Other Nations: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, January 9, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary texts cited are Psalm 29 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

Last summer I was browsing in a used bookstore, as I tend to do, and I came across a copy of The Outermost House, written in 1928 by the author and naturalist Henry Beston. It is considered a classic in the genre of nature writing, and although I’d never heard of it before, I was quickly drawn into the author’s vivid, poetic reflections that capture a year he spent alone in a small cottage on a lonely, windswept beach at the edge of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. 

His only companions are the fog-enshrouded beacon of a distant lighthouse, the layers of sound made by the undulation of the waves, and the wild wind of midwinter storms—and all of these he observes with a sense of reverent wonder. But more than anything, he notices and celebrates the wildlife along the shore, especially the birds who pause there in the midst of their migratory patterns, hunting for food, resting on the long journey north or south, attending to their own mysterious rhythms of existence. I am not an especially devoted birdwatcher, but even I was moved by his description of what he calls the “constellations” of shorebirds flying in perfect, intuitive unison above the sea:

He writes: “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…for the animal shall not be measured by man…they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

They are other nations. I love that line. In the magnificent otherness of the birds, Beston realizes that we cannot always interpret everything in the world as simply an extension of ourselves. Some things are foreign to us, unknowable, inhabiting their own truth, inaccessible, and yet still beautiful, still worthy in their own right.

I find a sense of restfulness in that observation. The restfulness of not needing to understand something or someone fully in order to love them. The restfulness of letting them be what they are without trying to control them or shape them into our own likeness.

How much more peaceful my own life might have been, at several junctures, if I had done this. If I had let others—friends, family, partners—be who or what they were, rather than trying to fashion them into what I expected or demanded them to be. And how peaceful it might have been to let myself be what I was, rather than conform to what others expected or demanded of me. How good it is to fully inhabit the mystery of our deepest selves, and to honor that mystery in others.

I was reminded of all this—of birds and freedom and flight and identity—as I reflected this week on the image of the Holy Spirit, who comes like a dove, descending upon Jesus at his baptism. 

This aspect of the scene is a bit enigmatic, when you think about it, but I suspect that when we hear this passage, we tend to focus more on the figure of Jesus in the water, or even on the reassuring voice of the Father from heaven, so much so that we might overlook the descent of the dove, who is, lest we forget, also God. 

Our gaze might easily sweep right past her; we might not stop to wonder where she has come from, this dove, where she is going, or what it means that she chooses to anoint this moment with her arrival, with a brush of her wings, carried on the breeze blowing down from the open gates of heaven. What is her part in this revelatory moment? A specific answer is not given to us. The dove who is God remains just beyond our grasp, just beyond our comprehension.

And if we don’t know quite what to do with the dove in this story, I would also say, too, that we often don’t know what to do with the Holy Spirit at all. The Spirit is unpredictable, elusive, wholly other—wing and wind and flame. Jesus, we can see, we can listen to, we can follow. And the Father we can imagine, at least to some degree, because we know what it is to have or to be a parent. 

But the descending dove—she is not like us. Her experiences, her senses, her scope of vision are beyond ours. She is the person of God that cannot be domesticated or contained. She is free. She is another nation, sovereign and unassailed. She arrives and departs and shapes events on her own inscrutable terms.

And while that can be a bit unsettling, I also love that about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches us not to be afraid of the things we don’t know, the things that we cannot know. She reminds us that sometimes we have to let go of controlling outcomes in our life—for we cannot harness the wind. She humbles us. 

So whether we are considering the baptism of our Lord, or our own baptism, or any other aspect of our faith, it is good to remember and celebrate this wild, strange, impregnable aspect of God’s activity in our midst. For as much as we long for intimacy with our Creator, and as much as we seek to know and be known by our Savior, I think we also desperately need to be surprised by God. 

We need a God, perhaps now more so than ever, who can do a new and unexpected thing in our lives. We need a God who is not bound by the limits of human imagination, who is not subject to the old, tired tyrannies, not governed by the mistakes of our past, a God who can, as the Psalmist says, split the flames of fire and shake the wilderness—in other words, a God who can dazzle us, wake us up, surpass the timid longings of the earth, and teach us how to fly. 

It is true that our salvation is found in a God who loves us enough to become as one of us, but our liberation requires a God who is not like us. A God who is another nation, who conquers us with grace.  Because only in the power of God’s strange and insistent newness can we dream of a newer world. Only under her wing can we be carried there.

Where is that wild Spirit of God calling you? Which expectations or disappointments must you lay down to let God’s freedom be your own? To what great mystery are you willing to entrust your heart as you navigate “the splendor and travail of the earth?”

For we must learn to trust in the things we do not fully understand. That is the essence of faith. And that is the essence of God’s love—a nation unto itself, but now descending, softly, on the wings of the dove, to anoint you with uncompromising authenticity. 

Stand on the shore, at the edge of comprehension, and marvel at her arrival, at all that she is, all that she brings, this bearer of God’s deep, inexpressible, freely given self. Let everything be possible again.

How much more peaceful it might be when we do.

Hands: A Christmas Eve Sermon

I preached this sermon on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2021, for Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN.

Just over a year ago, I had the privilege of sitting at the hospital bed with two of our beloved parishioners, Dick and Vera, just before the end of Dick’s life. He was not really conscious at the time, but it was such a blessing, given all of the complications of hospital visitation these days, that Vera was able to be there in person with him to say goodbye after many decades of marriage. 

And there is one image from that afternoon that I think I will never forget—how Vera reached out to hold Dick’s hand, just as she had always done, and how, even though he was deep into his passage away from this life, his hand squeezed back, and his thumb gently caressed her hand. A memory that was deeper than consciousness, a memory of love so deeply inscribed into him that nothing, not even the approach of death, could inhibit its expression. When Vera also left us earlier this year, I thought of the two of them holding hands again in the new life that is promised to us, and it made me smile.

I remember, too, several years ago, holding my infant godson, so afraid I would drop him, so in awe that my life had even a small connection to the beauty and the possibility of this new life. I remember how his little fingers, tiny and determined, would wrap around my finger, surprisingly strong, an instinctive urge to hold on, to connect. His grasp felt like an inquiry, simple and direct: will you be there? Will you care for me? Is it true that I am not alone in this big, strange world? Can I hold onto you?

I think it might be said that from the beginning of our days to the very end, there is no gesture more fundamental than to reach out to the ones we love, to feel their fingers intertwined with ours. Because, if you think about it, this is what we always do—when we’re happy, when we’re frightened, when we’re falling in love, when we’re waiting for important news, when we can’t quite walk on our own strength, and when we must say goodbye for the last time: in all those moments of life when words fail us, we reach out, and we just hold hands. 

I think it can also be said that our journey of faith is much the same—like that famous image from the Sistine Chapel of Adam and God extending their hands towards one another at the moment of creation, their fingertips separated by an infinitely small distance—underneath all of our striving and our doubting, our seeking and our praying, we are extending our hand out into the deep, into the vast mystery of life, reaching out for something certain, something true, something that endures, something (or Someone) to hold onto. When all is said and done, we yearn, quite simply for a God who will reach back and clasp our hand and say, I am with you. Hold onto me.

