“Darkness and Light to You are Both Alike”: An Epiphany Reflection

I originally wrote this piece for The Episcopal Church’s Sermons that Work series in honor of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2021.

The metaphors of light and darkness are pervasive throughout Holy Scripture and Church tradition, but such imagery reaches its apogee now, on the Feast of the Epiphany. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, this is the day, in the lean light of January, when we often speak of Christ as brightness, as radiance, as the child bathed in starlight—attempting to articulate how an Incarnate God is not simply present among us, but revealed to us, just as the day is revealed by its dawning.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,” declares Isaiah; it is an invitation to wake from sleep, to gather in the holy places, to pay homage to the one true Gift: God’s desire to know and be known by us. “We observed his star at its rising,” the wise men say, and it is a reminder that even the light of inconceivably distant galaxies has been caught up in the narrative of Divine Love made manifest, reaching across the vastness of space to find itself reflected in the eyes of an infant Lord.

For all the beauty of this imagery, however, and despite its centrality to our faith tradition, as people of this time and place we must contend in new ways with the ideas of darkness and light. We must be mindful of how this dichotomy has been used not only to depict the landscapes of spiritual consciousness but has also been misapplied to the physicality of people themselves, as if the color of our skin were an indicator of our soul’s worth.

This is especially true for those of us who live and worship in the United States; we cannot casually equate “light” with God and “darkness” with evil or ignorance in our preaching and our prayers without realizing how these very terms have been corrupted in recent centuries by our own sinfulness and that of our forebears—by this nation’s history of equating skin color with moral and spiritual capacities. All of us, no matter our background or good intentions, are inheritors of this bitter reality, and as Christians attentive to justice and reconciliation and breaking down that which disfigures beloved community, part of our own emerging Epiphany is a frank assessment of how language can harm just as powerfully as it can heal.

This is not about erasing the use of traditional imagery, nor is it about excising portions of Scripture. It is about taking these resources even more seriously than we have before: sitting with them, wrestling with them, plumbing the depths of Christian writing and hymnody to incorporate the full scope of ways we might speak about God—the One whom John calls “the true light… coming into the world,” but also the One of whom the psalmist says, “darkness and light to you are both alike.” The God whom Isaiah promises will be our “everlasting light” and the One whom the mystical theologian Pseudo-Dionysius calls “the ray of divine darkness.”

Rich and varied use of such metaphorical language preserves us from two extremes: first, from assuming that this imagery has no intrinsic power of its own to shape our social consciousness (it does); and second, from idolizing such imagery as if it were itself God (it isn’t). It is in the tension of opposites, then, and the playful spectrum between them, that we find our language’s best attempt at expressing the inexpressible, the experience of which we celebrate today.

For many of us, these considerations might feel like uncharted terrain. As such, the wise men in Matthew’s Gospel are ideal guides for our journey—strangers from another land, led through the night by wonder and hope, following the path to Christ fixed in the stars (which, of course, can only be seen in the dark). The Magi are not bound by the political machinations of Herod; they are not beholden to the present order of domination and exploitation. Instead, they are guided by dreams and visions, by the wisdom of hidden roads, by attentiveness to the signs around them. And in their journey—one that is itself the union of brightness and shadow—they are led to the place of our collective longing: to gaze upon the hidden face of God and to know that it is indeed God gazing back, beyond metaphor, beyond language itself, as pure, Incarnate presence.

How might we, too, encounter God again, if we are courageous enough to think deeply about the language we use to approach Divine Mystery? How might we, too, be guided to travel “by another road,” a road upon which we acknowledge the limits and the lamentable uses of “light” and “dark” in our recent past and then push beyond them? What new ways might we dream of to depict and express the epiphany that God is, and always has been, reaching out from across eternity to abide with us, to heal us, to bring us back to ourselves?

For us, as Episcopalians, this is an instance where our liturgy, our theological process, and God’s mission converge to do a brave new thing. As with any worthwhile journey, this is not one that can be finished quickly, nor can it be done alone. We must listen to one another, and to the voices of others whose lives are quite different from our own. We must be willing to hold ourselves accountable for speaking eternal truth in new and varied ways, knowing that even our most beautiful language is but a foretaste of the beauty that will one day be revealed in its fullness. But until then, it is what we have to offer.

