What You Had to Do: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 18, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 16:1-13, the parable of the dishonest manager.

When I was in the 7th grade, my family and I found ourselves living in a trailer park out in California. The story as to why we ended up there is a long one for another time, but suffice to say that it was a new experience for all of us. 

I did not come from a wealthy family by any means, but we always had enough to get by, and so it was eye-opening for me as a 12 or 13 year old to suddenly be surrounded by neighbors whose circumstances were decidedly more desperate.

Next door was Pearl, a woman in her 50s from Oklahoma, who peered out of her screen window all day long, puffing on cigarettes, offering a lively commentary on all the comings and goings she had seen. 

There was Mike, who lived behind us; a gentle and quiet man who tended the flowers outside his trailer. He was on parole, having killed a man many years before in a drunken bar fight, doing his best to stay sober. There was a family whose name escapes me now, two parents and two adolescent kids and a dog, who had fallen on hard times and were living in a 12 foot motorhome, trying to figure out how to get enough money to move across the country to live with some relatives. One morning they were just gone, and while I have no idea what happened to them, I always hoped that they made it where they needed to go. 

The park was rough. It wasn’t the type that you stay in on a deluxe RV vacation. There were cracks in the pavement and cracks in the trailers and cracks in the hearts of the people who lived there. It was a mixture of long-timers and those just staying for a little while until they could get their lives together. It was a colorful and complicated mix of personalities, thrown together by chance and by limited funds—people getting by as best they could, people doing what they had to do. 

It’s been a long time since I moved away from that place, but those folks in the trailer park have been on my mind this week as I’ve been reflecting on our gospel text, a really challenging one in which Jesus offers a confusing parable about a dishonest manager and some perplexing teachings on the use of money. 

We’re used to passages in Scripture that express some skepticism or even outright suspicion of money and those who place their faith in it. In this context, Jesus saying that one cannot serve God and money at the same time makes sense. 

But the parable about the manager who lies and cheats his way into a secure position, and the fact that his shrewdness is praised by his employer and, it seems, by Jesus, too, runs counter to our expectations. Shouldn’t we condemn those who misuse money? And why on earth should we use “dishonest wealth” to make friends?

Now I’ll admit there are no simple answers—people have been wrestling with this passage forever. But as I said, while I was pondering the text this week, I kept thinking of my old neighbors in the trailer park—people who had almost no money, people who had made some bad choices here and there, people who barely made ends meet each month. People who, in their economic circumstances, were probably far more like the crowds listening to Jesus than I am now. And I wonder whether, in the parable of the shrewd manager, they would see a distasteful and offensive character, or if they would simply see a man on the brink, doing what he had to do to make it in this world?

Because I know that we talk a lot about spiritual and material poverty in the Christian tradtion, and how Jesus says “blessed are the poor” and how we ought to detach ourselves from worldly concerns. 

And that’s all fine and good, but I think it’s only half of the story. Because it is very easy to talk about the evils of money when we ourselves have enough of it. It is very easy to extol the virtues of poverty when you have never actually been poor—when you have never wondered how you are going to feed your children or put a roof over your head or patch up the cracks that keep forming under your feet.

And so I wonder if this parable challenges some of us because we don’t really understand the stakes implicit within it. I wonder if maybe Pearl and Mike and the others in the trailer park would see something else in the shrewd manager that’s harder for me, with a steady income, to see: a flawed person, sure, but one who does what he must in order to survive. A person who might have a family of his own to take care of; a person who is willing to risk the wrath of his rich employer as long as it means that he won’t starve to death. 

I wonder if part of the reason that I struggle with his decision, with his brazenness, is because my own back has never truly been against the wall? I wonder, if I were that desperate and determined to simply stay alive, whether the greatest mercy, the truest form of grace, would indeed be for someone to simply say, in the end, “Yes, I understand; you did what you had to do”?

Because we—especially those of us who have more than enough—have to remember that when Jesus says “blessed are the poor,” he doesn’t mean poverty is a thing that God loves. He means that God sees and understands and cares especially about the struggle of the people who are just getting by. And God stands with them in that struggle. God challenges our tendencies to either ignore poverty or to spiritually glamorize it, so that, in either case, we don’t have to be troubled by what it is actually like to be poor. 

And so when Jesus tells us to make friends by means of “dishonest wealth,” maybe he means to shock us a bit, to wake us up, especially those of us who have the luxury of disdaining money, of thinking of it as dirty and crass because we have never truly needed it. Maybe he would like us to understand that the true economy of grace is not ethereal; that the Kingdom of God is not too lofty to be concerned with hungry bellies and flat tires and leaky roofs. Maybe salvation starts with ensuring people have a place to sleep, that they don’t starve, and maybe their shrewdness is indeed something to be celebrated because it really just means that they wanted to live.

Maybe. 

A few years ago, when I was back in California for seminary, I took a drive up to that trailer park. For whatever reason I just needed to see it one more time. As you might imagine, none of the people I remembered were there anymore, but the place pretty much looked the same: rough and timeworn and honest. There were still cracks in the pavement, and cracks in the trailers, and I suppose there are still some cracks in my heart, too. 

But I am so grateful that I was there for a little while. I am grateful for Pearl and for Mike and for the others who linger at the edge of my memory. I am grateful, if only so that I might never forget that sometimes, for some of us, just getting by is its own blessedness. Sometimes in this life we are not expected to be saints, but simply to survive.

And sometimes, God sees you and loves you fiercely, because you did what you had to do. 

One: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 4th, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is Philemon 1-21.

A few months ago I had one of those paradigm shifting moments that make you question something that had, before, always seemed so obvious. I was reading a book called The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, by Dan Egan, which chronicles both the history of the lakes and the challenges that they have faced through the years due to agricultural runoff and pollution and the threat of invasive species. As someone who has grown up with a deep love for the Great Lakes, it was both fascinating and sobering to take a deeper dive, if you will, into the singular natural wonder that is practically in our backyard. 

But back to the paradigm shift. Many of us can easily picture the Great Lakes on a map, and we know that there are five of them—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario. But early in the book, Egan writes, “they might be called the Great Lakes, but the five inland seas are essentially one giant slow-motion river flowing west to east, with each lake dumping like a bucket into the next until all the water is gathered in the St. Lawrence River and tumbles seaward.”

One giant river. 

That just blew my mind, even though when you actually look at a map, it makes perfect sense—all of the lakes are connected to one another by smaller rivers and straits and waterways, the most final and dramatic of which is Niagara falls, as the system that began in Lake Superior tumbles down into lake Ontario and on towards the ocean. One giant river. 

Egan’s point was that what happens in one lake, for better or worse, ultimately happens in all of the lakes, given enough time—and that even though we see them as massive and immovable entities, they are in fact a broad and delicate network of relationships, larger and more complex than the human eye can perceive, a single flow of interdependent life. 

