On Julian, God, and Gender: A Sermon

I preached this sermon today, the feast day of the English mystic Julian of Norwich, at All Saints Chapel, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, CA. The Gospel text cited is John 4:23-26.

When my mom was pregnant with me, she and my dad went about the usual business of considering baby names and preparing a nursery (mine was full-on Beatrix Potter characters). And in the early 1980’s, ultrasound predictions of an infant’s sex were not as common as they are today, so it was, for them, a matter of speculation whether I would be a boy or a girl. My mom was convinced that I was going to be a girl, and my name was going to be Ashley.

My parents had an artist friend around this same time who gave them an oil painting as a baby shower gift. It features a pastoral landscape with small human figures here and there: my dad carrying a fishing pole, and my mom standing by a bassinet with a little blond baby under a pink blanket.

After my birth (surprise! It’s a boy!) their friend changed the painting—brown hair, blue blanket. Now, in retrospect,could they could have kept it pink, and I’d have been perfectly happy with that! But I love that when I look closely at the painting now—it’s hanging in my room—you can still see little traces of the blond and the pink peeking through, the shadow of a different existence–a different, unrealized identity.

And I wonder about that other child who is not me—the Ashley who never arrived—and what her life would have been like, shaped by the expectations that are assigned to certain types of bodies. I am sure it would have been very, very different, and perhaps much harder in ways that I’ll never fully understand as a man.

And yet, in a way that I can’t fully explain, I still feel like I a carry a piece of Ashley inside of me; the part of my identity that doesn’t conform to some of the gender expectations that came along with that last-minute painting revision. Who we are is never quite as simple as appearances might indicate.

I tell you this story because it reminds me of the constructed nature of our identities, and especially of the ways in which our bodies and our genders and our  culturally-mediated self-understandings are always engaged in a process of becoming, from the moment we take our first breath, all the way up to our very last. Whatever labels have been assigned to us, rightly or wrongly,  and whatever identities we claim for ourselves, their meanings and significance can and will develop, both by the unfurling of our interior self-knowledge and by the changeable nature of our changing contexts. Who we are as social beings is always contingent, always being revealed ever more in its fullness. It is the journey of a lifetime, one that is never finished.

And that, I think, is as it must be, because the fullness of ourselves, the maximum horizon of our complex, nuanced personhood, is located in the heart of the God who draws us across time and space to a place as yet only partially revealed to us, as we are now, sitting here this morning. Today we might understand ourselves primarily as a seminary student, as a gay man, as a person of color, as a professor or a priest or spouse or child, or, in the case of our Gospel passage, as a Samaritan woman kneeling beside a well. And in our present contingency we know that we are also other things, other identities… some that we want to forget, and some that we yearn to become.  

But Jesus tells each of us today that the hour is coming, and is now here, when the “true worshippers” will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. In other words, the hour is coming and is now here when we will understand that God loves the fullness of who we are —this is God’s truth; AND the hour is coming and is now here when we will understand that God’s loves the fullness of every other identity too, especially those that the world has called suspect or worthless—this is the work of the Spirit. And in this confluence of truth and Spirt, we will know perhaps for the very first time how SPACIOUS God truly is. How FREE God truly is. How the love of God includes all of us, as we are now, and as we are becoming.

Julian of Norwich, the deep lover of Christ, the medieval mystic, the earliest known woman author in the English language, the person whom the Church honors today, was intimately acquainted with the spaciousness of God’s identity. Her text, Revelations of Divine Love, which describes her ecstatic visions of Jesus’ passion and the Holy Trinity’s deep yearning for the salvation of all creation, is one of the most beautiful accounts of Christian wisdom ever recorded. It is also a text, written in the late 14th century, whose treatment of God’s gender and identity is so fluid and liberating that it challenges any notion that the language of patriarchy is the only appropriate way of speaking about God. She writes:

“So Jesus Christ…is our real Mother. We owe our being to him—and this is the essence of motherhood! God is as really our Mother as he is our Father. He showed this throughout, and particularly when he said that sweet word, ‘It is I.’ In other words, ‘It is I who am the strength and goodness of Fatherhood; I who am the wisdom of Motherhood; I who am light and grace and blessed love; I who am Trinity; I who am Unity; I who am the sovereign goodness of every single thing; I who enable you to love; I who enable you to long. It is I, the eternal satisfaction of every genuine desire.” (Revelations of Divine Love, 167).

I say take some of that and put it in the Book of Common Prayer revision.

What Julian saw, and what she blessed us with in recording her visions for posterity, was the capacity of God to take on multiple identities, each in its precious specificity, and in so doing, to show us that all such identities—every last one—are holy in themselves.

