Feast: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, November 21, 2021, Christ the King Sunday, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is John 18:33-37.

One of my happiest holiday memories is when I would wake up on Thanksgiving day to the smells of an already-busy kitchen: sage and onion and baking pies and brewing coffee. It was almost as delicious as the meal itself, that long moment of awakening, warm and half-dreaming in the morning light, knowing that there was a feast being prepared, that everyone I love would be gathered in one place, and that, even though the world outside was complicated and so were we, for this one day, at least, there was no need for anything else. There was enough, and we were enough, here, now, together. 

And while for some of us, perhaps, Thanksgiving was never quite so happy an occasion, I do think each of us understands the potency of the idea itself: a time of rest and reunion, a world in which no one goes hungry, where everyone is welcome at the table, where being known and seen and loved is a gift available to all.

As we grapple with some of the entrenched realities and the challenges facing our country and our world—racism, violence, economic inequality, and ecological crisis, to name but a few—I acknowledge that for many the observance of America’s Thanksgiving holiday is fraught with complexity, and I also acknowledge that its celebration can bring up feelings of ambivalence for those among us whose families are fractured or scattered or simply gone. 

But the principle of gratitude that underlies the day is something that must be reclaimed and reinvigorated anew by each generation, so that this is not just the passive reception of an unexamined history or a private lament over a broken family system, but a courageous choice to believe in what is still possible—to believe that there might yet remain much for which we can give thanks. Because even as we face what is ugly and messy about the human condition, we must also hold fast to what is beautiful and hopeful—those simple, good gifts that make life not just bitter, but sweet, that make the struggle worth it, the things that tell a story of hope, not just disillusionment. The things glimpsed around the bountiful table of the present moment—a feast of memory, but also of determination and of expectation of a better tomorrow. 

That’s why I love that after this service we will go upstairs and pack bags with food supplies and encouraging notes for our neighbors so that they, too, might enjoy a Thanksgiving meal. It’s our congregation’s own small gesture of gratitude for the blessings in our own lives, and a demonstration of our belief that the world can still be a hopeful place, a generous place, and that we can help make it so, even when fear and scarcity seem to dominate the narratives around us. 

Choosing to believe in the redemptive possibility of this world—in its goodness, in its capacity fpr renewal—this is part of what we mean when we speak of the Kingdom of God—not just a place up in the heavens that we escape to when we die, but the emergent, lived reality of God’s love here and now—the power of that love, the triumph of that love, the sovereignty of that love. The ultimate gift for which we give thanks.

And so while it is somewhat a fluke of the calendar, it is fitting, perhaps, that Thanksgiving and Christ the King Sunday fall in proximity to one another, because each observance, at its best, calls us toward a vision of beloved community. Thanksgiving  calls us back to what is essentially good and true in our own lives, and as we conclude the calendar of the church year and prepare for the cycle to start anew with Advent next week, we pause to ask ourselves: who is this Christ, this King whom we worship and follow? What is the essential goodness and truth that he brings? And how do we take part in it?

I will admit that answering these questions and then living into the answers can be harder than we care to admit. We want to believe that love wins, that hope endures, but sometimes we look at the world around us and we look up at Jesus above the altar, on the cross, and we can feel as incredulous and bitter as Pontius Pilate, and we ask: Are you the King? Are you? Because you are nothing like any king I have ever seen. You are not the sort of king who fixes all of the problems around us. And even if you are, what is truth when no one is honest anymore? And what is love when everyone is just out for themselves? And what is justice when blood flows in the streets and children go hungry, just as it has always been? And what is hope when it’s just the same bitter pill to swallow, time after time?

Are you the King? 

And Jesus simply looks back at us, infinitely tender, and says: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world: to testify to the truth.” 

 Because the truth is that Jesus’ power, Jesus’ kingdom, is still not the type we expect it to be. And he comes into our midst, still, not to rule like other kings. Not to control. Not to gather power and wealth at the expense of others, and not to tell us to do so in his name. Jesus comes to testify to a truth that is deeper and more powerful than kingship, even if it is less obvious. A truth that God has been trying to convey from the very beginning, although we continue to ignore it, time and again. 

A truth that rises up, growing like a seed sown in a field A truth that rises up like yeast in bread. A truth that rises up like a spring of living water. A truth that rises up and refuses to be killed or silenced, even in our most desolate, hungry moments: the truth that love persists through death. The truth that mercy persists through brokenness. That there is, indeed, enough for everyone, if we will let it be so. That we are, indeed enough. That we belong to this earth and to one another. That we are known and seen by God in our weakness, in our hunger, and we are forgiven. 

The truth that we have to stop being afraid, stop hiding from God and one another, and step out towards each other with hope and gratitude and say, yes, here I am. And yes, I believe in your goodness, Lord. And yes, I believe that it is love—not fear, not the power of kings—that is the strongest force in the universe. And so I will take a chance on this Kingdom, I  will reach out my hands to the world, to my neighbor, to give and to receive, to bless and to be blessed, to join in the feast, to gather round the table where there are always enough seats, always enough to satisfy even the hungriest of hearts.

Because that’s the thing to remember about Christ as a king, as a ruler. What did he actually rule over? In his earthly life, Jesus never led an army into a battlefield, nor did he oversee a court of law, nor did he celebrate a Temple rite. 

Instead, he presided over…a meal. Many meals, in fact, culminating in the Eucharistic banquet in which we still take part. A meal to nourish the world. A meal in which his own life, his own love is the substance. He is the Lord of the feast, the King of the abundant table, and more than anything we are his grateful guests, called to celebrate with him, called to invite others to take their place alongside us. 

That is the Kingdom of God, my friends. That is what will transform the world. That is what will transform us. Bigger hearts and bigger tables. More time spent breaking bread, listening to one another’s stories and creating a new story together. A story that tells of peace, of justice, of the deep joy that is the birthright of all people. A story that can yet be true. 

May we live like this, on Christ the King Sunday, on Thanksgiving Day, and on every other day, for the rest of our lives. And then, by God’s grace, may we one day, after a long and deep and restful sleep, wake up in the morning light of a new life, a new earth, warm and half-dreaming, to the smell of brewing coffee and baking pies, and may we know that we are home, that we are all home together at last, and that there will always be enough, and that we will alway be welcome, in that beautiful Kingdom, at that glorious table, forever.

Bones: A Sermon for All Hallows’ Eve

I preached this sermon on October 31, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Mark 12:28-34.

I confess that I am delighted how All Hallow’s Eve, Halloween, falls on a Sunday this year. A little later this morning we’ll gather together outside and celebrate this ancient festival with costumes and treats and a pumpkin hunt. 

I know Halloween itself has a rather fraught relationship with certain corners of Christian culture in our contemporary times, but we would do well to remember that All Hallow’s Eve, which simply marks the day before the Feast of All Saints (or All Hallows) is part of a Christian tradition that traces back to the earliest centuries of the church, when our forebears wanted feast days to honor the martyrs, the saints, and their own beloved dead. 

Furthermore, much of the imagery we associate with this holiday is itself quite old, much of it sprung from the religious art, the popular devotions and the folk practices of countless generations of Christians.

Take, for example, the skeleton. The grinning, dancing skeleton is a Halloween staple, and it is an image that comes to us directly from Medieval Europe, when that continent was overrun by the Bubonic Plague, a deadly pandemic that reduced the population by at least a third, and imposed inescapable daily reminders of the imminence of death and the fleeting nature of our mortal concerns. 

Murals and drawings started popping up around this time, in churches and elsewhere, featuring a motif that is now referred to as the Danse Macabre, which depicts a group of skeletons dancing wildly in rows or circles, either by themselves or with living people. And the slightly silly, slightly sinister skeletons of the Danse Macabre are still with us—think of the skeletons in kid’s cartoons, or those that feature heavily in Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and the United States. 

