Dying: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the Feast of All Saints, Sunday, November 1, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 5:1-12, wherein Jesus teaches the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”).

This is a sermon about dying, but it is not about death. 

Dying is all around us, especially now, in the late fall, when the night lengthens and the trees lose their color and the landscape quiets itself for a deep slumber. There is a sense of relinquishment at this time, a pang of letting go, deep in our bones, as the year, in equal measure of grace and resignation, gives itself over to an inevitable ending. 

And so it is not surprising that, in this hinge-point between abundance and absence, people turn their thoughts to the dead—the saintly dead, our beloved dead, as well as the more ambiguous spectres of our haunted imaginations. 

Allhallowtide, as this brief cluster of observances is known on the liturgical calendar—All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day, All Souls Day—is rooted in a consciousness older than the church, as old as the seasons itself, but it is also a particular opportunity for us, as Christians, to gather in the fading light of the year and to reckon with dying—how it shapes us, how we ought to live with it, what it can teach those of us who believe in a God who is willing to die for humanity. 

Other than perhaps the mournfulness of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Allhallowtide is one of the few instances in the church year when dying is brought to the forefront of our liturgical attention. We might attend a funeral, of course, but those services, at their core, are actually focused more on life—the earthly life of the one who has left us, and the resurrected life promised to each of us in the risen Christ. 

And so it is really just here, for these few days in the fall, that we as a Church consider what it means to die—and to die well—as a Christian. In a culture that tends to deny the reality of death altogether, this is actually rather courageous: the willingness to acknowledge, without succumbing to existential terror, that each of us must eventually die. 

And the saints, in their glory, help us with this. In remembering the saints of God on this feast day, we affirm that they are in Communion with the life of the Trinity, and one another, and with us, in a manner surpassing the mystery of death.

But at the same time we begin to understand that, more than anything, this blessed, living Communion is in fact largely characterized by a certain capacity for dying.

Again, dying, not just the state of death itself. The death of the body is an inescapable biological fact, one that is, of course, shared by all living things, the trembling king and the trembling autumn leaf alike. So it is not death per se that informs our connection to the Christian Saints, but dying as a verb, as a practice of faith, as a definitive pattern of release, of selflessness, of loving surrender, one that is and always has been intrinsic to the Christ-shaped response to life. 

As Paul describes in his letter to the Romans, we have been baptized into Christ’s death as well as his life, and thus we cannot separate the two; we cannot experience the Living of Jesus without also taking on the Dying of Jesus. Indeed, it is this dynamic tension between living and dying, of affirming and negating, that characterizes so much of Jesus’ teaching about what is real and true—and it’s everywhere once you look for it, including, I would argue, in our gospel passage for today, the Beatitudes.

At first glance, this passage doesn’t seem to have much to do with dying and everything to do with how to live. And so we might assume that we are given the Beatitudes on this feast day as a sort of instruction book for how to be “saintly,” as if we might just follow a few simple steps to achieve the holiness of the ones who have gone before us.

But on closer reading this interpretation starts to break down, because the Beatitudes don’t actually tell us what to do, in all times and all places. How precisely does one act poor in spirit? How do I most efficaciously practice meekness? How do we measure whether we have mourned successfully, or hungered and thirsted most efficiently for righteousness? How do we quantify adequate peacemaking and maximize our purity of heart? What sort of persecution should we aim for, exactly?

These questions are slightly absurd, of course, because blessedness is not a one-size fits all garment, and the Beatitudes are not just a code of conduct, a checklist of tasks for each of us to complete and compare against the progress of others. They are, instead, a cumulative illustration of what life looks like, what is true and enduring, once we have let every distraction and impediment to sanctity—to pure, holy being— die and fall away. The Beatitudes depict the spare essentials of God’s movement through creation—what is truly important once our delusions and denials have been stripped from us, by choice or circumstance. 

And so, more than being explicitly prescriptive, Jesus offers the Beatitudes to help us to discern how to practice dying while we still live—how to discern what to let go of so that there is more space for Christ within us. 

Whatever it is in ourselves and in our society that distorts this vision of blessedness, that is the thing which must be relinquished, cleared away, so that God’s mission of healing and mercy might assume its proper place in our lives. And then, as time passes and circumstances change, we must be willing to repeat the process, like the turning wheel of the seasons, letting something else pass away in order to welcome the urgent promise of new life.

This is what the saints have done, each of them in their own particular way: they have let die, lovingly, whatever it is within them that obstructs their pathway into the heart of God, and they have named and challenged those same obstructions in the world around them, clearing the way for the poor, the hungry, and the merciful. 

The saints are simply those Christians who have taken the gospel in full seriousness and have understood it in full joy: that dying opens the gate to new life—and that this is something as true in our small daily acts of dying to sin and selfishness as it is in the ultimate mystery of death and Resurrection. They are the practitioners of this Way of Love, this Way of Dying and Living, and they invite us to be strengthened and encouraged by their example, even if our own time, our own story, seems very different from theirs.

Because ultimately, there is just one story: the story of a falling leaf that nourishes the earth for the coming spring. The story of a grain of wheat which falls into the ground and dies but bears much fruit. The story of a God who taught us how to lay down our lives for love so that we might live in love eternally. It is the story of beatitude. It is the story of sainthood. It is God’s story, and your story, and mine, and ours. This day, and forever. 

“And”: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 18, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 22:15-22:

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

“Tell us whose side you’re on,” the Pharisees and the Herodians are asking Jesus today. “Tell us who has the ultimate power: the God of Israel, or this Emperor to whom we owe our taxes?”

They are trying to trip Jesus up with this question, of course, because taking a side in this particular dispute will either undermine the Roman authorities (bad idea) or disappoint Jesus’ Judean followers. A perfect conundrum, his inquisitors assume. 

But do you remember that moment, early in his ministry, when the people of Nazareth get really angry at Jesus’s preaching and try to drive him off of a cliff, and then somehow, inexplicably, he simply “passed through the midst of them and went on his way”?

Yeah, he pretty much does the same thing here. Jesus is really good at transcending these no-win situations. His answer, as simple as it is, stuns the questioners—“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the Emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It’s the first century equivalent of a mic drop–and so they just sort of shut up and go away. 

But I don’t think our takeway is simply that Jesus is really good at giving clever answers or getting himself out of a bind. No, what we see here is that Jesus brings an entirely different mindset to the world than that of his challengers. Unlike them, he does not see things as a choice between binaries—this world OR the next one, insiders OR outsiders, attentiveness to the realm of God OR Caesar. 