And so, no matter how we continue to grow in self-understanding through our lives and relationships—whether we end up claiming for ourselves a pink blanket or a blue blanket or perhaps we decide we don’t want to be confined by any color blanket at all, thank you very much—whatever our becoming looks like, God holds it. God loves it. God IS it.

God is our Mother and our Father and our Spouse and our Sibling. And God is Spirit and Truth, and God flows through our fluid identities, bolstering their unfolding current with Christ’s life-giving waters, as we travel together with Jesus towards something beautiful and vast and mysterious, something in which all of who we are, all of the ways we name ourselves, ALL OF IT is revealed in its magnificence—in a place where we will indeed and at last be “true worshippers” in the fullness of our hard-won, fully embodied truth.

I pray for that day. I long for it. I hope I’m courageous enough when I leave seminary in a few weeks to keep working towards it alongside each of you.

Julian is perhaps most famous for one particular quote from her text: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It’s a lovely sentiment, but there’s an important clarification that must be made: these are not Julian’s own words. It is not a speculation on her part, or a vague, facile hope for the future. No, these are the words that Jesus speaks TO Julian in her vision, to assure her about the destiny of all creation.

And so Jesus says, to her and to us: All shall be well. ALL shall be well. All manner of thing—every person, every searching heart, every identity we name and encounter, every single thing—shall be well, in the fullness of what it is because it is OF GOD. It is OF SPIRIT AND TRUTH. That is our shared identity, commingled with all of those others we are carrying and discovering and painting in new layers over the landscapes of our lives.  Pink, blue, something else—it doesn’t matter. God is in all the colors. God is in every possibility.

All shall be well.

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Only Questions: A Good Friday Sermon

This sermon was preached on Good Friday, April 19, 2019, at Christ Episcopal Church in Alameda, CA. 

Shortly before condemning Jesus to death, Pilate asks him–and thus unknowingly asks God–a bitter, heartbreaking , fundamental question, one that humanity has likely been asking from the very beginning: “what is truth?”

He receives no answer.

There is no answer to give that could be encapsulated into words. Truth, the very embodiment of Truth, is a bruised and battered face staring back into his own face, and it is beyond articulation.

Like Pilate and everyone else who participates in the crucifixion of God Incarnate, we are deep in a mystery now, a place where words are largely inadequate, where answers are few, where only questions prevail. We must tread carefully, for this is terrifying holy ground we stand upon today, Good Friday, and we should not profane it with endless speculation.

We are at the foot of the Cross, gazing up at Jesus, who in turn gazes back at us, blood and tears streaming down his face—and in this place, tidy, insightful observations about the nature of God and clever turns of phrase about sin and forgiveness and sacrifice all dry up like chaff and blow away in the wind.

The Cross rejects every attempt to understand it fully. It is not a place for self-assured theologizing or domesticated spiritualizing. It is a raw, awful, unspeakable place in which we find ourselves.

Last night, on Maundy Thursday, Jesus told us to love one another, and we did so. We washed one another’s feet and broke bread together with the best of intentions. We perceived that this was the proper way to live, to care, to be present in God’s kingdom. And on Easter we will no doubt come back together as a people renewed and forgiven for all the times we have failed to love, returning to our senses after this day of desperation and horror, and we will recommit ourselves to the fullness of life that God offers freely in the light of resurrection.

But today we are no-place. Today we have murdered the very best of our intentions to love. We have traveled to the Place of the Skull, the place where confidence is shattered like bone. Today we stand at the farthest point from comfort, the place where Jesus, God-With-Us, He who was the smiling babe in the manger, the youth in the temple, the wise teacher on the mountain, the Holy One, cries out to the Father for some sign of presence and receives…nothing. No answer. No words.

And in that silence we know what it is to forsake and to be forsaken.

Yes, we are deep in a mystery, one so strange and terrible that any attempt to sort it out, to prod at its depths, to explain it, results in cheap, brittle platitudes.

Think about of all the things that you should never, ever say when someone has experienced a great loss in their life: things like

“It’s all part of God’s plan.”

“Everythinghappens for a reason.”

“When one door closes, another one opens.”

These are things we say to each other that are usually more about soothing our own sense of confusion and fear rather than simply being present, deeply present, to the pain of another.

And yet these trite, hollow, inadvertently callous attempts at comfort are exactly what we so often apply to our encounter with Jesus on the Cross. We want to justify this awful thing, to make sense of it, to assure ourselves that God knew what God was doing the whole time. We approach Golgotha and see the crucified Christ writhing in agony and fear, and we say, to Him, as we do to others: “everything happens for a reason! Your suffering is part of God’s plan!”