Clearly there is something about them that has stuck with us over the centuries, and, given the events of the past year or two, especially this pandemic that continues to swirl around us, I think that we might be well positioned to understand the magnetism of such artwork. I think, in this new era of plague, we grasp the strange blend of somberness and wry humor that characterizes any honest look at the truth, the truth we feel in our bones, that all things are passing away. 

The dancing skeletons of medieval Europe were a way for people to cope with the underlying fact that we all know but would usually rather forget—that all of us, rich or poor, popular or lonely, beautiful or plain, will one day be a pile of dust and bone ourselves. We are united, moreso than anything, by our mortality; we are a bunch of frail bodies knit together in the Danse Macabre, weaving in an out of the valley of shadows, and so we must do our best, while we walk this earth, to hold on to one another, to live fully, with joy and gratitude for what is given. We must seek hope and purpose even in the face of death.  We must go deep, down close to the bone, stripping away illusions, seeking life’s hard, gleaming essentiality.

And, in his own way, that is what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel. He has just finished answering a series of antagonistic questions from scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees in Jerusalem. His own passion and crucifixion, his own trip to Golgotha, the place of the skull, is imminent. Death is close, and there is little time left for parables and puzzles and debates. There is only this teaching, the simple truth at the core of everything he is and does:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 

There is no other commandment greater than these.

We usually refer to this as Jesus’ “Summary of the Law” and so it is. But today we might also imagine it as the skeletal structure that underlies the Law—the structure that holds together all of creation. 

All the ethical decisions, all the customs, all the traditions and codes of conduct—both those of Israel and those we continue to discern and live into as Christians—all of it is undergirded by these two commandments: Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s it. 

Without these two truths, these two practices, we have nothing solid upon which to stand. Without these two things, the whole body collapses. The Law of Love is the bone under the flesh, the essential and unavoidable truth that we sometimes forget when we are distracted by temporary appearances. 

And, to be honest, in the same way we resist looking at death, so too we resist facing and living into the implications of Jesus’ teaching about the supremacy of love. The history of the church—and the history of humanity in general—has been haunted by a fear of love, by a fear of giving ourselves over to its power, a fear of the connection and mutuality and humility that it requires of us.

We hear Jesus’ words, but it makes our bones shake, because to love that deeply and broadly is its own sort of death—the death of our narrow agenda, of our self-centeredness, of our instinct to judge, of our compulsion to win. 

Love, the type that Jesus is speaking of here, dispenses with all of that—it burns away the protective coverings and leaves just the ancient, unyielding truth of our existence: the moment when, just as when Adam saw his companion Eve, we look at one another, with wonder, and say: you are bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. My life and your life belong to one another. Take my hand. Feel these bones cradling your own, tenderly. Hold on to me, for we are caught up in the same dance. 

But there’s one thing we cannot forget: this dance, the one that we learn from following Jesus, is not just the Danse Macabre. It does not end in death. It is not the dance of futile pleasures. It is the dance of enduring life. And in his resurrection, Jesus has shown us that loving God and loving one another is the part of us that cannot die—it is the part of us that will endure, that will live to dance again, even after everything else has been stripped away. 

So just as we might do well to reckon with our mortality on this All Hallow’s Eve, to look the skeleton in the face and accept that it is, essentially, us—so too we must look at love in the face and accept that it is, essentially, us—it is the supreme law of life. The beginning and the end of the story. We will never escape love’s demands, but neither will we ever be forsaken by its goodness. Nothing, not even the grave itself, will ever change that. Make no bones about it.

Where Waters Meet: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 17th at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Mark 10:35-45.

This past week, during a few days of retreat and quiet time, I visited the place where the St. Joseph River merges with Lake Michigan. In case you haven’t been up that way, I’ll describe it to you. The river ends in a broad channel, deep enough for large ships to enter, and the chop and swell on a blustery day, as it was when I visited, makes it hard to distinguish where the river water ends and the great expanse of lake begins. There is a pair of lighthouses marking the spot, though, the St. Joseph North Pier Lights.

Though the weather wasn’t great, I somewhat foolishly decided to walk out along the breakwall to get as close as I could to the lighthouses. The swells were so high that day that they crashed against the wall as I walked along it, the water rushing under my feet on the slick, wet stone, the wind howling. I was the only person out there. And it was clear, the farther I ventured out, that I had crossed a sort of threshold, and this was no gentle river now, but the wild, wide open waves, the swirling, undulating freedom of the great, grey lake.

As I stood out on the breakwall and looked back toward the place where the river gave itself to the expanse beyond, I thought of how far that water had traveled to get there, across hundreds of miles of watershed, accumulating strength and depth as it traveled, along with some broken branches and the fallen petals of summer flowers and autumn leaves, all of it pulled towards this moment, its broad unfolding destiny, no longer a brook or a stream swelling against its own banks, but released, transformed, encountering the greatness of something bigger than itself, shedding its old, narrow boundaries, becoming what it must become, contributing itself into a greater whole: perfect freedom, perfect consummation. 

And I wondered, can a river ever quite comprehend the mystery of the open waters that wait for it? When it is eagerly bursting forth from its headwaters, can it grasp how deep, how wide is the measure of its destiny? Probably not. None of us, when we first set out on a journey, can truly predict what it will be like when we finish, or who we will have become in the meantime.

And in all of this I was reminded of James and John in today’s Gospel, a coupe of exuberant upstarts, babbling like a brook to Jesus, asking for a share of his glory when they don’t fully understand yet what God’s glory even is. They say that they want to sit at his right hand and his left in the coming Kingdom, not realizing that the ones to Jesus’ right and left will be the criminals crucified alongside him on Calvary—for it is there, in the place of the skull, the place where ambition dies, that the coronation of their King will take place, not in a throne room or a temple court. Hence Jesus’ reply to them, perhaps with equal measures of love, incredulity, and pity: “you do not know what you are asking.” Young, eager, thundering river, you are not yet ready for the depths of which I speak. 

Do any of us really know what we are asking for when we set out to follow Jesus? Can we, confined to the landscape of our present understanding, envision both the cost and the promise of where he leads a willing heart? Probably not. The river knows its own banks quite well, but it cannot picture the sea. 

So as easy as it is to laugh a bit at James and John for completely missing the point, for focusing on their own glory rather than God’s, we can’t be too harsh on them lest we condemn ourselves at the same time. For each of us, following Christ, are on a similar course that we don’t fully understand, angling for something better, when what we are actually promised is something deeper—striving for something higher when what we are actually given is something broader, a love as expansive as the open waves, a love that cannot be harnessed to suit our cravings for power or control. 

This all might sound a bit vague and overwhelming, but that’s sort of the point. James and John, too, are overwhelmed, because Jesus has been leading them towards Jerusalem, repeatedly predicting his own torture and death and resurrection, and they are probably feeling scared, disappointed, maybe even a little frustrated. 

Give us something we can rely upon, they seem to be demanding in this moment—give us something to hope for, something to hold onto, something material and reassuring, something that will make all of this make sense. That’s what we all want when things feel uncertain—we want the obvious solution. A cure, a windfall, a sudden change of heart, a surprise advantage. 

We cannot see beyond the next bend, and we are afraid. We cry out, in desperation, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And of course, we ask for the solutions we are capable of imagining—vanquishing our enemies, winning the struggle, securing our position. For James and John, like us, these are the things that seem within the boundaries of possibility. A river dreams of becoming mightier; it doesn’t know how to dream of becoming an entirely new body. 