“They all gather together, they come to you,” Isaiah promises the Holy City of God, and still we are coming, traversing the ages, stumbling, lost, hopeful, guided by stars and secret longings, to the place that is neither dark nor light, but deep and dazzling nonetheless—the place of love’s Epiphany: distant, hidden, home.

Called Out: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on January 3, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23, the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.

“Out of Egypt I have called my son.” This line of scripture, quoted in Matthew’s gospel, is originally found in Hosea Chapter 11: 

When Israel was a child, I loved him,

and out of Egypt I called my son.

The more I called them,

the more they went from me.

There is deep pathos here, a bit of God’s own lament: why do you run from me, beloved children, why do you run towards your own pain when I have called you out of it? 

I have called you out of bondage. Out of fear. Out of hopelessness. Out of mortal danger. Out of disillusionment. Out of Egypt, God says, I have called you, and though you turn away, I will keep doing so, I will keep calling. I will make a way for you, a way back, a way back to the life that I promised you from the very beginning, a way that that cannot be hindered by anyone or anything, including yourself, because my Word is eternal and my purposes, my plans for you are sound. 

Out of Egypt I have called my child, my beloved—and out of that place I will continue to call you, again, and again and again. Will you not follow where I call?

The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is an unusual story in many ways, leaving us with all sorts of unanswered questions. Why, for example, does only Matthew write about it? What happened to Mary and Joseph and the Christ child during their exile there? And why Egypt, of all places? 

Some of these things we will never know for certain; but to this final question—why Egypt?—we might look closely at that quote from Hosea and begin to imagine an answer. 

To do so, we must remember the significance of the land of Egypt in the theological imagination of the ancient Israelites: it was there that their ancestors lived in slavery under Pharaoh, and from there that they were delivered by God in the Exodus account, through the Red Sea, towards the promised land—a seminal event in Israel’s self-understanding as God’s chosen people. 

Thus the God who once liberated them from Egypt, from the despair of their subjugation, was the same God who could be counted upon to deliver them from later calamities and desolations. This abiding trust is, in many ways, the through-line of the Hebrew scriptures.

And so when Matthew quotes the prophet Hosea here, saying “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” he is referring to the calling, the liberation of Israel as a whole, as a people, not just a son in the singular sense. 

The infant Jesus, in his journey to Egypt and back again, is not just an individual on a chance adventure, but is, in this dangerous sojourn, recapitulating his people’s original Exodus—into exile and back—demonstrating, yet again, in fullness, that the God of Israel is a God of ongoing deliverance, a God of promises made and kept. 

The difference this time, however, is that God is now traversing this wilderness path not by pillar of cloud and fire as before, but as a refugee himself, a victim of circumstance and history. He is, in a sense, experiencing what it feels like to also be the one delivered from danger, not just the deliverer, as if his love could not be complete without immersing himself in the precariousness of our condition.

How remarkable that God would so desire to be in solidarity with us, with our own forms of captivity, our own dangers and trials, our own wandering through this life, that he would take part in it, that he would subit to this most vulnerable pilgrimage of all—into our mortality, into our longing, into a literal and proverbial Egypt, that place which, in the language of Scripture, symbolizes the sum of all fears. And then, crucially, back again, back out of Egypt, back home, back to the land and the life that holds all promise. 

This is a pattern that will be repeated throughout Jesus’ life, this venturing into and out of the hard, lonely places—into the desert to be tempted, and back again; into the despair of Gethsemane, and back again; and, of course, the journey to the tomb, and back again. 

Each one, though ascending in intensity and clarity, is part of the same pattern, just like this flight of the Holy Family: it is a refrain in the song that God is singing, has always been singing to creation—that even when you are brought down, deep down into the places where you do not want to go, you will be called back—you will be guided back, because out of Egypt have I called my child and I am the God who never stops calling, not til every last one of you has been delivered from your despair, til every last one has been brought home.

And as we look at the patterns of our lives, we will likely have our own stories of exile and return. You might even feel like you’re in the middle of one right now.

So it bears asking yourself: where, or what, is “Egypt” for you, now? Where is it in your own life that you fear to go? What is the landscape of your deepest regret? 

If we have learned anything this past year, it is that sometimes we are forced to journey through these hard places, much as we would prefer otherwise—life has a way of leading us onto the wilderness road, one way or another, both as individuals, as communities, and as nations. 

As Jesus says shortly before his death, “you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” The Cross will become his final journey “into Egypt,” but it is also a journey that waits for those of us who follow him.

