Pause: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on June 19, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 8:26-39, in which Jesus heals a man possessed by many demons.

In 1899, the composer Jean Sibelius wrote a piece of music for a public concert in his native Finland, which at that time was under the control of the Russian Empire. Even if you are not that familiar with Sibelius or the history of that region, this particular music might still be recognizable to you—it is called Finlandia, and the main melody from it was used later for the hymn “Be Still My Soul,” as well as a few other anthems and folk songs. My grandma’s family was from Finland, so this piece of music was very special to me growing up. That melody is woven through my childhood memories.

If you’re curious, look up Finlandia and give it a listen; it’s only about 9 minutes long. And what is so interesting to me about the full symphonic piece is that it has two very distinct parts—the first two-thirds sounds nothing like that recognizable hymn. It is turbulent, tense, even militaristic at times—blaring horns, thundering drums, and mournful strings; it is the sound of a universe caught up in struggle and strife. 

But then, somewhat jarringly, at about 6 minutes in, all of that tension swells and then trails off, like an unfinished thought. And only then, after the briefest pause, does that famous melody come in: sweet and wistful and full of hope, completely unlike everything that came before it, as if the world had suddenly become something new, fresh and tender and smiling, even through its tears. It was a melody that, for Sibelius, held the dream of freedom for a subjugated nation—the dream that one day they might live in dignity and freedom.

But as much as I love that song (like, really love it: the hymn’s name is tattooed on my arm) it’s that pause in the music that I want to reflect on this morning. The pause between the old music and the new melody. It is so easy to miss, but upon it everything hinges. It’s that pause that arrives when the past is gone, when what’s done is done, but in which the future has not yet revealed itself. The pause that asks a question: what now? What next? What note lies on the other side of this still and pregnant moment? Is it, indeed, a new song that we will hear? Or will it be just more of the same old tune? 

You don’t have to be a musician to understand the significance of this pause. It shows up in life in many ways. 

There’s the long and disorienting pause that the pandemic has imposed upon our common life, and the sense that in this very moment we are suspended, somehow, between what used to be and whatever will be. 

There is that pause that stops us in our tracks—the one of stunned, sickening silence, as when we learn of yet another mass shooting—this week at an Episcopal Church in Alabama, with three of our sibilings in Christ murdered at a potluck. 

There is the pause just before you answer the phone call that comes at 3AM, when you know intuitively that everything is about to change. 

And there is the slow sort of pause when you wake up in the weak morning light, bleary eyed, when you feel like nothing has changed and never will.

And in each of these pauses, we ask ourselves: What now? What next? 

It is just such a moment that we discover in this morning’s Gospel story, in which Jesus travels to the country of the Gerasenes and heals a man tormented by demons. The pause is easy to overlook, though, given the dramatic content and imagery of the story. Listen for it. 

Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.

Do you hear it there? Do you hear the pause? Right in between the healing of the demoniac and the people’s response.  What if I told you that this is in fact the most important moment in the entire story? 

For it is in that moment that the Gerasenes are faced with a choice. How will they respond to this new possibility embodied in their neighbor set free of his affliction? How will they respond to the wondrous power of this moment when God has acted decisively among them, when the parameters of what they know have been upended? We might ask: what song will they sing now that the old music—the music of pain and powerlessness—has been silenced?

We wait…and wonder…

But in this moment, they cannot hold onto the new melody that Jesus offers. It is too much for them. And so they ask him to leave. He might have demonstrated his power over the evil forces of the world, but it seems they have grown accustomed to those forces. They have made their uneasy peace with evil. They have, perhaps, accepted that some among us are simply destined to be lost to the wild places, to live among the tombs, to huddle naked in the shadows. They have accepted the idea that we are not all meant to live and flourish and stand upright. They have accepted that some suffering at the margins is bearable as long as we don’t have to see it or think about it too much.

In short, they have become, as people do, accustomed to the devil they know. 