And Jesus knows this. And like the rich young man from last week’s Gospel, he sees us in this condition, and he loves us. And yet…

Jesus is not limited by our fear-induced dreams; he is the incarnation of God’s dream. And so even when we are certain that we know what we want, what we need, he often tends to say, as he does to his disciples here:

No, my dear ones, you are missing the bigger picture. I have other purposes for you, things beyond your frantic visions of human glory, things wilder and unpredictable and yet even more true, things more beautiful, more satisfying, than you ever dreamt of along the grassy banks of younger days. Take courage, and follow, follow where the river flows, past where you can see, and yes, drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: a baptism that began, yes, right here, in the river and yet does not end here, for it is moving, moving, surging inexorably towards true glory, God’s glory, towards the cresting wave of heaven, a chorus of wind and light, thundering on a distant shore. 

That’s what James and John are part of. That is what we are part of. Something big. Big and wondrous and all-encompassing.

This is good news, my friends. For James and John and for you and me. Because it means that no matter how many times we get it wrong, no matter how many times we misunderstand Jesus or ourselves, no matter how many times we let our fear and our striving get the best of us, as long as we keeping following our Lord faithfully, we are borne on a current towards that encounter with wonder, a place we cannot yet even imagine in full. 

And so even on the days when the water is muddy and brackish, when the branches close in and the horizon is lost, when it feels like we’re stuck, or going backwards, if we follow Jesus’ call, then we aren’t really, because we are living in his wake, and it is guiding us, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes quickly, toward the boundless expanse of that holy dream, towards the place where the river and the waves tumble into one another’s embrace, where, as the Psalmist says, “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, where righteousness and peace will kiss”——the place where our sometimes lonely sojourns merge into the currents of the one single story—the one that has been unfolding since the beginning of time, guiding us on, guiding us home, beyond the uttermost parts of the sea.

Needless to say, I didn’t get washed off of the breakwall that afternoon and I made it back to the shore, back up the river, back into the enclosure of my days, with all of their twists and turns and unresolved questions, where the horizon is a bit harder to spot.

But that image of the colliding waters remains as a gift in my minds’ eye—an image to draw upon, perhaps, when life feels stifling or disappointing—a reminder that even when I don’t realize it, I am being carried forward by God through this endless stream of days, and that there will come a moment, brave and wonderful and strange, when each of us will finally encounter the fulness of truth, and we will feel the breath of God making waves across the deep, and we will see the Lord standing astride the place where the waters meet, like a lighthouse, arms sweeping wide across the horizon, welcoming us to himself, welcoming us home. 

And on that day, what was once narrowly conceived as the lonely journey, the journey that felt like it was mine and mine alone to bear, will suddenly tumble, with joy and trembling and release, into the breadth and length and height and depth of what was never only mine, never only yours, but ours–always ours, with God, in the limitless love of Christ, forever. 

Obituaries: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 26, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Mark 9:38-50.

I have always been moved by obituaries. I come across some of them in my role as a clergy person, of course, but even before then, they were of great interest to me—the way that the complexities of a human life are distilled down to a few essential details—the summary of a life’s work, the naming of a few enduring and precious relationships, and maybe a brief phrase or two that attempts to capture the lovely particularity of the person who has died. And whether they are long and eloquent or brief and matter-of-fact, obituaries all seem to convey the same basic message: this person mattered. They were loved. Someone, somewhere, remembers them fondly, with grateful tears.

And while it might sound strange to say so, what is also striking to me in the obituary is all the stuff that is not written down. We don’t generally find a long list of the person’s failings or their frustrating personality quirks.  And furthermore, there is never a rebuttal of the obituary: no pointed letter to the editor in the next day’s paper that says, actually, that guy was a real piece of work. And, for the most part, nobody is standing up at the funeral saying waving around the newspaper clipping, saying, we really need to set the record straight on all the mistakes she made during her life. 

Even though we know that people are complicated and sometimes infuriating, even though we often hurt one another in this life, we don’t do any of that. In the end, we let it be. We lay down our swords. 

Isn’t that remarkable, when you think about it? Especially when you consider all of the energy that can be expended over a lifetime of feuding and arguing and taking offense, only to realize that eventually, at the end, we will just put it to rest. We will, in most cases, release the frustrations and the enmity and try to forgive. 

I sometimes wonder what it would be like if I could muster the strength within myself to lay down my sword a little sooner, to accept the truth that, when all is said and done, my so-called enemies are not so different from me. I wonder how the relationship wounds I bear would change if I could skip ahead to that obituary state-of-mind, where judgment is tempered by the wisdom of letting go. 

But in the heat of the present moment, we are so quick to make distinctions and dividing lines, aren’t we? Especially when the world feels big and confusing and scary—we immediately jump to delineating various categories of “us” and “them.” And the suspicion and the rage we feel towards “them” whoever they are, it soothes us, in a pitiful sort of way, because it convinces us that we alone understand how the world ought to work, when in reality, we’re all just trying to figure it out together, and, in truth, both “us” and “them” are going home each night and kissing our loved ones, and washing the dishes, and catching our tired reflection in the mirror, and praying that tomorrow will be a little bit better than today.  We can forget that on some level we are all still children, a little bit afraid of the dark, searching for the light.

The disciples start to fall into this trap of forgetfulness in today’s Gospel passage—they hear about this exorcist who they have determined is apparently not “one of them” but who is casing out demons in the name of Jesus. And so the battle lines are drawn: How dare he! He’s clearly just out to make a name for himself, to grab the spotlight, to hog all the glory—someone should definitely write a letter to the editor and set the record straight. Can you imagine the nerve of this guy?

This is ironic, of course, because just a few passages earlier, these very same disciples were squabbling amongst themselves about which one of them was the greatest one acting in the name of Jesus. They are doing what comes all too easily to us: comparing, competing, refashioning the boundary lines to our greatest advantage.

But Jesus will have none of it. Do not stop this exorcist, he says, quite pragmatically. Whoever is not against us is for us. In other words: whatever this exorcist’s motivations are, in whatever manner you disciples have decided that he is outside the clique, the only truly important thing is that he, like you, has been caught up in the work of the Kingdom. And it is you, wayward disciples, it is you—so quick to determine who is in and who is out, so ready to draw battle lines between yourself and others—it is you who are distracting yourselves from the actual point of all this. It is you who have placed yourselves outside of God’s purposes.

Because the moment we decide who our enemies are and prepare for battle with them, we have already lost. And when we fight—and God knows how long and hard we have fought across the tired, staggering, bloody ages—is it not almost always true that, eventually, we end up standing at the gravestones of our supposed enemies, looking at the stony names inscribed therein—names once whispered on a mother’s smiling lips—and we say, with a sudden shock of grief or humility: oh, I see. This person was not my enemy. 

They mattered. They were loved. Someone remembers them fondly, with grateful tears.

Love does not divide the world into “us” and “them.” Love has no true enemy except for the practice of enmity itself, the lie of the great deceiver, and Jesus has already conquered that. What will it take for us to accept this, to live like this is true? What will it take to see one another as siblings and partners, and not as threats?

It will take letting go of fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of people we do not understand. Fear of our own failures. Fear of our vulnerability in an uncertain world.

Letting go of that fear, though, requires us to face it. We must face the ways we have cultivated enmity within ourselves and within our world, and then choose a better way. And that is hard to do, especially when the world around us seems to thrive on division and mistrust. 

But again, that’s why I have a peculiar love for obituaries. Because they give us a sneak preview of what is going to happen with all of the division and posturing and the obsession with being right—none of it is going to matter. 

The only questions left, in the end, will be: how much did you love? How did you contribute to the flourishing of the world? How did you protect the vulnerable entrusted to your care? What was the unique radiance that sparkled behind your eyes? What small, meaningful things did you do in the name of Jesus?