Instead, Jesus is someone who almost always operates in terms of “both/and.” He demonstrates, time and again, that a meaningful response to the complexities of the human condition require us to live in the tension of opposites, making space for both THIS thing and THAT thing, THIS person, and THAT person. We don’t get to opt out of loving God or our neighbor just because things are complicated and nuanced.

I had a professor in seminary, Caroline McCall, who taught us to drop the word “but” from our vocabulary when we were engaging in dialogue with one another—ie. I like what you said, BUT, I think my idea is better.  That is important, BUT this is more important.

Instead, she encouraged us to say “AND.” That is important. AND, this is also important.

I came to understand from Caroline’s teaching that this wasn’t just a strategy for civil discussion; it was a social and theological lens that allows for the coexistence of diverse values and perspectives. It is a way of communicating that invites more ideas into the circle, even paradoxical ideas, even ideas we might not agree with, and in doing so our hearts and our minds become just a bit more open, charitable, Christlike. I might disagree with you AND I am still committed to loving you.

And this is, in effect, what Jesus does to answer the Pharisees and the Herodians today. He is saying: take seriously the demands of the present social order AND love God and your neighbor with all your heart and soul and mind. Engage as a participant in this world, as imperfect and broken as it might be, AND never forget that God is breaking in, forging a new world all around you.  Do both. Be both.

Those who are committed to binaries, to zero-sum games, to seeing the world as winners and losers, are likely to be challenged by this. Still, as followers of the way of Jesus, we need to embody non-binary thinking now more than ever.

When we are confronted in our own lives by people who always try to force us into picking sides, into seeing the world as nothing more than a never ending power struggle in which we must vanquish our perceived enemies, we need to pause, and take a breath, and pass through their midst. Not out of fear or apathy, but because the answer to every question lies on the other side of our enmity.

And I know how tempting it is in these polarized times to pick a team, to pick a side, to think of everyone as either an ally or an enemy, but I am telling you this: if the church doesn’t lead the way in opting out of this binary way of thinking and categorizing the world, if people of faith and good conscience don’t do it, then it will not happen, and we will continue to grow more suspicious of one another and farther and farther apart, long past any particular election season or pandemic. And if we are suspicious and apart, we will never flourish, not one of us.  

The change has to begin here, now, among us and within us, because first and foremost we are citizens of God’s Kingdom, and that is a place fundamentally shaped by the word “AND”: a place that is just AND compassionate, free AND interdependent, abundant AND equitable. Rooted in history AND looking towards the future.

And you know what is so fantastic, so beautiful? It is that we are already doing this; we are already living in this spirit right here at Trinity. We demonstrate this every week by coming together with people—people similar to us and people very different from us—to turn our hearts towards God and one another and by saying YES: yes, life is hard, yes, the world can be angry and cruel, yes, I am exhausted and scared and money is tight and my relationship is on the rocks and my dog is sick and I am so tired of political ads on TV–

AND…

AND life is a gift, and God’s blessings are everywhere, and Christ is in the face of the person next to me, and how amazing it is to be alive today, to breathe the crisp fall air, and how good it is to strive for justice and mercy in this land, and how perfectly imperfect is this very moment, here in the presence of Jesus who is passing, lovingly passing through our midst, passing through our fears, passing through our binaries, guiding us out into the True Answer to every question.

How gut-wrenching it is to love him, to follow him where he goes AND how necessary, how grace-filled, how complete.

We will only glimpse God’s fullness, brothers and sisters and sibilings, when “AND” becomes the vocabulary of our hearts. When we live as though there is space enough for everyone, and mercy enough for everyone, and peace enough for everyone, and food and shelter and justice enough for everyone. There can be. There will be. Because no matter how many blustering emperors come and go from this earth, we worship a God who is ultimately on everyone’s side–a God who will not rest until the day we are all resting together. 

That day feels a long way off sometimes. A long way off.

And:

We will get there.

I’ve Had Enough: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 11, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 22:1-14:

Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Several weeks ago, a number of us came together for an online retreat here at Trinity, focusing on the parables of Jesus. We spent a couple of days studying and praying with these enigmatic depictions of the Kingdom that Jesus uses to teach and form his followers, including us.

One strategy that I shared during our retreat, which I personally find helpful when engaging with a parable that is especially strange or troubling, is to imagine who I might be in the story as I read it through, aligning my perspective with that character, seeing what insight arises for me. Then, I will pick another character, one I might not readily identify with, and put myself in that person’s shoes. I read the parable again from that perspective and see what new discoveries the Holy Spirit might offer. 

Reading the parables in this way helps me break free from the assumption that there is only one way to understand a story, only one way to understand what the Kingdom of God is all about. As a spiritual discipline, it helps me build empathy for perspectives other than my own, and opens me up to the new word that God always seems to be offering us if we are willing to listen for it.

How badly we need a new word right now, at this moment in our world when the characterizations used in our public discourse feel especially brittle and caustic, like spiteful caricatures of a once-robust story. 

How urgently we need a new paradigm, a new lens through which to perceive what citizenship in God’s Kingdom asks of us. How desperately we need to reconsider who we are in the unfolding narrative of our time. 

Our gospel lesson today is a perfect example of this need. The most common approach to this morning’s parable is to imagine God as the vengeful king; in fact, nearly every commentary I came across this past week started with the assumption that this is the correct way to interpret Jesus’ words here. And if God is the king in this story, then it follows that those who reject God’s invitation and those who fail to adequately prepare themselves for God’s expectations will suffer at God’s hand and will be cast out into the darkness.  The chosen few will enjoy the feast. End of story. Amen.

Many of us know this type of Christian narrative of election and condemnation from other seasons of our lives; many of us have felt its sting or have pushed up against its suffocating certainties. 

But with all due respect to those who promote this dominant narrative, I, for one, have had enough of a theology of angry kings and burning cities and exclusive guest lists. I have had enough of Christian communities that use parables like this to judge and exclude under the guise of truth-telling. I have had enough of purity tests and moral posturing and spiritual violence masquerading as love. I have had enough. 

That story is played out, and it doesn’t sound anything like the Jesus I know and love.

So, I would offer, it is time to stretch our imagination, time to recast this story.

What if God is not actually the king of this parable? What if God is not any of the people in this parable? 