And whatever Jesus signifies, whatever healing he offers, whatever strange, heavenly music he embodies, it is too unfamiliar, too uncertain, too costly. They are seized with great fear. And when we are afraid, it is hard to learn how to sing a new song. 

Those of us who have come to know Jesus as Lord and teacher and redeemer would probably like to see ourselves in this story as the man who has been healed, the one restored to himself, the one sent out to proclaim the good news of God’s power. And I pray to be that sort of person. 

But if I am honest with myself, and if we are honest with ourselves, we are just as often more like the Gerasenes, not yet sure whether we can bear to dream that another world is indeed possible. Not yet sure that we actually believe that what Jesus promises is true,  and that it is worth giving up what we know, what is comfortable, however broken and brutal it might be. 

For it would be so much easier to accept that this is all there is. To accept that nothing will ever change, to accept that eking out some sense of our own personal safety, our own personal satisfaction is enough to hope for in this life— to capitulate to the old music, the tempest and the drumbeat, the weeping and the howling of those who make their home among the graves. It would be so much easier to let that song go on and on and pretend we don’t hear it. 

But that is not what Jesus asks of us. In this moment when we pause, and ask what now? What next? He asks us to trust him. He asks us to follow him. And he asks us to listen to the inbreaking melody of heaven and to sing—to sing the new song. A song that is sweet, and wistful, and full of hope. A song that sounds nothing like that came before it. We don’t have to be good at it. We don’t have to hit every note perfectly. We just have to find the courage to try. 

Because I don’t need to tell you that there are still people among us who are lost among the tombs, and they need a new song. There are people who are afraid to be themselves for fear of rejection or harm, and they need a new song. And God’s creation is worn and battered and exploited and it needs a new song. And the people for whom the Juneteenth holiday is still a promise unfullfilled, they need a new song. And so many people—so many of us—are tired and lonely and aching for something beautiful to hold onto, and we need a new song. We all need a new song. The song that says God is with us. The song that says love will always be more powerful than evil. The song that says that while our troubles may be legion, we will indeed be set free, because Jesus has come in our midst and he has taught us new music.

Can you hear it? Can you hear the new melody? It is right here among us.

So pause

And don’t be afraid.

And now, sing. 

Wounds: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on April 24, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is John 20:19-31, when the risen Jesus appears to his disciples and shows them his wounds.

I was 18 years old when my body betrayed me. 

At least, that is how it felt at the time. It was the spring of my first year of college, and I was full of expectations and grand plans about what my life was going to be like. I was going to travel the world, or maybe join the Peace Corps, or maybe write a book, or maybe be an actor on the stage—who knows, anything felt possible, and at that juncture in life you have more hope than clarity. 

But as the blossoms came out on the trees that spring, I felt my body wilting—I lost a ton of weight, I was weak and listless, insatiably thirsty, unable to concentrate on anything. And a visit to the campus health clinic completely upended my life: the nurse listened to my symptoms, took a quick blood sample, and then said to me, with devastating simplicity: Phil, it looks like you have Type I diabetes. 

I didn’t even know what that meant, at first, but I would soon learn. I would learn how to give myself insulin shots, how to count carbohydrates, how to triage a blood sugar crash. But throughout the management of my new, incurable disease, the one thing I struggled with the most was a feeling of resentment against my body. Suddenly, without any warning or obvious cause, it just stopped working, and all of my youthful daydreams about far-flung adventures were replaced by a grim pragmatism—health insurance, co-pays, the spectre of long-term complications. Everything I had hoped for seemed impossible, lost, pointless, all because my body was now broken. 

Each of us must, at some point, contend with the frailty of our mortal flesh. Some of us face it very early in life, others much later, but eventually, at one time or another, our bodies stop cooperating fully with us.  And whether it is sudden and tragic or more of a slow onset of accumulating challenges, the loss of health can be devastating, infuritating, or simply exhausting, such that we would rather just hide away in a locked room, foregoing the demands of being out in the world.  