And then, someday, when every obituary has been recorded; and when life is revealed, at last, for what it truly is; when all is made new; when “enemy” is no longer a word in the language of the human heart, on that day we will simply behold one another face to face and we  say: 

You matter. You are loved. And you, my sister, my brother, my friend, will be remembered, fondly, forever. And there will be no more tears.

No Paradise: HBO’s “The White Lotus” and the Limits of Natural Theology

This reflection does not contain specific plot spoilers for the HBO seriesThe White Lotus” but it does refer to the overall trajectory of the storyline.

If you are looking for the key question that underlies HBO’s limited series The White Lotus, you will find it in episode 4, during a dinner conversation among the wealthy white Mossbacher family and their daughter’s BIPOC friend, Paula. In the midst of a terse intergenerational argument over race, class, and social change, the normally quiet teenage son Quinn erupts in frustration:

What does it matter what we think? If we think the right things or the wrong things, we all do the same shit. We’re all still parasites on the earth. There’s no virtuous person when we’re all eating less fish and throwing all our plastic crap in the ocean. Like a billion animals died in Australia during the fire. A billion. Where does all the pain go?”

Where does all the pain go, indeed? Who pays the price for widespread abuse and destruction, be it climate change, systemic social injustices or otherwise? 

Although it looks and sounds like a straightforward TV series centering intertwined human dramas, it is the tension between ethics and ecology that is, in truth, the force propelling the stories of the indolent guests at The White Lotus resort. Certain questions linger and prod at us throughout the series: can we (especially we white, economically-privileged westerners) insulate ourselves from the raw forces of nature, including the self-destructiveness of our own predatory instincts? Will nature eventually humble us into a greater sense of mutuality and interconnectedness with our neighbor and our planet?

For The White Lotus, at least, the answer is yes to the first question and no to the second.  Without giving away any specific plot points, it is safe to say that there is no dramatic comeuppance for the hotel guests. They emerge from their vacations largely unscathed, still ensconced in their entitlement, while those who serve them or tread in their wake are left to bear the brunt of the tragedy that ensues.

This can feel a bit disappointing, especially if you were hoping for the emotional gratification of seeing some problematic people get their just deserts. The sinister, sickly-golden artifice of the resort, which at the outset of the series hints at the possibility of some moral reckoning lurking among the hibiscus flowers (like a modern-day Fantasy Island) gives way to an even more sinister truth at the end: there is no reckoning, at least not for those at the top of the food chain. The world, the show seems to admit, continues to reward the dominant and chew up the vulnerable. There is no moral arc intrinsic to the natural order of creation. 

A bleak takeaway for an intelligent and entertaining TV series, perhaps. However, there is much here to consider through the lens of Christian faith—especially for those of us who operate in generally progressive Christian circles or who frequently emphasize the inherent goodness of creation. Here’s why.

If you or anyone you know has ever said something like, “I sense God’s presence most clearly in nature,” you have participated to some degree in what is called natural theology, which explores “what can be known of God through the natural world without any divine guidance or revelation” (McGrath, Christian Theology, 141.) When we behold the beauty of a sunset or marvel at the intricacy of an ecological system and then consider how those things might reveal something of their Creator, we are, in that moment, natural theologians. In our wonder we echo the words of the Psalmist who cries out that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the heavens proclaim the work of God’s hands” (Psalm 19:1). 

This can be a sacred and life-giving pursuit. Natural theology is a deeply important approach, especially because in an age of overly-spiritualized Christianity it emphasizes the goodness and the preciousness of the created world and our responsibility to it. For if nature bears some imprint of God’s own majesty, then presumably we are called to honor it and care for it, just as we do for our neighbor whose own face reveals to us the face of Christ. In the era of destructive climate change, this perspective is more urgent than ever. 

But natural theology has its limits, and we must be mindful of acknowledging them. For as much as we celebrate in the Christian faith that God created the earth and called it good (see:Genesis) this ought not send us into a mawkish romanticism that sees nature simply as a benign object of admiration. For example, it is unarguably lovely to imagine God revealed in a sunset or a rainbow, but far more troubling to consider God as exercising Divine prerogative in an earthquake or a hurricane. And although the record of Scriputure does both, it is far too easy to reject the latter while blithely retaining the former. God becomes the object of our pleasure rather than our awe, and God then suspiciously begins to look a lot like us, as malleable as the landscape we exploit.

And while they do not seem to profess any particular faith, this is, in fact, what the characters of The White Lotus are prone to do in their Hawaiian pseudo-paradise. They are natural theologians in extremis. They admire the waves and the flowers and the hula dancers as scenery while carefully ignoring their own complicity in the subjugation of the land and the people in whose midst they are traveling. Nature is beautiful and largely banal to them because, as those residing at the top of the ecosystem, they can afford to ignore the ugly, brutal stuff. But others (the hotel workers and those in more precarious social circumstances) cannot help but notice that stuff because they are the ones left to clean it up, both literally and figuratively.

Natural theology, unmitigated, can result in a subtle sort of idolatry in which the world as it is is interpreted as an end in itself. Our reverence for creation risks turning into reverence for ourselves with creation as a soothing backdrop, which might sound like a harmless form of self-empowerment until you see it at work among those who hold all of the power and who claim that this is both natural and divinely sanctioned (see: white supremacy.) At the risk of gross understatement, we’ve seen too much of this, and there must be a corrective.

Thankfully, there is. A central aspect of our faith, which can get lost in our contemporary enthusiasm for natural theologies, is that Christianity is revealed—that is, God’s activity and self-disclosure in Christ are outside of the natural order. This activity is characterized by intervention, by miraculousness, and what might be called a loving antagonism against the established natural and social order of the world. 

Because if we, like the creators of The White Lotus, observe that nature is inherently amoral in its ordering, such that “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” (Ecclesiastes 8:14), then God has provided a revolutionary new thing (Isaiah 43:19) in the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. This new thing  is categorically unnatural, because it overturns the tendencies of death and domination that pervade nature as we know it. 

And in its unnatural character, God’s work in Christ liberates us from the expected outcomes. It is a promise that those who feast and laugh (and, ahem, take expensive and exploitative beach vacations) at the expense of others must eventually be accountable for their share of the world’s suffering.  

Divine judgment, which tends to make us progressive Christians squirm, is actually a promise that the brutality of nature is not the end of the story. Hence Mary’s jubilant song: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53). 

This is the moral outcome which is utterly lacking in The White Lotus, but our dismay about that absence is actually a sign of encouragement. For if nature itself (and the society we have built upon its back) is largely indifferent to our basest impulses, then from whence comes our longing for justice and our capacity for selflessness? How can we imagine pure benevolence when we have no direct experience of it in the world around us? That these questions are inherently “unnatural” and unsupported by prevailing evidence suggests that there is more going on in God’s universe than what we can readily perceive.

This is our hope: that the answers to these questions transcend the limits of natural theology and invite us into something more vast than the largest ocean and more beautiful than the most perfect sunset—something made known to us not by human wisdom or striving, but only in the revelation we receive as followers of Christ. While Jesus does not deny that domination and death will still shape our experience of life and discipleship (see: Calvary), he also promises through his conquering of death that yes, there is place where all the pain goes. It goes to a place where it is held and transformed and redeemed by Love itself. We usually call it the Kingdom of God. It is a realm where we are are not just on vacation, but where we—and all of creation—can finally experience what the hapless travelers at The White Lotus never actually find: true peace. 

Recipes: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, August 1, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Exodus 16:2-4,9-15; Psalm 78; and John 6:24-35.

You and I will probably never get to taste the manna that God sent down to feed the Israelites in the wilderness, but if I had to imagine what it was like to eat that “bread of angels,” as the Psalmist calls it, I would guess it’s something like my grandmother’s homemade pie crust—a divine mystery of its own, tender and flaky and golden brown, cradling piles of summer fruits or bearing the velvety smoothness of harvest pumpkin.