It makes sense, though, that we would tend to see the lakes as separate bodies, ascribing to each its own personality and landscape. Separating everything out, giving things a name and a discernible boundary, is how we make sense of the vastness of the landscape around us. This is as true for people as it is for lakes. We make distinctions, we give each other names and we assess one another’s basic qualities because it helps us navigate a world that would otherwise feel overwhelming. And just as we can easily picture a map of the Great Lakes in our mind’s eye, each of us, somewhere within ourselves, carries a sort of emotional map upon which we locate the people and places we know—those that feel like home, and those that, perhaps, we’d rather not revisit. 

But here’s the thing—once the paradigm shifts, it’s hard to go backwards. Now, no matter how many times I see a map of the Great Lakes, I will know that they are actually just one giant river. And while I will always have a particular affection for this piece of the shoreline of Lake Superior or that little town along the shore of Lake Michigan, I cannot unsee their essential unity now that I have seen it. 

And as for all of the people located on that inner map I carry, especially the ones whose company I’d rather avoid, well, it’s the same thing. I cannot, as a follower of Jesus, forget the fact that we are, essentially, one body. 

This fundamental unity is something that is absolutely essential for understanding what St. Paul is up to in today’s epistle, the letter to Philemon. To summarize the letter: Paul is sending this letter to Philemon, a wealthy householder and church leader, asking him to receive back into his home a man named Onesimus, an enslaved person who at some point fled Philemon’s house and came to stay with Paul while he was under house arrest. Onesimus has come to faith in Christ, and so Paul requests that Philemon now receive Onesimus back no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother. It is a very pragmatic and human letter in many ways, one of the most personal that we have of Paul’s writings. It’s also a complex letter, given its ambiguity on the insitution of 1st century Roman slavery and whether Paul is condoning it or not. 

But the essential takeaway for us is not just that Paul was a nice guy trying to do a nice thing in an imperfect world. It is not just that Philemon, we hope, received Onesimus back with a more socially enlightened perspective. No, it is far more radical than that. 

The essential takeaway, the underlying argument that Paul is making about the nature of Christian life–the argument that is in fact woven throughout most of his writings–is that in Christ, we are fundamentally ONE. And that the categories that we use to distinguish ourselves from one another, to create order, to map out the world that we can see, are ultimately knit together in the Kingdom of God. And so when Paul says of Onesimus, “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you,” he is not speaking poetically, like a slogan on a Hallmark card. He is speaking quite literally, because in Christ we are one body. And when he says “welcome him as you would welcome me” he is not speaking metaphorically, but literally, because in Christ we are one body.

One giant body. All connected to each other. 

And so Paul doesn’t need Philemon to just “do the right thing” legally or ethically by choosing to welcome Onesimus as a brother. He needs him to understand the stakes of his choice. It is not just whether Philemon, too, will choose to be a nice guy doing a charitable thing. The question is whether Philemon actually believes that the Body of Christ is a real and living thing, and whether he actually plans to live as though it is—whether he plans to reorder his understanding of other people, whether he is willing to dissolve the boundaries between his interests and theirs, to live as though they are indeed the limbs and the organs of his own body. Is he willing? 

Are we willing?

When you look into the face of a person, especially one whom you struggle to love, struggle to live alongside, can you look into their face and see a glimpse of your own looking back? Can you choose, in that moment—even in the hurt and in the confusion and resentment—to remember that the same blood and breath and water flows through each of us—that we are not separate bodies encased within rocky shorelines, but one flowing stream, one giant river, tumbling forward together?

Paul hopes that we do. He hopes that we remember Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one—that we open our eyes and see that we already are one, that we always were. 

Nobody knows for sure what Philemon decided to do—whether he welcomed Onesimus as a beloved brother. Though I like to think that the fact that the letter survived through the centuries suggests that he did—that the letter was, perhaps, the precursor to a moment of sheer grace.

I imagine a treasured family story lovingly passed down in the household of Philemon about the day when two men, so very different, separated by time and station and circumstance, saw one another as if for the first time, and fell into one another’s arms and wept tears of joy and regret and forgiveness. Tears welling up from some hidden place their souls. Tears that mingled and fell onto the earth, pooling together, indistinguishable from one another, as if they flowed from the same body. 

Flowed, like one giant river. 

Ghost Town: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on August 21, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Isaiah 58:9-14 and Luke 13:10-17.

Out in the western part of the United States, one thing that you will often come across is a ghost town, tucked into some forgotten valley or huddled along a lonely highway. If you have ever traveled out there, perhaps you have heard of or even visited one—Bodie, California, famous for its gold mines and its lawless inhabitants; Rhyolite, Nevada, which boomed and went bust over the course of just five years; or, one of my particular favorites, Glenrio, Texas, an abandoned town on Route 66, bypassed by the interstate, in which you can wander down the middle of the abandoned highway, where the only remnants are a crumbling gas station, a shuttered diner, and an empty motel in which the only guests are the occasional wild animal and the desert wind blowing through the cracked windows. 

What is it about ghost towns that captivate our attention, maybe even send a chill up our spine? Most of them, as far as I know, don’t have a ton of actual ghost stories associated with them—they are less haunted place than they are haunting places—haunting us with their faded memories of something that was once vibrant but is now only a shadow of itself. A place that, for one reason or another, has outlived its usefulness. 

I think ghost towns compel us and scare us a bit because, we, too, live with the prospect of loss, of dereliction, the fear of what it might feel like to watch the years go by as one forgotten, to wait for visitors that no longer come. They remind us of the fragility of things, of ourselves, even, and they teach us that communities are not inevitable—they must be built and tended and invested in, lest we all find ourselves cut off from one another, living with ghosts. 

The Scriptures are full of people who are themselves cut off from the living, from any sense of community. Think of the Gerasene demoniac we heard about several weeks back, the man who was plagued by demons and who lived among the tombs, an outcast in a literal city of the dead. 

Or the woman in today’s Gospel lesson, who has been afflicted with an unnamed illness for 18 years, bent over, unable to stand up straight, in a time and culture in which disease and disability isolated one socially as much as it did physically (not that much has changed in that regard). She herself, like so many who are burdened by physical limitations, is treated as a ghost within her community, practically invisible, unheard, disregarded and forgotten, perhaps even thought of as someone who has outlived her usefulness, such that her healing by Jesus is received more as an affront to religious order than as a miracle of restoration. 

Because this is the accepted way of things, isn’t it? Whether its with towns decaying along the side of the road or people decaying along the side of the road—there is a certain measure of acceptance that this is just the way it is, that perhaps that place or that person just couldn’t keep up with the pace of society, perhaps it’s just the sad state of affairs in a competitive and changing world that some communities must die, and that some people must be left behind. It’s tough out there. Can’t save ‘em all. 

And so we visit ghost towns with their broken buildings and we see the haunted faces of our broken neighbors and we shudder at the brokenness but we accept it. We accept it all as part of the landscape, because, what else can we do? Ruined cities and ruined people, always there, always just beyond the edge of where we dare to look. 

But God looks. God sees them, the fallen cities, the stooped over women and men. God sees them. And God does not accept it. God says: no, another life, another world is possible.