And these words are like yet more nails, hammered and stammered into the endless void of His suffering.

The Church has done this since the beginning, in various ways. It’s only human, perhaps. We don’t like sitting with questions, and we rely too much on explanations.

Some of us want to reason the Cross away as God’s clever, elegant, brutal plan to atone for our sins, to make proper restitution for our brokenness, as if the cosmos were constructed like an accounting system or a court of law.

Or, equally tempting for some of us and yet equally limiting: we confine the Cross to the realm of  human political drama, as if Jesus was nothing more than an enlightened social justice prophet murdered by “conservative” religious authorities and imperial forces—those bad, unenlightened others that of course look nothing like us. As if the Cross was merely an unfortunate byproduct of a backwards political system rather than what it actually is: the fundamental, unanswerable question at the core of all the pain which we experience and inflict upon each other.

Every time we try to reconstruct the Cross in a way that suits us, in a way that provides easy answers, in a way that excuses us from the narrative, we are simply building another instrument of torture to re-crucify that which we cannot understand.

No more of this, I ask you. No more. Lay down your easy theories of atonement that taste of sour wine; stop casting lots for your competing theologies of the Cross. For one day, let us stop trying to figure it out. Look into the face of Christ crucified and let Him be all that He is, uncertain and frightening and heart-rending, the face of Truth.

And let that wordless recognition of Truth, terrible as it may be, let it be enough today, because it is all we are given. Just as with Pilate, Jesus has no further answers for us.

It is called Good Friday because it is God’s Friday—the day in which God presents us with a mystery, a deep mystery, a Man who is on a cross for reasons so strange and intimate that they are as distant as an all-consuming black hole, and yet as close as our own breath.

And yes, we know in our hearts that there is more to the story, and that perhaps soon, very soon, we will fumble our way toward the answer of the empty tomb and the radiant joy of something entirely new. But not now. Not yet.

What is truth, we ask? Look at the Cross. It is staring us in the face, wordless and unutterable. Approach it cautiously, without certainty. Touch it if you dare; look into the void and see God staring back at you. Today, this is all we have.

 

Love, Named Twice: A Sermon

This sermon was preached today, March 17, 2019, the feast of St. Patrick, at Christ Church, Alameda, CA. The lectionary text cited is Luke 13:31-35.

How many of you have either read or seen Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet?

I would guess that the most famous scene in the entire play is the balcony scene, when Juliet, just having met and fallen instantly in love with Romeo, the son of her family’s mortal enemies, leans out into the night and sighs, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

In that single line, a whole universe of emotion is encapsulated: the thrill of new love, deep desire for the beloved, and a sense of resignation that the fruition of this love will face some serious obstacles. And for Juliet and Romeo, most of us know how tragic those obstacles will prove.

Romeo…Romeo. A name said twice, softly. So simple, this repetition, and yet so full of significance. To call out a name just once is utilitarian and authoritative: PHIL! That might be an identification, an invitation, or a command. But to say a name twice is to linger on it, to express attachment, investment, yearning. It is not the pronouncement of a ruler, but the call of a lover.

And so there is Jesus, the consummate Lover of creation, calling out in today’s Gospel: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” In these two words, in the name of that beloved and holy and imperfect city, uttered twice, is contained the entire pathos, the entire sweet misery of God.

Jerusalem is the city that embodies God’s chosen people Israel, and yet it is the city that kills God’s chosen prophets. It is the city of promises kept and the city of hope abandoned. And just as Juliet intuits in her bones when she sighs into the darkness for Romeo, so Jesus knows in his bones that his love for this radiant, wretched city is both the fulfillment of his life and the assurance of his death.  “Jerusalem…Jerusalem.” It is the longing of God uttered on the human lips of God.

If we look back through Scripture, God often names twice the ones who are beloved:

“Abraham! Abraham! Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son”

“Jacob! Jacob! Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt”

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

In each of these instances, just as in Jesus’ calling out to Jerusalem, God is offering us, at the same moment, both an assurance and a question. The assurance is that from the foundation of the world, God has loved us, and called us by name. God will never stop calling us name.  The question is this: can you find it in your heart to return that love? Can you return the cry and say “Lord, Lord, here I am?”

This, I think, gets to the heart of what we are doing in Lent. We are slowing down a bit; we are getting rid of some distractions; getting quiet, and asking ourselves: who is the person, what is the place, what is the thing that our heart is reaching for? To where or to whom is our deepest love and longing directed? If we were to stand with Jesus, looking out over the landscape of our lives, to whom would we call out, twice?

Because if we can figure that out, if we can name it, we will get a clue about what God needs us to do next.