Jesus never actually says who God is here—we have read that into the text ourselves, collectively, over generations. But one thing we do know, from the very shape of his own life and death and resurrection, is that Jesus has little interest in emulating earthly kings. He usually operates, in fact, as the antithesis of a typical king.

To cast God, then, as the petty tyrant of this parable might tell us more about our own understanding of power in this world than it does about the liberating power of God’s kingdom. 

So here’s my new cast list, for your consideration. 

Sometimes, we are the king in this story. We are this king every time we act out of our need for control, every time we manipulate others so that they will do what we want. We are this king when we start deciding who is and is not worthy of mercy, when we encouter people with whom we disagree and desire to annilhate them in our hearts, to cast them into the darkness beyond the limits of our compassion. 

And sometimes, we are also the guests. 

We can be those initial guests—the ones who don’t show up—whenver we decide that we have better things to do than giving our lives over to Christ. We are those guests when we become distracted, deceived by the illusion that we can create our own personal heaven rather than participating in the real heaven, the one that is only found in the mutuality between us and God and our neighbor.

And we can be those final guests, too—the hesitant, the unprepared, the speechless—and in them we see reflected our own moments of speechlessness, our own fear and confusion about what is expected of us, and we’re given a stark reminder that we need to get clear about who we are and why we are here; that this Christian life is not meant to be observed from the sidelines, but lived in fervent fullness.

And God. If not a king, then where is God in this recasting? That is quite simple:

God is the wedding feast itself. 

God is the abundant table. 

God is the bread and wine and the scent of roses. 

God is the water trembling in the crystal bowl,

the color of ripe fruit,

the candlelight reaching out to illuminate your face. 

God, always, forever, is the Eucharistic banquet, the promise of sustenance, available to anyone, to everyone—to the angry king and the frightened guest alike, to you and to me—if only we would lay down our arms and our anger and our apathy and gather together for the meal that has been prepared for us, the kingdom that has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world. 

God is the feast. The feast of life.

So, whoever you are this morning, whoever you have been before, come.  Let us sit down together, and rest, and eat. 

Let us tell a new story.

For Such a Time as This: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 20, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Philippians 1:21-30 and Matthew 20:1-16.

I know it might feel like a lifetime ago in this ever-frantic news cycle, but just the other week my social media feeds were full of eerie, dark images from friends in the San Francisco Bay Area: a thick mantle of smoke from the voracious, deadly wildfires on the west coast had literally blocked out the sunlight. Office towers were illuminated at midday, and cars crept through the haze with headlights on, like ghosts floating through the thick, amber-tinted gloom that many described as “apocalyptic.”

And while these images were striking in their severity, this rampage of flame and smoke is not a  novelty out west. In fact, as a seminary student in Berkeley a couple years ago, long before the coronavirus pandemic, I was already the owner of several N95 face masks, because the ash from the autumn wildfires would get so thick that our lungs would burn just walking a block or two to class. 

I remember my friend and classmate, Alison, collecting masks and handing them out to the folks living on the streets in our neighborhood, who had to sleep every night under that blanket of toxic air. I remember keeping a bag packed in my dorm room with essential documents and mementos, just in case those sparks of fire began devouring the hills looming outside my window.

As a native Californian, I can tell you that these fires, in recent years, are worse than they ever have been. Their intensity and destrutiveness, exacerbated by climate change and unchecked population growth in fire zones, threatens the life and livelihood of millions of people in our country.

But, as with so many other urgent societal challenges of our time, the debate over what to do about this crisis has been overtaken by the fear and resentment that pervades our public discourse. The need to reckon with complex challenges devolves into false dichtomies and endless posturing. Meanwhile, the land continues to seethe and burn, and our brothers and sisters weep amid ashes both literal and figurative, in a season that indeed feels like an endlessly encroaching twilight.

So when they were talking about apocalyptic skies, my friends might have been engaging in a bit of anxious poeticism, but not by much—becasue we ARE living through an apocalypse, in the strictest sense of that word. Not necessarily the “end times” of popular imagination, but an apokalypsis—which in the Biblical Greek means a revelation, an uncovering of things not previously known. This period of crisis is revealing US, forcing us to face who we are and what we stand for.

Not who we THINK we are. Not who we assume OTHERS to be. But who we actually are, when the rubber meets the road, when times get tough, when we can no longer hide our fears and flaws behind the pleasantly numbing qualities of prosperity and power. When the type of love espoused by Jesus, in all of its raw urgency, is all we have to rely upon and guide us.

If we glean anything from the letter of St. Paul today, who realizes that for him the greater good is to stay and engage in the “fruitful labor” of this troubled world, we must come to understand that sitting this one out, that waiting for the ethereal promise of better days, is not part of our Christian vocation. This is the time for us to stop posturing, to put aside our resentments and regrets about what might have been or should have been, and start getting real about doing God’s work. The needs are great. The hour is coming and is now here.

In today’s gospel, we hear from Jesus that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner hiring workers for his vineyard. And while we often focus, rightly, on how this parable illustrates God’s almost-scandalous generosity, it also has something important to tell us about simply showing up and laboring in the first place. 

Consider those workers who are lingering in the marketplace near the end of the day. We don’t know why they waited so long without being hired. But to the landowner, it doesn’t really matter. He is willing to take them. Because however late the hour, the laborers did show up. They stepped out in the public square and presented themselves as willing hearts, willing contributors to the harvest, even with only an hour or two of daylight left. Even when it might seem that any chance to make a difference has passed them by.

I think of all the times that I have been late to show up for the truly important people and pursuits in my life. I surely had all kinds of reasons, some better than others. Sometimes because I thought I had better things to do, other times because I was distracted, or scared, or angry, or I just didn’t know where to begin. Maybe you’ve had those experiences too, where you feel like you’ve missed the boat, missed the call, missed the opportunity to do something meaningful.

But what we learn in this parable—something God really, really needs us to learn right now—is that it is NEVER too late to start doing the work we have been called to do. Whether we start in the dawn of our life, or at midday, or at dusk, God will always come find us, will always offer us a place in the vineyard, and most importantly, will always show us that even the smallest thing we do has value in the Divine economy.

So what is the labor that you can contribute, here and now? What is the work of your hands, the work of your heart, that you might offer in this perilous season? There is not one among us who cannot take part, no matter our age, health, or circumstances. 