We might, at some point, quite understandbly, direct our frustration to God: God, why would you give me so many dreams and desires and then give me a body that can’t live them out? Why did you make us so vulnerable, so susceptible to fracture? What is the good of these wounds and scars and broken parts? 

I certainly asked such questions when I was diagnosed with diabetes, and there are rough days when I still ask it. But of course, God tends not to answer such queries directly. He just shows up in the midst of them. 

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. 

I was struck, in reading this passage again this week, that Jesus does not save the display of his wounds for Thomas alone—they are, in fact, the first thing he shows the initial group of disciples when he appears among them. It is as though his greeting of peace and the revelation of his pierced flesh are two inseparable parts of the same message. It is the wounds, the marks that bear the story of his suffering, that give the peacefulness he offers both authenticity and authority. 

His injuries demonstrate that he is indeed who he said he is. There was no fake-out on the cross, no magic trick in the tomb, no secret plot to bypass the suffering that was bestowed upon him. There is only this strange new body, still very much like ours in its capacity for injury, but that now drips sweet peace from its wounds, like sap running out of the hole in a tree during the winter thaw. He is risen, yes, but still bleeding; the Resurrection has not erased his injuries, but has instead transfigured them, made them part of the wholeness of the cosmos, a part of the emerging Kingdom of God in which nothing, not even our gravest injury, is unreconcilable. 

I need that reminder, to be honest, when I rail against my own physical limitations or when I grieve the illnesses and challenges of the people I care about. I need to remember that Jesus held onto his wounds, incorporated them into his peace, that he appeared on the other side of death with scars, as one changed by life, as one marked by life’s indifferent cruelty, and that it did not keep him from being, in the end, exactly what he needed to be. It gives me hope that there might yet be peace for us, too, who tend to our own wounds, who struggle with feeling betrayed by life’s fragility. 

Because if we’re honest, we are all, in one way or another, just like Thomas and the other disciples. We know what it is to suffer and so we doubt—not because we are obstinate but because we are heartbroken. We doubt because we know the sting of disappointment and grief, we doubt because hope, at times, feels like the purview of the young, the strong, and the unmarred. 

But Jesus shows up and shows us his hands and his side because he needs us to know that this, is, in fact, what hope actually looks like: not an unblemished daydream, but a body that both bleeds and loves profusely, because in the end, real life requires us to do both. 

Do not doubt, but believe, he says to us–to encourage us. 

Do not doubt that there is peace and promise on the other side of brokenness. Do not doubt that your own wounds and hurting parts are as precious to God as any other piece of you. Do not doubt that, even though some days you might feel like you are falling apart or that you are useless, you are, in truth, growing ever closer to God, ever more precious to God, ever more caught up in the healing mystery of grace. Even in your fragmented condition, you are loved wholly, as one who is complete.

Our journey is to trust that this is true about ourselves, and to tell others that it is true about them, too, no matter what they are going through, no matter what they have lost.

This month will be exactly 20 years since I was diagnosed with diabetes. I no longer feel betrayed by my body—I have found some measure of acceptance about it all—but I can’t stand here and tell you that it was a blessing or that I wouldn’t change it if I could. I would. It can be hard some days. But I think it’s ok to be honest about the hard stuff we face.

What I can tell you, though, is that Jesus’ wounds mean more to me now than they might have when I was perfectly healthy. I can see now how they are their own kind of answer to all of our questions about suffering and loss. Not an explanation, but still an answer. One that says:

I am here. You are not alone. This brokenness is part of you, but it is not all of you. And there is life to be found, even now, just as you are. Touch these wounds and see how well God understands your own. Touch these wounds and see that peace is still possible.

And in that moment, I get it. In that moment, I no longer doubt. I believe.

The Cup: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Maundy Thursday, April 14, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The communion cup, which had been suspended in our parish during the COVID-19 pandemic, was restored at this service.

