Fisherman: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on January 22, 2023 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 14:12-23.

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

My grandpa, like any person born and raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, loved to go fishing. And in particular he loved to go ice-fishing.

If you are not among the hardy (foolhardy?) souls who have tried this pastime, maybe you can still picture it: a frozen lake in the dead of winter, all sentient life wisely hibernating or hunkered down in a warm place. Except for the intrepid ice-fishers, who drag their shacks and their camp chairs out onto the quiet snow-blown expanse to drill holes in the ice and to sit—in bitter cold and in pensive expectation—waiting for a bite. 

I confess, the few times I went out ice-fishing with my family as a kid, I didn’t get it. I was bored and restless—and cold! I didn’t understand why anyone would willingly do this for fun, especially when you could just get fish at the grocery store. But then, I was a kid who grew up mostly in cities and in California sunshine, and the lake water didn’t run in my veins like it did for my grandpa. The stoic beauty of the ice-fisherman’s reverie was lost on me.

He would sit out on the ice, munching on a sandwich, sipping coffee from a thermos, contemplating the tree line, the sky, maybe his place in the universe; I was never quite sure. Sometimes he’d catch something, often he wouldn’t. He never seemed to mind. And truth be told, I think he liked the ritual of the trip to the lake—its sensations and its silences—just as much, if not more so, than bringing home a catch. 

Now you still aren’t likely to find me out on a frozen lake these days, but as I look back, I have come to appreciate not only the spare beauty my grandpa found in ice-fishing, but also how his going out onto the ice was, in many ways, an encapsulation of who he was in the rest of his life. The quiet and the deliberative spaciousness of ice fishing were the same qualities he evoked most other days, with his family and with his neighbors and friends. 

He had his hot-tempered moments, but for the most part he moved through the world with a gentle attentiveness to things and to people: content to be who he was, where he was, patient, not obsessed with the elusive big catch of one sort or another that many of us chase after. Maybe he had always been that way. Or maybe all those years of ice-fishing helped make him that way. I’m not sure, but I do know that it was a part of him.

My grandpa and his ice-fishing have been on my mind this week, of course, because Jesus, in calling the first disciples, finds a handful of fishermen by the Sea of Galilee and invites them, in a clever turn of phrase, to “fish for people” instead. It’s a beloved scene in the Gospels, but oftentimes I think we focus so much on the abruptness of the disciples’ response—how they seem to drop everything and follow Jesus on the spot—that we don’t spend a lot of time pondering what they were doing beforehand: namely, their original vocation as fishermen. I wonder, though, why Jesus singles them out, these men on the shore, among all the other people he might have invited into his circle. 

Was Jesus calling them just because they happened to be there, without regard for their previous life experience? Was he, in effect, asking them to become someone entirely new, or did he see some particular potential in these men with their nets and their boats and their weather-beaten faces?

Given who Jesus is, I like to think he saw something already formed in them after a lifetime of traversing open waters and mending things that are frayed and waiting, day after day, with persistent hope for an unseen harvest from the deep. I like to think he saw something that made these fishermen exactly the right people for the journey that was about to unfold.

Because I believe that who we are and what we have done with our lives, no matter how simple or quiet or humble, matters to God. It matters in the Kingdom of God. 

In the same way that my grandpa’s ice fishing and the rest of his life seemed to mutually inform one another, perhaps these Galilean fishermen already had what Jesus needed them to have as future apostles. Maybe their decision to follow him, as dramatic and abrupt as it seems, was not, in fact, a clean break from their past. It was not a rejection of who they had been, a rinsing off of the smell of fish and mud, but an embrace of what these things had taught them—it was the decision to trust that their lives, their skills, and their gifts might be brought forth in a new way for the purposes of God. 

Maybe Jesus did not call them away from themselves and their original vocation, but deeper into those things. For he did not say follow me and I will make you something other, something better than a fisherman, but follow me, and I will make you fishers of people. In other words, I will make you the fullness of who you already are.

And so those fisherman had the courage to follow him away from the shore because they knew that they had what they needed within them; they were already enough. And if that is so, then perhaps we have what we need, too, perhaps we are already enough for wherever God is calling us to go. Not running away from ourselves but going deeper into ourselves so that we might embody what God created us to be.

And I know all of us, myself included, have parts of ourselves, parts of our story, parts of our personality, parts of our past, that feel worthless, parts we would just as soon leave behind. The embarrassments that enmesh us in a net of shame. The regrets that linger on us like the scent of lake water. The things that prevent us from believing we have anything of value to offer. 

But Jesus is standing there, seeing all of it, knowing all of it, and he is saying, yes, you. I’ve been looking for someone just like you. Follow me. Follow me as you are. Follow me with what you have, no matter how great or small. Fishermen, follow me. Tax collectors, follow me. Saints and sinners, follow me. The mighty and the lowly; the famous and the forgotten; everyone, follow me— for everyone is needed where we’re going. And all that you have been and known and done will be gathered in and it will be made purposeful, it will be made beautiful by my love. It will be more than enough. 

That, in the end, is what I learned from my grandpa and how his quiet, patient days fishing on the ice spilled over into his quiet, patient life: to trust in the sufficiency of who you are; of what you love; of what you know. Trust it to guide you, with God’s help, into what you do not yet know. Trust that God is already at work in the small things of daily life, shaping you for the vast and timeless purposes that only God can truly understand. 

And regardless of whether it is ice-fishing or mending nets on the shore of Galilee or raising your kids or caring for your neighbor or striving for your daily bread, whatever it is that has formed you into who you are today, trust that you are ready to respond when Jesus calls you. You are ready and able, not in spite of your life but because of it, because every life has potential, every one of us shimmers with the possibility of God’s glory, like ice glittering in the sun. 

Follow me, Jesus says, and I will make you fish for people.

So follow him. And let him show you the blessedness of who you can still be. The blessedness of who you already are.

The Road Taken: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, January 8, 2023 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 3:13-17.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Even if you are not a fan of poetry, I suspect you’ve probably heard this verse, from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It has been passed down by generations of readers, and that last line about the road less traveled is often used as a sort of poetic motto by those who are eager to pursue meaningful, purposeful, adventurous lives. 

Now, I don’t want to be a total downer this soon into a promising new year, but if you’ve ever been inspired by this verse’s invitation to take the road less traveled and chart a singular, unconventional course through life, I am about to ruin it for you. 