And that is exactly what we are given on this night. A God whom we can hold onto. A God who holds onto us. All of the music and the lights, all the activity and the excitement, all the exhaustion and ambiguity and yearning that characterize both the holidays and life in general—all of it finds its answer here, in the birth of a child in Bethlehem, in the terrified wonder of the shepherds in the field, in the song of the heavenly host, in the courageous heart of a young mother, and in the tiny hand of an infant that reaches out, surprisingly strong, towards your own hand. It is the hand of God, holding yours in the cool and pregnant darkness, and it is the answer to your own questions: I am here, now. I will care for you. You are not alone in this big, strange world. You can hold onto me.

How else would love come to find us if not like this: in the flesh, in the way we most instinctively understand? How else could God close that infinite distance between the fingertips? Only like this, only by letting us, at last, take his real, incarnate hand. Only by becoming as one of us, in order to say,

I have always loved you, I have always been for you, ever since the beginning, but now I am with you, too. And I promise I will always be here to hold your hand. 

Even when everything else slips away, even when everything you counted on seems to disappear, I am here.  When you laugh and dance for joy, I will take your hand and dance with you. And when you are weak and afraid, I will be there, too, for my fingers are intertwined with yours now, my life is intertwined with yours now. Just hold on.

I don’t know about you, but in the uncertain times in which we find ourselves, when the preciousness and the precariousness of the present moment are both felt so keenly, I need this good news of Christmas more than ever. I need to be reminded that even in a broken world, there is hope, and that God is still with us. 

In the birth of Jesus–the birth of God among us –our outstretched hands brush against the glory of heaven. In the birth of Jesus, we find that the whole world is full of sacramental possibility, especially in those simple actions of love that make up our lives—the wound mended, the bread broken, the injustice addressed, and yes, the hand held. All, now, instruments of grace, because God has taken them on as the work of God’s own hands.

What a gift to be given. And what a gift to pass on to others. Because, essentially, that is what we are trying to do here at Trinity, as followers of this holy child of Bethlehem, this Savior born for us—we are showing up for one another and for our neighbors and for our community, especially the most vulnerable in our midst, extending our hands in love. We are facing life together, we are celebrating and mourning together, studying and praising together, hands clasped in prayer, hands clasped in greeting, hands clasped in solidarity, hands clasped in trust. 

All because, on this beautiful, silent night, when even the loveliest words ultimately fail to express the fullness of our joy, a hand reaches out to us, a tiny hand from the manger, yes, but in truth a hand reaching out from across eternity, down through garlands of stars, down through the centuries of longing, down from the hidden source of our deepest wonder. And it gently caresses our own, a love so deeply inscribed into it that not even death will inhibit its expression, holding us, softly, but firmly,

as if to say, quite simply,

It’s going to be ok. I am here. Just hold on. 

The Hope-Song: A Sermon

I wrote this sermon as a part of The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” 2021 Advent & Christmas Series. For more information, visit https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermons-that-work/

The Rev. Pauli Murray once wrote that “hope is a song in a weary throat,” and amid this hopeful season, amid this weary age, we would do well to consider what such a song sounds like. It’s easy to miss sometimes, the hope-song, because it doesn’t always sound the way we might expect. We are too easily distracted by the proud aria or the ironic riff to listen for the soft, tremulous music that hope makes.

Hope is the song of empty karaoke bars, of late nights and of last dances, of a husky voice crying out a melody to defy the encroaching night. It is the song one sings under the breath, an insistent memory, perhaps, or a reassurance on the lonely walk home. It is the warbling note that has no obvious splendor other than its defiant insistence to be heard. The hope-song is not elegant, but it is faithful. It is honest. It is the song one offers up when the song is all that’s left to offer.

Consider this music, then, as we travel with Mary to Elizabeth’s house. Forget for a moment the lush choral arrangements of the Magnificat. Don’t be fooled by the prophetic boldness of the words alone. Remember that there is a fearful precariousness to her position. She is a young woman walking uphill in every sense of the word, seeking the comfort of a familiar face when everything else has suddenly become so very unfamiliar. We might wonder: did Mary sing to herself on the dusty road to the hill country? Was it a song that her own parents once taught her that she practiced on parched lips? Or did she call it up from somewhere deeper within, from the Spirit-infused cells of her very depths, determined to give voice to what was true, even when her life seemed to be caught in uncertainty?

Regardless, she sings, and it is indeed hope in a weary throat, reverberating into eternity: “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

Like any hope-song, there is defiance here, along with the joy and the fear. Yes, Mary says, yes, my soul, my very self magnifies the inexpressible holy name of God. The soul that belongs to this body in all its frailty and in all its fecundity—this is a place where God is revealed. Obscure, vulnerable, enmeshed in the tragic history of my people—I may be all of those things, but God is disclosed in them, not despite them, and God has chosen to take part in this world through me. 

And so, I will sing!

I will sing though I am weary, though I am frightened, because in the singing I place myself within a story, not just a circumstance. I sing a song of victory, not of victimhood. I am a teller of hard truths and I am the bearer of hard hope, the type that survives—it is my people’s hope, and my own.

Do we sing a new reality into being, or do we sing to pierce the veil of delusions, to uncover what is already true? The Kingdom is already, and it is not yet, but either way, Mary knows what must be sung, both because she carries the King within her womb, and because she is herself the Queen—a wisdom-figure, worthy in her own deep humanity, as each of us is, to discover and proclaim the hidden, unfolding power of God. Her song belongs to her ancestors, and it belongs to the child she will nurture. It belongs to all of us. It is ancient, and it is new. It is forever.

And thanks be to God for that, because we need hope-songs now, just as desperately as Mary did then. We need to be reminded of the dream that is encased in the tender core of humanity—the dream that God has placed therein, the dream that God invites us to bear into the world, the dream which refuses to be dispelled even by centuries of disappointment and degradation.

And it is especially important for us to remember, in the cacophonous holiday season, that the song that tells of this dream is not always the loudest or the most popular. It is, instead, the one borne of deep, soul-stirring wisdom. The one that, when you hear it—even when the throat is dry and the voice is garbled by tears—still the melody is recognizable because we have been singing it forever.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

But what do we do with this song of Mary’s? How do we make it truly our own in a new and urgent time? Do we put it on a t-shirt or a bumper sticker? Do we write a few more books about it? Host a conference to assess the meaning of the words? Arrange it into a new musical setting?

We could. We do. We protect ourselves, sometimes, by turning Mary’s song into an ornament when, in truth, it demands everything we have.

Because that’s the thing about the hope-song: you don’t really know it, you can’t really claim it until you yourself have sung it with a weary throat. You can’t grasp the words until life has grasped at you, until you have been forced to walk up a few hills of your own, whether by choice or chance. And so, if we really want to sing the song, if we really want to mean it, we must first ask ourselves how attuned we are to the precarity of our lives and those of our neighbors. We must examine how vulnerable we are, and how open we have been to the risk of Jesus’ invitation to follow him, on the path first trod by his mother.