Inconceivably simple, the way her hands would knead and roll and stretch the flour and shortening and water in a manner both precise and casual, fingers guided by memory to create something greater than the sum of its parts. A recipe saved on a worn old index card, yes, but also an artwork, a small miracle on the plate—a gift that could not be explained, only received and consumed gratefully at the cool altar of the kitchen table. 

I wonder if you have a recipe like that in your life—one that was given to you, one that you have made and passed along, one that sustains you and those whom you love in ways far beyond the nutritional content. If you close your eyes, can you taste it, can you see it? Can you call to mind the loving hands that first made it for you, the way they put something of themselves in between the layers of salt and sweet and bitter?

Every time we receive a recipe or make it for someone else, we are taking part in a story. A story of survival, of the ways in which we have managed to find and prepare our daily bread. And a story of love—of the wordless ways that care and memory descend through the generations, linking us forever to those who came before, those who savored the same sweetness we now taste. As a record of what must be done to produce a certain result, a recipe is a guideline. And as a record of love’s timeless and eternal feast, a recipe is also a miracle. 

A guideline, and a miracle. An ethic, and a gift. It is necessary for us to understand how something can be both of these things at the same time. And so, in today’s story of the Israelites receiving the manna from heaven, we witness both dynamics, gift and ethic, present in God’s offering. 

First, the gift. “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you,” the Lord says to Moses. Having delivered Israel from the Egyptians, God has heard, again, the cries of the people, and God is determined that they not forget who He is and how deeply He desires to sustain them both physically and spiritually. And in the gift of manna in the wilderness, God is saying to Israel: SEE, you do not have to settle for the bread of tyrants. You do not have to choose between your survival and your freedom. I offer you BOTH. You get to have both. This is my gift to you, if you will only trust me and take it. 

And then, the ethic. The Lord continues saying to Moses, “each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day” and no more than that. In other words, this manna, this miracle of loving providence, must be received and used in the spirit it was offered. It must not be commodified and hoarded, it must not be used to wield power over others. Because those are the old ways, the ways of Pharaoh, those are the ways of scarcity and fear, and those ways have no place in the life that God is offering. So yes, receive this gift, but receive it with an ethic rooted in the common good, receive it within a set of rules given to guard yourselves against forgetfulness. In so doing, you have what amounts to a recipe: a set of guidelines enclosing a miracle. Specific instructions to preserve and pass on the beauty of the gift.

This can be easier said than done, though. 

I once tried to make my grandma’s pie crust—I had a copy of the recipe card, I had all of the ingredients, I followed the steps, but my hands were not adept at sensing the proper textures, at intuiting the ways to moisten and stretch the pastry without overdoing it. My first attempt was tough and unremarkable, a pale imitation of that golden crust of my childhood dreams. 

In any recipe, as in any life, we live in the tension between the guidelines and the gift—between knowing the rules given for us to follow and discovering the hidden, mysterious ways that wisdom conditions us to do so lovingly and well. 

Israel certainly struggles with this when they are given the manna. Some of them ignore the guidelines—they gather more manna than they need, only to find it rotten and useless the next morning. Or they go out to gather it on the Sabbath, only to find that there is none to be found. It is only when they can receive the gift as it is given—as something precious, as something sufficient, as something that they cannot wield to their personal advantage—that the sweet miracle can actually work. When the guidelines and the gift converge and, at last, they can live as they were meant to live. 

We are still learning this, as people, and as a church, still making our way through the wilderness, still learning how to bear the gift of God’s providence, to trust it, to live it. And in Jesus, we are confronted with that challenge and that invitation directly, personally. No longer simply manna from heaven, but now God’s own life, God’s own body given as nourishment for the world, the living bread, offered simultaneously as pure miracle and as ethical mandate. A foretaste of God’s peaceful kingdom. The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.

Can you accept this gift? Can you also live the type of life that it signifies?

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life,” Jesus tells us today, not because the bread that feeds our mouths is unnecessary, but because it is not sufficient by itself to satisfy the deeper hunger in our hearts. In order to satisfy that, we must trust him AND we must follow him; we must receive the gift AND live into the guidelines; a life lived without one or the other will never be whole. The recipe will be missing something.

And so just as the Lord did for Israel, Jesus is inviting us, again and again and again, every time we come forward to the altar to receive this bread, to be people who carry within ourselves the capacity to receive the miraculous and embody the ethical—those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who cry out for justice AND who marvel at the immeasurable sweetness of Divine love, who know that without God we can do nothing—people who will pass down both the guidelines and the testimony of pure grace to those who come after us, that our own lives might become like a creased and well-worn recipe card, a record of what can be taught, and an invitation into what can only be lived.

Some time later, I told my grandma how miserably I had failed at her pie crust, how I figured I would never quite get it right. And she looked at me, and she didn’t say very much, but just took me into the kitchen and got out the flour and the measuring cups and the old wooden rolling pin. And standing over my shoulder, she showed me again how to do it, instructing, guiding, sometimes intervening to patch up the broken parts of the crust. And in the end, there was a pie cooling in the evening light. Not perfect, but very good—sort of like life itself.

A recipe passed down. A lesson learned.

And a miracle. 

The Hard Stuff: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on July 11, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Amos 7:7-15 and Mark 6:14-29, the execution of John the Baptist.

Have you ever brought someone to church, maybe someone who maybe isn’t a regular church-goer, hoping to show them how beautiful and life-giving it can be to worship here, to take part in the liturgy? And maybe it’s going really well at first: a beautiful, inspiring opening hymn; the lovely vestments and the stained glass windows; and then you get to the readings and you’re hoping for a real crowd pleaser, John 3:16 or Moses parting the Red Sea. But instead…you get something like this week’s texts. The grim and heavy stuff. Thanks very much, lectionary editors. You’re not making it an easy sell here. 

These are hard texts, but we don’t get to skip over them. We don’t get to focus only on the passages of Scripture that comfort us or reinforce our worldview.

And as much as we might like to evade the thorny images and themes that come up in the lectionary, sometimes that is just not possible, because part of our gathering together is facing the hard things that need to be heard, that need to be pondered. So it is this week.

First there is the prophet Amos, a guy from the country, no professional slick talking seer, just a simple man consumed by a message, refusing to back down or be silent as he calls out the king and the ruling classes of Israel for their decadence and their empty piety.

He is prophesying at a time of relative wealth and strength for the kingdom, but he is telling them the things they don’t want to know about themselves, the grime hiding under the gold leaf, warning them, as all true prophets must, saying something like:

Don’t be too satisfied with yourselves, you who imagine yourselves powerful, you who have taken much and given back all too little to the land and the common people who have sustained you—you might be living lavishly now, but a time is coming soon when you will have to pay the price for the inequality and the injustice necessitated by your indulgence. You imagine yourselves just, but you cannot claim a just society when you feast while others starve. You cannot claim pureness of heart when that heart is bloated with its own desires. Empty yourself of your selfishness, drain the festering wound of your pride and greed. Lose your current way of life in order to save the life that God desires for you. 

Not surprisingly, the powers that be weren’t too keen on listening to what Amos had to say. It’s a hard thing to hear. 

Then, if that wasn’t enough for us to wrestle with, there is the gospel reading from Mark, this vivid carnival of horrors in King Herod’s court, the palace intrigue, the dancing girl, and the shocking twist that leads to John the Baptist’s execution, his severed head served up on a royal platter, which is both a foreshadowing of and an antithesis to the Eucharistic body that Christ would later offer his disciples in the Last Supper. But as disturbing as that image is, it is really just a more graphic version of what Amos was already condemning: a corrupt class of ruling elites ravenously consuming the hope of the poor, consuming the land, consuming whatever and whomever satisfies their personal agendas, convincing themselves that it is their right to do so. 