Because if you read the entire poem very closely and look into the backstory of its composition, it becomes clear that Frost was being ironic. His point, in fact, is not that there is one blessed byway for the adventurous and a boring one for the rest of us, but that both of the roads diverging in the wood are, in fact, comparable. The narrator of the poem, no matter how they choose to recall it later, is probably not fundamentally changed by the particular road chosen. Frost, with his typically wry sensibility, is subtly poking fun at our anguish and indecision over the choices we make and the illusion that there is one perfect course to take through life—he does this so subtly in fact that it’s easy to miss! But now you know. Sorry.

But Frost wanted to challenge us with this not because he was a nihilist, not to suggest that the paths we take in life are meaningless, but to suggest the opposite, something hopeful—that meaning is found on every path.  Frost, like many poets, saw that true significance is found in the actuality, the givenness of the world around us—that what is good and true is available everywhere, no matter which road we have chosen.

And I, for one, am actually relieved that this is what the poem is getting at, because there have been many times in my life when I grieved the roads not taken—the sense that I had missed some big opportunity or make some irreversible blunder into the weeds. As one moves farther and farther through life, down whatever path we’re on, it’s all too easy to be consumed by what-ifs: what if I had gone there instead? What if I had stayed there just a bit longer? What if I had said yes to that? What if I had said no to that?

It’s natural to wonder such things, but what-ifs can also stop us in our tracks, prevent us from embracing the reality of whatever is in front of us right now. And, as Frost might want to remind us, whatever is in front of us is itself sufficiently meaningful. The journey we are actually on is a good one, because it is real, it is what we have chosen. 

I’ve been thinking about all of this—of roads diverging and life’s purposes—because today we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and however else we might interpret or understand Jesus’ baptism, it was indeed a pivotal decision in his own journey through the world. Just a couple of weeks ago we honored his birth, and now we observe him as a grown man, setting out with the song of the road on his lips and the fire of heaven in his eyes. “Let it be so now,” he insists to John the Baptist as he prepares to enter the River Jordan. “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” He is eager to begin, eager to go wherever the Spirit-wind of God is blowing. 

And I wonder, in this moment, sensing in himself the need to fulfill some deep and all-consuming purpose, did Jesus ever ask himself, “what if?” Did he ever consider taking another path? To stay in Nazareth, perhaps, and live a quiet life? Go to Jerusalem straight away and try to make it big there? Or did he worry, at the age of 30 or so (not considered all that young in his time and place) that maybe he had already missed his chance to do his Father’s work? Perhaps. 

But in this moment, in his baptism, no matter what else has come before, we see him make a commitment to the path that he is on. As he goes into those waters, he is saying, whatever this life is, whatever this journey is, whatever this road is, I choose it. I will love it. I will follow it to the end. No more what-ifs. Here I am, Lord. And here I am—the Lord. 

And then he emerges from the river, and heaven rejoices that he has said yes, that he has chosen. For this is what heaven always does—rejoice—when we choose to love what is in front of us. 

And this is what Jesus’ baptism—and our own baptism—invite us into: a life that always chooses love for whatever, whoever comes into our path. A life that isn’t haunted by the roads not taken, but a life that says, instead, this place where I stand is good. And even if it’s not what I imagined, this place where I stand is still full of possibility, it is a place where I might yet “fulfill all righteousness.” For this place is beloved of God, and therefore I will make this place, this life, this path my own beloved, too. I will no longer be distracted by roads never traveled, I will no longer be consumed by what-ifs and whys but I will instead throw my arms open, still bathed in those baptismal waters, still drenched in God’s love, and I will say, “what now? What next? What might I do here, on this road, in order to truly live?”

For what Frost implied, and what God knows, and what Jesus demonstrates is clear: there is no road you can take, no road you have taken before, that will ever remove you from the landscape of God’s Kingdom or the realm of God’s Spirit. Wherever you go–and even if you have stumbled along the way, as we all do–if you move through this world with love and compassion and a thirst for righteousness, you are not lost. For in the end it is not the road we travel that matters most, but the heart of the one who travels upon it.

So wherever you find yourself today, in this new year—whatever has come before, whatever might lie ahead—know that God, through your baptism, invites you into the fullness of life right here, right now; the fullness of life that Jesus embraced.

And when you do come to a fork in the road, make your choice, but remember that God will travel with you wherever you go. God’s mercy will surround your path like falling leaves, God’s peace will be the ground under your feet, and God’s Son—the song of the road on his lips, the fire of heaven in his eyes—will greet you at the end of your journey.

And on that day, “ages and ages hence,” when there is no more sighing, may we add our own words to that famous verse, saying, instead:

Two roads diverged in a wood

And I—

I saw my Lord would never leave my side

—and that has made all the difference.

The Word: A Sermon for Christmas Day

I preached this sermon on Christmas Day, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is John 1:1-14.

One of the gifts that we are given each year on Christmas Day is a poem of sorts:

In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God. 

Today’s Gospel reminds us—lest we forget in the immediacy and the intimacy of our holiday celebrations, with the lights and the songs and the smiling baby in the manger—that Christmas also has vast, cosmic dimensions. The poetic language of John’s prologue tells us that the significance of this day begins out beyond the stars, beyond time itself, back to the hidden and infinite source of all things. 

It’s an intuition, a hunch, a golden thread tugging at the human heart from some unknown depth, when we say that in the beginning, before the beginning, God simply was, in timeless communion with himself, beyond conception, boundless, complete. 

We were not there to see such a thing, of course, and the mind cannot really understand this, as hard as we might try, and so, with St. John, we do what we always do when our usual way of communicating falls short: we resort to poetry, to language that strains against its limits, language that reaches past itself, trying to speak of that which is ultimately greater than our words. We say, 

In the beginning was the Word,

And yet even in this evocative statement, we fail—albeit gloriously, with great beauty,—to capture the fullness of whatever it means. When we speak of timeless beginnings, of eternity, our souls lean toward that which our mind cannot grasp, like flowers turning toward the distant sun, seeking the source of life, hungering to know where, and how, and why all things are. 

From where did all things come into being, God?

How did all things coming into being, God?

Why did all things come into being, God? 

These are big and timeless questions, carried on the lips of humanity from time immemorial. And while we may not always associate them with Christmas, still, the birthing of God into our midst lends itself to considerations of origin and purpose—both his, and our own. 