But here is the part we must not forget: whatever it is that we are facing, alone or together, whatever our own cross—our own Egypt—consists of, we have to remember that the story doesn’t end there—it never has, and it never will, because it is “OUT of Egypt have I called my son.” Not in. OUT. 

The brokenness of our lives and of the world around us sends us into Egypt. But God, God is calling us back—back through our struggles, back out of whatever frightens us, back to joy, back to hope, back to the place where we are known and loved. God is, and always has been, the presence, the power, the Person who will guide us out of death and into abundant, true life. 

That’s what we must hold onto in this story, and in our own story: Egypt is not our home. Death and despair are not our inheritance. We are the sons and daughters and children of God and we are called OUT of the lie that life is merey hopeless and cruel. We have been given news about the ultimate truth, the final composition of all things, and it is GOOD news. No matter how rocky the path, no matter how long the journey, you and I are destined for home.

Out of Egypt have I called my son. Out of Egypt have I called you.

Will you not come?

The Life Before: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on December 27, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is John 1 (“In the beginning was the Word…”).

Pop quiz: What is the first story of the Bible? 

Most of us, if asked, would probably say it’s the story of creation, in Genesis 1: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…”

That’s where it all started, right? 

But then we have today’s reading, that poetic, eternally lovely opening of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him.

That’s the first story, right there. Right in the middle of the Bible, or more accurately, in the 43rd of the 66 books that make up the Bible, we are given a glimpse, not just of how THINGS started–things like the earth and the sky and the animals and the elements and you and me–but back, waaay back before any of that, back in what we might call the “prequel” to creation, when there was Simply God. John’s gospel isn’t special only because it is beautiful language, but because it reveals to us WHO GOD IS and what God was up to before any thing, before every thing

And who exactly was God before there was even a creation to utter the word “God”? 

Again: “He was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, [the Word] was in the beginning WITH GOD.” This is the hidden life, the hidden love, the hidden dynamic relationality at the core, the source, of everything that would follow.

It’s a bit mind-blowing when you think about it…and humbling, really, to acknowledge that God had (and still has) an entire life and reality apart from a relationship with us. Because I think we tend to place ourselves at the center of God’s narrative, as if we are the only object and culmination of God’s total concern, but it is something altogether different to recognize that it is the other way around– God is at the center of our narrative. God is everything to us, but we are just one part of him.

It’s sort of like that moment when you find a snapshot in an old shoebox of one of your parents, taken back when they were young, long before you were born—an image of them laughing on a beach at a joke you will never hear, or holding hands with someone, an old friend or partner who you will never know—and suddenly you realize, in a flash, with a shock—that your parent was a REAL PERSON. That they had a whole life, a whole complex reality that came before you. And even once you came along, they retained that rich inner life, all those layers of memory and identity and connection, even when it was hidden to you, even when they seemed to exist for you alone, as Mother, as Father. 

So here, in John, we get a dim, yet deeply evocative snapshot of God, in the beginning before our beginning: before the angels, before the stars, before the wind swept over the face of the waters. It’s good to sit with this image for a bit, to think about the Divine Life before, long before we were even a twinkle in God’s eye, to see whether it has anything to teach us about our own lives.

And, of course it does. 

Looking back at the text of John 1, (acknowledging that our human language is stretched to its limits here) if God somehow was the Word and was with the Word and was also alive as the Word within God’s own self, the one thing we can be sure of from all this is that God was always intrinsically relational. We might even say that God is RELATIONSHIP itself. And this is not some new concept, because we affirm this every time we talk about God as Trinity—three Persons, one Divinity, a dynamic, integrated community of love. 

God is this for us, yes, but God was always this, even before us. And thus, if we are made in God’s image, then we, too, are created primarily for relationship. We are relational beings. And futhermore, all of creation—the earth and all living creatures—are made for the same purpose. To connect. To support. To interdepend.

We are good at talking about this conceptually—one human family, love thy neighbor—but you and I know it is mightily difficult to live out. Greed, competition, mistrust, lies, fear—all of the manifestations of broken relationship that we call “sin”—are a stumbling block to our true vocation, the one that Jesus embodied, which is to be as deeply intertwined, as intimate with God and with one another as God is within Godself, a dynamic described again by Jesus later when he says, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

We are meant to abide with one another and within one another. With and within. Why else do we kiss and hug and hold close those whom we love if not to act upon our most basic impulse to exchange part of ourselves with them? To be with and within them; to sanctify our flesh with holy, unmediated relationship?