These are hard texts because they are ugly reminders of the things we’d rather forget, reminders that the world can be brutal and capricious and unforgiving. And if we’re honest with ourselves, these are hard texts because they are still true, because they still speak to the conditions experienced by too many people around the world. 

I probably don’t need to recount to you all the ways in which we still see these forces of violent consumption and exploitation at work today, but if we are brave enough to look and listen to what’s going on around us, and especially to the voices of the poor and the vulnerable, we will see that the powers that Amos and John challenged are still operative in society.

And if we are really brave, we will also look within ourselves to examine how these forces have taken root in our own lives. How we, like Herodias’ daughter, have been swept up in that hypnotic dance of death that has been winding down through the ages. How easily we learn its steps without realizing whom we are trampling, hypnotized by the desire for things for which we do not understand the true cost until it is far too late. 

It takes courage to face texts like this, to take them seriously and not just as macabre bits of liturgical entertainment—to examine these enduring impulses that operate around us and inside of us. It is hard work. 

And that is one really good argument for the necessity of Christian community, of coming together week after week here, to be both supported and chastened by what we discover in Scripture and the liturgy. It’s not something that we can do alone, because alone we are awfully good at only hearing what we want to hear. We need Jesus and we need one another to stay accountable to the totality of the narrative, to bear the sorrow and then to imagine a different way of being.

We need each other to practice living in community as though there is another, better way, a more loving way, because we trust that there is, and because we are tired of opening the news headlines to find a world still saturated by violent self-interest.

Because we are tired of a world that still proclaims that only the strong and the beautiful and the mighty deserve to flourish.

Because we are tired of a world that silences the truth-tellers, that kills the bearers of good news, that refuses the living bread of God and feasts instead on the corpse of curtailed hope. 

And maybe it’s the long hot summer, maybe it’s the long hard year, but I am feeling especially tired of the old brutalities. Tired of heads on platters, tired of angry words, tired of cynicism masquerading as wisdom, tired of how easy it is to get caught up in the malice and the fear and become the very thing I hate.

And so I come here, and we come here, to look in the direction that Amos and John were both, in their own way, pointing towards. Towards the truth. We look to Jesus, the One who knows how hard it is, how exhausting it is, but who refuses to play by the same worn-out, bitter old rules of the game. The One who reminds us every day that we don’t have to play by them either. 

We come here to be reminded, that, as hard as it can be out there, or in here, in ourselves, that the God-given truth about life is always the same. 

That we can make a thousand mistakes every day, but we can’t change the fact that God still loves us and wants to redeem us.

That the world can try to kill the messengers of peace, but they can’t kill the message itself. That they can murder the prophet and put his head on a platter, but the eternal voice is still crying out in the wilderness, saying prepare the way of the Lord. Prepare the way. God is coming. God is here. Start living like you believe it.

We come here and look to each other, to live like we believe it together, to show the world that church is a verb, not a noun, a body, not just a building, and that following Jesus is not about going through the motions, but about living with transformed hearts. It’s about taking a stand for the people who need us the most. About refusing to accept that the world as it is is good enough. About opting out of the dance of death. 

These are hard texts, because this can be a hard world. And changing must begin with looking at it.

But it continues with looking to him, to Christ. And then looking to the people around you. This is all that we have to bear the world’s brutality and then to challenge it with our love. We have Jesus, and we have each other. Nothing more. But it is all that we need. 

We come here because the story might be hard, but it isn’t over yet, not by a long shot. And here, together, we are living our way into a different ending. 

Ghost Stories: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on June 27th, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24 and Mark 5:21-43, wherein Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter and heals the woman with the hemorrhage.

I’ve used a bit of vacation time this month, and as it happens, both of the trips I took were to the mountains of Appalachia—first on a road trip through West Virginia and then down to the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. If you’ve been down that way, you know that the land there takes hold of a person’s imagination in a potent way—down in those mountains, it can feel like the land retains its secrets, that the narrow valleys keep their own counsel, and while you may visit and you may explore the region, you will not ever completely see it or understand it.

I think that this mysteriousness and inaccessibility is probably part of the reason why Appalachia is famous for its ghost stories and its folklore—the storytelling tradition, nurtured in those relatively isolated mountain communities, is strong there, and it has been for centuries.

Now, one thing you might not know about me: I love a good ghost story, especially around the campfire on a summer’s night. My cousins and I used to frighten ourselves silly telling and retelling old family stories about apparitions and mysterious sights up in the north woods of Michigan. So when I was down south, I couldn’t help picking up a small collection of books about Appalachian folklore, just for fun, to see what sorts of tales are held within the folds of those evocative mountains. 

I even thought about sharing one with you this morning, but I figured it’s a little early in the day for that, so maybe we can plan a parish campfire sometime soon and swap stories then. 

Now, no matter what you think about ghosts, I think it’s safe to say that one reason people tell ghost stories—and have done so in nearly every human culture— is because we want to understand death. Death, of course, is all around us, it has touched and afflicted each of us deeply in various ways. 

And as those who must go on living in death’s midst, while the ones whom we love are lost to the valley of shadows, we often find ourselves living as a people haunted—haunted by memories, by regrets, by the words said or left unsaid, the deeds done or left undone. Our grief prowls in the night, whispering rumors of  our own annihilation. 

So in the face of death, we give death a face (or many faces, really) in the stories we tell, because we are desperate to understand, desperate to know if there is something beyond the finality that we perceive.

We tell ghost stories, in effect, to say to one another, “there is more to this world than what we can see. There is more than what we can understand.” And in the speaking of the mystery, we grope for meaning, for an assurance that the grave cannot contain the sum total of who we are and what we did in this life.

But although I love them and find them endlessly fascinating, here’s the trouble with ghost stories: as compelling as they can be, they are, ultimately, always about death. Death always wins, death always controls the narrative. And as such, ghost stories are about endings—about unfinished business or revenge or longing—and the ghosts we encounter are almost always conditioned permanently by the circumstances of their former life. 

These ghosts are stuck in one place, or focused on delivering a single message, or mired in grief over how they died. Their reference point is always looking backwards, towards who they once were, towards what used to be, because they are dead, and live no longer. So ghost stories can be thrilling, but they are not consoling. They possess little in the way of hope.

Which brings me to the point I want to make to you this morning: the gospel is not a ghost story. 

The gospel is not a ghost story. 

You might say ok, that’s a bit of a strange point to make. Sure, yeah, of course they’re not the same thing. But I invite you to think about this a bit more, about WHY the two are so very different from one another. 

Take today’s passage from Mark, filled with miraculous healings and a young girl brought back from the dead with only a touch and the words “Talitha, cum”–it is as fantastical as any Appalachian folktale, but here, Jesus does not show up and conjure a spirit or reveal a disembodied message from beyond the grave. On the contrary, he restores people to their actual life. He brings them back into the fullness of that life, to walk and talk and eat in broad daylight, to grow up, to know and be known by all those who love them. 

If this were a ghost story, there would be a note of finality, a sense of loss: the dead girl might appear and disappear, detached from her body, detached from her actual life, frozen forever in the haunted imagination of her family. Death would still maintain its hypnotic power over the narrative.

But that’s not what the gospel is about, because it’s not what God is about. “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

In fact, we might say that the entire narrative of the New Testament is revolutionary in that it relegates death to a bit part, to the periphery, not as as an adversary coequal with God, but simply one final obstacle to be overcome by love’s ferocious power. As the author of Wisdom says:

God did not make death

And he does not delight in the death of the living

For he created all things so that they might exist.