God says,

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Where we see a ghost town, where we see a lost soul, a regrettable curiosity, God sees and speaks of possibility, of healing, of hope. 

This is why the healing power of Jesus, and the perspective of God that it signifies, is so radical, so shocking, so powerful, because it flies in the face of all our expectations, all of our resignation to the decline and decay of people, of places, of ourselves. 

“Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” Jesus says, and he speaks the same word to all who will hear him. Rise up, daughter of Abraham. Rise up and reclaim your place among the living. Stand tall again and know that you were not meant to be forgotten, that you cannot outlive your usefulness, because to God you are infinitely precious, and there is never an expiration date on your belovedness nor on your promise.

As Isaiah proclaimed, 

The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places,  and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

So rise up again, you who have accepted your home among the ghosts. Rise up and be who you always were, inhabit your life fully once more, for in the reign of God you are not collateral damage to progress, you are not lost to time, you are part of a life, a community, a story that will never die. All you have to do is accept that this is possible, despite what the world seems to suggest, despite the ruins all around us. That is faith. Have faith that life—your life, our life together, the life of this earth—will find a way.  With God’s help, it can. It will. We were never destined for dereliction. We were never meant to be ghosts. 

In one of the places I mentioned earlier, Rhyolite, Nevada, there are actually some sculptures in the desert just beyond town. An artist put them there decades ago in a sort of open air museum. And one of them is called the Last Supper—its a platform of life-size figures in a tableau, all draped in white shrouds, like ghostly disciples waiting for the meal to begin in the middle of the wilderness. 

It is a haunting piece of art, but when I look at it, it is also strangely encouraging. For it seems to say that there is nowhere—not even in the most remote, most forgotten place, not in the most remote, most forgotten life—nowhere that God will fail to show up and prepare a feast. There is nowhere, n one that God will pass by. God will find us. God will not forget. God will lift us up.

And on that day the ruins will be rebuilt. 

And on that day we will stand tall, and we will live. 

The Last Supper, 1984, Charles Albert Szukalski, Goldwell Open Air Museum, Nevada

Homesick: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, August 7, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Genesis 15:1-6 and Luke 12:32-40.

A funny thing happened while I was in England for a conference a couple of weeks ago. It was near the end of the trip, my very last night in the country, and I was staying overnight next to Heathrow airport. I decided on a whim to take the Tube, London’s subway system, into the center of the city to walk around for a couple of hours. But as I was sitting there on the subway, figuring out which stop I should get off to catch a glimpse of Buckingham Palace, I suddenly developed an urgent and intense craving for a Fort Wayne Coney dog. I don’t even get over to the Coney Island that often, but right then and there in the middle of London I wanted one so bad I could taste it—with extra mustard and extra coney sauce. I found Buckingham Palace, but needless to say no Coney dogs were in sight. 

That moment really made me smile, though, because after three years of living and serving alongside you here in Fort Wayne, I was blessed with the sense of feeling a little bit homesick for Northern Indiana. I had the most incredible time in the UK, but it was time to come home—to come back to the dense and verdant cornfields along the highway, back to the fireflies and fireworks in the late summer darkness, back to coffee and doughnuts in the Common Room and the familiar smiles of the people who don’t forget you when you’re gone.

It is good to be home. I missed you.

Homesickness is, in a strange way, a gift. Whether we experience it as kids on a hard day at summer camp, or as our families drive away on that first exhilarating and terrifying day of college, or perhaps later, in more subtle ways, when life’s chances and changes have led us far from all that we once knew, it’s that familiar pang in the stomach, that tremble of longing in the chest, which is in fact encouraging evidence that we belong somewhere, to someone—homesickness is the tightening of the tether of memory and feeling, calling us back to the people and places that have shaped us and held us.

And the longer we stay in any once place, the more it does its work upon us, imparting something of itself into our hearts, such that you might be lying awake some night in a far distant city, remembering the way the thunder rolls into town on an August evening, or the scent of your grandmother’s roses in the garden, or the way the organ music swells at the end of Mass, or yes, perhaps even the taste of a Coney dog.  To be homesick for such things is a reminder that somewhere, at some point, you were given the gift of knowing what home is. 

When you look for it, the question of home—where and what it is, how to get there, how to get back when you’ve drifted away—is a theme that shows up time and again in our faith tradition. It stretches all the way back to the beginning, really, when Adam and Eve stumbled out of Eden and knew for the first time what homesickness felt like. And in today’s reading from a bit later in Genesis, we encounter Abram, soon to be Abraham, the one who received God’s promise of a homeland that might endure through his descendants, even when he could barely hope to dream that such a thing was possible. 

Because although he’s already in Canaan, Abram is homesick, too—longing for the reassurance that God will be faithful, that he, Abram, will not simply die a stranger in a strange place, but that somehow he and his children might belong to the earth upon which he stands. That is what homesickness is, in the end, no matter where we are: our soul’s deep hunger to belong somewhere. To know and be known, to remember and to be remembered. 

In Abram’s case, of course, we know that God does indeed make a home for him and his descendants in Canaan. And even when they end up in slavery in Egypt, God hears their cries and leads them back. And even when they are sent into exile in Babylon, and the homesickness threatens to overwhelm them, he leads them back again. God, it seems, is very invested in leading us back home, no matter how many times we get lost. And just like the children of Israel, we get lost a lot, both literally and figuratively.

I don’t know about you, but I think the moments of truest homesickness I’ve felt in my life were not just during a long trip, but in those moments when the person who I used to be, and the people that I used to know, and the certainties that I used to hold feel very far away from me. When I look up from the path and see my life and wonder: where am I? How on earth did I get here? That’s when I really miss home. Have you ever felt that way? I hope not too often, but I suspect each of us does at some point. 

Because that’s the tricky thing about homesickness—it finds us even when we are stationary. Even if you live in one place your whole life, surrounded by the same people, things still change, and loved ones leave, and there is loss, and still we end up longing for peace and rest and the scent of our grandmother’s roses; and yet we know deep in our bones that Eden is no more, that the gates of the garden are barred to us, that going back is not really an option, and neither is clinging tightly to that which is passing away.

But there is an answer to our homesickness, in the end. A very simple one, elegant in its simplicity, yet earth-shattering in its implications. Something more enduring, even, than a homeland promised for a thousand generations.

It is our true home. The one that does not change. The one that we can always find. It is Jesus. 

God, with infinite mercy, perhaps, knew how easily we get lost—how our fear and our selfishness and our broken hearts leave us in a perpetual state of homesickness. And it seems God was not satisfied with just telling us how to get home. So instead, he simply came and made his home among us. As one of us. To live and die and live again in us so that our true home—the heart of God—is as close as our own breath. Never far away. Never inaccessible. Neither a faded memory nor a squandered hope. Simply home, here. And all we must do is be ready to welcome him. The only gate that is barred and must be opened now is the gate of our own heart, to let him in where he longs to reside. 

“Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet,” Jesus says, “so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks…truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”

I know we are a frustrating and stubborn human family, and we make a mess of things quite often. But I have to hope that, perhaps, seated up at the right hand of the Father, our Lord—who himself has known the sound of thunder and the scent of roses—is maybe a little bit homesick for us, too. And that when he comes again to find us, to redeem all things, and when the banquet is prepared—whether it is Coney dogs or whatever else heaven tastes like—that we might look into the face of God and God might look into ours and we might say to each other, with simple joy, in one voice: It is good to be home. I missed you.

Kindness: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on July 10, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 10:25-37, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.

As we speak, a deputation from our Diocese is in Baltimore at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. It is a major gathering that happens every three years for the discussion of important issues facing the church and the broader society and for addressing all the business of legislation and governance that pertain to our denomination. Some conventions are witness to monumental changes in the life of the Episcopal Church, and some are relatively less eventful. We will see how this one turns out, especially given the pandemic-related delays and cuts made to the agenda. 

But I think it is safe to say that at every General Convention there is one question, often unspoken, that pervades all of the conversations and debates. It is a question that hovers like a ghost at the back of the meeting halls, and asserts itself implicitly in every resolution that is passed or defeated. It is the big, lingering question underneath all of the urgent questions of the day, in the Church as a whole and here at Trinity. And it is simply this:

In an era that feels so uncertain, so perilous, what must we do?

What must we, the Church, do to meet the moment? What must we do to survive, or even to flourish, when the challenges before us are so many? What must we do, right now, to be who and what God would have us be? What must we do to inherit and embody the fullness of God’s undying love? 

Now, because we are an institution, we tend to think in institutional terms and so we might wonder, is it a new formation program that will save us? A new structure? A better marketing platform? A stronger response to the issues of the day? Undoubtedly all of these things will be discussed in Baltimore, and I commend those who gather there for their sincere and earnest investment in debating such things. The process is part of our shared call to build a more just and life-giving Church body.

But I must confess that none of those things feel like the whole answer. Because if we Episcopalians were redeemed and renewed by systems and programs and public statements alone, then we’d have reached the promised land a long time ago. 

So maybe we’re a little bit like the lawyer who questions Jesus in today’s Gospel passage. He might be trying to ‘test’ Jesus, true, but maybe he is also looking at the world around him—perilous, turbulent, angry—and truly wondering: what must I do to inherit eternal life? What must I do to feel like things are actually going to be ok? What must we do to feel and know, deep in our souls, that God has not forsaken us? 

What must we do? 

Well, as our Lord has so effectively modeled for us today with the parable of the Good Samaritan, I will respond to this question not with a tidy answer, but with a story of my own.

About 17 years ago, when I had just graduated from college, I took off for Mexico with almost no savings and with a very flimsy plan. I had decided to get a certificate to teach English as a foreign language, and so I went to the Yucatan Peninsula and spent a month taking the necessary courses, interspersed with a lot of time on the beach and nights out with my classmates. I was not quite the prodigal son, lost in dissolute living, but I definitely had more optimism than good sense. 

After the course I took a bus to a large city in central Mexico, Queretaro, where I knew no one and nothing. I had heard that it was a good place to find a job teaching English but I had no solid leads. I just showed up and stayed in a cheap motel near the center of town, unsure of how to actually find a job, still a bit rusty in my Spanish. As the days went by and I made little progress, and my funds started getting lower and lower, my sense of dread began to escalate. And it came to pass that one evening I found myself sitting on a park bench in the main plaza of the city with absolutely no money to pay for another night in a hotel and no easy way for me to reach my family for help. The shadows gathered around me, the night was quickly encroaching, and I felt a sense of panic. I had never been in such a precarious situation. In my naivety, it just hadn’t occurred to me that I would actually end up without any options. I wasn’t attacked by robbers or lying naked in a ditch on the side of the road, like the man in Jesus’ parable, but I was lost in a sort of wilderness, and the passersby did not know me, and did not stop, and I was alone. 

And then, quite suddenly, a young man came walking past me, probably about my age at the time, dressed in a work suit. Why he stopped and approached me I will never really know. But he did, and he had a kind, gentle smile, and he asked (in Spanish—he spoke almost no English) “are you ok? Do you need anything?” And I greeted him in my broken Spanish, and we had a conversation. 

Long story short, his name was Julio, and he was a law student from that city, and when I described to him both my reason for being there and my continued search to find a job, he said, without any hesitation: my family has an empty house on the outskirts of the city. It’s not very nice, but you can stay there if you want until you find what you need. 

Now, mind you, I had not even told him about my financial straits. He just knew, somehow, that that was what I needed. And I accepted, with profuse gratitude, and I moved into that little dusty house and I lived there for almost two weeks until I was able to find a job teaching English and eventually get into a small rented place of my own. 

I saw Julio once before I moved back to the United States and I asked him, why did you help me that night in the plaza? And he said, simply, “you looked like you needed a friend.”

My friends, I have traveled many places, I have seen many beautiful things both near and far, but I will tell you that few moments in my life were more miraculous, more mysterious, more salvific, than that moment when a man stopped what he was doing to help a lost stranger who had run out of options. 

So while I am no expert in church governance or budgets or fancy programs for this initiative or that one, when I wonder “what must we do” as a Church, as followers of Jesus, to meet the uncertainties of this or any age, I keep coming back to that encounter. 

And I think the answer, in the end, is as profound and as simple as it has been since the very beginning: we will be saved by kindness. We will be saved by the kindness that God has shown to us in Christ, and in this life we will experience God’s salvation in the daily, ordinary acts of kindness that we show to one another.

Not the flashiest answer, I know. It probably won’t make any headlines. It doesn’t even have a program budget attached to it. But still, I would guess that, at the end of our long journey through this life, it is those moments of kindness—the ones given, and the ones received—that will be the true measure of all things. And it will be the kind people, like Julio, who will linger in our memories long after more impressive figures have faltered and faded away. 

So, what must we do to inherit eternal life? More than anything, we must simply be kind. 

Because, when you think about it, the whole arc of Scritpure, the impenetrable mystery of grace and salvation might be summed up just like this:

That we were sitting on a park bench as the evening shadows stretched around us, and the night was encroaching, and we were out of options and didn’t know what to do. And suddenly a stranger with a gentle smile approached us, and sat with us, and gave us shelter, and when we could not understand how or why, he simply said, with infinite kindness, “you looked like you needed a friend.”

Pause: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on June 19, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 8:26-39, in which Jesus heals a man possessed by many demons.

In 1899, the composer Jean Sibelius wrote a piece of music for a public concert in his native Finland, which at that time was under the control of the Russian Empire. Even if you are not that familiar with Sibelius or the history of that region, this particular music might still be recognizable to you—it is called Finlandia, and the main melody from it was used later for the hymn “Be Still My Soul,” as well as a few other anthems and folk songs. My grandma’s family was from Finland, so this piece of music was very special to me growing up. That melody is woven through my childhood memories.