I am reminded of St. Patrick, whose life we are commemorating today. Surprisingly, Patrick was actually not from Ireland, but likely from what is now northeastern England. As a teenager, around the year 406, he was kidnapped by bandits and taken away to Ireland as a slave, where he was in bondage for six years. Eventually he escaped and made his way back to his family in England for what might have been a simple, happy ending to his hardships. But that was not the end of the story.

Church tradition tells us that in the middle of the night, Patrick started having dreams and visions of the people back in Ireland, the people who had been his captors, and he heard their voices from across the sea calling out to him, asking him to return: “we beseech thee, holy youth, to come and walk among us once more.” I would like to imagine that perhaps he heard his own name whispered in the dark. Patrick…Patrick.

And so he went. With a small group of companions, without any protection, he returned to the land of his enslavement to preach the gospel. He ventured willingly, like Jesus, back to the place of his greatest despair, back to his own version of Jerusalem, back to what was, for him, the “city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it,” back to the place that he feared and yet, the place that his longing led him. And in doing so, he fulfilled his calling as a bearer of the gospel, as the apostle to Ireland, and as one of the saints we cherish most dearly…with green sweatter, and big parades and green beer. And prayer, of course!

As Jesus knew, gazing down at Jerusalem, and as Patrick discovered, returning to the shores of Ireland, when we attend to the deepest longings of our hearts, we are attending to God’s longing that we will become everything we were meant to be. By listening and responding to that longing, we are taking a step into the fullness of life that God offers us, the fullness of life lived in and for Christ.

If the news of the past few days tells us nothing else–the murder of our brothers and sisters in New Zealand, the senseless destruction and scandal that we see at home and around the world–if they tell us nothing else, then these things tell us we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the longing of God that calls out to us. We have to follow it, now, as seekers of truth and reconciliation. We must respond.

And so I ask you: what is your deepest longing? Name it to yourself, twice.

It could be the person with whom you need to reconcile. Name them, twice.

It could be a cause of justice or service toward which you are drawn, especially one that scares you a little bit. Name it, twice.

It could be a new place, or a new vocation, or a new relationship, or a new practice that will bring healing to yourself and others. Name it, twice.

And just as Jesus cried out “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” and as Juliet sighed “Romeo, Romeo,” find within your own heart that mix of love and generosity and hope and trepidation and name it. Follow it into a place of service. Follow it into a place of risk and holiness. Follow it into the city, follow it to the farthest shore of your imagination. Follow it with reverence and joy. Because this is the task for which we are created. This is the longing of God enacted through us.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem. Two words, containing in the space between them all the weight and glory and possibility of life. All the weight and glory and possibility of the love of Christ.

Jerusalem.

Jerusalem.

On Failure and Faithfulness: A Sermon

I preached this sermon March 13, 2019, the commemoration of Bishop James Theodore Holly, at All Saints Chapel, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, CA. The lectionary text cited is John 4:31-38.

As we settle into the reflective season of Lent, and as I look beyond graduation to whatever lies ahead, there is one thing that I am acutely aware of: despite all of my personal formation at seminary, I am still deeply afraid of failure.

And that can show up in a lot of ways: failing to do well in classes, failing to find the right church position, failing to maintain my integrity in difficult conversations, failing to find a life partner, failing to deliver an effective sermon…and the list goes on. Despite the wisdom that our tradition offers about the value of humility and the holy foolishness of the Cross and the preeminence of love over success, I still find myself operating in a system that categorizes life and its activities in terms of success, failure, and the spectrum of perceived merit that lies in between those two poles.

This is certainly true in seminary, where we are constantly graded and assessed, and I suspect most of us will continue to encounter something similar in the institutional church or wherever we do our work. My fear of failure, in its many permutations, will likely be a demon I wrestle with for a very long time. Maybe I am not the only one who struggles with this.

Hold onto that thought for a minute. I’d like to offer you a story:

On March 13th, 1911, James Theodore Holly died in his sleep at a church rectory in Port au Prince, Haiti. He was the founding missionary of the Episcopal Church in that country, and had been ordained as the missionary bishop of the church in Haiti in 1874, the first African American in the Episcopal Church to enter into that order of ministry. If you read the official commemorative materials about Holly, that’s mostly what you’re going to learn about him. But, as with every life, the story is far more complex.