And in our self-examination, we might find that we have indeed been brought down low by life, that we are hungry for good things, and that this song of hope will lift us up if we have the courage to trust in its promise and lend our voices to its chorus. For the weary among us, the challenge is to show the world that we are more than our present despair.

Or it may be, for many of us, that we find ourselves to be the ones already in high, comfortable places, the ones who have never relied so much on hope as we have referred to it, because we are ensconced in other, richer melodies—the ones that lull rather than vivify. If so, it is time for us to wake up. It is time for us to come back down to earth and stand on holy ground. Because it is only from there, where Christ abides, that we can truly begin to live in the way God dreams we might.

Either way, Mary’s voice is calling out to you. So, whoever you are, wherever you find yourself, follow the sound of the hope-song. Let it guide you into the place of encounter with your most unencumbered self, and into relationship with the Holy One who calls you onward.

Mary has shown us the way, she has shown us the words, and she has shown us that while hope may be well-acquainted with weariness, it points beyond it, too, toward the place and time when a new song will be born—one of hope fulfilled, of rejoicing, and of rest. We are still learning how to sing that new song, but it is coming. And it is now here.

Feast: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, November 21, 2021, Christ the King Sunday, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is John 18:33-37.

One of my happiest holiday memories is when I would wake up on Thanksgiving day to the smells of an already-busy kitchen: sage and onion and baking pies and brewing coffee. It was almost as delicious as the meal itself, that long moment of awakening, warm and half-dreaming in the morning light, knowing that there was a feast being prepared, that everyone I love would be gathered in one place, and that, even though the world outside was complicated and so were we, for this one day, at least, there was no need for anything else. There was enough, and we were enough, here, now, together. 

And while for some of us, perhaps, Thanksgiving was never quite so happy an occasion, I do think each of us understands the potency of the idea itself: a time of rest and reunion, a world in which no one goes hungry, where everyone is welcome at the table, where being known and seen and loved is a gift available to all.

As we grapple with some of the entrenched realities and the challenges facing our country and our world—racism, violence, economic inequality, and ecological crisis, to name but a few—I acknowledge that for many the observance of America’s Thanksgiving holiday is fraught with complexity, and I also acknowledge that its celebration can bring up feelings of ambivalence for those among us whose families are fractured or scattered or simply gone. 

But the principle of gratitude that underlies the day is something that must be reclaimed and reinvigorated anew by each generation, so that this is not just the passive reception of an unexamined history or a private lament over a broken family system, but a courageous choice to believe in what is still possible—to believe that there might yet remain much for which we can give thanks. Because even as we face what is ugly and messy about the human condition, we must also hold fast to what is beautiful and hopeful—those simple, good gifts that make life not just bitter, but sweet, that make the struggle worth it, the things that tell a story of hope, not just disillusionment. The things glimpsed around the bountiful table of the present moment—a feast of memory, but also of determination and of expectation of a better tomorrow. 

That’s why I love that after this service we will go upstairs and pack bags with food supplies and encouraging notes for our neighbors so that they, too, might enjoy a Thanksgiving meal. It’s our congregation’s own small gesture of gratitude for the blessings in our own lives, and a demonstration of our belief that the world can still be a hopeful place, a generous place, and that we can help make it so, even when fear and scarcity seem to dominate the narratives around us. 

Choosing to believe in the redemptive possibility of this world—in its goodness, in its capacity fpr renewal—this is part of what we mean when we speak of the Kingdom of God—not just a place up in the heavens that we escape to when we die, but the emergent, lived reality of God’s love here and now—the power of that love, the triumph of that love, the sovereignty of that love. The ultimate gift for which we give thanks.

And so while it is somewhat a fluke of the calendar, it is fitting, perhaps, that Thanksgiving and Christ the King Sunday fall in proximity to one another, because each observance, at its best, calls us toward a vision of beloved community. Thanksgiving  calls us back to what is essentially good and true in our own lives, and as we conclude the calendar of the church year and prepare for the cycle to start anew with Advent next week, we pause to ask ourselves: who is this Christ, this King whom we worship and follow? What is the essential goodness and truth that he brings? And how do we take part in it?

I will admit that answering these questions and then living into the answers can be harder than we care to admit. We want to believe that love wins, that hope endures, but sometimes we look at the world around us and we look up at Jesus above the altar, on the cross, and we can feel as incredulous and bitter as Pontius Pilate, and we ask: Are you the King? Are you? Because you are nothing like any king I have ever seen. You are not the sort of king who fixes all of the problems around us. And even if you are, what is truth when no one is honest anymore? And what is love when everyone is just out for themselves? And what is justice when blood flows in the streets and children go hungry, just as it has always been? And what is hope when it’s just the same bitter pill to swallow, time after time?

Are you the King? 

And Jesus simply looks back at us, infinitely tender, and says: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world: to testify to the truth.” 

 Because the truth is that Jesus’ power, Jesus’ kingdom, is still not the type we expect it to be. And he comes into our midst, still, not to rule like other kings. Not to control. Not to gather power and wealth at the expense of others, and not to tell us to do so in his name. Jesus comes to testify to a truth that is deeper and more powerful than kingship, even if it is less obvious. A truth that God has been trying to convey from the very beginning, although we continue to ignore it, time and again. 

A truth that rises up, growing like a seed sown in a field A truth that rises up like yeast in bread. A truth that rises up like a spring of living water. A truth that rises up and refuses to be killed or silenced, even in our most desolate, hungry moments: the truth that love persists through death. The truth that mercy persists through brokenness. That there is, indeed, enough for everyone, if we will let it be so. That we are, indeed enough. That we belong to this earth and to one another. That we are known and seen by God in our weakness, in our hunger, and we are forgiven. 

The truth that we have to stop being afraid, stop hiding from God and one another, and step out towards each other with hope and gratitude and say, yes, here I am. And yes, I believe in your goodness, Lord. And yes, I believe that it is love—not fear, not the power of kings—that is the strongest force in the universe. And so I will take a chance on this Kingdom, I  will reach out my hands to the world, to my neighbor, to give and to receive, to bless and to be blessed, to join in the feast, to gather round the table where there are always enough seats, always enough to satisfy even the hungriest of hearts.

Because that’s the thing to remember about Christ as a king, as a ruler. What did he actually rule over? In his earthly life, Jesus never led an army into a battlefield, nor did he oversee a court of law, nor did he celebrate a Temple rite. 

Instead, he presided over…a meal. Many meals, in fact, culminating in the Eucharistic banquet in which we still take part. A meal to nourish the world. A meal in which his own life, his own love is the substance. He is the Lord of the feast, the King of the abundant table, and more than anything we are his grateful guests, called to celebrate with him, called to invite others to take their place alongside us. 

That is the Kingdom of God, my friends. That is what will transform the world. That is what will transform us. Bigger hearts and bigger tables. More time spent breaking bread, listening to one another’s stories and creating a new story together. A story that tells of peace, of justice, of the deep joy that is the birthright of all people. A story that can yet be true. 