If you’re curious, look up Finlandia and give it a listen; it’s only about 9 minutes long. And what is so interesting to me about the full symphonic piece is that it has two very distinct parts—the first two-thirds sounds nothing like that recognizable hymn. It is turbulent, tense, even militaristic at times—blaring horns, thundering drums, and mournful strings; it is the sound of a universe caught up in struggle and strife. 

But then, somewhat jarringly, at about 6 minutes in, all of that tension swells and then trails off, like an unfinished thought. And only then, after the briefest pause, does that famous melody come in: sweet and wistful and full of hope, completely unlike everything that came before it, as if the world had suddenly become something new, fresh and tender and smiling, even through its tears. It was a melody that, for Sibelius, held the dream of freedom for a subjugated nation—the dream that one day they might live in dignity and freedom.

But as much as I love that song (like, really love it: the hymn’s name is tattooed on my arm) it’s that pause in the music that I want to reflect on this morning. The pause between the old music and the new melody. It is so easy to miss, but upon it everything hinges. It’s that pause that arrives when the past is gone, when what’s done is done, but in which the future has not yet revealed itself. The pause that asks a question: what now? What next? What note lies on the other side of this still and pregnant moment? Is it, indeed, a new song that we will hear? Or will it be just more of the same old tune? 

You don’t have to be a musician to understand the significance of this pause. It shows up in life in many ways. 

There’s the long and disorienting pause that the pandemic has imposed upon our common life, and the sense that in this very moment we are suspended, somehow, between what used to be and whatever will be. 

There is that pause that stops us in our tracks—the one of stunned, sickening silence, as when we learn of yet another mass shooting—this week at an Episcopal Church in Alabama, with three of our sibilings in Christ murdered at a potluck. 

There is the pause just before you answer the phone call that comes at 3AM, when you know intuitively that everything is about to change. 

And there is the slow sort of pause when you wake up in the weak morning light, bleary eyed, when you feel like nothing has changed and never will.

And in each of these pauses, we ask ourselves: What now? What next? 

It is just such a moment that we discover in this morning’s Gospel story, in which Jesus travels to the country of the Gerasenes and heals a man tormented by demons. The pause is easy to overlook, though, given the dramatic content and imagery of the story. Listen for it. 

Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.

Do you hear it there? Do you hear the pause? Right in between the healing of the demoniac and the people’s response.  What if I told you that this is in fact the most important moment in the entire story? 

For it is in that moment that the Gerasenes are faced with a choice. How will they respond to this new possibility embodied in their neighbor set free of his affliction? How will they respond to the wondrous power of this moment when God has acted decisively among them, when the parameters of what they know have been upended? We might ask: what song will they sing now that the old music—the music of pain and powerlessness—has been silenced?

We wait…and wonder…

But in this moment, they cannot hold onto the new melody that Jesus offers. It is too much for them. And so they ask him to leave. He might have demonstrated his power over the evil forces of the world, but it seems they have grown accustomed to those forces. They have made their uneasy peace with evil. They have, perhaps, accepted that some among us are simply destined to be lost to the wild places, to live among the tombs, to huddle naked in the shadows. They have accepted the idea that we are not all meant to live and flourish and stand upright. They have accepted that some suffering at the margins is bearable as long as we don’t have to see it or think about it too much.

In short, they have become, as people do, accustomed to the devil they know. 

And whatever Jesus signifies, whatever healing he offers, whatever strange, heavenly music he embodies, it is too unfamiliar, too uncertain, too costly. They are seized with great fear. And when we are afraid, it is hard to learn how to sing a new song. 

Those of us who have come to know Jesus as Lord and teacher and redeemer would probably like to see ourselves in this story as the man who has been healed, the one restored to himself, the one sent out to proclaim the good news of God’s power. And I pray to be that sort of person. 

But if I am honest with myself, and if we are honest with ourselves, we are just as often more like the Gerasenes, not yet sure whether we can bear to dream that another world is indeed possible. Not yet sure that we actually believe that what Jesus promises is true,  and that it is worth giving up what we know, what is comfortable, however broken and brutal it might be. 

For it would be so much easier to accept that this is all there is. To accept that nothing will ever change, to accept that eking out some sense of our own personal safety, our own personal satisfaction is enough to hope for in this life— to capitulate to the old music, the tempest and the drumbeat, the weeping and the howling of those who make their home among the graves. It would be so much easier to let that song go on and on and pretend we don’t hear it. 

But that is not what Jesus asks of us. In this moment when we pause, and ask what now? What next? He asks us to trust him. He asks us to follow him. And he asks us to listen to the inbreaking melody of heaven and to sing—to sing the new song. A song that is sweet, and wistful, and full of hope. A song that sounds nothing like that came before it. We don’t have to be good at it. We don’t have to hit every note perfectly. We just have to find the courage to try. 

Because I don’t need to tell you that there are still people among us who are lost among the tombs, and they need a new song. There are people who are afraid to be themselves for fear of rejection or harm, and they need a new song. And God’s creation is worn and battered and exploited and it needs a new song. And the people for whom the Juneteenth holiday is still a promise unfullfilled, they need a new song. And so many people—so many of us—are tired and lonely and aching for something beautiful to hold onto, and we need a new song. We all need a new song. The song that says God is with us. The song that says love will always be more powerful than evil. The song that says that while our troubles may be legion, we will indeed be set free, because Jesus has come in our midst and he has taught us new music.

Can you hear it? Can you hear the new melody? It is right here among us.

So pause

And don’t be afraid.

And now, sing. 

Maps: A Trinity Sunday Sermon

I preached this sermon on Trinity Sunday, June 12, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is John 16:12-15.

Ever since I was a little kid, I have loved looking at maps. Our family went on lots of road trips, and there was a sort of weighty, sacred significance in the big printed road atlas that was usually kept somewhere in the car. Even if we weren’t going anywhere in particular, we would get it out and we would look at it together, and I would trace my finger along the blue and red and green roads and highways crisscrossing the printed page like ribbons, or rivers, or veins, each one an invitation, a daydream, a path leading somewhere, towards a place just over the horizon of the present moment. A place that, to my young mind, was mysterious. A place that was beautiful. 

To this day I still love looking at maps and pondering places to explore, both near and far. And so it happened that this weekend I was scrolling on my phone across the map of this area and I noticed the place, about an hour from here, where the state lines of Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan converge. As best I could tell, it was just a spot along a country road pretty far from anything, with a little stone marker.  Worth driving an hour each way? I’ll let you be the judge of that, but the map was calling out to me, and so I hopped in my car on an impulse and headed north. 

After getting off of the interstate, I ended up on one of those beautiful two-lane country roads that we have in abundance around here. The land rose and fell gently, like the belly of a sleeping giant. The clouds were big and voluptuous, the trees an insistent shade of green, the red barns and the farmhouses nestled among the fields. And still I kept driving, and driving some more, far past any town, out to where the roads arent quite yet dirt, but where they’re starting to think about becoming dirt. 