In the beginning was the Word.

The Scriptures are full of figures asking for an explanation, a solution, or at least an assurance that there is some shape and purpose to life on this earth, especially when it can seem so obscure and aimless at times.

“Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling,” Job cries out at one point in his long tribulation. “Why are times not kept by the Almighty, and why do those who know him never see his days?”

This is, in essence, the question we have been asking during the long Advent that preceded this glorious morning. We have been searching for the day and the dwelling place of God for a very long time, trying to locate him, trying to see him, trying to learn from him why it is that we find ourselves here, enfleshed, imperfect, haunted by beauty, hungering for truth, wanderers on the earth, struggling to remember our true home, saying,

In the beginning was the Word, 

And hoping that we will discover, in the end, a fuller sense of what this means for us. Hoping that this Word, one day, might speak a word back to us, to reveal both our origin and our future.

And today, quite suddenly, he does. Today, as an infant, the Word gives his answer.

For, the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Christmas is the feast of holy materiality. It is the day when what was poetic becomes incarnate. What was eternal and unreachable becomes finite and present. God reveals that his days and his dwelling place and his origin and his purposes are not solely in some distant realm, but right here, in our midst, no longer hidden or inscrutable, but fully accessible, as vulnerable and open to us as a newborn child. 

And this is a new thing. 

For when Job cried out to God, and when God replied, God did so only with more questions. God said, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” He said. “Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” And Job had to be satisfied with not knowing the answer.

But on this day, God says, instead, “come to Bethlehem and behold the foundation of the earth in the flesh, for I have come that you might reach out and hold it. Come and see the cornerstone of the universe, lying right here in a manger. Come and see with your own eyes the Morning star rising in your sight, that you, too, might shout for joy like the angels. For though I come from an eternally distant place, I am no longer hidden from you, my purposes and my plans are here for all to see, and though they are deeper and older than time itself, they are quite humble, quite real. 

God says, You have asked a question of me across the ages—where? And how? And why? And the answer, the long awaited answer I give to you, the answer– you who are now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh–the answer is simply this:

Cherish what is given; be at peace with what is taken; believe in what endures.

For yes, in the beginning was the Word, shrouded in the silence of eternity, but today you shall hear the Word with your own ears, you shall see it with your own eyes. The Word is love. And this Love was with God. And this Love is God. Today, and forever. 

And now, let your life become the incarnate poetry of God’s love. Let your life be the thing that strains against the limits of language, that reaches past itself. Let your life become an answer to your own questions. And let the child in the manger who is God teach you that such an answer—where, and how, and why we are—can only be enacted and embodied, not fully comprehended. Because love is a verb, and Christmas is an origin story, and the world still yearns to see where it will lead through all of us. 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. 

And today, at last, we are with God, too. 

O Great Mystery: A Sermon for Christmas Eve

I preached this sermon on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is Luke 2:1-20.

A couple of years ago, after both of my grandparents were gone and their house was in the process of being emptied and sold, I received a package in the mail. My cousin had sent me a few of my grandmother’s Christmas decorations, including an ornament or two and one of those plug-in yule logs from the 1950’s with electric candles on top of it. It meant a lot to receive these things and to be able to put them up alongside my own childhood decorations. 

And among my grandma’s decorations was a small, slightly timeworn Nativity set. The figures have a few chips and cracks, a fragment missing here or there, and it’s just the bare essentials: Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus in the manger, and a donkey and an ox. That’s it. No shepherds or angels or wise men. Just the Holy Family and a couple of animals attending them. At first I thought maybe some pieces were missing, that the scene felt incomplete, but now I have come to love the simplicity of the scene—how these few figures capture a quiet moment before the arrival of the angels with their songs and the clamoring shepherds with their questions. The donkey and the ox, it seems, are able to simply take the miracle in stride.

It’s interesting, as much as we love animals, that we don’t usually say much about the ones present on that wondrous night in Bethlehem, although they show up in nearly every depiction of the Nativity. If you read the text from Luke closely, you might be surprised to notice that no animals are explicitly mentioned. The Christ child is laid in a manger, a sort of feeding trough for livestock, but the creatures themselves are only implied by the setting.

In fact, it’s in the first chapter of Isaiah, and not in the Gospels, that we discover the donkey and the ox who eventually wandered their way into our collective imagination and into my grandmother’s Nativity set. They are found when the prophet says: 

The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.

The implication of Isaiah is that it’s the animals, embedded as they are within creation, who are able to recognize their true source of life and sustenance in ways that we humans, in our delusions of self-sufficiency, are not able to do. God longs that his people might be as trusting and dependent and open to his protection and providence as the donkey and the ox are to their caregivers. But are we? As we arrive at our Lord’s manger on Christmas, as we behold, in the flesh, the Redeemer of the Earth, do we finally understand who he is, what he offers, what he asks?

The question persists, and the donkey and the ox bear witness. In the early centuries of the church, the combination of Isaiah’s imagery and the nativity account were blended into a verse composed by an unknown author and chanted for centuries in Latin at the midnight prayer office on Christmas Day: O Magnum Mysterium. O Great Mystery. In English, it reads: 

O great mystery and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger! O blessed virgin, whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

A simple verse, but it contains much to ponder. For it says that the Magnum Mysterium, the Great Mystery, is not just the birth of Jesus, but the witnesses to that birth—that it was the animals, before anyone else, who beheld the Lord in his manger. It was the animals, not the shepherds, not the wise men, who first saw their Creator enter his creation and then gathered in to greet him. Only the animals, wordless, attentive, uncalculating. They knew their master’s voice, they recognized their owner’s manger, and so they huddled close, sharing their solid warmth with him and his mother in the chill of that silent, holy night.

What can this scene teach us, we who still struggle to understand?

It is often said that our Savior being born into such a setting is a sign of God’s humility; that it is a great self-emptying of divine power to be born as a helpless infant, surrounded by animals, lying in a feeding trough. And God’s humility is indeed part of the Great Mystery of Christmas, but I think we miss something important if we just leave it at that. 

Because anyone who has worked with animals, or who has simply cared for and loved them, knows that they possess their own sort of wisdom, their own inherent dignity and grace. Not just the donkey and the ox, but all of God’s creatures play their own role in the vast network of interdependent life on this earth, each carrying in their very bones a knowledge of what they are, and what they must do to live, to flourish, to endure. Animals are different from us, but they are not lesser than us. 