May we live like this, on Christ the King Sunday, on Thanksgiving Day, and on every other day, for the rest of our lives. And then, by God’s grace, may we one day, after a long and deep and restful sleep, wake up in the morning light of a new life, a new earth, warm and half-dreaming, to the smell of brewing coffee and baking pies, and may we know that we are home, that we are all home together at last, and that there will always be enough, and that we will alway be welcome, in that beautiful Kingdom, at that glorious table, forever.

Bones: A Sermon for All Hallows’ Eve

I preached this sermon on October 31, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Mark 12:28-34.

I confess that I am delighted how All Hallow’s Eve, Halloween, falls on a Sunday this year. A little later this morning we’ll gather together outside and celebrate this ancient festival with costumes and treats and a pumpkin hunt. 

I know Halloween itself has a rather fraught relationship with certain corners of Christian culture in our contemporary times, but we would do well to remember that All Hallow’s Eve, which simply marks the day before the Feast of All Saints (or All Hallows) is part of a Christian tradition that traces back to the earliest centuries of the church, when our forebears wanted feast days to honor the martyrs, the saints, and their own beloved dead. 

Furthermore, much of the imagery we associate with this holiday is itself quite old, much of it sprung from the religious art, the popular devotions and the folk practices of countless generations of Christians.

Take, for example, the skeleton. The grinning, dancing skeleton is a Halloween staple, and it is an image that comes to us directly from Medieval Europe, when that continent was overrun by the Bubonic Plague, a deadly pandemic that reduced the population by at least a third, and imposed inescapable daily reminders of the imminence of death and the fleeting nature of our mortal concerns. 

Murals and drawings started popping up around this time, in churches and elsewhere, featuring a motif that is now referred to as the Danse Macabre, which depicts a group of skeletons dancing wildly in rows or circles, either by themselves or with living people. And the slightly silly, slightly sinister skeletons of the Danse Macabre are still with us—think of the skeletons in kid’s cartoons, or those that feature heavily in Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and the United States. 

Clearly there is something about them that has stuck with us over the centuries, and, given the events of the past year or two, especially this pandemic that continues to swirl around us, I think that we might be well positioned to understand the magnetism of such artwork. I think, in this new era of plague, we grasp the strange blend of somberness and wry humor that characterizes any honest look at the truth, the truth we feel in our bones, that all things are passing away. 

The dancing skeletons of medieval Europe were a way for people to cope with the underlying fact that we all know but would usually rather forget—that all of us, rich or poor, popular or lonely, beautiful or plain, will one day be a pile of dust and bone ourselves. We are united, moreso than anything, by our mortality; we are a bunch of frail bodies knit together in the Danse Macabre, weaving in an out of the valley of shadows, and so we must do our best, while we walk this earth, to hold on to one another, to live fully, with joy and gratitude for what is given. We must seek hope and purpose even in the face of death.  We must go deep, down close to the bone, stripping away illusions, seeking life’s hard, gleaming essentiality.

And, in his own way, that is what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel. He has just finished answering a series of antagonistic questions from scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees in Jerusalem. His own passion and crucifixion, his own trip to Golgotha, the place of the skull, is imminent. Death is close, and there is little time left for parables and puzzles and debates. There is only this teaching, the simple truth at the core of everything he is and does:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 

There is no other commandment greater than these.

We usually refer to this as Jesus’ “Summary of the Law” and so it is. But today we might also imagine it as the skeletal structure that underlies the Law—the structure that holds together all of creation. 

All the ethical decisions, all the customs, all the traditions and codes of conduct—both those of Israel and those we continue to discern and live into as Christians—all of it is undergirded by these two commandments: Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s it. 

Without these two truths, these two practices, we have nothing solid upon which to stand. Without these two things, the whole body collapses. The Law of Love is the bone under the flesh, the essential and unavoidable truth that we sometimes forget when we are distracted by temporary appearances. 

And, to be honest, in the same way we resist looking at death, so too we resist facing and living into the implications of Jesus’ teaching about the supremacy of love. The history of the church—and the history of humanity in general—has been haunted by a fear of love, by a fear of giving ourselves over to its power, a fear of the connection and mutuality and humility that it requires of us.

We hear Jesus’ words, but it makes our bones shake, because to love that deeply and broadly is its own sort of death—the death of our narrow agenda, of our self-centeredness, of our instinct to judge, of our compulsion to win. 

Love, the type that Jesus is speaking of here, dispenses with all of that—it burns away the protective coverings and leaves just the ancient, unyielding truth of our existence: the moment when, just as when Adam saw his companion Eve, we look at one another, with wonder, and say: you are bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. My life and your life belong to one another. Take my hand. Feel these bones cradling your own, tenderly. Hold on to me, for we are caught up in the same dance. 

But there’s one thing we cannot forget: this dance, the one that we learn from following Jesus, is not just the Danse Macabre. It does not end in death. It is not the dance of futile pleasures. It is the dance of enduring life. And in his resurrection, Jesus has shown us that loving God and loving one another is the part of us that cannot die—it is the part of us that will endure, that will live to dance again, even after everything else has been stripped away. 

So just as we might do well to reckon with our mortality on this All Hallow’s Eve, to look the skeleton in the face and accept that it is, essentially, us—so too we must look at love in the face and accept that it is, essentially, us—it is the supreme law of life. The beginning and the end of the story. We will never escape love’s demands, but neither will we ever be forsaken by its goodness. Nothing, not even the grave itself, will ever change that. Make no bones about it.

Where Waters Meet: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 17th at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Mark 10:35-45.

This past week, during a few days of retreat and quiet time, I visited the place where the St. Joseph River merges with Lake Michigan. In case you haven’t been up that way, I’ll describe it to you. The river ends in a broad channel, deep enough for large ships to enter, and the chop and swell on a blustery day, as it was when I visited, makes it hard to distinguish where the river water ends and the great expanse of lake begins. There is a pair of lighthouses marking the spot, though, the St. Joseph North Pier Lights.

Though the weather wasn’t great, I somewhat foolishly decided to walk out along the breakwall to get as close as I could to the lighthouses. The swells were so high that day that they crashed against the wall as I walked along it, the water rushing under my feet on the slick, wet stone, the wind howling. I was the only person out there. And it was clear, the farther I ventured out, that I had crossed a sort of threshold, and this was no gentle river now, but the wild, wide open waves, the swirling, undulating freedom of the great, grey lake.

As I stood out on the breakwall and looked back toward the place where the river gave itself to the expanse beyond, I thought of how far that water had traveled to get there, across hundreds of miles of watershed, accumulating strength and depth as it traveled, along with some broken branches and the fallen petals of summer flowers and autumn leaves, all of it pulled towards this moment, its broad unfolding destiny, no longer a brook or a stream swelling against its own banks, but released, transformed, encountering the greatness of something bigger than itself, shedding its old, narrow boundaries, becoming what it must become, contributing itself into a greater whole: perfect freedom, perfect consummation. 