This is what Jesus teaches us, and shows us: every time we take even the smallest step towards relationship, towards community, towards love, we move an inch or two closer to God. Sometimes we take great leaps. Somtimes we shuffle along. Sometimes we run the other way, directly into our deepest isolation.

But God is still there, still reaching out, never losing interest in a relationship with us, because God is relationship. And the old snapshot of him is still true: God is laughing on the beach, but the smile is meant also for you, and God is reaching out to hold someone’s hand, but it is also your hand, and no matter how the years go by, no matter how many other layers of memory and mystery are added, God is no stranger to you or to me. God will always be that person, the one in the beginning before our beginning, the one who was and was with and was in, weaving through time and through our lives like a thread, like a song, like undiminished light.

So as we consider the year that is nearly ended and the new one that is about to begin, I invite each of us to consider this word, RELATIONSHIP, maybe even write it down and stick it in our wallet or our bag and look at it from time to time and ask ourselves:

Am I moving toward relationship?  Am I moving toward life-giving relationship?

Am I moving toward life-giving relationship with my family members, with my friends, my fellow parishioners?

Am I moving toward life-giving relationship with the strangers that I meet, with my neighbors in need?

Amy I moving toward life-giving relationship with myself, all the tender parts of myself that need love and nurturing and honesty?

Am I moving toward life giving relationship with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, with the God is who my parent and my creator, my friend and my Lord?

Am I spending time investing in these relationships with conversation and prayer and presence, or are they on auto-pilot? And, am I assessing those relationships that are broken or toxic and determining whether they can (or should) be mended? 

Am I–are you–are we– living into our essential, God-given identity as ones who were made to be connected to others, to take our place as an integral part of things, as part of God’s abundant, interconnected creation, foreshadowed and sustained by God’s own inner, secret, relational joy? Am I taking part in that unfolding, eternal relationship?

We can ask no more fundamental question than this.

Because in the beginning—the very beginning of the story—that is all there was. And, I suspect, I hope, I trust, that at the very last, that is precisely what will remain. 

Ordinary: A Christmas Sermon

I preached this sermon on Christmas Day, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 2:8-20.

Not quite as planned. A bit haphazard. Maybe somewhat underwhelming, even, after so much hope and expectation and hardship. Confusing and, for some, tinged with fear. And yet, somehow, in its startling ordinariness, still happening, still a quiet miracle, still infused with unspeakable grace. 

Am I describing how many of us have experienced the holiday season this year? Or am I speaking about the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago? 

Yes.

On this Christmas, perhaps more than any in recent memory, we perceive the hidden, frank domesticity of the Nativity, for we, too, like the Holy Family, have been gathered in, with few options, seeking shelter above all else. 

But despite our recent immersion in the spare, the low-key, and the unadorned, it must be acknowledged that, even with all that we have learned and lost this year, with all the comforts foreclosed, we might still struggle to wrap our heads around the Savior of the world coming exactly in the way that he did—as an infant, born to an average family in a humble town, in a common peasant home, with the guest rooms past their capacity and animals crowded in for the night. Few expected, then or now, for the Messiah, the promised Holy One of God, to be, by all appearances, so very ordinary.

But so he was. A baby as fragile as any other, born with no particular privileges or advantages apparent, at a precarious moment in his people’s history. 

I know that I say to myself every year that I understand this, that I love how God came to us in suprising humility, but then I wonder, when I look at the habits of my life and when I look at what I am tempted by in the world around me: do I understand, really? Do I love him, just as he is, this child in the straw, who offers love, but not safety?

Because even now, even though we know better, even though we’ve told the story a thousand times and more, we still keep looking for Jesus to enter the world elsewhere—in a palace, in a capital city, among splendor and power and success.  We still admire and imitate the people who live and work in those places, and in our dominant western culture we tend to shape our values around their opinions and agendas. We long for the child of Bethlehem, but we keep looking for an emperor. 

And even in the history of the church this can be true, when we have tried to retroactively ennoble the Christ child in our imagination–ensconcing him in gilt and velvet and crowns, sometimes forgetting that these are subversive symbols of how he turns earthly values on their head, not actual depictions of his birth and life. 

But thankfully, blessedly, try as we might, we cannot escape the fact that he was not born as an actual king—and we are reminded in the Christmas story that God did not enter creation through the ornate front doors to be greeted by the servants, as it were, but instead came in the back way, through the service entrance, seen only by those who tend the sheep.  