And so perhaps for Christ to be born into their company is not so much about divine self-abasement as it is a sign of human reconnection with the fundamentals that shape and sustain all of life, including our own: birth, and death, and nourishment, and warmth, and companionship, and trust. All of us need these things. All of us can give these things. 

Perhaps the Great Mystery that we glimpse this night, alongside the animals at the manger, is not God’s weakness, but God’s true, elemental strength. For what is stronger than showing up in deep solidarity with creation? What is mightier than taking part in the persistent, generative power shared by all living things? 

What if the wonderful sacrament is not to be understood so much as Christ descending into a poor and helpless form, but as the Creator arising into his creation, emerging from the hidden depths of the cosmos, from the womb of his mother, from the cradle of eternity, to claim all the earth as his own beloved home, to name all living things as his kin—as sacred partners in the unfolding birth of the Kingdom? 

For it should not be lost on us that the very things Jesus will later name as our essential Christian vocation—feeding the hungry and thirsty; sheltering the weak; being present to the most vulnerable,—these things are not lofty theological propositions. They are creaturely things: old, and instinctive, and earthy. They are the basic stuff of life. And they are, O Magnum Mysterium, the very things that the animals offered Jesus that first night in Bethlehem.

For the ox knows its master, and the donkey its owner’s manger.

But the question remains: do we know? Do we understand yet? Or are we so overwhelmed by the seeming complexity of God, or the complexity of our world, that we have forgotten the ultimate simplicity of what is needed, what is given, what is required of us in this life: to tread lightly and compassionately upon this earth in union with all of creation? 

Might we, on this most blessed of nights, rediscover our truest selves? We who are made in the image of the God who now bears our image, too. We who are called only to love; called only to sustain one another, to sustain the earth, as he sustains us. O Great Mystery, that life— messy, tearstained, bleeding, breathing, fragile, undaunted, beautiful life—is itself the most wondrous sacrament of all.

In it, may we finally come to see that Christ is not born this night to save us from our humanity, nor to deliver us from the world he has made, but to inhabit these things fully, to love them fully, that we might gather alongside all creatures, to behold the majesty of God in the flesh, and to join our voices with the song of the angels and the bray of the donkey and the bellow of the ox, a chorus of unceasing praise. Tonight, may the whole world at last know its master, know its Lord’s manger, and thereby know itself for what it is—beloved, sustained, redeemed.

The Nativity scene is here, in our midst. Our Savior awaits. What the animals did first and best, let us do so now, too, with the joy that is fullness of life. 

Come, let us adore him.

Dreamer: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on December 18, 2022, Advent IV, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 1:18-25.

If you ever wander into my office, you’ll see a whole collection of religious art and objects, each with their own special meaning and story. One of the newer additions is a small statue right on my desk—it’s a pewter figure of St. Joseph, who is depicted laying down on his side, eyes closed, deep in sleep. It caught my eye because it’s a bit unusual as far as saint statutes go; they’re usually upright and alert, like toy soldiers: eyes wide, halos glowing, ready to pray for us. 

And maybe I was just feeling extra tired that day, but when I saw sleeping Saint Joseph for the first time, I thought—yes, Lord, at last, here is a saint who really gets me. For I am quite sure that I’m at my holiest and best behaved when I’m sleeping. And I’ll confess that some days the only thing standing between me and a grievous sin is a good long nap! So I was delighted to later receive the statue as a gift, and he continues to remind me, especially in this busy season, to rest. 

The tradition of the sleeping St. Joseph figure is found throughout Christian art, but it’s especially popular in Latin America. It has become more widespread in recent years because Pope Francis is fond of it. He told a crowd once that he has an old figurine of sleeping Joseph, and when the Pope is worried about something, he writes it down on a piece of paper and slips it under the statue so that Joseph can dream about it and in so doing, carry those prayers up to God.

The reason, of course, that Joseph is depicted as sleeping and dreaming in these images is because dreams are a key part of his story in Scripture, as we just heard in today’s Gospel. Matthew tells us that it is in a dream that the Angel of the Lord directs Joseph to do his part in the unfolding story of the Incarnation: to take the pregnant Mary as his wife despite the threat of scandal; to protect her and this mysterious unborn child; and then to name the child Jesus and to adopt him as Joseph’s own. And later, it will also be a dream that warns Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt to escape the murderous plotting of King Herod. 

Like many of his ancestors before him, Joseph was asked to trust in the power of dreams to reveal God’s presence and purpose. And perhaps this is not all that surprising, because even for us dreams are a potent landscape of possibilities. As our body rests and our mind wanders through many chambers at the edge of consciousness, it is in dreams where reality expands, where hope and memory intertwine, where demons lurk and angels whisper. It is in dreams, often, that we can see the things we’re not yet ready to face in the daylight, or perhaps that we hadn’t even begun to imagine. 

And so as Joseph sleeps, he is shown a new possibility: something the social codes and the conventional wisdom of his time would have never allowed. The Angel speaks to him of mercy and courage and fidelity, of trusting in the wild promise of a newborn savior, of journeys long and perilous and good. And then Joseph stirs from sleep, and all of creation waits to see what he will do. The Angel holds its breath. Joseph opens his eyes. And though we never hear him speak, I like to imagine him emulating the response of Mary: 

Here am I, the dreamer of the Lord. Let it be done with me according to your word. 

I think it is no small thing that Joseph decided to trust in his dream. Who among us, in the light of day, doesn’t tend to forget our dreams or brush them off, even when they seem significant? How easy it would have been for Joseph to do the same—and how different things would have been for all of us if he had. And so we honor him not only as a protector and earthly father figure of Jesus, but as a dreamer–as the one who believed in the dream of God. The one who woke up and said yes, that is possible. I can do that.

In some ways, this story–Joseph’s dream, and his waking, and and his choosing to believe–is the story of the whole church. For in Christ we have all been visited by God’s redemptive dream for creation. We have all been asked to wake up and believe, to let the dream change us, to let it shape our choices and our lives, so that God might continue to be made incarnate in the world through us. We, too, are the dreamers of the Lord, and the world is yearning for us to open our eyes, to remember what has been revealed, and to say, yes, that is possible. I can do that.

But how do we know? How do we know that it is indeed God’s dream welling up in us, and not just some random impulse of our own? How did Joseph know that he should trust the dream rather than dismiss it? 