At the time of his death, Holly’s ministry was, in the eyes of many, a story of continuous disappointment and unrealized dreams:

  • The main church in Port au Prince had burned down a couple of years prior, in 1908, and there was essentially no support from the American church to help rebuild it. His attempts to raise money for a church endowment through speaking tours across the U.S. were similarly unfruitful.
  • A combination of ongoing political unrest and natural disasters in Haiti had proved immensely detrimental to the growth of the mission, beginning almost immediately upon its initiation in 1861.
  • The Bishops and other church leaders in the United States, because of the Civil War; because of their own personal preoccupations; and, let’s be honest, because of deep seated cultural and institutional racism, had been lukewarm at best in providing any resources to an autonomous black church in an autonomous black nation state.
  • Furthermore, Holly’s initial dream—the dream that launched the whole mission in the first place—to inspire a mass emigration of black Americans to Haiti through the building up of a strong, national church, was largely rejected by black persons who, in the years before and after the Civil War, preferred to stay in the US, their homeland, and fight for equality there.

Holly arrived in Haiti 1861 with 101 people as part of his church mission; 80% of them died or left within a year; his own wife and young children were among the dead. 50 years later, when he died, the church severely lacked resources and had not yet reached 2,000 communicants. One publication, in announcing his death, assessed his life and ministry curtly by observing that the church in Haiti “has not prospered so greatly as was at one time hoped.”

Some eulogy.

In the US, at the time of his death, he was largely dismissed or forgotten. The only officially recorded acknowledgment of his death by The Episcopal Church was a note in the board minutes to strike his salary from the budget for the remainder of 1911.

And so I ask you: was James Theodore Holly’s ministry a failure?

I would say, firmly, no, but we could debate that question for a long time. And if we did, we’d have to account for many things:

  • The racism and oppression that impeded his work from the very start.
  • The political and historical and theological contexts that shaped his decisions and those of the people he encountered.
  • The relative meanings of failure and success as measured over time and the criteria used to do so.
  • The fact that the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti is, today, both the largest diocese in our Church in terms of membership and yet is one still beset with a number of challenges.

Yes, I am sure we could ponder the question of whether Bishop Holly failed or not for a very long time indeed.

But it’s the wrong question to ask.

It is the wrong question that we keep askingabout our spiritual forebears and about ourselves. Failure and success are the wrong modes of assessment. They are, through the metaphor of today’s Gospel passage, the wrong type of food with which we keep filling our plates, over and over again.

 “’He said to them, I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, surely no one has brought him something to eat? Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.'”

The demand of Christ on our lives is not a demand to be successful.

I am coming to see, more and more, that the demand of Christ on my life is to forget the language of success and failure, and to let myself instead be governed and judged by faithfulness. Faithfulness to the will of the One Who has called me; faithfulness to the vision of the kingdom that God is revealing in our midst.

This simple, daily faithfulness, made up of the longing in our hearts for God and the steadfast trust and devotion which we lay at the feet of Jesus in all that we do: this is the sole criteria of our discipleship.

Not the degrees we earn or the income we gather.

Not the churches we help grow.

Not the titles we acquire or the vestments we are allowed to put on.

Because if we use those things as the ultimate measure, as ends in themselves, then we get mired in the landscape of success and failure, and we might start to believe the toxic lie that our shifting fortunes serve as indicators of God’s favor upon us.

“Do you not say, four months more, then comes the harvest?” Jesus chides his disciples. But what if the crop fails? What if life is not what you expected it to be? What if the church burns down and the money stops coming in and you die, disregarded and poor, in your bed? How can the language of success and failure ever get to the heart of what you have faced, what you have learned, whom and what you have loved?

It can’t. We have to toss that language out. Our lives are sown and reaped not in power and influence and success, but in faithfulness—in fidelity and love, which gives us new vision, a new mode of assessment. It is by our faithfulness which we reveal the extent to which we have embedded our lives in God.

“But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.”

Whatever else can be said of James Theodore Holly, whatever the ups and downs of his life and ministry, he saw the ripe fields of God’s kingdom, and he was faithful to that vision. His fervent advocacy for the liberty and self-determination of black Americans; his unflagging belief in the potential of the nation of Haiti and in the church’s role there; and fundamentally, his unfailing trust in the liberating, life-giving God he found in Jesus Christ—these are the marks of a faithful disciple. These are the reasons we commemorate him today. He inspires me to let go of my fear of failure and my hunger for success, and challenges me to dwell in faithfulness, no matter what happens next.

Because if his life is a failure, then may God grant each of us the grace so to live, and so to fail.

220px-James_theodore_holly

The Dust Matters: A Sermon

 I preached this sermon today, Ash Wednesday 2019, at Christ Church, Alameda, CA. The lectionary texts are Isaiah 58:1-12, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 and Matthew 6:1-6,16-21.