And what good, good news it is that this is so. 

Because it means, for average people like you and me, that God was never interested in being unattainable. God was never interested in being insulated from us. God never wanted to be known as someone who is too busy, too important, to notice and regard with care the details of our lives. On the contrary, God was born in such an ordinary way to signify that it is here, in the midst of our vulnerable, complicated, boring, unimpressive, precious little days that he desired to make a dwelling place. 

He wanted his own life to be as plain and sweet as ours sometimes can be—a life of both chores and of chocolates—because he is Emmanuel—God WITH us—and that means with us through all of it: the good, the bad, and the long stretches of the simply OK. And thanks be to God that he visits us there, because most of our lives are made up of the simply OK, and I, for one, long to be known and loved even in those moments where I feel entirely uninteresting. 

The manner of Jesus’ birth is good news, also, because it means that we need not become impressive, powerful people in order to take part in God’s life or God’s mission. No matter what family we were born into, no matter how much money we make, no matter how many times we have failed or fallen down, we have not missed out on the chance to participate in the things that God truly cares about, because those are, in the end, quite ordinary things—feeding, clothing, visiting, listening, forgiving, remembering, grieving, rejoicing. They are the things that you can do wherever you are, no matter who you are. And the day that we realize that these things are all that God requires of us, that they are the elements of a truly important life…that is the day we are free. 

Let that day be today, this eminently ordinary day, as you gaze at a baby in the manger, with common shepherds as your companions. Let God’s humble birth, his little bed of hay, his quiet Mother, teach you that your life can be enough, will be enough, humble and little and quiet as it, too, might be, if you will only give over your love, your heart, to be pierced and shaped— not by the Savior we expected, but the Savior that we needed. The Savior of the everyday.

It is for him we say:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,” AND glory to God in the lowliest birthing place.

“On earth peace,” AND in our ordinary hearts, peace, this Christmas day, and every day to come.

An Advent Poem

They say that Advent is
waiting
for Light in Darkness
for a bright white God,
Night-erasure,
Knowing.

They say that the world is
tired
dish-water gray and that
Salvation looks
much paler, bleach-bone
sanitized and safe:

But I have been caressed by
the Spirit
in a thousand tender shadows.
She whispers
dreams and visions
under moon and cave and cloud.

God is not afraid of the dark.
And so I wonder
If perhaps I shouldn’t be—

If maybe this Coming
in womb;
like night-thief
means that blackness is
Divine
And Love
Is an Unknowing, too,
a Hiddenness.

I wonder
if wonder requires
The embrace of deep
Unseen things—

I wonder, when I
meet the Son
if it will be less like
the sun
and more like a kiss
at cool dusk.
Eyes closed. Soft.
Like rest.

Emptiness: A Sermon

“In the canyon, we perceive how negative space has its own power; we find that we are just as compelled by what is missing–what has been hollowed out–as we are by what remains.”

I preached this sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are John 1:6-8, 19-28 and Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11. It is a slightly edited version of the sermon I wrote for The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” collection for Advent & Christmas 2020.

I spent much of my 20s living in the desert, and whenever I was feeling stressed out or in need of some quiet time, I would drive out past the city limits to an overlook that took in views of Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon and a seemingly endless expanse of earth and sky.

Some people find the desert off-putting: all of that muted, windswept rock and dirt and shrub, where you cannot hide from the sun or from yourself; but others, like John the Baptist, are drawn to such places for precisely this reason—because there is no distraction, because it is a place of unobscured perception, of stark clarity, where one can see farther outward and further inward, if they are willing to brave the emptiness.

Indeed, if you have ever stood at the rim of a desert canyon, you know what it is to comprehend the immense majesty of such emptiness. These clefts in the earth, carved by the incessant flow of water over millenia, are rocky vessels holding a world unto themselves. 

Peer over the edge and look down into the sky held between the canyon walls—a highway for the howling wind and winged creatures of the air. 

Look down upon the stubborn shrubs clinging to the ledges, where tiny crawling things seek precarious shelter at the edge of the abyss. 

And then look down, down, down to the bottom, to the river—the improbable, sinuous source of this vast openness, branching out like a vein, still eroding and shaping the earth in its insistent passage towards a distant sea. 