The answer is what the answer always is: love. We will have many of our own fleeting dreams and desires and designs, but the dream of God is love, and the dream of God will always ask of us just one thing: to act out of love. The dream of God speaks of mercy and courage and fidelity, of trusting in love’s wild promises, of journeys long and perilous and good. The dream of God says, just love: love generously, love scandalously, love insistently, and then indeed you will hear the angels sing and you will see the heavens bend down to stand upon the earth and then you will no longer be sleeping. The whole world will at last be awake and the dream will be real. It will be enfleshed. It will be Emmanuel—God with us.

And so I ask you: what is it that you have been dreaming of this Advent? What visions have dazzled you in the darkness? What hopes have stirred within your heart? What new word has God placed upon you in this season?

Whatever it is, hold fast to it. Write it down, and if you happen to find a statue of St. Joseph, slip it beneath him and let him dream with you a bit longer in the cold winter night.

But remember that we are deep into Advent, now, and the light is gathering. The Dayspring approaches. 

Are you ready to wake up? Are you ready, not just to dream, but to believe in the dream God has given you, to make it real? 

All creation waits. The Angel holds its breath. 

And now, dreamer, open your eyes.

The Mother of All: A Homily for Our Lady of Guadalupe

I preached this homily at a Choral Evensong observing the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne.

She appeared in 1531, near a small village at the outskirts of Mexico City.

She appeared in the winter, when roses do not bloom. She appeared in the wild, where the powerful do not venture. She appeared to an indigenous man, a person at the margins who saw what others did not, could not see. She appeared just as she had lived and loved and labored in her earthly life—in the hidden, borderless, bracing landscapes where heaven and earth intertwine, where the wind rushes over the hillside and the angels cry ave and the dream of God is revealed, not to calculating kings, but to the wakeful wanderer. 

It is not sufficient to describe Our Lady of Guadalupe as a pious legend or a miraculous tale, for no matter what you believe about the veracity of Juan Diego’s vision of Mary in 1531, it is indisputable that she is real in the hearts and souls and prayers of millions across our continent and beyond. She is everywhere, her image burned into our consciousness, into our culture, as surely as it was onto that peasant’s cloak over 450 years ago. 

As the Psalmist says of God, so might we say of the Virgin of Guadalupe: where can I flee from your presence? We cannot, for she appears everywhere. She looks back at us from prayer cards and bumper stickers and paintings, from the pages of books, from the pages of our collective memory—even if we know nothing about her or the details of her original apparition, even if we doubt or dismiss the story, somehow we instinctively recognize her, this woman draped in stars, this woman carrying a child in her womb, this woman with dark hair and downcast eyes. 

Unlike many other Marian apparitions, there has always been something visceral about Guadalupe, something that almost transcends the structures of faith and doctrine and resonates, instead, with a more elemental and universally human need: the need to know that we have a mother who loves us. The need to know that we were born into a world that wants us. And to have somewhere to turn, someone who remembers us, someone who calls us their beloved child, even when we are no longer children. Especially when we are no longer children. 

For generations of people, Our Lady of Guadalupe has been an embodiment of that longing for the profound gentleness of heaven, particularly for those who felt estranged from the patriarchal images of God mediated through the historic colonial church. 

For the indigenous people of north and central America, who understandably might have associated images of Jesus and God the Father with the conquerers and clerics who upended their ancient ways of life, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared as something altogether different—a divine message of love and care directed to them, a messenger of grace who stood with them and for them, who could subdue the high and mighty not with a sword, but with her peaceful word, with her fecundity, with the possibility of roses blooming in the snow. 

She appeared, not just as the mother of a foreign God, but as the mother of all people, and especially the mother of the impoverished and forgotten, those original inhabitants of an old land called the New World. She imprinted herself, not on the robe of a bishop, but on the flimsy tilma of a poor man. 

And though centuries have passed, there she remains, a mother for any and all of us who find ourselves feeling poor and forgotten, those of us who still navigate the uncertain landscape of this New World that is not yet a new heaven and earth, this land with its collision of promise and deprivation, wealth and uncertainty, privilege and peril. Amid the rubble of colonialism, astride the divisions of nations and ethnicities and languages, still she stands, hands clasped, waiting, seeing, saying to us the things we do not know how to say to each other: 

This land can hold all of you, God can hold all of you, you who have been harmed, you who have done harm. You who came from afar, you who were always here. You of every color, you of every path, you of every loss, you of every dream—I can love you if you will let me, if you will give your heart into my care. 

Come to me, and let me show you the true nature of God, the God who is like a child, who is like a dove, who is like a rose climbing up from the cold, dark earth. Come to me, you who know a mother’s love, you who have lost it, you who never felt it before. Come to me, for I have come to you, and I will not leave you. 

No, we cannot flee from her presence, this Lady of Guadalupe. And thanks be to God that we cannot. Thanks be to God that she has not forsaken us, that her image endures, that she remains, still, everywhere we wander, a sign of God’s relentless desire to care for each of us, for all of us. For it is your life, too, that she carries in her womb, it is your name she remembers in her prayer, and it is your homeland that lies beneath her mantle of stars. She is God’s mother, and your mother, and ours, forever. 

The Edge of Knowing: An Advent Reflection

I offered this reflection as part of a contemplative retreat on Saturday, December 3rd at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The theme of the retreat was Be Born in Us: Preparing for the Advent of Christ.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ -Luke 1:39-45

Imagine: two women stand, side by side, at the edge of the world. 

Behind them, receding from view, the conventional lives that they expected—lives of predictable joy and predictable sorrow, all held safely within the boundaries of what they already understood. Behind them, now, the future that they had been preparing for—the one that the world had prepared them for from their earliest days.

Here they stand, bearers of good news carried on the lips of angels. Here they stand, backs turned on all of those old certainties, facing instead toward a great unknown. 

True, the villagers in this unnamed Judean hill town might just see two women like any other, shoulder to shoulder, staring out at nothing in particular. Hands instinctively resting upon their bellies. Two regular women, pausing to catch their breath, perhaps, caught up in a memory, or a daydream, or a question.

And why has this happened to me? asks Elizabeth.

They might still look the same as before, but inside, it feels as though they are standing at the edge of the earth, at the edge of a wide and restless sea, knowing that whatever must come next is out there beyond the solidity of the ground beneath their feet. But how does one step out into the unknown? How does one learn to walk on water?