Daily prayer for the needs of the world is a great place to start. Supporting the life and work of your parish, of course, is of vital importance for so many of us. Extending a hand of friendship and compassion out into the lives of our neighbors, especially those in need. Speaking truth to power in the great prophetic tradition of our faith. Caring for God’s imperiled creation. 

There are so many ways to labor fruitfully, and there is no one solution to all that we face, but neither is there any excuse to exempt ourselves from showing up some way, somehow. As the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” And so each of us has to take that step, whatever it is for us.

God is waiting for us to say yes, like our Blessed Mother Mary, to say yes to something bigger than ourselves, inviting us into the joyful, necessary labor for which we were made.  We cannot let our fear, or frustration, or bewilderment impede us from jumping in and offering what we can. Those who came before us, those who struggled valiantly to make this world a kinder, fairer place, deserve at least that much.

So I pray that the smoke will clear from the skies out west. I pray that the smoke will clear from this pandemic, and from this election season, and from any number of other challenges we are facing. But alongside God’s grace and providence, we have a crucial part to play in the healing of this age.  And we can’t wait til there are clear, sunny skies to jump in and get to work. We do not have the luxury of waiting. Our land continues to burn, and so our hearts must burn in response.

Brothers and sisters, there is no one else on earth that can do the thing you were created to do. There is no one else that can contribute what you were born to contribute.

No matter the hour of life in which you find yourself, this is the hour you are called. I know things feel hard, and scary, and exhausting, but remember: we were born, we were named as God’s beloved, we were baptized into Christ’s death and life for such a time as this. So, take a deep breath; give thanks for those who have labored before us; imagine those who will come after us; and then, here and now, let us go into the vineyard together.

Love’s Enclosure: A Sermon

This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 6th, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Romans 13:8-14.

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another,” Paul urges today in his letter to the Romans, and it sounds so simple doesn’t it? How liberating, how wonderful, that the only thing we have to worry about in this life is loving each other. No long lists of rules and regulations for us, thank you very much—just love, for all of the people, all of the time. 

But experience teaches us that choosing love is often far from easy or straightforward, and we might at times wish there WAS a clearly outlined set of rules and instructions from God about how to do this thing called life. For all its truth and wisdom, though, Scripture is less of a how-to manual and more of an illustration—a vivid image of love’s redemptive entanglement with frailty.

And so, we must stand alongside one another, scrutinzing the image, discerning, together, often messily, what love mandates, here and now, and somehow reproduce it in our own lives.

At times, especially in this hard, angry, suspicious age in which we find ourselves, it can feel nearly impossible to love everyone and everything we encounter. When faced with the brokenness and the meanness of the world, we are tempted to retreat, to run away in horror and frustration. In such moments the idea that we must always be governed by love, in all times and places, can feel like a cruel joke. For it is a certainty that no matter how kind we are, no matter how gracious, not everyone will love us back.

And yet, that is indeed what is depicted, time and again, in Scripture. We are told that love is the through-line of every commandment Moses grapsed on stormy Mt. Sinai. We are told that choosing to love, despite all evidence to the contrary, builds the type of life that bears the imprint of eternity. “Love,” Paul says, “is the fulfilling of the Law.” In other words, Love is the fulfilling of God’s plan for creation.

You already know the stakes of this if you have ever cared for someone deeply—a partner, a parent, a child, a friend. Love’s requirements, when taken seriously, are all-encompassing. It demands everything we have to give. Love, as a rule of life, encloses us. It limits the scope of our freedom to some degree, as we commit to the care and nurture of this person, this place, this time. Sure, we could choose to run away, but love keeps us grounded, and in doing so, it helps us become what God intended.

I think our society needs a reminder of this, especially now, when it seems as though the pursuit of the common good has gone out of fashion. Without the grounding of a generous love, we risk becoming lost in the maze of our own private desires and impulses, wandering, like prodigal sons and daughters, into the “quarreling and jealousy” Paul warns us against, believing ourselves liberated, but in truth, enslaved by our own selfishness.

That is not how God designed the world to work. So we must constantly return to that image we have been given—the image of Love—and let our hearts be mended by it.

Speaking of images, the one included in your service bulletin (or viewable here) is one panel of the famous Unicorn tapestries, which can be found at The Cloisters museum in Manhattan.

These particular tapestries date from the late middle ages/early Renaissance, sometime around 1500, and they are massive, covering the walls of the large room in which they reside. They are also something of a mystery—nobody knows exactly who made them or where they came from, and art historians have spent a lot of time speculating as to what they mean. 

In various scenes, as you move around the gallery, the unicorn is discovered in a forest, then hunted, then killed, and then brought back to a castle by a large crowd of lords and ladies. Then, finally, quite strangely, there is the image that you see before you: the unicorn alive again, resting peacefully in a fenced enclosure, as the ripe fruits of a pomegranate tree drip their blood-red nectar onto its white coat.

We do know that the unicorn loomed large in the imagination of medieval European culture; it was a remnant of the writings of antiquity, a pagan symbol that combined equal measures of ferocity and gentleness, and as such became associated with the figure of Christ. The original King James Bible even translated the Hebrew word for wild oxen, re’em, as unicorn.

But what intrigues me most for our purposes today is the fence that surrounds the unicorn in this tapestry. Notice how low it is, how easy it would be for the creature to jump over it and escape. It begs the question, why does the unicorn stay there, when it could so easily leave? Why does it have such a tranquil expression, after having been hunted and confined within this absurdly small space? 

Imagining the Unicorn as an image of Jesus, the Scottish clergyman Harry Galbraith Miller, in a meditation he wrote many years ago on this very same tapestry, gives this answer:

“we come to sense that [the unicorn] is only held there because that is what it itself wishes. It is its own love that holds it, and in all its beauty, restrained power quivering in every limb, it rests there captive. The captive of love…love draws it in self-sacrificing gentleness.”

The captive of love—yes, this is indeed our Lord and our God. And as followers of Jesus, we, too, are invited to be love’s captives. We, too, are asked to lay down amid the fruits of this bloodstained paradise, and to let the bonds of charity hold us fast to this heartbroken earth, even when we would rather run away.

The majesty of the unicorn here is that it chooses to remain within our grasp, we who can grasp so little. It chooses to stay so that we might gaze upon it and be changed by it, we who did nothing to deserve its startling beauty, who will never fully comprehend it.

The unicorn, as the image of God, invites us into love’s enclosure, invites us to lay down our swords, invites to live for something other than ourselves.