And I wondered, can a river ever quite comprehend the mystery of the open waters that wait for it? When it is eagerly bursting forth from its headwaters, can it grasp how deep, how wide is the measure of its destiny? Probably not. None of us, when we first set out on a journey, can truly predict what it will be like when we finish, or who we will have become in the meantime.

And in all of this I was reminded of James and John in today’s Gospel, a coupe of exuberant upstarts, babbling like a brook to Jesus, asking for a share of his glory when they don’t fully understand yet what God’s glory even is. They say that they want to sit at his right hand and his left in the coming Kingdom, not realizing that the ones to Jesus’ right and left will be the criminals crucified alongside him on Calvary—for it is there, in the place of the skull, the place where ambition dies, that the coronation of their King will take place, not in a throne room or a temple court. Hence Jesus’ reply to them, perhaps with equal measures of love, incredulity, and pity: “you do not know what you are asking.” Young, eager, thundering river, you are not yet ready for the depths of which I speak. 

Do any of us really know what we are asking for when we set out to follow Jesus? Can we, confined to the landscape of our present understanding, envision both the cost and the promise of where he leads a willing heart? Probably not. The river knows its own banks quite well, but it cannot picture the sea. 

So as easy as it is to laugh a bit at James and John for completely missing the point, for focusing on their own glory rather than God’s, we can’t be too harsh on them lest we condemn ourselves at the same time. For each of us, following Christ, are on a similar course that we don’t fully understand, angling for something better, when what we are actually promised is something deeper—striving for something higher when what we are actually given is something broader, a love as expansive as the open waves, a love that cannot be harnessed to suit our cravings for power or control. 

This all might sound a bit vague and overwhelming, but that’s sort of the point. James and John, too, are overwhelmed, because Jesus has been leading them towards Jerusalem, repeatedly predicting his own torture and death and resurrection, and they are probably feeling scared, disappointed, maybe even a little frustrated. 

Give us something we can rely upon, they seem to be demanding in this moment—give us something to hope for, something to hold onto, something material and reassuring, something that will make all of this make sense. That’s what we all want when things feel uncertain—we want the obvious solution. A cure, a windfall, a sudden change of heart, a surprise advantage. 

We cannot see beyond the next bend, and we are afraid. We cry out, in desperation, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And of course, we ask for the solutions we are capable of imagining—vanquishing our enemies, winning the struggle, securing our position. For James and John, like us, these are the things that seem within the boundaries of possibility. A river dreams of becoming mightier; it doesn’t know how to dream of becoming an entirely new body. 

And Jesus knows this. And like the rich young man from last week’s Gospel, he sees us in this condition, and he loves us. And yet…

Jesus is not limited by our fear-induced dreams; he is the incarnation of God’s dream. And so even when we are certain that we know what we want, what we need, he often tends to say, as he does to his disciples here:

No, my dear ones, you are missing the bigger picture. I have other purposes for you, things beyond your frantic visions of human glory, things wilder and unpredictable and yet even more true, things more beautiful, more satisfying, than you ever dreamt of along the grassy banks of younger days. Take courage, and follow, follow where the river flows, past where you can see, and yes, drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: a baptism that began, yes, right here, in the river and yet does not end here, for it is moving, moving, surging inexorably towards true glory, God’s glory, towards the cresting wave of heaven, a chorus of wind and light, thundering on a distant shore. 

That’s what James and John are part of. That is what we are part of. Something big. Big and wondrous and all-encompassing.

This is good news, my friends. For James and John and for you and me. Because it means that no matter how many times we get it wrong, no matter how many times we misunderstand Jesus or ourselves, no matter how many times we let our fear and our striving get the best of us, as long as we keeping following our Lord faithfully, we are borne on a current towards that encounter with wonder, a place we cannot yet even imagine in full. 

And so even on the days when the water is muddy and brackish, when the branches close in and the horizon is lost, when it feels like we’re stuck, or going backwards, if we follow Jesus’ call, then we aren’t really, because we are living in his wake, and it is guiding us, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes quickly, toward the boundless expanse of that holy dream, towards the place where the river and the waves tumble into one another’s embrace, where, as the Psalmist says, “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, where righteousness and peace will kiss”——the place where our sometimes lonely sojourns merge into the currents of the one single story—the one that has been unfolding since the beginning of time, guiding us on, guiding us home, beyond the uttermost parts of the sea.

Needless to say, I didn’t get washed off of the breakwall that afternoon and I made it back to the shore, back up the river, back into the enclosure of my days, with all of their twists and turns and unresolved questions, where the horizon is a bit harder to spot.

But that image of the colliding waters remains as a gift in my minds’ eye—an image to draw upon, perhaps, when life feels stifling or disappointing—a reminder that even when I don’t realize it, I am being carried forward by God through this endless stream of days, and that there will come a moment, brave and wonderful and strange, when each of us will finally encounter the fulness of truth, and we will feel the breath of God making waves across the deep, and we will see the Lord standing astride the place where the waters meet, like a lighthouse, arms sweeping wide across the horizon, welcoming us to himself, welcoming us home. 

And on that day, what was once narrowly conceived as the lonely journey, the journey that felt like it was mine and mine alone to bear, will suddenly tumble, with joy and trembling and release, into the breadth and length and height and depth of what was never only mine, never only yours, but ours–always ours, with God, in the limitless love of Christ, forever. 

Obituaries: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 26, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Mark 9:38-50.

I have always been moved by obituaries. I come across some of them in my role as a clergy person, of course, but even before then, they were of great interest to me—the way that the complexities of a human life are distilled down to a few essential details—the summary of a life’s work, the naming of a few enduring and precious relationships, and maybe a brief phrase or two that attempts to capture the lovely particularity of the person who has died. And whether they are long and eloquent or brief and matter-of-fact, obituaries all seem to convey the same basic message: this person mattered. They were loved. Someone, somewhere, remembers them fondly, with grateful tears.

And while it might sound strange to say so, what is also striking to me in the obituary is all the stuff that is not written down. We don’t generally find a long list of the person’s failings or their frustrating personality quirks.  And furthermore, there is never a rebuttal of the obituary: no pointed letter to the editor in the next day’s paper that says, actually, that guy was a real piece of work. And, for the most part, nobody is standing up at the funeral saying waving around the newspaper clipping, saying, we really need to set the record straight on all the mistakes she made during her life. 

Even though we know that people are complicated and sometimes infuriating, even though we often hurt one another in this life, we don’t do any of that. In the end, we let it be. We lay down our swords. 

Isn’t that remarkable, when you think about it? Especially when you consider all of the energy that can be expended over a lifetime of feuding and arguing and taking offense, only to realize that eventually, at the end, we will just put it to rest. We will, in most cases, release the frustrations and the enmity and try to forgive. 

I sometimes wonder what it would be like if I could muster the strength within myself to lay down my sword a little sooner, to accept the truth that, when all is said and done, my so-called enemies are not so different from me. I wonder how the relationship wounds I bear would change if I could skip ahead to that obituary state-of-mind, where judgment is tempered by the wisdom of letting go. 