The sun is coming out. The light is bright in their eyes.

Are they weeping? Are they laughing? Maybe both? Who can say? 

But at the very least, they are willing.

Yes, let it be done according to your word. Blessed are we among women.

For Mary and Elizabeth, one just beginning her life and one late in her years, there is a new type of kinship on this day. Not just one of blood, and not just because they both find themselves unexpectedly bearing a child in their womb.

No, they are kindred spirits in this moment because they, like so many others before and after them, have come to the edge of what they know, of who they thought they were, and now must ask themselves: 

How do I prepare for whatever comes next?

How do I prepare for the things nobody told me about? The things I could not have seen coming? How do I prepare for the bottom dropping out, for the unimaginable news at the door?

And how do I prepare for God, who comes like a thief in the night, making off with my comforts and my complacency, leaving me instead with strange, shadowy miracles and a song on my lips, only half-understood?

How do I prepare when I could not have ever prepared for this?

These, ultimately, are questions for all of us. And at their heart, they are Advent questions. 

Because Advent, far from simply being a cozy, quiet season ahead of Christmas, is actually a season of learning how to live with that which is unknown and unresolved in our hearts and in our world.

It is the season of waiting and of preparation for Christ, but it is also the season that reminds us that preparation only brings us so far, because what lies ahead—the fullness of who God will be for us, who God will ask us to be for Him—is inevitably surprising and more expansive and more wondrous than we can imagine. It demands all, even as it redeems all.

What will be revealed to us, Lord, when you arrive? What will be revealed about us when you arrive? How can we ever prepare ourselves for you, when you are so much more than we understand?

And yet, even as we ask such unanswerable questions, even as we stand facing the unknown, there is new life stirring within us, leaping with joy at the promise of His appearing.

So we come here today to ask such questions, to notice this joy, to find kinship with Mary and Elizabeth: to dare to believe that God can indeed be born in each of us, even if we feel utterly unprepared for that to be possible. Even if it scares us a little bit. 

It should scare us a little bit, if we’re honest. The truly important things always do.

I invite you to consider what you need this year during Advent—if there is a prayer or a question on your heart in this season of your life. I invite you, right now, to take a moment and close your eyes and call it to mind. 

Feel the significance of that need or prayer or question within you, how your body holds it. Is it light? Is it heavy? Is it comforting? Is it unsettling?

What is God calling forth from within you?

My hope is that you will carry that intention with you in this season, that you will spend some time being very honest with God and with yourself—that you will consider what it is that you need, and who you are becoming, and that you will name these things—whether in conversation with others or in the silence of prayer with God.

Because the strange thing is that even if we cannot perfectly prepare for the unknown future, it is in knowing God and ourselves more deeply, and in knowing one another more deeply, that we will be able to bear it, whatever comes, whenever it comes. 

Even if, sometimes, it feels like you are standing at the edge of the world, remember that you are not standing there alone. You are in solidarity with Mary and Elizabeth and with every person who has ever longed to let the powerful love of God be born in them, to transform them, to take them out beyond certainty, beyond complacency, into the wide and eternal mystery of grace.

Today we step out upon those waters, trusting that they will hold. Trusting the spirit of God who lives and moves within us. Trusting that the life of God which we carry will ultimately carry us

For this is, in the end, how we truly prepare: by being bearers of love. By letting God’s love be born in us each day, no matter what happens. Standing side by side in the light of sun, facing forward, saying yes, saying come, saying even though I will never be ready, I am willing. Blessed are we. Blessed are we.

Are we weeping? Are we laughing? Maybe both? Who can say?

But we are willing. Yes, whatever comes, let us be willing.

Take Me Back: A Sermon for Christ the King

I preached this sermon on Sunday, November 20, 2022, the Feast of Christ the King. The lectionary texts cited are Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Luke 23:33-43.

Maybe it’s the holidays, or the winter setting in, or maybe it’s the fact that we have arrived at the final Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year, but around this time each November I get a little bit nostalgic. The smell of familiar foods and the melody of old songs and the sight of candles glowing in the darkness behind icy windows—it takes me back. 

Maybe it takes you back, too. Back to memories of childhood, or to when you were first in love, or maybe even just a few years ago; nostalgia connects us to those periods of our lives that contained some measure of simplicity, a special sweetness. And while we know that “the good old days” were never actually as simple or perfect as we might recall them to be, it remains true that the pull of the past is powerful, and the longing we experience for it is real: longing for the faces and the places we once knew and even the versions of our selves that we used to be. 

Every so often a certain memory wells up in us and we feel the gap between then and now and we cry out “Take me back!” Though we always say with a bit of irony, for we know that it’s not possible: we can’t go back, because time unfolds in only one direction, and our memories are windows into a land we can’t reenter. 

If I ever get a bit self-conscious, though, about my tendency towards this November nostalgia, I remind myself that it’s simply part of the human condition. People have been haunted by their memories in every age. In Scripture we encounter generations of people caught between the past and the future, strugglng to make sense of both. Think of Israel in exile, longing for Jerusalem. Think of Jesus’ contemporaries, agitating to overthow the Empire and restore the political glory of their nation. Think of how such impulses both console and plague us, even now.

Going back in time—or at least wanting to—has been written upon the human heart since Adam and Eve stumbled out of Eden and the gates were closed to them. From that day, it seems, we have been looking over our shoulders, longing for the time “before”, longing for the people we were back then. You might even say that nostalgia is one of the most prevalent themes throughout the Bible, and while it doesn’t always serve people especially well in those stories (I am reminded of Lot’s wife), I find some reassurance in the fact that it is not just our generation that feels like it’s a long way from where it started.

But what struck me for the very first time, as I was reflecting on the passages for this Christ the King Sunday, is that we humans aren’t the only ones who feel nostalgia, why cry out “take me back.” God, too, seems to long for the time before. The time before kings and conquests. The time before we and God lost sight of one another on the long road through the centuries.  

Now it’s true that the words of the Lord spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, which we heard this morning, like most prophetic writings, are all future tense—I will do this, and this will happen, and the days are surely coming, but implicit in them is God’s desire that things should return back to the way they were supposed to be—namely, to when God was the shepherd, the provider, the one who would not abandon his people or exploit them or lead them astray. God wants to go back to when there were no mortal kings of Israel, back to when God was their only sovereign, when God’s heart spoke directly to theirs. 