For you and I, right now, that might mean wearing a mask to protect our neighbors. It might advocating for justice and reconciliation. It might mean offering forgiveness to one who has wronged us, or making amends if we have wronged someone else.

Every time we do these things, every time we accept the responsibilities of love, we are, as Paul says, putting on the armor of light—the dazzling garment of the gentle warrior, a figure not unlike the unicorn itself, proud and strong and free, yet choosing to stay, choosing to fight for love, despite the odds.

We might not always get it right. We will probably make plenty of mistakes. But how good it is try. How good it is to lay down within this enclosure, where the fruits of the Spirit drip nectar onto our skin, where the Law of Love grows up around us like wildflowers.

That is where we are meant to be. That is who we are meant to be.

Love Made Strange: A Sermon

This sermon was preached on August 9, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 14:22-33, wherein Jesus walks upon the sea. 

 

One of the most frightening things in life is when the familiar, the comforting, becomes strange to us. 

10 years ago, I remember the horrific shock of seeing my father intubated in a hospital bed after his first major heart attack. Here was a person I knew better than almost anyone else—the man who had held my hand on the sidewalk as a child, the man whose voice was the very sound of warmth and safety—here he was draped in shadow and blinking lights, in dreamless slumber, his skin slick with sweat, his features empty. 

He was not yet gone, but he was far from me, and seeing him there as a figure unreachable, uncomprehensible, was a formative moment of terror—the last gasp of my childhood, the unraveling of certainties, the perilous thinness of the boundary between what is given and what is taken away. 

If in our gospel passage we are speaking of voyages across stormy seas, then in that moment for me there was no shoreline in sight—only the roiling waves, the wind, the deep, and the realization that as much as I loved him and as much as I needed him, my father’s fragile life did not belong to me and never had; he did not exist solely to provide me with security—his soul had its own wild freedom, and I could only stand there and behold it, suspended in the wind, at the outset of its own new journey.

We all have to reckon with this realization at some point in our lives—that the things we cherish are always slightly beyond our grasp, like a sunset we cannot make stay. 

Perhaps you, too, have felt that same mixture of suprise and fear at some point, when you realize that the person or the thing you love most is not entirely your own—standing beside a hospital bed, as I did, or waving goodbye as the car pulls out of the driveway, or in the evasive eyes of a lover whose love has left, or even in the daily news headlines that suggest the world is far more complex, unpredictable, and frightening than you thought it was. 

These are the destabilizing revelations, the mini-apocalypses of our lives—the inbreaking of awareness that everything we thought we knew, everything that felt within our grasp, was never actually within the parameters of our control. 

And this is what terrifies the disciples on the boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee—not the storm itself, but the vision of Jesus approaching them through the storm, his feet suspended above the raging depths, an enigma and an impossibility. 

How beyond understanding he has become, their humble teacher: the one they love and trust and rely upon, the one they thought they knew. How very strange he seems now, a ghostly image striding across the waters, no longer the benevolent offerer of bread and fish and a healing touch, but the embodied and eternal voice speakign out of the whirlwind, the untamed majesty of the transcendent I AM who parted the Red Sea and called from the flaming bush, as free as the wind and as inscrutable as the depth of night. 

This is the very same Jesus, yes, but it is an overflowing manifestation of his fullness that defies the disciples’ comfortable assumptions, despite the miracles they have already witnessed. And he has a lesson for them, and for us.

One of the greatest temptations we will ever face is to feel threatened by that which we cannot understand. When we are afraid, we can reject the unfamiliar becasue it undermines our sense of an ordered and safe world. And in this singular impulse we can trace a myriad of tragedies throughout human history—the othering of minorities, the persecution of the innocent, the viciousness of groups, both religious and cultural, who insist upon the purity of their own moral vision. The institutional church is not exempt from this, as we are all painfully aware. 

In ways large and small, each of us has likely participated in this tendency, every time we try to fashion another person into our image, every time we assume that our own social location, our own priorities, are the universal standard of judgment. In our fearfulness, you might say that we are all in the same boat, and, scared of what we glimpse in the tempest, we close our eyes, rowing desperately toward the familiar shoreline of our understanding. 

But Jesus would not have us look away from him so easily. He is not simply the God of the comfortable shoreline, but also the one who emerges de profundis, from the deep places of our lives, who beckons with an authority that calls us, like Peter clambering out of the boat, to move toward that which frightens us. He shows up as God In the Storm, reaching to us across the waves, so that we will know he is there, so that we will not hide from the storms in our own lives. 

Jesus is the one who asks us to let go of our fear, not because the world is a paticularly safe place—it isn’t— or because our lives will always be comfortable—they won’t—but because he is the one who sustains us despite our fear; he is, as 1 John describes, the perfect Love who casts out our fear. He is the silent stillness beneath the waves, the ground of certainty who persists in his pursuit of us, in all conditions. 

We need a God who startles us a bit, if only to remember that we don’t have God all figured out. We need to let Jesus surprise us from time to time; we need to let him be just a bit more than we are comfortable with him being, so that we can learn to trust in a goodness that transcends mere pleasantness. 

He remains the familiar, gentle Savior who calms the winds, yes, but he is also the wild Holy One who dances upon the storm and invites us to dance with him. When we allow Jesus to be all of this, to be both friend and stranger, both familar and new, then we begin to perceive how everything and everyone we love is also both of these things—forever ours…and forever free. 

Because that was the thing about seeing my father that day in the hospital—beyond the shock, beyond the fear, beyond the strangeness, there was still love. Changed, perhaps, nuanced by grief and impending loss, but love nonetheless, spacious enough and strong enough to withstand circumstances beyond my understanding.

A love enduring, unkillable, and true. A love all-encompassing, as deep as the raging sea.

Always Enough: A Sermon

This sermon was preached on Sunday, August 2nd at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 14:13-21.

Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matt. 14:13-21)

Five loaves. Two fish.

Not the most promsing basket of ingredients to feed thousands of hungry people in the wilderness. It’s like one of those cooking compeititon shows on TV, where the contestants stare in dismay at a pile of random food items that must be fashioned into something impressive. “You have 30 minutes to create a banquet out of: Day old bread. Dried tilapia. Assorted leaves and twigs. And, go!”

But, for better or worse, that’s all the disciples seem to have on hand, and somehow, according to their always-mystifying leader, it is a sufficient place to start.