There isn’t a general confession in tonight’s liturgy, so allow me a bit of time for a very minor confession of my own. While I generally try to embrace material simplicity, there is one area in which I have grievously failed, and it is this: I have an embarrassingly large collection of cups and mugs in my kitchen at home. Far more than any one person should have. Perhaps you can relate to this. When I open up my cupboard, there they are, stacked on top of one another, balanced precariously, mismatched, the designs a bit faded in spots, but comforting—a jumble of memories. 

There is the juice glass I used to use every morning as kid visiting my grandma’s house. There is the coffee mug from a monastery I visited when discerning the priesthood. There is a cup that my mom and I picked up while driving Route 66. There is the 175th anniversary coffee mug from Trinity Fort Wayne. There is a wine glass I bought in Europe. There is yet ANOTHER coffee mug that I don’t especially love but that was given to me by someone whom I do love. You get the idea. 

In terms of problems to have, it’s a very silly one. But it reminds me that there is something very evocative about cups. For some strange reason we are drawn to them; they mean more to us, somehow, than just a receptacle to hold a beverage.They hold memories, too, they tell a story about where we come from, the things we have seen, and what our life has been about. When we bring them to our lips, we kiss the past and we hold a part of ourselves. The cups reveal, in some small way, who we are. 

Maybe that’s why it has been so disorienting, these past two pandemic-shaped years, to have no cup offered during the Eucharist. The Church decided, out of an abundance of caution, to suspend this aspect of Holy Communion, and while we’ve certainly been on solid theological ground receiving only the bread during this time, I admit I have still felt a bit lost at sea without that other component of the Eucharistic feast: the common cup shared among us, the sweetness on the lips, and those words that satisfy our deepest thirst: the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

It is fitting, deeply fitting, then, on this Maundy Thursday when we remember and celebrate Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, that the common cup is returning to our communion offering. This evening when you come forward to be nourished by Christ’s body in the form of bread, the chalice of his blood will be offered to you as well, and if you feel comfortable doing so, you are invited to drink, and remember what this particular cup reveals about where we come from, the things we have seen, and what our life together is about. 

But this cup that we drink from is special, it is singular, because unlike the mugs and the glasses stacked on our shelves, each holding our own private histories, this Eucharistic vessel also reveals something essential about about God’s history, about who God is and what God has done. In truth, the Eucharistic cup is God’s cup first and foremost, not our own. It bears the story of God’s journey alongside and among humankind.

In the Hebrew Scriptures the prophets and the Psalmist speak often of the cup: the cup of consolation, the cup of wrath, the cup of trembling, the cup of astonishment—a cup that holds the strange mix of grace and fury that is God’s complex and unfolding relationship with the world. And tonight we come to realize that it is this same cup that Jesus must reckon with in Gethsemane—Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Ultimately he does what God has always done: he accepts the cup as the price of loving his wayward creation, drinking in the sweetness and the bitterness of his solidarity with the children of the earth.

And so I imagine that if we were to go to heaven and rummage through the cupboards, we’d open them up and find, in quiet repose, this one cup, ancient, gleaming, heavy with significance, hallowed by its use, held aloft at a thousand feasts, emptied out upon a thousand battlefields, stained with the blood and the salt-tears of our Creator. The same cup that, in the mystery of Eucharistic grace, is handed to us on this night, that we might take hold of its heavy glory. No longer God’s cup alone, but also ours.

“I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,” Paul tells the church at Corinth, recounting the words of Jesus at the Last Supper—a meal, of course, at which he himself was not present, but which, we must conclude, he must have come to know as part of the all-encompassing, all-consuming revelation of Christ he experienced on the Damascus road. 

Paul understood, somehow, in the lifelong aftermath of his conversion, that this particular meal, this particular bread and cup, reveal the truth about God’s deepest self—and that as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are taking part in God’s own feast—the banquet prepared from the foundation of the world. In so doing, God’s story, God’s sustaining life becomes ours as well. 