And suddenly, there it was. Just off the road, with a little place to pull off: a stone marker perched on a small rise, which indicated that 130 feet to the south, the three states meet in one spot. And so I parked the car and walked a little ways, and there it was—not much to see, I’ll admit—just a little metal plaque embedded into the middle of the road with the letter “M.” So I’m guessing Michigan got to put it there.

And as you do when you drive over an hour to see a letter in the middle of the road…I stood on it. And then I took a couple of pictures of my feet standing on it. And I looked around at the loveliness of that quiet road, accompanied only by the birds and the breeze rustling the flowers and the wild grass, and I thought about how strange and yet oddly thrilling it was to be standing upon the precise intersection of three places, each with their own unique character, each with their own people and histories and hopes, and yet here, together, gently resting up against one another, hidden away in the middle of nowhere, or, depending on how you look at it, in the middle of everywhere. 

And while it was not quite as glamorous as some of the places on the map I’d daydreamed about as a kid, it was mysterious. And it was beautiful.

Now, given that today is Trinity Sunday, that day in the Church year when we preachers try, however imperfectly, to ponder and speak about the God revealed to us in Scripture who is both three and one, you might already see where my imagination is going with this. And although I admit any attempt to reduce the Trinity to a tidy analogy or image is destined to be insufficient, I couldn’t help but think about it as I stood on that spot in the road, trying to imagine where exactly on that little plaque one state ended and the other started, searching for the infinite vanishing point between uniqueness and unity. 

Uniqueness and unity. We could say something similar about the Triune God, a theological mystery which is itself perhaps marked with an M, somewhere out beyond the cosmos, in the backroads of heaven, among the fields of wheat and the wildflowers and the swooping doves. Theologians and preachers and all kinds of other people have written a lot of words trying to map the Trinity, to describe its contours and characteristics and the best way for us mere mortals to approach it. We all want to “get it” or get close to it. And yet as close as we might get, we can never quite reach the center of what or where or how the Trinity is. It is hidden from us, just out of reach, that infinite vanishing point where Father, Son and Spirit touch and intertwine, beyond the limited scope of our perception. It is nowhere, and it is everywhere. It is mysterious. And it is beautiful.

How thrilling and humbling it is, when you really think about it, that as Christians we give our lives, our whole selves, over to something—to Someone—whom we can’t quite understand. But that’s what love is, in the end, isn’t it? A headlong leap into mystery. 

And so today, on Trinity Sunday, we honor that mystery of God’s love, not trying to solve it like a riddle or simplify it into a diagram, but instead to celebrate the journey that we make together in its general direction, like travelers with a map in our hands—longing for the promise that lies beyond the horizon of the present moment, searching for that place at the end of the long road, the place where all of our unique stories, all of our hopes and our homelands meet, gently resting up against one another— a place we know is real because Jesus has revealed its possibility to us, even if we can’t quite describe it or see it yet.

But that’s the whole point—we haven’t fully arrived. We haven’t plotted the precise coordinates of the Kingdom—no, not a single one of us. And we as the Church are at our best when we acknowledge that our journey toward understanding God is still a work in progress. The depth of the Trinity, that is to say the depth of God’s grace-filled self, is still being revealed to us. And admitting this prevents us from all manner of ills: legalism and self-satisfaction and complacency and hardened certainties. It keeps us tender, open to being surprised, open to admitting that perhaps God is even more wondrous, more loving, more liberating than we—or anyone—has ever dared to hope. 

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel passage. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…he will declare to you the things that are to come.” 

This story—this revelation of the divine life of the Trinity—is not over yet. The Spirit is still working within us and within the present moment; the Son is still journeying with us, even to the end of the age; and the Father stills waits to greet us, his prodigal children, at the end of our travels, running across the field, arms open wide, a feast heavy upon the table. The Trinity is all of this, and more. It is mysterious, and it is beautiful.

Our only task is to keep going. Keep going, even when we stumble. Keep going, even when it feels like we’ve lost the path. Keep going, even when nobody else seems to want to come with us. Keep going, even when the map is stained with our tears and the lines bleed together. Keep going.

Because if nothing else, to speak of the Trinity, the way it moves and holds and calls us, is to speak of God’s ongoing invitation to keep going. It is the proclamation that God was, and God is, and God will be with us as we do so, and that wherever we are going, we will meet him in the end. We will converge, somewhere on that hidden road, into that infinite vanishing point of uniqueness and unity, of God and of creation, of flesh and blood and bread and wine and breath and wind and flame. We will stand right there at the intersection of eternity, and finally, we will know. Finally, we will be known.

I still keep an atlas in my car, by the way. Every once in a while I’ll take it out and trace the roads on the map with my finger, dreaming of what more there is to see. There’s always more to see. The only difference is that now, I have come to know that you don’t have to travel very far to see wondrous things. The infinite mysteries of the universe—of love, of life, of God—are close to you, closer than you can imagine. 

Sometimes, if you know how and where to look, they’re just under your feet. 

Standing on the spot where Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan converge.

The Language of Our Hearts: A Pentecost Sermon

I preached this sermon on Pentecost, June 5, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Acts 2:1-21, the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the Apostles.

A few weeks ago I traveled up to South Bend to attend a conference for all of the Episcopal Churches in Province V, which is a region that roughly encompasses the midwestern United States. It was a wonderful time, both for the workshops and other sessions offered, and also, just as importantly, for the chance to connect with new people and reconnect with some familiar ones—friends and colleagues that I hadn’t seen since well before the pandemic started. As we know from gathering together here at Trinity each Sunday, there is something heartening and healing about being together in person, seeing each other’s faces, hearing each other’s voices.  

When we celebrated the Eucharist at the conference, we were invited to do something that perhaps you’ve experienced before if you’ve attended a large Episcopal gathering or convention, especially one with a diversity of attendees: at that moment in the liturgy when we all join together to say the Lord’s Prayer, we were asked to pray it in “the language of our heart.” The language of our heart. I love that phrase.

And so, after a brief pause, a cacophony of voices rose up in prayer—some praying in the traditional English language version that is so dear and familiar to us here; some in the more contemporary English translation; but also in Spanish, and in other languages—a seminary friend of mine who was there offered prayers in Lakota. The cumulative effect was messy, but beautiful—a collision of hearts and tongues naming God, praising God, asking God for protection and provision. 

Maybe it was because I hadn’t heard the Lord’s Prayer offered that way in a little while, but it touched me deeply, it gave me a different sense of the vastness of that prayer, the billions of times it is offered up each day, in grand churches and in homeless shelters, on mountaintops and on commuter trains, by people we will never meet, people so different from us and yet so fundamentally connected to us, each crying out in the language of their deepest heart. Our Father, who art in heaven. Padre nuestro. Ate unyanpi. (That last one is in Lakota, if you’re curious). 

One of the great tragedies of Christian history has been the idea that being one in Christ means being exactly the same as one another. The idea that being part of the universal Church is more about fitting in than it is about becoming the fullness of who God made each of us to be. That pressure to conform, to get in line, to deny the parts of yourself deemed different or unacceptable—that is a particular cultural force at work, not the Gospel itself. That urge to suppress diversity is the work of tyrants and empires, not the work of God’s Kingdom. Because the Spirit of God speaks in every language, shows up in every type of person and place and circumstance, the Spirit radiates out of every color of the rainbow. 