It’s been almost seven years since my father died, quite unexpectedly, and one of the clearest things that I remember about flying home for his funeral was the shock of seeing the little black box that held his ashes, and looking in at them, and realizing that, physically speaking, this was all that was left of a man who had been so full of life and humor and compassion. And how surreal it was that the man who cradled me in his arms when I was a baby, I was now cradling in my arms as a box of dust. It defies my comprehension, even to this day.

And I was, then (and often still am), tempted to say—as I think we often do when someone dies—no, he’s not in there. This box of ashes is not actually him. This little box can’t contain the man whom I loved and admired, a person who lived so deeply, so fully, and so well. I am tempted to say these ashes are nothing but a shell, that they have nothing to do with that person. And yet…I took those ashes home with me, and for the longest time I would take them out and look at them, and I couldn’t let them go.

Why is that?

I ponder the same thing when I walk by columbariums like the one here in Christ Church, which holds a lifetime’s worth of love and memories in each quiet chamber, with a name engraved on the front. We stand before these rows of names and ashes, and we ask, “where are you? are you here in these chambers? Are you in my heart? Are you in a place beyond this place, somewhere I can’t even begin to imagine?”

The dust of our loved ones gives no answer to these questions. They rest, silently, like those ancient ruins mentioned in Isaiah, the foundations of many generations, placed lovingly in columbariums and cemeteries, scattered across land and sea. But while the dust does not answer us, it does bears witness, both to our own impermanent bodies and to our enduring bewilderment about what becomes of us, when we are no longer *this*. The Psalmist says, “God remembers that we are but dust,” and on days like today we try to remember that too, even as it remains inconceivable that all of our vitality and memory and longing could be so shockingly reducible, so small and earthbound.

But as inconceivable as it might be, we can’t seem to escape the dust. As much as we might like to, we can’t shake it off. We are drawn back to it, over and over again, because we know, intuitively, that whatever happens after death, this dust that was once our flesh somehow still matters. It is not easily forgotten or discarded.

I bring up this meditation on flesh and dust so that we might deeply consider the meaning of these ashes we are about to receive, and the fullness of what they symbolize. Too often in our tradition they are treated only as a sign of death or penitence, and we wash them off later in the day and move on until next year. If we leave it at that, I think we miss something beautiful. And this is especially important because our scripture readings warn us against practices of empty, unexamined piety.

Isaiah, for example, tells the people that true humility and repentance is found in loving each other, not just putting on sackcloth and ashes. And in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that fasting and praying should be about an intimate connection with God, not a big gesture to show off to our neighbors. These texts starkly reject showy displays of piety…on the very day that we receive big dark smudged crosses on our foreheads and wear them out into the world.

So we must reckon with the significance of what we are doing here today, Ash Wednesday, to articulate why these ashes–and those ashes in the columbarium–matter, and what all this talk of ash and dust conveys, not just about the tradition of the church, but about our lives.

Our faith, as we often say, is Incarnational. That word, incarnate, literally means “into the flesh”. We affirm that God came into the flesh, human flesh, and lived among us as Jesus of Nazareth, himself a mortal man of dust, and somehow in our union with Jesus, God seeps into our dusty flesh, too. Through Jesus, the love of God has not just redeemed a “spirit” or “soul” within us, but has permeated our very bodies; we are like that watered garden of which Isaiah speaks, drenched in God, nourished by the spring whose waters never fail.

And this incarnational movement of God into our unremarkable flesh reveals something crucial about the language and symbol of Ash Wednesday: that this dust of which we are made—it MATTERS to God. The dusty remains of our loved ones, which seem so far removed from who they once were—they MATTER to God, too. Our bodies, mortal as they are, all matter to God, because they are caught up in the divine story of God, the divine story that is revealed and enacted  in our bodies, in relationship with one another.

We might be made of dust, but it is beloved, holy dust.

This dust makes up the fingers that we use to caress the face of our beloved;

This dust makes up the eyes that behold our children and grandchildren for the very first time;

This dust makes up the ears that we use to listen deeply to one another.

These small perishable parts of us MATTER to God, they are part of God’s indwelling in the substance of creation, and they tell a story of the goodness of being alive, of being human, of being part of one another.

From this perspective, the ashes we wear today are certainly not an empty act of piety, and they are far more, even, than a mark of penitence. They are a reminder–an affirmation–of what it means to be that which we are: a body that is at once dying and yet imbued with eternity, at once broken and yet redeemed by love. A body, as Paul says, which appears as having nothing, and yet possesses everything.