As I was reading the gospel passage this week, however, what struck me was not the mystery of how Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes, but the gratuitousness of the miracle itself. 

If we read the passage closely, looking past the “how,” we encounter an equally puzzling “why.” It is, on purely practical terms, not necessary for Jesus to do what he does. Yes, he is surrounded by a crowd of followers who likely need something to eat, but note that the disciples have already offered a pragmatic solution to this dilemma:

“Send the crowds away,” they say, “so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

We need not assume that the disciples are being callous or dismissive here; they are quite sincere in offering this suggestion to Jesus, expressing their concern that the hour is late; they want these vulnerable people to reach safety and find nourishment before the long, hungry night engulfs them all. Their plan to return to the nearby villages is eminently reasonable and thoughtful. 

And we might think Jesus would have readily agreed to the crowd’s departure after a long day of performing miraculous healings. Remember, it’s not like he lured them, like the Pied Piper, out into the desert against their will. He was, in fact, seeking a bit of peace and quiet, and they chased him down, sort of like those old videos from the 60’s of hysterical teenagers chasing the Beatles through the streets of London. So presumably these mega-fans of Jesus are at least somewhat prepared to survive the journey they’ve chosen to undertake, with their own food or a plan to scrounge some up on the way home. 

And yet, Jesus will not hear of sending them away. “They need not go…you give them something to eat,” he replies, and we can almost hear the gentle challenge to the disciples in his voice. 

Yes, the crowds got themselves into this situation. And yes, they might have found food elsewhere. 

But Are YOU not willing, he seems to ask,  are YOU not willing to take responsibility in this moment? Are YOU not willing to be the one who does this necessary thing? Would you so easily relinquish this opportunity to care for, to serve, to give?

Give me your five loaves, and your two fish, he says, give me your hesitancy, give me your fear of never having enough to offer, and I will show you what God can do with even the smallest of gifts. 

We should not forget that Jesus has spent the day performing healing miracles, and now he has one more healing left to offer with this feast that nobody asked for, this shocking abundance yielded out of almost nothing—the healing of the disciples’ interior vision.

This miracle is the antitdote to their crippling fear of failure; it is about opening their minds, teaching them to work with what they have, teaching them that in the economy of God, what they have been given and who they are will always be enough. It is a miracle, first and foremost, intended to satiate the hunger of a soul that doubts the world’s own sufficiency, to fill the gnawing emptiness of a heart convinced that scarcity, rather than plenteous goodness, is the law of creation.

Jesus’ prodigious feast is a miracle we need more than ever, because we live, today, in a world that continues to be haunted by scarcity. 

Whereas once, limited by geography and tecnology, people had to subsist on what they could cultivate from their immediate surroundings, this is no longer our inescapable inhertiance as the human race. We have the capacity, as a global community, to feed, to heal, to educate, and to protect the vulnerable in ways that were unimaginable even just a century or two ago. We are so very interconnected now, and, as this pandemic continues to illustrate, we will either thrive or die as one. 

And yet we tend not see it that way, at least not with any consistently. Despite our global capacity, there remain regions of the world where people still subsist on less than the bare minimum; and there remain people in our own communities who go to bed hungry at night, who struggle to keep the lights on, who fear what tomorrow will bring, not because there is a universal famine, but because they have fallen through the cracks of a system that permits, even relies upon, the continued existence of uneven prosperity.

And we, ourselves, even in this abundant land, are conditioned in ways both subtle and overt to believe that we never quite have enough, and more fundamentally, that we ourselves will never quite be enough. Insufficiency becomes the lens through which we see our lives and the rest of the world, as if everything is a commodity that is running out—our money, our time, our youth, our love. Our five small loaves. Our two dried fish. 

Scarcity tells us that these things are pathetic, insignificant, unworthy, but also that we should hold onto them, for fear that it’s all we’ll ever have. 

But today we see how all of that is a lie. We are reminded in this gospel passage that God, again and again, takes the insignificant and makes it magnificent. Jesus shows us that scarcity, both in our hearts and in our common life, only persists when we believe that what we have been given is not enough, and that what we have to share with the world will never make a difference. It is. It will.

This is why he insists that the disciples offer up their meager provisions for the feast, and then multiplies them—to demonstrate that God can do anything, everything, with whatever small thing we are brave enough, hopeful enough, to give away for the good of others.

And so, as the disciples of this moment, Jesus’ perplexing instructions remain the same. The hour is late, and the people are hungry—for bread, for hope. You and I must give them something. What do we have to offer?

Perhaps more so than anytime in recent memory, we cannot send our problems along to the next village, hoping they’ll get resolved by someone else before darkness falls. So whatever we have on hand now, what we have within ourselves now—it’s going to have to suffice.

And today’s Good News is that it will suffice. As imperfect as it might be. As limited as each of us is. Look down at your hands, see what they are holding onto. Look into your heart, see what precious gifts you’ve stored away for fear that they are laughable or unworthy. It is time to bring them out. It is time to give them away. 

It is OUR five loaves, OUR two fish that God needs. And when we stop believing that they aren’t enough, that we aren’t enough, then suddenly, miraculously, we will be. 

In the Marketplace: A Sermon

This sermon was preached online for Sunday, July 5, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’  (Matthew 11:16-17)

Outdoor markets are vibrant, wonderful places. If you have ever had the chance to visit one, especially a market in another country, I am sure you know what I mean. Whether you are wandering the mountain-town markets of Guatemala or the urban night markets of Hong Kong, or even spending a Saturday morning at the Fort Wayne Farmer’s Market, to visit one is to be surrounded by the smell of ripe fruit and spices and grilled meat; the sounds of haggling customers and music; a profusion of colors and textures spilling out into your field of vision, each stall offering an invitation to trail your fingers along the contours of the earth’s abundance and of human creativity. 

And, at the very same time, marketplaces are confusing, intimdating places, as well. The rules of negotiation are sometimes cryptic, the languages spoken might not be your own, the crowds can close in, and there is always the chance that you might take a wrong turn and end up lost amid a maze of counterfeit goods and beckoning strangers.

In their jumbled offering of both the delightful and the dangerous, markets are a microcosm of our common life—their sights and sounds represent the enticement of the ideas and experiences people exchange with one other, but they also signify the inherent risk of venturing beyond home, the vulnerability of relying on the trustworthiness of strangers, the calculated risk of enmeshing ourselves into a deep system of interdependence–one that extends far beyond simply finding a fair price for honey and housewares. 