In the canyon, we perceive how negative space has its own power; we find that we are just as compelled by what is missing–what has been hollowed out–as we are by what remains. There is a potentiality, a spaciousness in the open chasm that, in gazing upon it, we also begin to sense within ourselves, in the caverns of our soul, a certain thick luminousness, a sense of seeing deep into the heart of things that are usually hidden under the surface.

And so perhaps it is in just such a place, deep in a canyon in the Judean wildnerness, that we might imagine John the Baptist, his voice crying out, echoing off of the wizened rockface, mingling with dust and birdsong, proclaiming the Coming of Christ: an approach that will, like a river of Living Water, soon carve its own path through the petrification of the human heart. 

John heralds the advent of God’s own bone and breath and blood; the anointed flesh of the Messiah, which, in its birthing and breaking and Belovedness, will reveal the truth of how our own lives are sustained by the Divine ecology of Love.

But before we get there, we are here, in Advent country, in the desert. And just as emptiness defines the canyon, so it is, in this season, that discovering our identity in God is predicated, first, upon clearing away all that is not for us, in order to discern exactly how God might fill that open space.

“Who are you?” John is asked by those eager to label him and his peculiar mission. But he responds only with negations.

“I am not the Messiah,” he says. 

Are you Elijah? “I am not.” 

The prophet? “No.”

Relinquishment of these identity markers, alluring as they might be, is John’s act of humility, of refusing to be carried away the expectations or agendas of others. He is so grounded in God that he has become an open channel of grace and truth, letting the breath of the Spirit blow through the cracks in his soul, like a reed, like a wind-song. 

And, if we wish to let God shape the melody of our own lives, so must we be.

How often we secretly wish that we were solid rock; the savior of ourselves; the long-expected sovereign of our own small dominions, with the power to do it all, to be it all. How often we take on the titles offered to us, not because they are accurate, but because they’re there, because it sounded good at the time, and because an identity, a name, even one that doesn’t quite fit, makes us feel more real to ourselves, at least for a while. 

But just as the canyon only becomes itself in the void, so, too, with us: so it is ok, it is necessary, even, to not be all things to all people. It is ok to let go of the names and roles that never quite fit. It is ok to let your life take on some empty space, to let the wind rush through you. Because, like John, it is only in each of our own negations that we get closer to the spare, essential truth of our identity—the one that God has prepared particularly for us.

John shows us how brave and beautiful it is to simply be what we are, and to trust that, for God, this is sufficient.

But how difficult this can be. In this anxious time, faced with the multiplying needs of our families, our communities, and our planet, we are frequently tempted to take on far more than what we can actually do or be. Even as many of us attempt to slow down and be more attentive to what matters, the world continues to surround us and shout, “Who are you? Who are you?”

But, if we are ever to cultivate the space in ourselves for God to rush in, then, like John, we must respond with:

I am not the Messiah.

I am not.

No.

We must be willing to disappoint the onlookers. We must be willing to embrace the emptiness of what we were never meant to be.

And then, perhaps, we will find what was ours to claim all along.

“I am,” John admits at last, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

Not a king. Not a savior. A voice. Just a voice–an invisible resonance piercing the air, unbounded, free. Nothing more and nothing less than this. And exactly what God needs from him.

For John, the purpose of his own voice is clear: the announcement of God’s Incarnate Promise. And so he baptizes in the river, that ancient agent of transformative power, inviting others to let themselves be scoured by it—to let their layers of defensiveness and artifice be stripped away, to hollow out a space in their hearts in preparation for “the one who is coming after,” the Christ, the one who makes all things new.

And here, in another time and in another wilderness—the one that we struggle to navigate each day—John’s invitation remains open to us. It is as urgent as ever, because we are still learning who we are and who we are not. Like the canyon, we are still being shaped; still being laid bare to the wind and the light, still becoming as deep and open and vast as God imagines we can become. And, like John, it is only in the cultivation of our own holy emptiness that we will, at last, be the vessels of God’s inbreaking purpose:

to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God; 

to comfort all who mourn. (Isaiah 61)

The Wait: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the first Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Isaiah 64:1-9.

Welcome to Advent.

Welcome to expectation, and wondering, and hoping and trusting that things will get better, that God will keep the promises made–even when we do not.

Welcome to the time when bits of light pierce the shadows, when small kind gestures might save a life, including your own. Welcome to the humble, lowly shape that true love takes when it is stripped of its finery.

