Small Things: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 9, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15 and Luke 17:11-19.

I don’t know why, exactly, but fall is a season when I start to reflect on the past — something about the approach of holiday traditions and the winding down of the year and the brilliance of the autumn leaves lends itself to the sharpening of particular memories. These recollections waft on the air like woodsmoke, sweet and sharp, occasionally stinging the eyes. 

And it’s interesting—I don’t know if this is true for you, but I have noticed that when I am looking back on life and remembering things and people and places that are long gone, long past, my most vivid memories are of very small things, very particular little details, rather than one big grand narrative playing out in my mind. 

I might suddenly recall the sound of my dad’s laughter one afternoon in late September when I was 15, or the particular way my grandmother carved a chicken on Sunday afternoons, or the scent of the gardenias my mom used to buy on the way home from work when I was a little boy. 

All ordinary things, unremarkable, perhaps, to an outside observer, but nonetheless these are the little things that stick, that signify meaning, long after the worries and speculations and fantasies of the past have faded away. I don’t remember most of the conflicts and longings and unsatisfied desires that seemed so important when I was 12 or 22, but I can recall with crystalline specificity the small moments of beauty and kindness and care that have been strewn along the path of my life.

This suggests to me that it is, in the end, these small things that imbue our lives with significance, with holiness, with hope. And it is these small things that are vessels of God’s grace, far more than the big concerns and bold plans that so often preoccupy our imaginations.

We may have great expectations, but it is the small things that sustain us. It is the small things that save us. 

But this isn’t always easy to see. Naaman, the mighty general seeking a cure for his leprosy in today’s reading from 2 Kings, doesn’t quite understand the value of small, ordinary things, or perhaps he has simply forgotten it in all of his conquering and striving to be important. He is a man burdened by disease, but he is also burdened by the sense of his own significance, and so he presumes that any healing he might receive from the prophet Elisha will come at great cost and will arrive with great dramatic impact. No humble, commonplace treatments for this man. And so he loads up his treasures and his servants and his other accumulated defenses and brings them to Elisha’s door, ready for anything. 

For anything, that is, except for the rather anticlimatic thing that actually happens. Elisha, in his wisdom, doesn’t even come outside, and instead simply sends out a message Naaman: go take a bath in the river. 

Imagine having come all that way, with so much build-up, with your whole entourage looking on expectantly, and then being asked to take a dip in an unremarkable, muddy body of water. Naaman, who expects so much more of himself and of the world, is offended by the simplicity of it all. Surely that can’t be it? Surely this God of Israel, if he is so powerful, would reveal his works in a more impressive way? Surely healing requires something more than this? Surely, after I have suffered so much and traveled so far, salvation cannot come from such a small thing?

We might laugh a bit at Naaman’s pride and his self-importance, but I also have to say I relate to his disappointment a little bit. I look back at my life, and I look around at the problems facing our world today, and I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of longing for a big and decisive answer. I know what it feels like to want a dramatic solution, to yearn for God to appear in glory and make it all better, make it all clear, to lift us up from the mud and the misery. 

So maybe I, too, would be frustrated by the instructions to go bathe down in that mud instead. Maybe I, too, would just want to pack it in and go home. Because I confess that some days I get tired of meager solutions to big problems. I get tired of relying on small things when the grief of the world is so big. 

Maybe somedays you get tired, too. Naaman would certainly understand if you do. 

But then, at the moment when all hope seems to be lost, another small thing: this time it is the voice of one of Naaman’s servants, the voice of practical wisdom—

“if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, `Wash, and be clean’?

In other words, yes, the journey has been long, and the outcome may be uncertain. But it can’t hurt to do the small thing that is asked of you in this moment. And, in fact, it may be that finding hope in such small things, believing in the power of small things, is more reflective of God’s purposes than any dramatic solution. Why that might be, I cannot say for sure. I only know that I remember my father’s laughter, and my grandmother’s hands, and the scent of my mother’s gardenias in the cool of the evening, and that these things matter more than I can say. 

They matter in the same way that it matters that God offers us himself in the frail body of a man, and in a morsel of bread and in a sip of wine. It seems that he longs for us to love the small things, to submit ourselves to their humble grace. He asks us, like Naaman, and like the grateful Samaritan healed by Jesus, to remember that when we encounter love and beauty, no matter how simple or small, we are seeing God. 

He is in the muddy waters and in mended bodies. He is in the gifts we share with one another. He is in the moments when we remember to say thank you.  He is in everything, every small thing, holding the universe together with love. 

Naaman does, of course, eventually take Elisha’s advice. He strips off his many layers of armor and submerges himself in that muddy water and emerges, the text tells us, with flesh appearing as it did long ago, skin gleaming like when he was a young boy. When he himself was a small thing: bright, laughing, free.

And perhaps that is the mystery of love: not only that it flourishes in small things, but that it distills us back down to smallness ourselves, like children, sloughing off our grief and our delusions of grandeur, leaving only our essence, our innoncence, our intense and enduring joy. 

Can you remember what that felt like, back when you were small, too? Can you remember that version of yourself, back through the turning of the seasons? Can you remember when you believed in simple things, when love was not a memory, but an ever-present gift, as numerous as the autumn leaves? 

God, help us to remember.

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.