In the commerce and connections we foster in the marketplace, we belong to one another; we take our place in the unpredictability and fluidity of life, and who we are and how we are in that space conveys–and ultimately shapes–the kind of world we wish to see prosper. Are we people of curiousity and fairness? Or of suspicion and exploitative self-interest? Do we engage in just and sustainable practices, or is the cheap bargain more alluring to us?

The marketplace reveals every option and allows us the freedom to choose. We might also say it places upon us the responsibilty of choosing, because our conduct in the public square is never just about ourselves; it has broad impact. 

And so we hear Jesus, this morning, comparing his generation to children, “sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,” children who say “we played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn.”

These children in Jesus’ analogy are disappointed because their companions have not engaged in the interplay of mutuality that a vibrant communal life requires; the signals of both celebration and grief, of flute and funeral dirge, have gone unheeded by those too busy, too distracted, or perhaps too self-conscious to respond to the opportunities that beckon in the public square. Their chiding reminds us that it is not enough to simply be present in the world—we must also choose how we are going to respond to it. Will we be attentive to the signs around us and shape our actions accordingly, or will we scurry through the market with our heads down, lost in our own impulses and hesitations?

In its immediate context, Jesus is using his market imagery to critique the crowd’s inability (or unwillingness) to discern the prophetic and proclamatory missions of John the Baptist and himself—like unresponsive children, Jesus sees them as a people who refuse to hear or respond to the signals given that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and that they should therefore listen and follow him, adopting the radically compassionate values of the new, Divine economy which he teaches and embodies.

But I would also say that Jesus’ critique continues to resonate for us today. Right now, in an historical moment when the marketplaces we inhabit are both physical and digital, we must continue to ask ourselves how we are showing up in those spaces—in every space wherein we take part in our expressions of common life. Our social media feeds. Our grocery stores and other businesses. Our political forums. Our parishes and our civic organizations. Although our physical presence has been limited in some of these places lately, we might take this as an opportunity to ponder the values which we will carry with us as we return.

And principal among those values, according to today’s Gospel? A willingness to listen, and look, and learn, and respond. We are asked to be brave, responsive participants in the marketplaces of the world—people who dance with the joyous and grieve with the injured. People who look for the signs of the Kingdom and take action to support its emergence. We are asked, in short, to be people who are all in for the world, who are so attuned to the colors and the sounds and the smells surrounding them that their love for God’s creation is, ultimately, the currency by which they trade. 

We just celebrated Independence Day in the United States, and given the strained fabric of our national life, you might feel a poignant mixture of gratitude and discomfort this year. In the current environment, celebration is tinged with grief and concern. Many of us in this country have been blessed with abundance and freedom, and others among us have been prevented from receiving their share of that same vision.

But imperfect as our union might be, this is nonetheless the marketplace in which we find ourselves. This is the world that requires our loving response. This is the moment we are given, both to dance and to mourn. Let us do both, and tomorrow, and the day after that, let us begin again.

Jesus, the Incarnate Lamentation of God

I offered this address as a video teaching on June 21, 2020, as part of a parish retreat, “The Transformative Power of Lament.” That video can be viewed here.

This weekend we have spent a great deal of time considering how and why we lament. We have talked about God’s ability to hear and hold our lament; about how God wants us to express our sorrow as one part of the deep fullness of what it means to be human. 

But what about God? Is God simply an impassive sort of figure, up there, who calmly, magnanimously receives our cries of grief and frustration with a cosmic pat on the head? Or does lamentation itself somehow bear the image of Divine Life? Can we say that God, that perfect Trinity of Love, is also a figure of lamentation?

Yes, I think we can. And as followers of Jesus, I would say that we must. Because in Jesus, in both his earthly life and in his passion and crucifixion, we see and hear God’s enfleshed lament. God’s anguish. God’s piteous tears.

The idea that God might have a lamentation to offer back to creation was intuited long before the Incarnation, of course. The tradition of the Hebrew prophets already bears the imprint of God’s sorrow over Israel’s brokenness

From the prophet Amos:

Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:

Fallen, no more to rise,

is maiden Israel;

forsaken on her land,

with no one to raise her up.

For thus says the Lord God:

The city that marched out a thousand

shall have a hundred left,

and that which marched out a hundred

shall have ten left.

For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel:

Seek me and live. (Amos 5:1-4)

And then in Jesus, we hear something so very similar, uttered on the human lips of that very same God, who has come to be as one with creation, and thus issues a cry in his own voice: 

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:42-44)

That is, of course, the pathos of God from the very beginning of our story, from Eden, through the Exodus, to Calvary and beyond —an inability to be fully recognized by creation in those moments of visitation. The Father weeps, in a sense, over our inability to see his face clearly through the tears of our finitude; the Son weeps over the hardness of our hearts, ossified by fear and apathy; the Holy Spirit weeps over our inability to hear her crying out across the the desert, across the void of infinite closeness between us.

Thinking about God as a figure of lamentation changes a few things. First, it recasts a lot of the ideas about God’s “wrathfulness” in a new light. What would be like if you imagined all of those “angry” proclamations from God in Scripture as being, instead, expressions of deep grief, said through tears and sighs? Would that affect how you imagine God’s realationship with the world?

This should not be especially surprising, if we think about it, because as Christians, Jesus reveals precisely what God has to say to the world about its brokenness, unmediated through the prophets, and far from being an expression of vengeful anger or rage, it is an expression of lament. Somehow God knows, in Holy Wisdom, that lament is the necessary message. 

Why is this? 

The theologian and scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that it is grief and lament, rather than rage, which God offers to us in Jesus because God understands that lament is the fundamental act which penetrates the numbing self-interest of systems of domination and death; it is God’s solidarity wtih us, God’s joining in our anguish and asking us to learn from anguish rather than acting out of denial. It is in taking up our cross that we encounter the narrow but certain path to wisdom and redemption. The way, the truth, and the life.  Thus it is Only lamentation—that which we express and that which we listen to from others—which can build compassion within us, soften our hearts, and open us up to the mystery of transformative love.  

As Brueggemann writes, “Newness comes precisely from expressed pain. Suffering made audible and visible produces hope, articulated grief is the gate of newness, and the history of Jesus is the history of entering into the pain and giving it voice” (The Prophetic Imagination, 91).