But in the heat of the present moment, we are so quick to make distinctions and dividing lines, aren’t we? Especially when the world feels big and confusing and scary—we immediately jump to delineating various categories of “us” and “them.” And the suspicion and the rage we feel towards “them” whoever they are, it soothes us, in a pitiful sort of way, because it convinces us that we alone understand how the world ought to work, when in reality, we’re all just trying to figure it out together, and, in truth, both “us” and “them” are going home each night and kissing our loved ones, and washing the dishes, and catching our tired reflection in the mirror, and praying that tomorrow will be a little bit better than today.  We can forget that on some level we are all still children, a little bit afraid of the dark, searching for the light.

The disciples start to fall into this trap of forgetfulness in today’s Gospel passage—they hear about this exorcist who they have determined is apparently not “one of them” but who is casing out demons in the name of Jesus. And so the battle lines are drawn: How dare he! He’s clearly just out to make a name for himself, to grab the spotlight, to hog all the glory—someone should definitely write a letter to the editor and set the record straight. Can you imagine the nerve of this guy?

This is ironic, of course, because just a few passages earlier, these very same disciples were squabbling amongst themselves about which one of them was the greatest one acting in the name of Jesus. They are doing what comes all too easily to us: comparing, competing, refashioning the boundary lines to our greatest advantage.

But Jesus will have none of it. Do not stop this exorcist, he says, quite pragmatically. Whoever is not against us is for us. In other words: whatever this exorcist’s motivations are, in whatever manner you disciples have decided that he is outside the clique, the only truly important thing is that he, like you, has been caught up in the work of the Kingdom. And it is you, wayward disciples, it is you—so quick to determine who is in and who is out, so ready to draw battle lines between yourself and others—it is you who are distracting yourselves from the actual point of all this. It is you who have placed yourselves outside of God’s purposes.

Because the moment we decide who our enemies are and prepare for battle with them, we have already lost. And when we fight—and God knows how long and hard we have fought across the tired, staggering, bloody ages—is it not almost always true that, eventually, we end up standing at the gravestones of our supposed enemies, looking at the stony names inscribed therein—names once whispered on a mother’s smiling lips—and we say, with a sudden shock of grief or humility: oh, I see. This person was not my enemy. 

They mattered. They were loved. Someone remembers them fondly, with grateful tears.

Love does not divide the world into “us” and “them.” Love has no true enemy except for the practice of enmity itself, the lie of the great deceiver, and Jesus has already conquered that. What will it take for us to accept this, to live like this is true? What will it take to see one another as siblings and partners, and not as threats?

It will take letting go of fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of people we do not understand. Fear of our own failures. Fear of our vulnerability in an uncertain world.

Letting go of that fear, though, requires us to face it. We must face the ways we have cultivated enmity within ourselves and within our world, and then choose a better way. And that is hard to do, especially when the world around us seems to thrive on division and mistrust. 

But again, that’s why I have a peculiar love for obituaries. Because they give us a sneak preview of what is going to happen with all of the division and posturing and the obsession with being right—none of it is going to matter. 

The only questions left, in the end, will be: how much did you love? How did you contribute to the flourishing of the world? How did you protect the vulnerable entrusted to your care? What was the unique radiance that sparkled behind your eyes? What small, meaningful things did you do in the name of Jesus?

And then, someday, when every obituary has been recorded; and when life is revealed, at last, for what it truly is; when all is made new; when “enemy” is no longer a word in the language of the human heart, on that day we will simply behold one another face to face and we  say: 

You matter. You are loved. And you, my sister, my brother, my friend, will be remembered, fondly, forever. And there will be no more tears.

Unforgotten: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on August 29, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9.

Last week a group of us here at the church began our Sunday afternoon program for Confirmation, Reception, and Reaffirmation of Baptismal vows, and as I’ve been preparing the content for that, a couple folks have mentioned something that perhaps you have noticed, too: there are so many funny, obscure-sounding words that we use in the church and in the liturgy—hang around an Episcopal Church long enough, especially in the sacristy (itself one of those funny words) and you are liable to pick up a second language of sorts. In seminary my friends and I spent a lot of time making puns using liturgical vocabulary and I realized: Phil, you really need to get out a bit more, go see a movie, get a hobby or something. 

All that is to say, here is your liturgical vocab word of the day: anamnesis.

Anamnesis. Technically, this is that little portion of the prayer at the altar during the Eucharist where we say (or chant) together something like: Christ has died/Christ is risen/Christ will come again. This is the anamnesis—a word that could be translated as “a remembrance, an act of remembering”— because in that moment we are saying, together, what has happened in the story of our faith and what we trust will happen in the future. We are remembering and restating that past, that present, and that future promise together, with one voice, as one body.

But a more literal and perhaps more evocative translation of the word anamnesis, as a professor once told me, is found by splitting up its parts—amnesis (which means “to forget”—like the word amnesia) and the prefix an-, which means no or not.  So literally, Anamnesis is to not forget

Not simply happening to remember a nice, pleasant thing once in a while when we’re feeling nostalgic, but to firmly, resolutely choose to “not forget” to never forget what Christ has done and continues to do for us and in us and through us. 

The practice of anamnesis is to guard against forgetfulness—our own and the world’s—to lay claim upon the knowledge and the experience of something or someone—for us, Jesus— that is precious enough to reiterate, over and over and over again. In the anamnesis, we proclaim what is true and what is fundamental, in a world that is all too ready to forsake these things for the expediency of the moment. Sunday after Sunday…Mass after Mass…like a sustained note across the chaotic centuries: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Now more than ever, perhaps, it is easy to be forgetful. Bombarded by the news of the world; dizzied by rapidity with which one crisis follows another; caught up in the cacophany of competing claims upon our attention. We are so overstimulated that it is hard to keep it all straight, to sift through all the data, all the opinions, and to not lose sight of what is deep and persistent and real. 

I have joked more than once in recent weeks that on some days I don’t recall my name or what it is that I am supposed to be doing in any given moment, but there is some truth there in the joke, because at times I do think we forget our real identities in the mad scramble to keep up, to stay on top of things—we forget, in our fearful haste, what our true name is.

It is: Beloved; Child of God; Redeemed one; Liberated one; Peacemaker; Mercy-bearer; Branch upon the vine of Christ. 

If we’re not careful, if we don’t keep telling the story, we forget this.

“Take care and watch yourselves closely,” Moses tells Israel in today’s reading, “so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.” He knows, just as we do, that not forgetting is hard, but he also knows that it is essential if Israel is to bear the fruit of God’s promises. So he is saying, to them and to us:

Hold on to the memory of the God who called you out and delivered you from your despair. Hold on to the memory of the God who would not give you up, who fed you, who made a way for you where there was no way, who guided you into your true identity to be a sign of justice and peace to the nations. Hold on to this, beloved ones, because it is so easy to forget, it is so easy to cut yourself off from the truth of who you really are, who God has ordained that you will be. You have to keep telling the story, and you have to keep embodying the story, so that you will not forget. And in your not forgetting, in your anamnesis, even when you suffer—for you will suffer—you will yet remember that life is more than suffering. You will still sing the freedom songs of Zion, even in a foreign land.  You will not lose hope, because even through a thousand starless nights you will still remembver, still dream of what is possible. And you will not lose your way, not forever, because the unforgotten story will show you the way home. 