And, to put it more bluntly for those of us here in the United States: God does not only speak in or understand English. God does not only work through people similar to us. And I thank God that we are part of a church that recognizes the joy and the strength of diversity of every type—social, economic, political, theological, racial, linguistic, and every other sort, too. We are messy, but we are beautiful, this collision of hearts and tongues that we call The Episcopal Church. 

By not simply tolerating our differences but striving to cherish them and learn from them, we live into the reality of the Church that was born on that first Pentecost, when the Apostles were caught up in the whirlwind of the Spirit and were able to proclaim the gospel in the native tongues of the immigrants to whom they spoke. 

There is a nuance here that is essential for us not to miss: the miraculous gift of the Spirit was not that these immigrants could suddenly understand the Apostles speaking in one universal language—which would likely have been Greek or Latin, the dominant languages of the Roman Empire. It was that the gospel was carried to their ears in the language of their hearts—the language of their blood, the language of their native soil, the language their parents sang to them in lullabies, the language by which they learned to count the stars and name the creatures of the earth. 

On this day the gospel–the fiery incandescence of God’s love–was transformed on the lips of the Galilean preachers and rendered into the particular poetry of the hearers’ innermost self. This is the day God called out to each of them not in the language of empire, of conquest, of sameness, but in a voice that was as familiar as their own.

There is a crucial lesson in that, a fundamental Christian truth, especially as we grapple with our own challenges of living in a diverse society where some would still have us give up our God-given uniqueness, would have us mute our stories, our perspectives, our voices, in favor of a monolithic, lifeless consensus masquerading as peace.

That is not what we were made for. That is not what Jesus died for. That is not the type of peace he leaves with us. And that is not what the Spirit came for at Pentecost. The Spirit came to fill each of us with life abundant, to winnow away with fire all the lies we tell ourselves, leaving the clarity and the particularity of our divinely-made selfhood, and the Spirit came to catch us up into a bond of fellowship that honors our differences while uniting us in common practice, in common mission. 

Authenticity and courage and truth, that is our peace. And that is not just who we can be or hope to be, that is who we are when we surrender our fear and our bitterness and our prejudice to the expansiveness of God’s Spirit. A people reborn, a people who are unafraid to speak in the languages of our hearts and yet somehow still understand one another in the wordlessness of grace, the ultimately unspeakable mystery of life and of love. 

Let that Spirit of love be yours today. Let it shape all of your days. Let it shape the work that we do together in this community, in this nation, on this planet. None of the challenges that we collectively face can be met without this Spirit—a Spirit that honors difference, and yet demands from us the discipline of remaining together IN that difference. No retreating into corners; no demonizing one another; no insistence that God only speaks in ways that we alone understand. 

For if the Spirit of God is like fire, like wind, then it is elemental, and limitless, and free—it is available to everyone, kindled in hearths unknown to us, blowing across landscapes we will never see, speaking in languages we will never understand. Today we honor that vast freedom of the Spirit, we put our hope in it, because it means that we, too, might yet be free. We, too, might yet be liberated from the language of empire and speak, instead, the living language of our hearts.

Come, Holy Spirit. Only speak the word, and we shall live. Speak the word, and we shall be healed. 

Names: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, May 8 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is Acts 9:36-43, in which Peter raises a woman from death.

How many names do you have?

The immediate answer to that question might seem obvious—many of us have a first, a middle, and a last, with maybe one or two more thrown in for good measure by our parents. But it’s not always that straightforward—some of us also have old nicknames, the recollection of which might make us squirm with delight or embarrassment; affectionate names given by friends and romantic partners; and names that we have claimed for ourselves later in life as we have better understood who we are and how we wish to be known to the world. There might be other names, too, that we’d rather not hear—the hurtful, insulting ones that were hurled at us at one point or another, the ones that still rattle around in our memory like heavy stones. 

There is great power in the names we carry; power to heal and to harm; to remember who we are and to be reborn. It should not be surprising, then, that much of Scripture is taken up with the giving and the changing and the remembering of names, including the ones we have applied, with the limitations of human language, to the unspeakable name of God. 

We might say that, in some way, the entire story of God’s people thoroughout the Bible is the search for a name—a name by which to know ourselves, a name by which to address the ineffability of divine truth, a name to call out into the silent infinitude of the stars—a name that is sufficient to say what life is, a name that can capture in full something that is ultimately beyond words.

I got to thinking about names because of today’s passage from Acts, where Peter restores to life a woman in the city of Joppa, a woman who bears two names, Tabitha and Dorcas. As the writer of Acts informs us, Dorcas is the Greek translation of the Aramaic name Tabitha, which means “gazelle.” Now, it would be easy to pass right over this detail as we read about her miraculous resurrection, but I think we would miss something important if we did so. 

Commentators note that Tabitha/Dorcas, in addition to being a woman of some financial means who was able to support the widows in her community, was also a woman that straddled two worlds. Joppa is a port city, and given her two names, it is likely that this disciple of Jesus was a Greek-speaking Jewish woman who occupied a liminal space between her Israelite identity and her ties to the Hellenized world of the Roman empire. Her two names suggest that she had learned to traverse the ambiguous territory between colonized and colonizer, between membership in an oppressed nation and the society of the imperial oppressor.

We do not know how she managed this interplay of names and identities, but we do know that in the midst of them, this woman who was both Tabitha and Dorcas dedicated her life to service in the name of Jesus. And perhaps, for her, the name of disciple–follower of the Way, sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd–was the thread that bound her disparate roles in a fractured world. 

But then note what happens in the passage. Peter (himself another bearer of two names) comes to see the body of the woman, and in raising her back to life, he says, “Tabitha, get up.” Not Dorcas, but Tabitha. Her first name, the name that was with her from the beginning, the name spoken in her people’s original language: this is the name by which she is called back to herself, this is the name that inaugurates her resurrected existence. It is Tabitha, tzvia in ancient Hebrew, the same word that names the gazelle leaping on the mountainside in the Song of Solomon, that is the name of life for her. That is the name by which God, through Peter, breathes life back into her body. And while the Scriptures do not tell us anything about her life after this miracle, I can’t help but imagine that, for the rest of her days, she remembered the sacred power of being brought back to life by the sound of her original name. Tabitha, get up. 

What is the name by which God would call you? What is the name that encapsulates your deepest self, the name that is life to you? And, conversely, what names have been put upon you that no longer work, that no longer tell the whole story of who you are called to be?

I speak not only of given names and surnames, but also of the roles and identities by which we are known and named, which, while important, are too often over-simplified, objectified, and used to label and limit our complexity—old, young, healthy, sick, parent, child. Priest, layperson, spiritual wanderer. Gay, straight, trans*, Black, Brown. American. Foreigner. Pro-Life. Pro-choice. Democrat. Republican. Do these names actually tell you who you are, or who your neighbor is?