God longs for unmediated intimacy with his people. He remembers how he walked alongside them, leading them in a pillar of flame through the deep night of the desert wilderness. God remembers how he made his dwelling place in their midst, how they sang hymns of liberation to him on the other side of the Red sea, how he fed them from his own hands with manna. And God remembers even farther back still, back to Paradise, when he walked among the trees in the cool of the evening and his creation knew the sound of his voice and the fruit still trembled, unpicked, upon the branch. Yes, God remembers it all: the smell of the familiar foods and the old songs and the fire glowing in the darkness. And he longs for it as much as we do. 

Take me back, he says, without any irony. Take me back. Take me back. 

How humbling that the King of Glory, the Creator of the Cosmos, would ask such a thing. That he would ask us such a thing. 

Of course, we could not go back—neither back in time, nor back to him, for it seems that we are made only to tumble forward into the future. Gone, the food and song and fire. We could not recover it. We could not undo what had been done. We could not pry open the gates to Paradise. At least, not by ourselves. Not without help.

But we are here this morning, on Christ the King Sunday, because help did arrive. God determined, in the end, how to move beyond nostalgia, his own and ours, how to finally reclaim the past. He did the only thing, perhaps, that was left to do: he brought all that we had lost directly to us, in the flesh. In Jesus.

He showed up with the food in his own hands and the song on his own lips and the fire in his own eyes. He came as a different sort of king—a king who would not engage any power except the powers of love and mercy and justice. A king who would die rather than compromise his commitment to those things. One who would rise again to show us that these are the only things that are truly powerful.

And so he was born into the margins and stood at the margins, and he broke down the thin margin between heaven and earth with the force of his love, and he died, this image of the Invisible God, with a name affixed above him: The King of the Jews. 

And whatever the authorities intended for him, there was no irony in that title. 

For this is what he was and is: the one true King—the last king of his people, and the first king of all people. The Alpha and the Omega. The one who, from his throne on the cross, forgives us for all that has been lost, and who promises that nothing, and no one, ever need be lost. The king reopening the gates into Paradise, which is really just the gate into his heart.

Take me back, says Christ, our King. 

Take me back, we reply. 

And for once, maybe for the first time, it is possible.

Real: A Sermon for All Saints’ Day

I preached this sermon on November 6, 2022, All Saints Sunday, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 6:20-31.

One of my favorite books when I was little was The Velveteen Rabbit, and I will admit that even now, many years later, it still brings a tear to my eye when I read it. If you’re not familiar with the book, by Margery Williams, it tells the story of a toy rabbit who is given to a young boy as a Christmas present. The toys talk to each other when people aren’t around, and the little rabbit befriends a threadbare old hobby horse, learning from him the secrets of what is called “nursery magic,” including the mysterious concept of becoming “real.”

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day. ”Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. …Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

And thus begins the Velveteen Rabbit’s own journey toward becoming “real,” which, as you might imagine, is not just about becoming more realistic, like the other rabbits who can jump and run and play, but about becoming more true: it’s about discovering the luminousness that radiates from within a person when they have given themselves over to a life of deep and faithful love.

For the little toy rabbit, this process of becoming real proves surprising, and costly, and beautiful, and I will leave it to you to revisit the story to find out exactly what happens to him. You can find the full text of the story online

I was moved to do so myself this past week because the Velveteen Rabbit’s journey feels especially appropriate for the feast we are observing today. In the world of nursery magic it might be called becoming “real,” but in the Christian tradition we have another, very particular name for following the long and twisting road towards love: we call it sainthood. 

Sainthood, to be honest, has an unhelpful reputation. We too often associate it with the opposite of “real”: plaster statues of seemingly perfect people, with their halos and their dreamlike gaze directed towards heaven. We might feel inspired by such figures, but we might also struggle to see how their seemingly exemplary lives bear any resemblance to our own imperfect ones. 

But if you have ever felt that way, I have good news for you: the saints, even the most famous and revered ones, are far messier and more real than you might expect. If you have never done so, find a biography about one of them and read it. They struggled with doubts, with despair, with health conditions, with war and economic instability. They fought with their colleagues. They ended up in prison and in exile. Some of them were beloved in their own time, many were not. And really, in the end, the only thing that is consistently true about them is that they were somehow dedicated to the vision of blessedness that Jesus elucidates in the Beatitudes from today’s Gospel: that God stands on the side of those who are vulnerable and trampled upon, that God enlivens those who give their lives away for love’s sake, that God does not forget those who pay the cost of caring deeply in a callous world. 

God’s mission in Christ is to make these things real, to make them tangible, indeed, to make them inescapably present even as the forces of death and despair surround us—this is what we mean when we talk about the kingdom of God. And sainthood, far from being a sort of self-satsified, holier-than-thou lifestyle choice, is simply what it looks like to participate as best we can in that kingdom, in the redemptive work of love in our lives, for as long as we can, until most of our hair has been loved off, and our eyes drop out and we get loose in the joints and very shabby, until our carefully cultivated defensiveness and artifice have been worn down so thin that we burn, burn, burn brightly with the fearlessness, with the joy, with the reality of love. That is what a saint looks like. And, however imperfect our lives and our circumstances, that is what we have been invited into, from the day of our baptism until this very moment.

This morning, baby Natalie will be baptized into the Body of Christ, taking her own place within the Church’s long journey toward becoming real, becoming saints, becoming all that God made each of us and all of us to be. We will bathe her in water and in prayers, passing on that which we have been given in our own baptisms: a glimpse of what is real, and the One who is real, and the wondrous hope that we will come to know that reality in our very flesh…that over the course of our lives, we will become as part of it. Natalie’s share of this story is just beginning, and we rejoice for her and her family. 

And yet, as it is said, “in the midst of life we are in death,” and so this morning, on All Saints, we also summon the memory of those whose stories have ended—those whom we love and see no longer and yet who are no less real simply because they are absent. In fact, we might say that that they are even more real now, blessed and at peace in the nearer presence of the Living God. 

Our beloved dead are so real, now, that our limited senses cannot quite perceive them, except in our hearts, in those moments when we still feel the weight of our love for them, how it endures beyond death, how it cannot be destroyed, how we are bound together for all time, beyond all time. We say their names out loud, each one a life now infused with eternity, and in the silences between, we listen for the music of heaven.