The gospel is not a ghost story because a ghost story is conditioned by the parameters of death, and the gospel, in contrast, is defined by existence, by life’s eternal victory over the forces that seek to diminish or nullify it. 

And although the gospel does indeed contain wondrous and mysterious occurrences, it is a declaration of what is fundamentally real, of what God has done about death’s hold over us.

So if every ghost story ever told is really just a question about what it means to die, then the gospel is the answer: that in God, it means nothing, for death itself has died. 

Thus we are the inheritors of a new story, the one in which God is not interested in death, but in life—in the life of Jairus’ daughter, and that of the bleeding woman, and all the other lives that the world tends to marginalize or ignore. God is interested in your life and in mine, and in our life together. In the life of everyone who has ever lived. And God wants those lives to endure, to flourish, not to evaporate into the shadows.

So I have to remind myself, as much as I love those old ghost stories, not to live my life as if it is one. Not to be consumed by the past. Not to be conditioned by regret. Not to wander the earth like a lonely spirit, repeating the same old tired patterns. Not to entomb myself in the deadening effects of rage, apathy, and selfishness.

I have to remind myself that God, in Christ, came and lived like me so that I can live in God, forever. I have to remind myself that the gospel, not my personal ghosts or demons, but the GOSPEL, will shape the story of who I am, who I am becoming, and it will, by God’s grace, help me continue to thrive and grow within the One whose “righteousness is immortal.” The one who conquers death.

So no, the gospel is not a ghost story. And neither is your life, not now, not ever. You and I are alive; the ones whom we love and see no longer will be alive again; and God’s eternal life is welling up within us whenever we give ourselves over to it. It is as strong and true and mysterious and deep as the mountains.

Is that a story that you can tell, that you can live by? Are you able to lay down that which has haunted you, that which has held you back, that which has died, so that the One who lives might resurrect it?

I ask myself that question all the time, and I pray for the strength to say: yes. To let my story be his story, the one that ends with a beginning.

The story that ends with a voice saying, “Talitha, cum.” 

Get up, little child. 

Die no more, but live.

This is not a ghost story. 

Fruitfulness: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on May 2nd, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are 1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8.

Jesus said to his disciples, ”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

When I was about 10 or so, I was given a role in a community theater musical version of Rumpelstiltskin. I loved doing theater in school as a kid, and I was so excited that I got to be on stage with adults and live musicians—I felt like I had hit the big time!

And I remember on the first day that the director told me that I was going to be the page boy, one of the king’s servants, and I thought, yup, this is my big shot—next stop Broadway, surely—and there was this big opening number where all the villagers were presenting gifts to the king—one person presented a ham, and another one brought some lemons, and another one brought a big basket of limes, and then the director said, “Phillip, this is where you come in,” and I thought, wow, do I get to sing a solo here, or give a dramatic monologue? And then the director said, “you don’t actually have any lines in this play; we just need you to pick up the basket of limes and carry them off the stage. Then you’re done.”

Yup, that’s it. That was literally the entirety of my part in Rumpelstiltskin. So, I carried that basket of limes offstage. Needless to say, no Tony award was forthcoming. 

But honestly, I still loved it. And probably because it was the only scene I was in, I have never forgotten that particular musical number, where the characters were presenting the lemons and the lime–the fruits of their labors–hoping to one up each other, to impress the king, to win his favor and maybe to earn some bragging rights among their neighbors. 

Maybe we can all relate to that impulse a little bit. Because on some level, in whatever context we might find ourselves, I think we all hope that we’re going to make a good impression. We hope that our fruitfulness, whatever that means for us—maybe our work or our pastimes or other manifestations of our personal fulfillment—is really going to WOW whoever it is that we think is assessing us. Our family. Our neighbors. Our friends at church. The people on Facebook. Maybe even God. 

That sense of needing to be impressively fruitful can shape how we think about our faith, our relationship with Jesus, and it can affect how we interpret certain passages.

So, for example, in today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus talking about being the vine and his Father being the vinegrower, and we are the branches who are expected to bear fruit, to bear MUCH fruit, in fact, so that we can glorify God…or else we’ll be burned up and thrown away into the fire. And if we’re accustomed to always thinking that somehow we need to be impressive to be of value, that sounds a little intimidating. like an ultimatum—be fruitful or else!

And so then in our anxiety we might start to act like those villagers in the play, eager to prove our worth:

God, look at these fruits, I mean, these are really impressive fruits, amazing fruits, I am so darn FRUITFUL, Lord, you just wouldn’t believe it. And no offense, no judgment, but mine are a little nicer than his fruits over there. I mean, look at these LIMES. Just look at ‘em. The Holy Spirit was really doing something amazing right here. So…I win, right? I’m the best one, right? 

Now of course, we naturally want to celebrate the fruitful ways in which God is at work in the world—the blessings we receive, the ways in which we share abundant life with others. 

But I want us to think carefully about whether our personal anxiety about being fruitful enough—which we might interpret at times as being saintly enough, as busy enough, as able enough, as successful enough—obscures what Jesus is really getting at here in this parable of the vine and branches. Because, I would offer, this is not so much a parable about God’s assessment or judgment of individual achievement as it is a parable about connection, about the divinely-perfected integration of heaven and earth.

“God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us,” the first letter of John says, and we need to take that quite seriously as we receive this image of the vine and branch. In Jesus, in the Incarnate mystery of the risen and eternal God, which we enter by our baptism, there is an inseparability between our life and God’s life.  Just as the vine transfers nutrients and water and life force into the branch, so God lives in us. God’s life, God’s love—God’s very essence—is sustaining everything that we do, big or small, shaping our hearts, giving breath to our words, bending the limbs of our body as we move in the world. 

“I am the true vine…abide in me as I abide in you…apart from me you can do nothing.” This is not a threat—it is an assurance. Christ is saying there is nothing you can do that is not already part of me, because we are one in love. I have given my life to you. We are connected. You are never alone. In me, no one is ever alone.

And this is a radical shift, even from the Old Testament imagery of Israel as the vine and God as the gardener, because now God has integrated God’s own life into the plant itself, so that it will never have to survive by itself.

Christ as the vine, as the one who sustains us directly, replaces the idea of fruitfulness as our offering TO God and replaces it with the idea of fruitfulness as God’s offering to US. 

Abide in me, God says, let me offer myself to you, let me give you the fruits of MY spirit, so that you never need be estranged from me again. This is my love for you—to give you myself! Too long you have tended your own vines and trembled and wept at the insufficiency of your own meager harvest, but I tell you now that my life is your life, my harvest is your harvest. Rest and live in that knowledge. Rest and live in me.

This fulfills what the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed,  “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” and “their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.”

In our life in Christ, this is what is true about the universe: that we are one—one organism, one cycle of life and love. There is no need for anxiety, nor for competition. There is no falling short before the king’s throne. In Christ, you are already part of everything. You are already enough.

I confess, though, that even knowing this is true, there are days, especially after the exhaustion and despair of this past year, that I still worry, because, if anything, I feel a lot more like that withered branch in the parable, the one that is all dried up and gnarled, with seemingly no fruit at all. 

In those times, forget the basket of limes; I don’t even feel like I have a single blossom. My prayers feel dry and my heart is heavy. And I wonder, sometimes, in that feeling of deadness and dryness—am I apart from God? Am I just a useless appendage to be cast away, as the passage says, “gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned”?

Because if we’re honest, there’s no shortage of dead branches in any of our lives and in our world at large—our failures, our squandered opportunities to love and care for one another, the burdens of our grief and the fear that our lives don’t amount to much.

But today, I want you hear those seemingly dire words anew, remembering, again, that God is love and nothing can separate you from the workings of that love. Nothing. You are part of love’s eternal cycle. And God is redeeming even those fruitless branches in our lives, those dead ends in our heart. 