And so, tonight, like the disciples who gathered in the lamplight of the Upper Room, we glimpse salvation upon this table, and we drink from this cup—the cup of memory, the cup of sorrow, the cup of laughter, the cup that holds the fermentation of finitude and eternity, the cup that holds ALL THINGS in the costly covenant of love—we drink from this cup tonight for Jesus’ sake because he drank from it for our sake. He drank it to the dregs, knowing what it meant to do so, knowing that living also means one must die, knowing that it was worth dying for us in order to live for us. 

All of that significance, all of that history, all of that costliness, all of that promise, all held in a single sip. A sip he now asks us to take as well, so that at last, we might know him for who he is. 

I know all of this is true, I know it is real, but I cannot really comprehend it. And yet, like you, I will hold that cup in my hands, I will receive it with wonder and gratitude, trusting that even if I never really understand the mystery of death and life, even if I never understand the depth and breadth of God’s love, at least I will know what it tastes like. 

And that will be enough.

For as we will discover repeatedly throughout these holy days, words can only take us so far. Ultimately we must do a thing for it it be real. The feet must be washed. The bread must be broken. The cup must be poured out. 

These actions are both a question and their own sort of answer, because they are the pieces of God’s story that speak best for themselves, like a cupboard full of jumbled vessels, passed down, love-worn, inexplicably precious, infinitely capable of holding our own stories—the old stories, the ones we are living through today, and the story that God, with us, is only now beginning to tell.

Tonight is the night that story begins, again. 

Drink it in, beloved children of God. Drink it all in. 

Porches: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, January 30, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.

Since moving to Fort Wayne a few years ago, I have discovered one of the simple, perfect pleasures of life in the Midwest (during the warmer months, at least): strolling through the neighborhood at dusk, fireflies blinking in the humid air, as people sit out on their front porches watching the encroaching twilight.

Growing up largely out west where the houses look very different, I have to say that there is nothing like a good front porch. They are a thing of beauty, especially in the older neighborhoods where they sit broad and benevolent, ensconced amidst leafy green trees, the warm glow of a lamp spilling out into the gathering night. And always a rocking chair or a swing, inhabited in the cool of the evening by some friendly neighbors.

I walk past and we wave to one another, remark on the weather; just a moment of encounter, a little reminder of the permeability of the barrier between our lives and the lives of the people around us—between our homes and the larger home that is our community. Front porches facilitate that somehow.

One evening last spring I was walking through the neighborhood as the blossoms fell and gathered on the streets, and the silhouette of a man on his porch greeted me. “It’s a beautiful night,” he said. “It feels like hope.”

It feels like hope. What an unexpected yet wonderful thing to say to a passing stranger. But he was right, that moment did feel like hope—both the beautiful evening and his poetic greeting.

Early on in the most isolating phase of the pandemic, those porch greetings were sometimes the only real face-to-face interaction I might have in a day, and it was a balm for the loneliness of uncertain times. You might recall that there were stories in early 202 from around the world of people going out on their front porches or their balconies to wave to one another, to dance and to sing, as if to say: yes, we’re all still here. We’re still together, even if we don’t always realize it. 

When we’re out on the front porch, the world is a bit kinder, a bit gentler—we suddenly realize that we live amidst a thousand open thresholds rather than row upon row of closed doors. A thousand open hearts; a thousand possibilities to stop and say hello, maybe even pause together in the night and smell the blooming flowers, to watch the stars come out.

I know, of course, that not all of us live in neighborhoods with front porches, but I hope that at some point in your life you’ve experienced what I am describing—and if you haven’t, then some evening in late spring or summer, park at the church and come take a walk through my neighborhood, and let yourself experience what it is like to see your neighbors again. I promise they’ll be out there on those stately old porches, and you will be greeted, and you will go home feeling a bit more like you belong to this world.

So why all this talk of porches? Because actually I think that they’re a great way of thinking about our life of faith.

Here’s what I mean: It can be tempting to think of our faith as something very private, something that is done behind closed doors, in the seclusion of our church sanctuaries or during our bedside prayers. 