This is still our task, still our calling: to not forget the story. And to pass it on. To ensure that what God has done and continues to do remains unforgotten. If we do nothing else with our lives than that, we will have done something very good. 

That’s why we keep coming back, that’s why we keep learning all these funny church words and sitting through sermons and singing these same songs, and praying these same prayers over and over again—this is why we keep proclaiming, through every season, that Christ has died/Christ is risen/Christ will come again—because we need to remember that this is what is true. That in a world full of illusions and shadows, this is Truth itself.

And even if, someday, we forget everything else—our name, our accomplishments, the faces of our loved ones, the day or the month or the year, I pray to God that we will never forget the words of this place, the prayers ingrained upon our lips, the words of a story that tells how Love formed the stars, how Love Incarnate could not be killed, how Love’s Spirit has never left us. And I pray that even when we are dust, that the dust remembers the story still, that the earth trembles with the memory of this love that refuses to be forgotten. 

That is why we are here. Because Love refuses to be forgotten. Love is its own type of anamnesis. 

Remember that, when things in the world start to feel especially scary, as they can, and when things in your own life start to seem uncertain, remember that throughout all the ages, throughout all the rise and fall of history, throughout all the confusion and the mistakes and the distortions of the human heart—remember that Love refuses to be forgotten. It is the one thing that has never faded, never given up, never been vanquished. Love endures all things.

And that is the story we can’t forget.

Or, perhaps, better yet, that is the story that refuses to forget us.

No Paradise: HBO’s “The White Lotus” and the Limits of Natural Theology

This reflection does not contain specific plot spoilers for the HBO seriesThe White Lotus” but it does refer to the overall trajectory of the storyline.

If you are looking for the key question that underlies HBO’s limited series The White Lotus, you will find it in episode 4, during a dinner conversation among the wealthy white Mossbacher family and their daughter’s BIPOC friend, Paula. In the midst of a terse intergenerational argument over race, class, and social change, the normally quiet teenage son Quinn erupts in frustration:

What does it matter what we think? If we think the right things or the wrong things, we all do the same shit. We’re all still parasites on the earth. There’s no virtuous person when we’re all eating less fish and throwing all our plastic crap in the ocean. Like a billion animals died in Australia during the fire. A billion. Where does all the pain go?”

Where does all the pain go, indeed? Who pays the price for widespread abuse and destruction, be it climate change, systemic social injustices or otherwise? 

Although it looks and sounds like a straightforward TV series centering intertwined human dramas, it is the tension between ethics and ecology that is, in truth, the force propelling the stories of the indolent guests at The White Lotus resort. Certain questions linger and prod at us throughout the series: can we (especially we white, economically-privileged westerners) insulate ourselves from the raw forces of nature, including the self-destructiveness of our own predatory instincts? Will nature eventually humble us into a greater sense of mutuality and interconnectedness with our neighbor and our planet?

For The White Lotus, at least, the answer is yes to the first question and no to the second.  Without giving away any specific plot points, it is safe to say that there is no dramatic comeuppance for the hotel guests. They emerge from their vacations largely unscathed, still ensconced in their entitlement, while those who serve them or tread in their wake are left to bear the brunt of the tragedy that ensues.

This can feel a bit disappointing, especially if you were hoping for the emotional gratification of seeing some problematic people get their just deserts. The sinister, sickly-golden artifice of the resort, which at the outset of the series hints at the possibility of some moral reckoning lurking among the hibiscus flowers (like a modern-day Fantasy Island) gives way to an even more sinister truth at the end: there is no reckoning, at least not for those at the top of the food chain. The world, the show seems to admit, continues to reward the dominant and chew up the vulnerable. There is no moral arc intrinsic to the natural order of creation. 

A bleak takeaway for an intelligent and entertaining TV series, perhaps. However, there is much here to consider through the lens of Christian faith—especially for those of us who operate in generally progressive Christian circles or who frequently emphasize the inherent goodness of creation. Here’s why.

If you or anyone you know has ever said something like, “I sense God’s presence most clearly in nature,” you have participated to some degree in what is called natural theology, which explores “what can be known of God through the natural world without any divine guidance or revelation” (McGrath, Christian Theology, 141.) When we behold the beauty of a sunset or marvel at the intricacy of an ecological system and then consider how those things might reveal something of their Creator, we are, in that moment, natural theologians. In our wonder we echo the words of the Psalmist who cries out that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the heavens proclaim the work of God’s hands” (Psalm 19:1). 

This can be a sacred and life-giving pursuit. Natural theology is a deeply important approach, especially because in an age of overly-spiritualized Christianity it emphasizes the goodness and the preciousness of the created world and our responsibility to it. For if nature bears some imprint of God’s own majesty, then presumably we are called to honor it and care for it, just as we do for our neighbor whose own face reveals to us the face of Christ. In the era of destructive climate change, this perspective is more urgent than ever. 

But natural theology has its limits, and we must be mindful of acknowledging them. For as much as we celebrate in the Christian faith that God created the earth and called it good (see:Genesis) this ought not send us into a mawkish romanticism that sees nature simply as a benign object of admiration. For example, it is unarguably lovely to imagine God revealed in a sunset or a rainbow, but far more troubling to consider God as exercising Divine prerogative in an earthquake or a hurricane. And although the record of Scriputure does both, it is far too easy to reject the latter while blithely retaining the former. God becomes the object of our pleasure rather than our awe, and God then suspiciously begins to look a lot like us, as malleable as the landscape we exploit.

And while they do not seem to profess any particular faith, this is, in fact, what the characters of The White Lotus are prone to do in their Hawaiian pseudo-paradise. They are natural theologians in extremis. They admire the waves and the flowers and the hula dancers as scenery while carefully ignoring their own complicity in the subjugation of the land and the people in whose midst they are traveling. Nature is beautiful and largely banal to them because, as those residing at the top of the ecosystem, they can afford to ignore the ugly, brutal stuff. But others (the hotel workers and those in more precarious social circumstances) cannot help but notice that stuff because they are the ones left to clean it up, both literally and figuratively.

Natural theology, unmitigated, can result in a subtle sort of idolatry in which the world as it is is interpreted as an end in itself. Our reverence for creation risks turning into reverence for ourselves with creation as a soothing backdrop, which might sound like a harmless form of self-empowerment until you see it at work among those who hold all of the power and who claim that this is both natural and divinely sanctioned (see: white supremacy.) At the risk of gross understatement, we’ve seen too much of this, and there must be a corrective.

Thankfully, there is. A central aspect of our faith, which can get lost in our contemporary enthusiasm for natural theologies, is that Christianity is revealed—that is, God’s activity and self-disclosure in Christ are outside of the natural order. This activity is characterized by intervention, by miraculousness, and what might be called a loving antagonism against the established natural and social order of the world. 