When I receive the mark on my forehead today, I will remember my father, whose ashes I finally let go and scattered into the ocean about a year ago, so that the dusty remnants of his kind eyes and his quiet smile might be carried on the waves, to dwell with God in the uttermost parts of the sea. With this smudge of ash, I am anointing myself with the dust of his memory, and with the conviction that his mortal life, his mortal body—and mine, and yours, and all the people who have come before us—will always matter to God. We are beloved, we are not forgotten, even when we become the silent dust, even as we wait, in hope, through the quiet season to come.

The Lotus and the Cross

This sermon was preached today, February 17, 2018, at Christ Church Alameda. The lectionary text cited is Luke 6:17-26.

Some of you know that I recently spent two weeks on a study visit to Hong Kong, living at the seminary there and learning about the Anglican church in that part of the world. It was an incredible trip that I’d love to tell you about, but given the story Stephen shared in his sermon last week about his family trekking in the Andes, I don’t want this to inadvertently turn into a sermon series on “what the clergy did during our winter vacations.”

So for now I will just tell you this: the day before I left Hong Kong to come back home, I was looking around the gift shop of the Anglican cathedral for some little souvenir to remind me of my trip. And jammed amid the usual books and postcards I found this: a small wooden carving of a cross, rising up out of a lotus flower.

I thought this was so cool! The lotus is a significant flower in Chinese culture–it shows up in paintings and flags and architecture–so maybe this is a symbol of how the gospel has shown up and taken root in China.

And that’s probably true, but…today’s Gospel reading has cast this little carving in a new light for me, and I want to share with you how so.

In Luke, we encounter Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Plain. He comes down from the mountain and stands on a level place and teaches his disciples. This version in Luke is typically overshadowed by the very similar Sermon on the Mount described in the Gospel of Matthew.

But if we look closely at the words of these two Sermons, they are not the same.

In Matthew, Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit…” but here in Luke, Jesus says “blessed are you who are poor.” Just poor. No spiritualization of the concept. The Greek word used, ptochos, more literally means “destitute”—those at the bottom rung of society.

And whereas in Matthew Jesus says blessed are those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” here he simply says, “blessed are you who are hungry now.” “Blessed are you who weep now.” Those for whom oppression, hunger, and sorrow are immediate, physical realities–these are the people Whom God blesses.

Scholars disagree, of course, on the reason for this discrepancy between the two gospels. Perhaps they were indeed two separate sermons with similar themes. Or perhaps they are different editorial approaches to a well-known collection of Jesus’ teachings. I tend to agree, however, with those who conclude that the Lukan version, the one we heard today, is closer to Jesus’ actual words—because the message is simpler, more prophetic, and thus, frankly, more challenging to the social norms of his time—and ours.

Because to say that the “poor in spirit” are blessed is far more vague and comforting; that phrase is so easily interpreted to suit our own needs. To be “poor in spirit” has been taught at various times in the church’s history to mean a state of dependence on God, or an interior vulnerability of the heart, or detachment from worldly concerns. And those are all meaningful, even valuable pursuits in our personal discipleship.

But to say that it is the poor—the materially poor, the economically and socially poor, the invisible, oppressed, and, as some might think but never say aloud, the “problematic” and “burdensome” poor—to say that it is they, and they alone, who will inhabit God’s kingdom? That is confusing and not altogether good news for anyone who operates on the assumption that the cream rises to the top of society. And it’s fearful news for those among us, in Jesus’ time and now, who enjoy wealth and privilege and know (or suspect) that our abundance comes at the expense of others’ well-being. Because Jesus is saying that to the extent we are those people, the ones who have obtained the good life, the ones who are pursuing comfort while others struggle to live, God is not interested in our cause. In fact, God altogether rejects that cause.

This is hard stuff to face. I know it certainly is for me, as I think about all the ways I have benefitted and continue to benefit from a society that marginalizes and ignores the desperate needs of so many. As I ponder this, I am drawn back to this cross rising out of the lotus.

You see, the lotus is imbued with significance in several faith traditions, especially those in Asia, like Buddhism and Hinduism, where the plant is a native species. The lotus is an aquatic plant, and it has a root system that grows out of muddy, swampy water. At dawn each day, the flowering part of the lotus rises up from the dirty water and blooms, the most spotlessly pure white or soft pink, and at nightfall it closes and disappears again into the swamp. And that blossoming out of the mud is often associated in those faith traditions with wisdom, purity, regeneration, and divine beauty.

But for our purposes, looking at my little carving, to see the Cross of Christ rising out of the lotus petals is a reminder of the very lesson we might want to resist in today’s Gospel:

God’s blessing, God’s tender concern, is found in those places we would rather not tread. In the muddy, messy places. The undesirable places. The places where beauty is least expected. Among the poor and hungry, and sorrowful. That is where the Kingdom of God takes root and blooms and is revealed to the world.