Perhaps we’ve just always done it that way, or perhaps we are suspicious of certain folks who practically chase you down the street with their religious views. Either way, we might start to act as though our Christianity is like eating alone or singing only in the shower—just something between us and God. And while there is indeed a deeply personal dimension to our relationship with Jesus, there is also something else that he asks of us—a willingness to step outside of our domesticity, to seek his face in one another and among the rest of our neighbors–especially the ones we don’t know very well. 

We don’t have to parade ourselves through the streets every day—but we can’t keep the joy of our salvation sequestered either. Our faith needs to exist in that liminal space between indoors and out, neither zealously private nor zealously overbearing. 

And so, it occurs to me that we need a front porch kind of faith. 

Deeply personal, yes, deeply grounded, but also open, inviting, hospitable, and a bit vulnerable—a faith that breathes out in the open air, a faith that is ready to meet whoever comes along and to bless them. A faith that is ready to love our neighbors in Christ’s name. 

The struggle to find this balance is as old as the church itself. Paul, in today’s famous passage from the first letter to the Corinthians, has a lot to say about love, and it is beautiful to hear, but we are well-served to remember why he was writing this letter in the first place. You see, the church in Corinth had some wealthy and worldly members in it—people who tended to think rather highly of themselves. As such, they had a tendency towards insularity—the wealthier members kept to themselves and didn’t share table fellowship with their poorer brothers and sisters. And some of them saw Christianity as, essentially, another Greek mystery religion—a pathway to further wealth and health and wisdom for themselves, rather than a dramatic reordering of their value system and their conduct in the broader community. 

And so when Paul speaks of the preeminence of love over and above all other virtues and achievements, he is telling the Corinthians—and us—that far more than cultivating eloquence or wisdom or impressive piety, we are called to simply take care of one another, and to especially take care of those who need us the most. We are called to recognize our interdependence upon one another. We are, in other words, called to have a front porch faith—a faith that is outward facing, open, and neighborly.

Someone once said, after all, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Neighbors. That’s who we are in this whole thing. To be a neighbor is our primary vocation as Christians. Not heroes on our own personal quest, not would-be saviors, not judges, nor rulers—just neighbors. Neighbors sitting on the front porch, in joyful proximity to one another, calling out blessings into the summer night, watching the fireflies, waiting for the stars.

Each of us will live out this vocation differently—whether we have an actual front porch or not. For some of us, it might look like getting to know our broader community and its needs a bit better. For others it might be delving more deeply into the ministries and the offerings of this parish. For some it might be writing a letter of encouragement or making a long overdue phone call. There is no bad place to begin. There is only the invitation to do so—to step out, to greet the world and discover that Paul was right–yes, indeed, love does abide, everywhere, in everyone, and the bravest, most impressive thing we can ever do is to live as if this is true.

And when we do so, may we discover the deep satisfaction of being a neighbor and of having one.

May we encounter the joy of remembering that each of us is an integral part of all things.

And at the end of all our journeys, may we find the front porch that waits for us, a lamp glowing in the darkness, and a voice to welcome us home. A voice that says,

It’s a beautiful night. It feels like hope. 

Prize: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on January 23, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is Luke 4:14-21, where Jesus speaks to the community at Nazareth.

I don’t know if they’re still on, but when I was a kid watching television, I would always see those commercials for Publishers Clearing House…you know, the ones where it would show people answering the doorbell and being greeted by an entourage carrying one of those huge checks for a huge amount of money. They showed the people crying and jumping up and down with joy, all of their problems having been seemingly solved by this incredible prize appearing out of nowhere.

Now, we didn’t live in poverty when I was young, but there were lean times for a whole host of reasons, and I came largely from a working class family, so the idea of never having to worry about money, to not have to live paycheck-to-paycheck, was a tantalizing idea that seemed reserved for other families. So I would daydream a bit about what it would feel like if one of those prize committees showed up at our front door—what it would be like to see that check with OUR name on it, to suddenly live without that pervasive, gnawing fear that there won’t be enough. 

