I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 16, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 5:21-37, wherein Jesus speaks about the radical demands of the Law upon the heart.
In the California desert, along a lonely highway that cuts through the merciless expanse of Death Valley, there is a town. It’s hard to call it a town, really; it’s more of an outpost—a cluster of low buildings huddling together in the searing, shimmering vastness of the Mojave, the only sign of human habitation for miles and miles in any direction.
Death Valley Junction, it is called—built in the 1920s by a mining company that has long since disappeared. There is an abandoned gas station, and a cafe that never seems to be open, and an old hotel with an empty parking lot. Driving past, you would be forgiven for thinking that it is just a ghost town, a dessicated relic, like so many other ruins that dot the western landscape of the United States.
And in some ways it is. On most days in Death Valley Junction, the only sound you will hear is wind raking over the scrub brush, whistling through the empty buildings. But I urge you: if for some odd reason you are ever passing through this place, stop the car and get out. In fact, if you are ever near Death Valley at all, make your way to this forgotten corner of the desert. Because hidden among those decaying buildings is a miracle. A strange, wonderful miracle.
It’s called the Amargosa Opera House. From the outside it is unremarkable, just a white stucco structure in a dusty lot with a simple wooden sign above the doors. You won’t find any big headliners performing here, nor throngs of eager patrons lining up outside. But the Amargosa Opera House contains something better, something far more precious, inside its walls. Because when you step into it, as your eyes adjust to the dim light, you will encounter a vision: a vision of truth, a vision of authenticity, a vision of what I think love really looks like.
You see, in the early 1960’s, a successful ballet dancer and artist from New York City by the name of Marta Becket was traveling through Death Valley with her husband on a camping trip. They got a flat tire and had to stop in Death Valley Junction. Even then it was a largely empty place, and as she waited for the car to get fixed, Marta wandered among the decrepit buildings, pondering their history. And then something happened.
As she peered into the windows of an abandoned community hall, with its peeled paint and its battered old stage, she had a revelation. Marta knew, in a flash of insight, that somehow she belonged there.
“My life split in two at this junction,” she later told a newspaper reporter. “I looked at the stage and knew it was my future. I knew I’d perform here the rest of my life.”
And that’s exactly what she did. Marta left New York and moved to Death Valley Junction with her husband and fixed up the old performance hall. She rechristened it the Amargosa Opera House. She started performing one-woman ballets of her own creation. As you can imagine, given the location, the audiences were not large. A local rancher or two; some workers from a nearby brothel; the occasional traveler. Sometimes, quite often in fact, no one would show up for the performance, but Marta would dance anyway–for an empty house, in the empty desert.
Later, Marta and her husband divorced. And despite the protestations of her friends back east, she remained there alone in the Opera House, in the middle of Death Valley, now the sole inhabitant of the town, restoring buildings, welcoming the occasional visitor, and dancing, always dancing, through the decades, for anyone or no one at all.
At some point, she had another inspiration: if no audience would come to her, she would create her own. And so she painted the interior of the Opera House with murals filled with people—huge, vivid murals that make you feel like you are standing inside a grand European theater, with gilded balconies and elegantly dressed figures and a big blue sky overhead with billowy clouds and laughing cherubs.
And so, with her painted audience cheering her on, Marta danced, night after night, on her desert stage, dedicated fully to that vision, to the calling she felt when she first peered through the dusty window: unashamed, unafraid, utterly devoted to her singular vision of creative expression. Utterly in love with her unusual life. Utterly authentic.
I met Marta just a couple years before she died at the age of 92. She had continued dancing until she was 87. And ever since I stumbled upon the Amargosa Opera House, and saw her murals and learned about her story, it has been something of a beacon for me in moments when I feel lost. Each of us, in our own way, comes face to face with the question: who am I? What am I supposed to do with this life I have been given? How can I live purposefully, courageously, authentically?
I tell you this because I am convinced that’s what God desires from each of us, my friends: to be authentic. That doesn’t mean moving to Death Valley, necessarily. That was Marta’s story, her particular calling.
But God does ask us to show up in the world as fully and deeply ourselves as possible; to share our gifts for the betterment of the world; and to trust that this alone is enough, that we are enough, even if nobody else understands us, even if we end up dancing onstage alone.
That is what it means to be the bearers of God’s image: to discover what is true, what is sacred—in ourselves and in each other—and to love it, tenaciously.
And so when we hear Jesus teaching in today’s Gospel about the intense, seemingly impossible demands that the Law places on our hearts—when we learn from him that the kingdom of heaven looks something like those rare moments when our inner motives are in perfect alignment with our outward actions—I believe we are hearing his invitation to a brave, self-giving, authenticity.
It is not enough, Jesus tells us, to go through the motions of virtue if you are harboring fear and anger and covetousness deep within you. It is not enough to proclaim peace with your lips if there is war in your heart. It is not enough to fulfill the legal and ceremonial obligations of your culture if you are not also attentive to the injustices that your culture perpetuates.
Because in that gap between the person God intends for us to be and the person we might have allowed ourselves to become—that is the void where sin and despair creep in. The Law, which Christ fulfills, beckons us beyond despair, into the glory of God, and, as St. Irenaeus writes, “the glory of God is the human person, fully alive.” Fully oneself.
True life, true blessedness, Jesus tells us, will only come when there is an integration between humanity’s heart and its hands; when we need not swear by any power beyond ourselves–by heaven or by earth— because we are so fully, authentically present to each other and to the world that Yes truly does mean Yes, and No truly does mean No. To know ourselves, and to be ourselves, unvarnished, unapologetic, humble, rooted—this is what it means to know peace, and this is what it means to be a peacemaker. This is what we are offered when we follow Christ.
But make no mistake; this much easier said than done. The embrace of authenticity always has a price in this broken world of ours. Sometimes a very steep one. The world is not always kind to the vulnerable, the meek, the open-hearted.
And each of us, looking back at our lives, can probably recognize a juncture when embracing the true and necessary thing might have cost us a great deal. Our sense of security. Or our livelihood. Or maybe friends and loved ones who have rejected us.
The road that leads deep into the heart of life can be lonely.
Like Jesus, and like Marta, it might lead us far out into the desert, where the evil one whispers in the Valley of Death that we are lost, that we are living with ghosts, forgotten, and that our fragile dreams are not worth tending, that nobody cares enough to come join us in the dance that we were born to do.
But I have stood in the Amargosa Opera House, my friends. I have seen its vivid colors swirling and laughing defiantly in the heart of emptiness, and I can tell you that God shows up when we inhabit the places we fear the most. There is abundant life, abundant truth, when we allow God’s grace to form us into ourselves.
Because somewhere out there, in the vastness, in the kingdom of heaven, at the center of our deepest longings, Marta is still dancing, shrouded in lamplight and smiling mysteriously, knowingly, like a saint who has glimpsed the secret.
She is silent; silent as the desert. But her art, her life, her story speaks for itself.
May the same be said for each of us, whoever we are called to be.