Because if we, like the creators of The White Lotus, observe that nature is inherently amoral in its ordering, such that “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” (Ecclesiastes 8:14), then God has provided a revolutionary new thing (Isaiah 43:19) in the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. This new thing  is categorically unnatural, because it overturns the tendencies of death and domination that pervade nature as we know it. 

And in its unnatural character, God’s work in Christ liberates us from the expected outcomes. It is a promise that those who feast and laugh (and, ahem, take expensive and exploitative beach vacations) at the expense of others must eventually be accountable for their share of the world’s suffering.  

Divine judgment, which tends to make us progressive Christians squirm, is actually a promise that the brutality of nature is not the end of the story. Hence Mary’s jubilant song: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53). 

This is the moral outcome which is utterly lacking in The White Lotus, but our dismay about that absence is actually a sign of encouragement. For if nature itself (and the society we have built upon its back) is largely indifferent to our basest impulses, then from whence comes our longing for justice and our capacity for selflessness? How can we imagine pure benevolence when we have no direct experience of it in the world around us? That these questions are inherently “unnatural” and unsupported by prevailing evidence suggests that there is more going on in God’s universe than what we can readily perceive.

This is our hope: that the answers to these questions transcend the limits of natural theology and invite us into something more vast than the largest ocean and more beautiful than the most perfect sunset—something made known to us not by human wisdom or striving, but only in the revelation we receive as followers of Christ. While Jesus does not deny that domination and death will still shape our experience of life and discipleship (see: Calvary), he also promises through his conquering of death that yes, there is place where all the pain goes. It goes to a place where it is held and transformed and redeemed by Love itself. We usually call it the Kingdom of God. It is a realm where we are are not just on vacation, but where we—and all of creation—can finally experience what the hapless travelers at The White Lotus never actually find: true peace. 

Home: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on August 15, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Proverbs 9:1-6 and John 6:51-58.

This past Wednesday the parish gathered outside in the garden (or the garth, as we call it) for a party to celebrate the beginning of a new program year here at Trinity—and, I think, to simply revel in the joy of being together after a very long and challenging year and a half. 

I saw and heard so many beautiful things as I wandered around—friends visiting and reconnecting; some of our downtown neighbors who showed up and appreciated the opportunity to receive a hot meal from the food truck; the sound of music and laughter bouncing off of those old stone walls. It felt so good, like the love that we speak of and cultivate here in the nave of the church had spilled out into the streets. 

If you were there, I think you have a sense of what I am talking about. And if you couldn’t be there, please know that you were thought of, that you were in a sense still part of things, because no matter the day or the week or the year, this place belongs to all of us who have loved it, to all whose lives have crossed this threshold, to all whose hands have tended to its care, whose feet have trod the well-worn path to the altar rail. And so, as we begin another season of worship, study, and service at Trinity, I say again to you what will always be true, every time you come through these doors, whether for the first time or the last: welcome home. 

Now for some, the language of “church home” and a “church family” can come off as overly sentimental or disingenuous, an attempt to gloss over the broken parts of a complex institution, claiming a spirit of welcome and mutuality when what is actually expected is compliance and conformity. I know that many have been harmed in the past by those types of environments, and thus it is so very important here, in this place, that we mean what we say. That we come together in our diversity and difference and live as though there is space enough for everyone at this table, in this house of prayer, because God has told us that, indeed, there is. The door is open to every willing heart.

In today’s reading from Proverbs, the personification of Wisdom calls out to passersby, “you that are simple, turn in here! To those without sense…come eat of my bread.” In other words, no matter how foolish or stupid you are, you are welcome here!

And while I don’t know that that exact wording will show up on any of our parish event invitations, the point is this: we are all, in one way or another, lost, stumbling around, distracted and confused by both the complexity and the banality of our days, and we are all seeking the place that is home. The place where we don’t have to earn our sense of worth. The place where we are loved simply for being there, AND the place where we are invited to lay down our burdens and grow into the fullness of life. 

This is that place. This community, this altar, this moment where our life encounters God’s life is that place. Or at least, it can be, if we will let it be. If we will show up and receive what is offered.

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” Jesus tells us today, and as much as we sometimes like to equivocate and dance around the bold claims of Christian truth, there is, in these words, a stark choice. Take part in the life of Christ, feast at his table, follow where he leads, or do not. But know that if you do not, you may very well spend the rest of your life searching for home in the wrong places. 

Because your true home is not the house you live in. Your true home is not your political identity. Your true home is not your nationality. It is not found in the private realm made up of your hobbies and tastes and preferences. It is not even found within your “self” as we tend to use that word, the amalgam of your memories and thoughts and experiences.

All of those things are part of who you are, they all matter, but they are not your home. Your home is here, in the presence of the living, beating heart of God. Your home is beneath the loving, penetrating gaze of Jesus, who knows you better than you will ever know yourself. Your home is here, in the Sacraments and in the service of Christ’s body, the church—in the place where our individual stories are enmeshed with the stories of our forebears, the generations of those who came before us, who sat right where you are sitting, who knelt and stretched out their hands and received the bread on a thousand Sundays, just as you are about to do.

Here, among the great cloud of witnesses, at the Eucharistic center of creation, this is where you truly belong.  So yes, you that are simple, turn in here. You that are lost, turn in here. Come home, no matter what you have done, no matter how long it has been. Come home!

And I don’t say all of this merely as a sneaky way to convince you to attend Mass more often or to join in all of our fall programming, though I certainly hope that you will, because I continue to be amazed by the transformation of the heart that I witness among those who engage deeply with prayer and study and fellowship in this place.

I want you to hear and know that this is our true home because we are living through a time when so many people do indeed feel lost—a time when the very idea of home and belonging are unraveling concepts—when it is easy to feel disconnected and divided and estranged from any sense of community, any sense of being a part of something greater than ourselves. People are desperate to find somewhere that feels like home, but they don’t know where it is.

Because maybe at times, you have felt that way, too, wondering: is there a place for me in the world? Does anything I do actually matter? In the face of so much uncertainty and loss and suffering, is there any sense to be made of this life? After all of my wandering, when will I arrive? When will I know that I am truly known?

These are hard questions to answer with mere words. There is no simple phrase or formula that makes everything in this life easy or clear. But there is this place, where we wrestle with the questions and we strive to live into the enfleshed, incarnate answer that we find in Jesus. 

Because I guarantee you, if you stood where I stood on Wednesday and watched the little ones laughing and running in circles, like fish swirling through a pond; if you stood there and saw friends and families of every age and circumstance sitting together sharing a meal on the grass; if you sensed the solid and reassuring presence of this church building huddled there in the twilight, inviting you to rest against its warm stones; and if you can perceive the life that radiates outward, every moment of every day from the Body of God resting in this tabernacle, the Body that will soon be placed in your hands…if you have experienced these things, or if you can simply see how important they are, then you have already glimpsed the answer. The answer to everything. It is here. It has always been here, where God offers himself to you freely. 

“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed,”  says Wisdom.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” says Jesus.

In other words, God is saying to you: Come, take all I have, take my very life, so that you can truly live.

Come, and eat, and know that you will never be a stranger here. Just come. 

Welcome home.