And one day, when I was probably 12 or so, we actually got one of those envelopes in the mail from Publishers Clearing House—we had been “selected” to enter to win a prize. Now of course this was no more likely than winning the lottery, but I wanted it so badly to be true—I wanted to believe that we had a chance. So we filled out the entry form and I put it in the mailbox and we waited…and waited….and waited.

I’m still waiting, by the way. I have to believe that because I’ve moved so many times they’ve just not found my current address, and that surely that prize check will find me one of these days.

I tell you about all of this because I wonder if it was a little like that for the people in Nazareth in today’s gospel passage. Struggling to get by under Roman occupation, struggling to get by as a people for as long as they can remember, really. And they’d submitted their supplications to God over the centuries, they’d cried out for some help, and they were waiting, waiting, waiting for that prize to finally show up—the One who would make it possible to live confidently, the One who would fix things, the One who would make the waiting worth it. 

And then, here is Jesus, one of their own, and he tells them something wonderful: he quotes from the prophet Isaiah, speaking of good news and abundant healing and the year of the Lord’s favor—the jackpot, really, the big prize check from God saying “it’s all going to be all right now,” and then Jesus says: today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Well, Hallelujah! Break out the balloons! It’s as though Jesus has come to the door, and he’s heaven’s prize committee, and he’s got the solution—in fact, he IS the solution.  I bet a few people in that synagogue, shocked as they were, wanted to cry and jump for joy. 

Have you ever wanted something so badly that you can almost see it, almost feel what it would be like to have it? Have you ever wanted something so badly that it haunts you? I imagine that is what it was like for those people in the synagogue at Nazareth, and here, for one brief moment, they begin to hope that their time has come. That happy days are here again.

But you and I know that’s not exactly how the story ends. It’s a little more complicated than that. Because Jesus goes on to tell them, essentially, that God’s favor, God’s imminent redemption, God’s big victory prize, is not at all what they expected. In fact, it’s not even necessarily for them. He reminds them that when God responded to famine and disease in the past, God sometimes bypassed Israel entirely and bestowed gifts on other nations. 

That would sting. It’d be like opening the door to that prize committee and realizing after a few minutes that they got the wrong address—the check is actually for that neighbor down the street that you can’t stand. So close, yet so far.

So I feel for the people of Nazareth a little bit, even if they do try to throw Jesus off of a cliff. They didn’t really understand yet. They were waiting desperately for a prize, but instead they got a gift—a Savior, entirely unlike the one they expected—the Savior, of all people, everywhere. A gift so big, so incomprehensible, that it didn’t even register as valuable to them right away, or maybe ever.  And so we see them there in the narrative of the Gospel, forever locked in that moment at the edge of the cliff, still waiting, waiting, waiting for the prize they expected, not recognizing the gift that showed up. 

We are liable to do the same thing. It is so easy to look back and measure our lives by whether we got what we wanted–what we expected should be ours. The problem with that, of course, is that we never get everything we want, and even when we do, it’s usually not quite what we’d imagined. So we, too, might find ourselves waiting at the edge of that cliff for our whole lives, shaking our fist at heaven, cursing our dashed hopes. 

Or…we can turn around, and look what what is right in front of us: Jesus. And one another. The true gift. Better than any prize we could win. He has already arrived at our doorstep, sometimes dramatically, sometimes quietly, but he is coming, he is there, I promise he hasn’t lost your address.

And while he’s not carrying a big check, he is offering himself to you—all that he is, all that he has, all that he signifies. The question is, will we accept him, will we recognize that he is what we have been waiting for, or will we spend the rest of our days waiting for something that we imagine to be better?

I assure you, that thing is not coming. 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Today–and every day– that you encounter Jesus, and every day that you love one another in the name of Jesus, this Scripture, this longing, this promise, has been fulfilled in your hearing. It won’t take away all our worries, but it will show us what actually matters. It will guide us—all of us—into that peace which passes all understanding—a peace that no amount of money can buy.

You’re here. You’re loved beyond measure. You’re free. 

So congratulations. You’ve won. 

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.