And, this is the difficult part of the message: it is ONLY in those places that the Kingdom is revealed to the world.

The Kingdom of God is not found ensconced in communities of privilege. The kingdom of God is not found where people hoard wealth, eat more than their fill, and laugh while the world cries out in pain.

You know how they used to announce at the end of his concerts, “Elvis has left the building”? Well, wherever privilege is enthroned, God has left the building. God is nowhere to be found in the opulent palaces of this world, because God’s kingdom inhabits that other space, the muddy swamp, where the lotus and the Cross rise up declaring hope and blessing for all who are plunged in its depths.

And this is important: God’s kingdom shows up there, among the miserable, not because God delights in misery, or because poverty is noble, but because the oppressive systems of self-interest and indifference that produce misery are themselves the antithesis of God.  And to the extent that your or I inhabit those systems, the blessing of God is far from us. So we have work to do, to break those systems, to break free from them.

Easier said than done, perhaps, but we take steps every day. I have been heartened and inspired since coming back from my travels to learn how wholeheartedly Christ Church has embraced the warming shelter ministry for our unhoused neighbors in Alameda. I feel, as many of you do, that this program is such a perfect example of the church being and doing what we claim to be about: hospitality, openness, and deep care for others. But with today’s hard lessons from Luke, we are given an important caveat as we embark on that work together in the coming months:

The warming shelter, or any other outreach ministry of the church, should not be understood simply as an act of charity. When we welcome in our homeless brothers and sisters, we miss the point if we think it is simply US giving something to THEM. We start to think things like “oh, WE have all of these resources, and we are going to do a good, Godly thing and welcome in these outsiders, to give them what they need. It will be such a blessing for THEM to be welcomed by US. ”

But remember what Jesus told us today: to the extent that we are the ones with wealth and privilege, WE are the ones in need of blessing!! We are the ones who are in need of those whom we host on cold and rainy nights. Because the kingdom of heaven is THEIRS, it is being revealed in THEIR midst. They are the inheritors of God’s blessing, and we, here, will encounter that blessing when and ONLY when we draw near to them, when we throw open the doors and go out into the streets and fall on our knees and say, “Come in God. Come in Holy Spirit. Come in Lord Jesus. Come in, friends. Liberate US by letting us feed you, and letting us keep you warm, and letting us give you a place to rest. Let us get into the mud and love you and be loved by you and together we will behold salvation blooming like a lotus in the light of dawn.”

This possibility is our joy and our hope, and Christ is revealing it to us, coming up out of the mud.

Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry, now. Blessed are you who weep, now. And if you, like me, are not those things, then let us go find those who are, and pray that we will be blessed by them. The Kingdom is theirs.

Poems on the Road

I’m on a night train heading through the Oregon wilderness, and I decided to share a couple poems I jotted down recently. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the spirituality of love and desire this past year, and these are small, imaginative windows into that journey, one from the perspective of Mary Magdalene, and the other from Judas Iscariot. Hope they resonate for you in some way. Peace, friends.

Magdalene

I needed you so much that
I whispered my deepest longings into a jar
And poured its dark sweetness upon your feet
Not that you would grant them, but
That you would absorb them into your self
My desire like sweat on your skin

I wept tears of love so pure and burning
that they felt like grief
Salt water sonnets
Braided through my hair like jewels or
Serpents

And just now
In the garden of re-encounter
Which never looks like the old days
When love was initial:
I saw
Briefly, ever so
The glimmer of my longing, and my tears
Transfigured into something selfless and whole
In you

Do not hold on
You said
Not because I shouldn’t love you
(Impossible)
But because my love
Reached its home in
Your heart
The sweetness and the salt are yours now
Ours now
The world’s now
Now, always
Anointing
Washing
Outpouring
Shameless
Free

 

Judas

You offered me the cup, said it was your blood.
Oh how I hated you, and loved you
For your generosity
When all I wanted was to bite your flesh and make you bleed from my desire.
You called me by name once
And I thought I loved you
Purely, selflessly
But now I know I wanted what i thought you were
What I needed you to be
Most beautiful of men
And when I realized that your inner light was as perfect as your shining face
I hated you, because I could not possess you for myself
Apple, flesh, my joy and sweet poison
They killed you and I thought I’d find relief
From your perfection
But there is no rest apart from you.
My tears are silver discs
And I weep, not for you, Who is peace itself
But for myself, because I realize
We could never have been united
Until I let you be Yourself. And I couldn’t.
My desire was misplaced.
I long for you still.
I will join you.
Beyond death, somehow, find me.