And so when we look at Jesus on the cross, the ultimate expression of God’s lamentation, we are looking at that gateway into newness. We are looking at the articulation of God’s grief over a broken creation, and of God’s deep longing to be so close to us that he is willing to be broken himself. And then, in the resurrection, the definitive evidence that lament, for all its power, is a prelude to something even more powerful: healing, liberation, and enduring life. 

But in Jesus we learn that it is a necessary prelude. There is no shortcut around Golgotha, no avoiding an intentional engagement with grief. This, in some ways, is one of Christianity’s unique contributions to the faith traditions of the world—that suffering is itself a wisdom path, a holy road, one that Divinity itself has trod.

It is not a road for the fainthearted, but it is also not one that we walk alone. God walks with us, and we walk it with each other, to encourage, to listen, to grieve, and to celebrate as one body.

So, as we conclude our retreat, the question is: are we willing to go down that road? Are we willing to go through the gate of newness that is the cross? Are we willing to articulate our grief, and respond to the grief of others? Are we willing to weep with Jesus at the edge of the city, to bear that same fierce love he does, for people, including ourselves, who have not recongized the things that make for peace?

If we are willing, then lamentation is where we begin. 

God bless you on the journey. I will see you out there.

The Church that is Willing to Die: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on June 21, 2020 for the online services at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 10:24-39

What does it mean to be the church in a time such as this? At this turning point in our national life, when old values, old practices, old ways of being are called into question, when the mythic landscape of American history is being challenged and reordered by pandemics, protests, and political turmoil, when certainties are few and far between, here and now we are urgently led to revisit this question: what does it mean to be the church? Who are we Christians in this fraught moment: this moment of lament, this moment of reckoning with the unjust systems we have built and sustained, this moment of questioning the bedtime stories with which we have comforted ourselves about blessing and destiny and progress? 

What is the church now when the wind comes howling in through the open window, when the doors to the building are locked and the bottom drops out and we are falling, falling down into the gloom of an unknown tomorrow? What are we then? Who are we then?

For so much of our nation’s history, to be part of the church has been a designation of institutional membership, a cultural practice encoded in spiritual language handed down from generation to generation; an elegant packaging of some laudable core values, and a safe, enclosed space in which to work out the meaning of life according to those values. In this understanding of church as institution, which patterns itself according to the societal contexts in which it operates—the world outside the walls—there are usually a number of factions, organized along political, liturgical, or ideological spectrums, and whoever dominates in numbers or funding tends to dictate what we stand for and the ways in which we do so. It’s not that we ignore the gospel in this mode of church; it’s simply that the “good news” we share often sounds like the good news we want to hear, or more specifically, the good news that the powerful want to hear. 

For many, being church in this way feels very navigable—it maps rather neatly onto the rest of our lives, it absorbs the language of the zeitgeist like a sponge, such that the progressive and the conservative, whatever those labels happen to mean in a given moment, have equal opportunity to bedeck themselves in Scripture and silk vestments, to continue their eternal struggle via the proxy wars of theology and church politics. 

This is not a new thing, and perhaps, for much of our history, this mode of being the church felt sufficient for the majority of people. Since the peace of Constantine in the 4th century, when Christianity became legalized in the Roman Empire and later adopted as the religion of that Empire, there has been little distinction between the idealized values of citizenship and the  core teachings of the sacred in dominant Western culture—especially for those of us who enjoyed the privileges and powers that such citizenship affords. The easy mix of civic and ecclesial agendas was simply a given. Church was, in effect, where you learned how to be a good and loyal participant in the realm, to support its structures, to promote the peace of the established order.

But established orders tend to fall apart eventually. Structures give way under their own weight. And what is the church, then? Who are we, then? 

Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel:

Do not think that I have come 

to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, 

but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)

Jesus’ words today remind us that there is another choice when it comes to understanding the meaning of the church—a choice that is unsettling, a bit scary even—one that looks nothing like the established order in which we are tempted to become comfortably numb. He describes the cost of following him in the starkest of terms—it is to give up family bonds, it is to give up one’s safety, to give up one’s own life, even, in order to find and participate in whatever strange, magnetic sweetness he seems to carry within himself.  This is not a metaphorical invitation. It is quite serious.

To be church in this way—to relinquish, to descend, to die—has little to do with the striving and the strategies that characterize so much of public life in the West.  It is, instead, an intentional upending, a deconstruction of those values, especially whenver they deny life and dignity to the least among us. For, as Mary proclaims, He has lifted up the lowly and the rich he has sent away empty.

To be the church that responds to Jesus’ invitation is to search for the cracks in the veneer of decadence, to find them and to tear them open,  to name what is rotten underneath and, crucially, inescapably, not simply to name and to criticize, but to cast ourselves, with equal measure of grief and  hope, down into the rottenness, down to the places where we do not want to go, down to where we will finally see what is true, what endures, what refuses to die, even there. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Here and now, in our present turmoil, some of that work has been done for us. The veneer is already cracked. Some of the rottenness is already exposed. But we still have to choose whether we will get down there and look at it. We still have to choose whether we will do something about it. Nobody will force us to, not even God; and the urge to look away, to go back to the old mode of being, will continue to be powerful. But what we decide will determine what sort of church we are part of. Are we an insitution of the present order, subject to the whims of history, or are we a community of disciples, of learners, of passionate lovers of God, seeking Holy Wisdom into the uncomfortable places she calls us?

Most days, I doubt that I have the strength and the courage to choose this latter vision. Most days, I just want to roll over and go back to sleep. It would be so much nicer to stay on the surface of my Christian identity, to let church function as an ornament, as a daydream where we talk about forgiveness and love in hazy terms without ever submitting to the fierce demands that such things actually require. 

But then, always, there is Jesus, with his unsettling words and his compelling gaze that cuts through me like a sword. I see him looking back at me from the cross, forgiving my weakness, unimaginably patient with my fear. I see him in the faces of my homeless neighbors, my black and brown neighbors, my lgbtq neighbors, my conservative neighbors, my liberal neighbors, my neighbors of every background and belief, and I hear his voice: 

Follow me. Follow me wherever it might take you. Follow me out past the church you thought you knew, out beyond a brittle, compromised peace, follow me out past certainty and cynicism, follow me into the heart of the world’s sorrows and see what lies on the other side of fear and lamentation. I promise you, everything real, everything joyful, everything good, is there. I am there. 

If we listen to Jesus, if we really listen to him, what other choice can we make?