And so here we find ourselves, beloved ones, saints-in-progress, weary hearts still daring to believe in nursery magic—here we are, suspended on this November morning between life and death, between warmth and winter, between the promise of the future and the tenderness of the past. Here we are, asking what is true and what is real and what is worth living and dying for, and knowing, in the end that the answer can only be love, that it can only be the name of love, which is Jesus. 

Here we are, rich and poor, hungry and full, laughing and weeping, longing for him, for the Savior who will gather up our worn out bodies and call us blessed, who will make us whole, who will make us truly alive. Not perfect, plaster saints, but real ones: threadbare, wise, and full of grace. 

Just Finish: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 23, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is 2 Timothy 4:6-18, 16-18.

When I was probably about 10 or 11 years old, my mom took up a new hobby — rollerblading. It was the 90s, so rollerblades were all the rage. And for those of you who know my mom, who is quite the adventurous person, you can imagine that she took on this new pastime with great enthusiasm. So much so that before long, she had signed up to compete in a local rollerblade race where you go in laps around an empty office park on a Saturday afternoon—yes, this was actually a thing back in the day (at least out in California in the 90s.)

Now, I will admit that I had little to no interest in rollerblades. I had a pair, and I would sort of wobble along in them around the neighborhood after school, but I was not then–nor am I now–the most athletic or graceful person. I wasn’t fast or agile or daring. Most weekends I would’ve rather been reading a book or singing along to the soundtracks of my favorite Broadway musicals. You know, we just are who we are. 

But my mom was so excited about this rollerblade race that she was bound and determined that I would also sign up and be in the kid’s competition, making it a sort of family activity. And for some reason I will never understand, I agreed to do so. 

We showed up that morning and I was in my little skates with my baggy jeans and knobby knees and thick glasses and a helmet askew on my head, and the other kids…I mean, they looked like they’d been training their whole short lives for this race. They were in lycra shorts and fancy rollerblades and they skated more gracefully than I could even walk. It was one of those moments when you realize you’ve made a very bad decision, but now it’s too late and you just have to roll with it. Literally, in this case.

We all gathered in a cluster at the starting line and they blew the horn and we took off, and the crowd was cheering, and….you can probably imagine exactly what happened next. Those other kids took off  on their skates like they were sprinting, and they went so fast around the course that they lapped me at least once, if not more, and meanwhile I was stumbling along on my skates, breathing heavily, trying to stay upright, telling myself “you just have to finish. Just finish.”

And I did. It wasn’t pretty, but I made it.

Eventually, long after the other kids were done, here I came, stumbling across the finish line by myself. 

But you know what? It was ok. Now, would I ever do it again? Not a chance. But it was ok. Because when I got to that finish line, some of the people were still there, my mom included, waiting to cheer for me. I was so relieved to be done that it felt like arriving in heaven, and people gave me hugs, and the sound of their encouragement was, in that moment, like the sound of angels rejoicing. 

I think of that rollerblade race once in a while, because it reminds me that on the other side of embarrassment, on the other side of disappointment, there is a strange sort of grace that you sometimes find in simply finishing what you set out to do. Especially when the road is long and challenging, just finishing can be its own sort of victory.

I think many of us spend our lives feeling like we need to jockey for a place at the front of the pack of whatever we’re doing—to win the contest, to be the best at whatever it is, or at least to feel like we’re not the worst. We’re afraid of falling behind, of stumbling and skinning our knees—of becoming an object of derision or pity as the race of life wears on. 

And it’s all too easy to approach our faith like this, too, somehow imagining Jesus as the leader at the front of the race, the one who runs fastest and hardest, the one we’re chasing, just out of the reach of us mere mortals with our aching joints and our eyes burning with sweat and tears. We know we can’t overtake him, but somehow we think we’re supposed to try. 

I wonder, sometimes, if this is how Paul first understood Jesus after his conversion on the Damascus Road. Paul, after all, was a Roman citizen who was well acquainted with the competitive spirit of the Empire and who loved using athletic metaphors in his writing. In his early letter to the Galatians, he expresses anxiety about his mission to the Gentiles, wanting “to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.” He uses similar language in his letter to the Philippians, and, though its authorship is uncertain, there is that famous line in the letter to the Hebrews which encourages believers to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

So one can imagine a younger Paul, bursting with energy and determination, ready to win the race for the sake of the gospel—to be the best, to go the farthest, to conquer his opponents, to be right up in front, ahead of all the other apostles, trailing just behind Christ.

But then in today’s reading we meet Paul at the end of his life: an old and infirm man, sitting in prison, awaiting execution, writing to his companion Timothy, trying to make peace with the way his life has actually turned out:

“I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness.”

Not, “I have won the race,” but simply “I have finished.” Not “the crown of victory”–the laurel wreath of the athletic champion–but “the crown of righteousness,” the crown of blessedness, the crown worn by those who finish last in this world—the crown worn by his savior, and ours. The crown of thorns.

Paul came to understand, as each of us must when we are inevitably humbled by life–when we finally see things as they are, not as we expected them to be–that winning was never the point. Coming in first was never God’s expectation for us. And Jesus, whom we try so hard to follow, to be like, to catch up to, was never, in truth, at the front of the pack, showing off his divine athleticism and daring us to match it. 

On the contrary, Jesus was (and remains) at the back of the pack, watching over those of us who are moving slowly, those of us who are just struggling to keep up. He’s back alongside the ones who were never graceful or impressive or strong. And he’ll stay there, bringing up the rear of the race until every last one of us has made it over the finish line, aching joints and skinned knees and all. 

And when we do, I imagine that he will say to us,

“It is enough that you finished. It is enough that you fought the good fight and kept the faith. It is enough. You were enough, just as you were, even if it took you a long time to get here. Even if you were in last place, I loved you from the first.”

And perhaps this is what Paul wanted to remind us at the end of his own race, in his final message to Timothy and to those of us who would one day come along, stumbling on our skates, breathing heavily, trying to stay upright.  Maybe he just wanted us to know:

You might not end up in first place. You might look like a total failure at times. It doesn’t matter. If you have stayed the course with gentleness in your heart, if you have cared for your neighbor along the way, if you have loved this broken world as you have travailed across it, you have already won.

So just finish the race. Just finish.

And when you do, when you stumble across that finish line, there will be arms outstretched to welcome you, and the angels will rejoice.