace.
Ben Bullington

December 28, 2013
Memorial Service for Benjamin Parrott Bullington
St. John’s, Roanoke
Psalm 121
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Rev. Kathy Dunagan

I am not The Rev. Dr. Joe Dunagan.  I am, in fact, The Rev. Mrs. Rev. Dr. Joe Dunagan, a.k.a. Kathy.  Joe and I have both written homilies for today and we decided to use mine because I have a story I want to share with you.  Though this is a homily, not a eulogy and I did not know Ben, I feel that I know him now.
The scriptures chosen for this service are poems.  The psalmist (Psalm 121) compares faith to a reliance of safety found in the experience of gazing at the mountains that stand in ancient poses of strength all around us.  This is easy to imagine from the vantage point of this lovely Roanoke Valley and I imagine also in places like Big Timber, Missoula or Helena, MT.  Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians speaks of love, but there is a context to consider for his poetic description of love, and that is community.  Paul is in the middle of a letter reminding a struggling church that the most important and basic element of our faith is that we love each other.  The line in his poetic letter that takes this message home is in verse 12.  “To know just as I have been known.”  Indeed, what a fantastic vision to imagine life lived as a journey in which the experience of Christian community should be a perfect reflection of the love which God has first shown us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  (James Boyce)
I have somehow always known this in my journey but today I have found a new way to understand it.  So, here is my story:
I have always wanted to live in Roanoke.  I grew up in Bristol, listening to my mother’s stories of her summers spent here as a youth when she would ride the train up from Winston-Salem in the late 30’s and early 40’s.  She brought us here as children to visit those relatives and visit places like the old Lakeside amusement park.  It seems all my friends from Emory and Henry were either from here and returned here or chose to settle here after college.  I enjoyed visiting them and wanted to live here too, but I spent most of my life in Georgia longing for Virginia, the Blue Ridge and bluegrass.
I started playing guitar when I was 13 and I was pretty good.  I could sing too and sometimes got to sit in with my older brother’s bluegrass band and sing those high harmonies in songs like “I’ll Fly Away.”  So I decided early on to try my hand at song writing.  I wrote a few songs in my teens that I hid and wouldn’t sing for anyone.  I carried a fantasy that I would one day be discovered.  I finally shared a song I wrote at the age of 21 and it went over O.K. but I realized I needed to work on it a bit more.  At 25 I was invited by a musician friend in Atlanta to write a song with him over a long weekend and we really worked on it.  By Sunday he gently told me I should give up songwriting.  I just don’t have that gift.  I was relieved.  So I followed other passions and other calls and have lived a wonderful life in ministry and counseling.
But my life long dream of living in Roanoke finally came true through a strange course of events about six months ago.  After settling in, I reconnected with an old college roommate I had not spent much time with over the past 20 years.  She said one night, “Hey. There’s a concert at the Jefferson Center next weekend.  Want to go?” and of course I did.
I had never been to the Jefferson Center.  I had never heard of Tim O’Brien or Darrell Scott.  I had never heard of Ben Bullington either.  I regretted all of those facts and simultaneously was pleased to meet each of them.  At the end of the first set Darrell told us the story of Ben who had died earlier that same week.  He pointed out that Ben had used his gifts well to pursue his passions, to enjoy his journey, to provide for his family.  Darrell also poignantly pointed out that Ben’s song writing came from a gifted place.  That Ben could be, and was, very honest and straightforward in his songs in a way that those who feel pressured to write songs for a living don’t enjoy.  Ben had the freedom to do this because he was also gifted as a physician.
And then Tim and Darrell sang Ben’s song.  (I’ve Got To Leave You Now)  They asked for no applause for themselves and the stage went black at the end and we sat in the darkness of that beautiful old concert hall and honored Ben in silence.
I was forever changed by that moment. I was moved, of course, by the song and by the performance.  I was moved by the poetry of words like “Too many men are worse than rodents” – that’s good stuff!  Or the idea that lost souls see God only as “a fabled God whose hands are full of time.”  I was moved mostly by the image of “four friends smoking on a midnight porch,” an image of that instantly connected me to that same feeling I get when I consider the strength of the mountains when I lift my eyes to them.  I realized at that moment that in some way I did know Ben, in some way I have always known, him and Tim and Darrell and every other person there.  I realized that in some way I have always lived in Roanoke.  Maybe too, it is even possible that it’s not too late to become a songwriter. (Ben didn’t until after the age of 50!)
But it was another line from Ben’s song that has haunted me.  I went home and downloaded Ben’s version from iTunes and I can’t stop listening to it.  “Our Souls might mingle in the after torch.”
I think that if I could smoke with Ben on a midnight porch I would relish in the chance to talk this one over with him.  From what I have heard about him from you, I think he would invite such a conversation.  And I think he wouldn’t mind me challenging his theology.
We were born to die.  We all face the end of our journey some day, as Ben has his.  We can only hope to face our end with as much grace and wisdom and style as Ben did.  But I believe that we don’t have to wait until the “after torch.”  I believe that our souls mingle now.  I believe, because of the strength of the mountains and the love of the community, that we are forever mingled in love now, and always will be.  And I will always appreciate Ben for bringing this to my attention.  In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

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