So yes, God is gathering dead branches and putting them into the fire, but God is tenderly gathering them, tenderly gathering up our grief and our brokenness. God is putting them into the flames, yes, but they are the flames of his transformative mercy, reducing that which has died to ashes, not to annihilate, but so that it might go back into the earth to fertilize the growth of new life. To God, nothing is dead forever. And nothing is ever wasted.

This is the truth of which you are a part. This is the Life that imbues your own life. 

That will always be so, whether you are feeling abundant and confident, or whether you aren’t. Whether you are center stage, or whether you’re just standing in the wings with a basket of limes, wondering what the heck you’re doing.

What sweetness, what relief, and what possibilities for joy when we realize that fruitfulness is something given to us, not something proven by us. And when we realize that we are already known. Already acceptable. Already abiding on the vine, in God’s own life, forever. 

10-year old me as the Page Boy in Rumpelstiltskin. Not sure where the limes went.

Love and Order: Rethinking Everything

I recently offered this reflection as part of an online retreat at Trinity, Fort Wayne, All Shall Be Well: Hope for Hard Times with Julian of Norwich. Julian’s text, Revelations of Divine Love, is one of the classics of Christian mysticism.

We are coming up on almost a year of a shared experience of disruption and disorder. In the past 10 months or so, we’ve had to adapt in major ways to the conditions around us—the pandemic, of course, being the factor that has altered our daily lives in the most obvious ways, though it is certainly not the only challenge we’ve had to face. 

I’ve had conversations with so many people over the past year, including some of you, about how hard these times feel for so many of us, and the sense of loss that many of us are experiencing. We even devoted a whole retreat last summer to the theme of Lament in Christian life, as we struggle to figure out how our shared sense of loss fits into our relationship with God.

But today we’re talking about hope, the kind of hope that survives hard times—not a vague type of hope, not the sort that ignores the bad stuff or glosses it over, but the kind of hope that acknowledges it, doesn’t try to candy-coat it, and yet persists in look for something deeper, more real, than whatever our present circumstances might be.

For Julian of Norwich, that hope was founded upon a vision of God’s enduring, undying, all-pervading LOVE, something that she witnessed and engaged with firsthand in her mystical visions of Christ. At the every end of her text, she writes,

“You would know our Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold onto this and you will know and understand love more and more. But you will not know or learn anything else—ever!”

Julian discovered that it is love, more than anything else, that characterizes WHO God is (identity), HOW God acts (methodology) and WHY God does so (purpose).  And from that, we might conclude that love is also OUR identity, our methodology, and our purpose for being–we who have been made in God’s image. It is, in the end, all that there is to know about being human. 

This isn’t something Julian pulled out of thin air, of course—Scripture attests to it in many ways. Consider 1 John:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

But I will admit that we might talk about God’s love and God AS love so often that we’ve dulled the impact a bit. We might have lost a sense of what a radical statment this actually is, the claim that love—not political power, not personal control, not wealth, not ritual purity, nor anything else but LOVE—is the fundamental reality from which everything else grows and finds its significance. 

Because we might SAY that love matters a lot to us—at church, in our families, among friends—but do we actually relate to the circumstances of life in a way that acknowledges love’s primacy over all else? 

Do we center love in our perception of what is happening and what is required of us in any given moment, or do we view it as a derivative of other preconditions, like security or knowledge or success?

If you have ever said to yourself (as I certainly have): “If I can only get this one thing sorted out…if I can only get this one person in my life to agree that I am right…if I can just save enough money, or lose enough weight, or get the right job…and THEN I will have all the capacity in the world to love–to be patient and kind. THEN, I promise, Lord, I will never say another nasty thing, I’ll be compassionate and loving toward everyone I meet…after I get this one thing in order.”

Then we start to realize that perhaps something else in our lives is taking precedence over the mandate of love; the urgency of love. And that perhaps we have been conditioned to think that something else must come first, before love can flourish in our lives. 

And what is that “something else”? I would argue that it is the idea of order.

For a very long time, our culture has taught that God– the kingly ruler–desires order above all else, and that the primary work of Christ is repairing the DISorder that sin has wrought upon our lives. We have built insitutions and regulations and moral inventories to attest to this. And in this schema, we must first participate in God’s vision of order and only THEN we can experience the fullness of God’s love. 

And that might seem well and good and sensible when things are flowing smoothly, when the system functions.

But what about when things go wrong for us and for those around us, as they often tend to do?

Consider this example: a person lives a relatively “normal” and well-ordered life, doing all of the things expected in their cultural context, working hard, maybe raising a family, being a generally conscientous citizen. And then, the bottom drops out. They get sick. They lose their livelihood. Their family falls apart. Their life is in complete disarray. They might wonder why “God has abandoned them” or “how they have offended God” to be punished in such a way. The apparent disorder of their life suggests to them that God is far from them.

But is this true? Is God only present to those with well-ordered lives, or is there something more profound, something deeper even than this, that bonds us to the Divine Life? 

Lady Julian would tell us, yes, there is something deeper than God’s sense of order—and it is  his love. Her claim is that God’s love underlies everything, it sustains everything, and thus it cannot be taken away or made inaccessible, even and especially in those moments when the circumstances of life all seem to be going wrong. 

Her famous statement that “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well,” which Jesus says to her in her vision, is not a platitude, but a bold assertion that God’s love will continue to find a way, even amid the most hopeless, disordered situations—and that nothing, not even death and suffering, not even the devil himself, can inhibit God’s love for us or frustrate God’s plan to reconcile all things in that love.

Julian looks at the world, and at herself, and she is under no illusion about the realities of brokenness. She is fully aware that there is disorder, disease, death, and sin. And yet, the fundamental thrust of her visions is that everything is going to be OK, becasue underneath all of that apparent disorder, there is God’s love, which WILL NOT FAIL. God’s love keeps coming up through the cracks, like a weed-flower that refuses to die.

And thus, for her, it is love, not order, which is the lens through which we should view and assess EVERYTHING and EVERYONE, including ourselves. Rather than wonder: how high do I rank, how well do I fit, how far have I fallen, we must ask, instead, how deeply have I loved? How freely have I forgiven? How gently, how heartfully have I trod the tender, ravaged places of the earth?

Those places are everywhere. We’re in a moment where we, like the person in our earlier example, might be feeling a great sense of loss, frustration, or isolation. All the plans we might have had are upended, suspended, or ruined. But rather than see this disorder as a punishment or even as an impediment to our relationship with God, we might instead hunt through the rubble of our great expectations and figure out where love is springing up like that hopeful weed and then tend to it, letting it carpet the bruised soil, growing a garden in the ruins.

Because the miraculous thing is that love can ALWAYS be found unfurling itself, can always be sown and nurtured, in even the most dire circumstances, even in the seasons of our deepest disappointment, even when order is fractured. For order, as we have seen of late, is a fragile thing, but love…love is tenacious. It cannot die, because it is the essence of life. It is God’s very self. And it is everywhere, always.

“The fullness of joy is to see God in all things,” Julian writes. Once we lay claim to love as the fundamental nature of who God is (and who we are) then we realize that such joy can never be taken away, because it is dependent on no outer circumstance. It is pure gift, given and received, in the ordered times and the messy ones—always present, always ours.

If you take nothing else away from this reflection, I hope you will hear this: God doesn’t need you to be fully in order, in order to love you. God doesn’t need your house to be fully in order before he comes to abide with you, to work with and in and through you. God is reaching out to you, an unfurling tendril, even at this very moment, even in these hard times, longing to love you, because love is the point of contact between all that He is and all that He has made.

Love is his meaning. And ours. And, as it was for Lady Julian, that is the cause for much joy, and for much hope.