Or is there a deeper name, an original name, by which you must identify yourself and those whom you encounter if we will ever hope to actually know one another? Is there a name for ourselves that will bring the dying parts of this world back to life?

There is, in fact.

And it turns out that the woman known as Dorcas heard that it day as she awoke from the sleep of death. Because a funny thing about the name Tabitha—tzvia. That word, in its original language, doesn’t only mean gazelle, but also, simply this: beautiful. Her name was beauty. 

Beautiful one, get up. 

This is the name by which God knows each of us. This is the name that God has called us from the moment the world began. And this is the name by which God, in Christ, desires us to know one another—the name underneath our names, the name beyond every label and slur and stereotype. The name that will bring anyone back to life. 

Beautiful one, get up.

And this is the only name that can heal us, that can see us through the divisions and the suspicions that have plagued not only our recent history but the entirety of the human story. It is only when we know ourselves as beautiful, as beloved, and when we see that same thing in the face of our neighbors, in the face of our enemies, as Jesus taught us to, that we will begin to move back from the brink.

It is only when we see and name the inherent beauty and dignity of all creation and develop a reverence for what God has made and called good that we will move closer toward the kingdom wherein we were meant to dwell. It is only when we stop name-calling and start naming each other as beautiful, when we start noticing the beauty we see, even in the places and people where it’s not first apparent—it is only then that we will finally speak our own true names, and it is only then our mortal tongues will begin to utter something that approaches the one true name of God. 

The God who woke Tabitha from the dead.

The God who woke Jesus from the dead.

The God who will wake each of us, on the last day, saying, quite simply:

Beautiful one, get up. 

Wounds: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on April 24, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is John 20:19-31, when the risen Jesus appears to his disciples and shows them his wounds.

I was 18 years old when my body betrayed me. 

At least, that is how it felt at the time. It was the spring of my first year of college, and I was full of expectations and grand plans about what my life was going to be like. I was going to travel the world, or maybe join the Peace Corps, or maybe write a book, or maybe be an actor on the stage—who knows, anything felt possible, and at that juncture in life you have more hope than clarity. 

But as the blossoms came out on the trees that spring, I felt my body wilting—I lost a ton of weight, I was weak and listless, insatiably thirsty, unable to concentrate on anything. And a visit to the campus health clinic completely upended my life: the nurse listened to my symptoms, took a quick blood sample, and then said to me, with devastating simplicity: Phil, it looks like you have Type I diabetes. 

I didn’t even know what that meant, at first, but I would soon learn. I would learn how to give myself insulin shots, how to count carbohydrates, how to triage a blood sugar crash. But throughout the management of my new, incurable disease, the one thing I struggled with the most was a feeling of resentment against my body. Suddenly, without any warning or obvious cause, it just stopped working, and all of my youthful daydreams about far-flung adventures were replaced by a grim pragmatism—health insurance, co-pays, the spectre of long-term complications. Everything I had hoped for seemed impossible, lost, pointless, all because my body was now broken. 

Each of us must, at some point, contend with the frailty of our mortal flesh. Some of us face it very early in life, others much later, but eventually, at one time or another, our bodies stop cooperating fully with us.  And whether it is sudden and tragic or more of a slow onset of accumulating challenges, the loss of health can be devastating, infuritating, or simply exhausting, such that we would rather just hide away in a locked room, foregoing the demands of being out in the world.  

We might, at some point, quite understandbly, direct our frustration to God: God, why would you give me so many dreams and desires and then give me a body that can’t live them out? Why did you make us so vulnerable, so susceptible to fracture? What is the good of these wounds and scars and broken parts? 

I certainly asked such questions when I was diagnosed with diabetes, and there are rough days when I still ask it. But of course, God tends not to answer such queries directly. He just shows up in the midst of them. 

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. 

I was struck, in reading this passage again this week, that Jesus does not save the display of his wounds for Thomas alone—they are, in fact, the first thing he shows the initial group of disciples when he appears among them. It is as though his greeting of peace and the revelation of his pierced flesh are two inseparable parts of the same message. It is the wounds, the marks that bear the story of his suffering, that give the peacefulness he offers both authenticity and authority. 

His injuries demonstrate that he is indeed who he said he is. There was no fake-out on the cross, no magic trick in the tomb, no secret plot to bypass the suffering that was bestowed upon him. There is only this strange new body, still very much like ours in its capacity for injury, but that now drips sweet peace from its wounds, like sap running out of the hole in a tree during the winter thaw. He is risen, yes, but still bleeding; the Resurrection has not erased his injuries, but has instead transfigured them, made them part of the wholeness of the cosmos, a part of the emerging Kingdom of God in which nothing, not even our gravest injury, is unreconcilable. 

I need that reminder, to be honest, when I rail against my own physical limitations or when I grieve the illnesses and challenges of the people I care about. I need to remember that Jesus held onto his wounds, incorporated them into his peace, that he appeared on the other side of death with scars, as one changed by life, as one marked by life’s indifferent cruelty, and that it did not keep him from being, in the end, exactly what he needed to be. It gives me hope that there might yet be peace for us, too, who tend to our own wounds, who struggle with feeling betrayed by life’s fragility. 

Because if we’re honest, we are all, in one way or another, just like Thomas and the other disciples. We know what it is to suffer and so we doubt—not because we are obstinate but because we are heartbroken. We doubt because we know the sting of disappointment and grief, we doubt because hope, at times, feels like the purview of the young, the strong, and the unmarred. 

But Jesus shows up and shows us his hands and his side because he needs us to know that this, is, in fact, what hope actually looks like: not an unblemished daydream, but a body that both bleeds and loves profusely, because in the end, real life requires us to do both. 

Do not doubt, but believe, he says to us–to encourage us. 

Do not doubt that there is peace and promise on the other side of brokenness. Do not doubt that your own wounds and hurting parts are as precious to God as any other piece of you. Do not doubt that, even though some days you might feel like you are falling apart or that you are useless, you are, in truth, growing ever closer to God, ever more precious to God, ever more caught up in the healing mystery of grace. Even in your fragmented condition, you are loved wholly, as one who is complete.

Our journey is to trust that this is true about ourselves, and to tell others that it is true about them, too, no matter what they are going through, no matter what they have lost.

This month will be exactly 20 years since I was diagnosed with diabetes. I no longer feel betrayed by my body—I have found some measure of acceptance about it all—but I can’t stand here and tell you that it was a blessing or that I wouldn’t change it if I could. I would. It can be hard some days. But I think it’s ok to be honest about the hard stuff we face.

What I can tell you, though, is that Jesus’ wounds mean more to me now than they might have when I was perfectly healthy. I can see now how they are their own kind of answer to all of our questions about suffering and loss. Not an explanation, but still an answer. One that says:

I am here. You are not alone. This brokenness is part of you, but it is not all of you. And there is life to be found, even now, just as you are. Touch these wounds and see how well God understands your own. Touch these wounds and see that peace is still possible.

And in that moment, I get it. In that moment, I no longer doubt. I believe.