Welcome to the pangs of yearning, the slivers of memory and song that come unbidden as you toss and turn at 3am. Welcome to the dull tick of the clock over the kitchen sink, and the peal of the bells, the thick silence of an empty house and the sound of children laughing in the snow.

Welcome to the collision of despair and joy that is, quite simply, what it is like to be here, to live and die here, in this time and place, looking for signs of heaven.

Welcome to the precious, lonely, lovely wait. 

I have always cherished Advent, this first liturgical season of the Church year, and I think a lot of Episcopalians feel the same way. We are drawn, for some reason, to its particular blend of sights, sounds, and silences, the quiet and unadorned sobriety, the crisp way that it cuts through thin sentimentality to the deep places within us where Christ gestates.

But for all our love of Advent, I have also wondered, at times, whether we fully understand what the season is and what it is asking of us. Because when we speak of it as a season of waiting and preparation, we do not mean that it is simply a means to an end, waiting and preparing for the Nativity, nor even is it solely about waiting and watching for Christ’s return at the end of history, as today’s gospel lesson reminds us to do. 

It is, of course, about both of these things, but alongside them, it is also about learning how to live, now, and forever, with the waiting itself, how to become a people that can bear the waiting, maybe even flourish in it—that ambiguous time that falls between what is promised and what is resolved, when we are just as liable to distraction and despair as we are to purposeful focus. This is the season that probes what the poet W.H. Auden called “the Time Being,” the days in which banality and transcendence both tug at us, making our lives a muddle of sorts, a mixture of angels and toothaches, of God’s face and grocery lists. 

The waiting and the wondering of Advent is, really, what most of the days of our lives will look like in any season, and it invites us to learn to be ok with that, to not let the wait dull our senses or harden our hearts. “The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all,” writes Auden, probably because there is so much of it, so much time spent waiting that we might forget what we are waiting for.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you” Isaiah cries out in today’s reading, because Israel has been waiting so long in exile that they have nearly forgotten who God is and what God can do. So he lifts his voice to heaven, desperately, urgently: “You are our father. We are the clay and you are our potter.” Do something, God, do something now, something decisive, something that will help us remember what it feels like to be happy again, to make the world make sense again. End our exile, God. End our desolation. End our waiting.

I think, perhaps, that many of us have prayed something similar this year. The pandemic, and all that it as wrought, has escalated our own sense of what it is to wait, what it is to feel estranged from the normal patterns of life. Like Isaiah, we, too, might find ourselves crying out for resolution and restoration. To hug our friends and family members again. To worship in the ways that we love again. To feel at home out in the world again. 

But as much as I, too, long for all of those things, and as much as I trust that we will make it through this challenging time, I also think we need to remember what this waiting feels like right now—the weariness and the frustration and the tenderness of our hearts. 

I think we need to really hold onto this memory of how vulnerable and exhausted this year has made us feel, how uncertain and tremulous the future can seem when the present is drained of security and comfort. 

Because this feeling, this deep mixture of grief and hope and determination? THIS is the real experience of Advent, this has ALWAYS been what Advent pointed to—not just a cozy wait by the fireside with tea and cookies, not a pop-psychololgy pause for self care in between bouts of frantic consumerism, but this type of waiting, the real kind, the grip the arms-of-your chair kind, the same kind that precedes medical test results, the kind that you feel when a loved one is serving in combat or as a first-responder, the collective waiting of the downtrodden and the poor throughout human history, the heaving cries for justice, for relief, for solace; the waiting for a letter than never comes; the wordless tears that stream down your face when you think nobody is looking. 

The waiting that can only be satisfied, can only be fulfilled by something other than our own feeble attempts at virtue or self-soothing or control. The waiting for God; the waiting for the holy, vivifying, sanctifying, tender terror of God, who will annihilate our forgetfulness, who will consummate our longing “as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.”

This is what we are doing in Advent—this is what we are reckoning with, what we are learning to name and to carry, because it is real life, without ornamentation, and it is something that every person must face. And we thank God that we have been given—and will discover again in a few weeks’ time, what all this waiting is for.

So today, for the “Time Being,” may our waiting be compassionate, rather than apathetic; and if it cannot be joyful, may it at least be honest. May our waiting carve out a space within us, big enough to hold the pain and the promise that is ours to bear for one another. Big enough to contain the dreams of all that a new year, a new world might be. Big enough to be filled by God’s once and future coming, as child, as fire, as Lord. 

Welcome to Advent. Welcome to your life. 

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.