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. 

In These Waters: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on January 10, 2021, the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. The lectionary text cited is Mark 1:4-11, wherein Jesus is baptized in the river Jordan.

Shortly before his death, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, come to him and make a request: “Grant us to sit,” they say, “one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” They sense, perhaps, that the time to enter Jerusalem is drawing near, that Jesus is about to take on the authorities, and they want to be in on the action, whatever it turns out to be. 

But Jesus doubts that they understand what is actually about to happen. “You do not know what you are asking,” he replies.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

His question has been rattling around in my head the past few days as we drew closer to this feast day, and as I watch the news, full of the evidence of how rage and mistrust and fear continue to assert themselves in the affairs of humankind. Just like James and John, the world is still spoiling for a fight, still angling for a certain type of power, and still Jesus is asking: are you able to drink the bittersweet cup of humility, instead? Are you able enter into my baptism, instead–a baptism that mandates mercy rather than militancy?

I find it striking that Jesus points to his baptism so soon before his crucifixion—a reminder, for us, that the beauty revealed to him in the waters of the River Jordan—the voice from heaven, the descending dove, the love of the Father—is the very thing that propels him, ulitimately, toward a reckoning with the forces of sin and death. It suggests to us that one cannot behold the transcendent beauty of God and then simply accept the brutality of the world as it is. And once we’ve been called beloved, we begin to realize that everyone else is, too. 

The direct line from baptism to the cross also suggests that Jesus’ belovedness as God’s Son, rather than being a protection from suffering, in fact propels him straight into the heart of the world’s pain, to engage with it, to be affected by it in order that he might transform it, not by the power of the sword, but by the force of mercy. 

And so, as we think about our own baptism, we must contend with a mixture of exuberance and trepidation and trust, for it is no small thing to be claimed by the liberating, reconciling, transformative power of God, to be drawn up into its mysterious movement through the world, and to relinquish the still-prevailing assumption that might makes right.

Are we able to do this, as he does? Do we know what we are asking for? 

I pray that we do, and that we can continue to ask for it together, to rely upon one another to pursue it, because if I have learned anything in recent days it is that our faith continues to be misinterpreted, it continues to be co-opted by people with agendas that have nothing to do with the love of God embodied in Jesus. 

And it is up to us, imperfect as we ourselves might be, to bear witness to what God is actually doing in the world and how we ought to live into that. It Is up to us to proclaim, as those baptized into the undying love of God’s Son, that hate, and violence, and racism, and exploitation, and greed, and every other instrument of evil have no place in God’s dream for creation, no place in God’s emerging kingdom, no place in the lives of people who claim that Christ is Lord. 

This is not about partisan politics, nor even exclusively about American society, though our values ought to impact our presence in both. But this is fundamentally a human issue. We affirm that to be baptized as Christ is baptized, to live as Christ lived, is to be human in the way God intended for us to be: connected, trusting, persistent instruments of peace. This is what we open ourselves to when the water washes over us, and when we recall that we are bathed in it still: we put down our guard, put down our pain and our past mistakes, and let the Spirit do the Spirit’s work in us.

And that work is always evolving, always responding to the present moment. That is why it is incumbent upon each of us as individuals, and as a church community, to discern how to live out our baptism. We have to ask ourselves: How can we be agents of peace, of justice, of reconciliation, here and now, in 2021, in Fort Wayne, in the U.S.? What does this time in history require of you and me?

I said in a sermon a couple weeks ago that “relationship” was going to be a key word for us this year, and that is more true than ever. Because one thing that this moment requires of us is that we resist the temptation to be spectators and instead become participants in the world around us.

It is very easy for me, especially when I feel tired and overwhelmed, to sit back at look at the world’s problems, at the fear and the despair and the anger that seems so pervasive, and to just hope that someone else will figure out what to do about it. That someone else will surely be better equipped to handle it than I am.

There isn’t someone else. There is only you, and me. There is only us.

And if we are living in Christ and Christ is living in us, we need to care. We need to stop observing from the sidelines and show up. 

You see, the baptism that Jesus received from John—a ritual cleansing from sin—was something that he didn’t actually need. But he showed up and received it anyway because in order to embody love, he knew that he needed to stand in solidarity with those whom he loved,  he needed to meet us at the place of our need—and now we must do the same for each other.

God expects each of us, just as we are, with our talents and our quirks and our histories and our hesitaitons, to engage in the struggle. To be part of the solution, even just a small part. Becasue every little act of mercy, every small turn towards peacemaking, every bond strengthened in our frayed social fabric is part of the cure for what ails the world—it is another drop of your baptismal water, offered back into the font of creation. 

Later this morning, in our own font, we will baptize two more people, welcoming them into this community, and, more fundamentally into this holy, transformative, life-giving, life-demanding calling. And they, too, will embark on the same journey as the rest of us, the one that Christ inaugurated for us when he stepped into the river to give away everything, to receive everything. They are ready to accept for themselves what we have also been given: God’s love, flowing through us like water, like wind, like fire. 

And it’s ok, in the end, if we don’t fully understand it, if we don’t know exactly what we are asking for, as long as we are willing to discover and live into what we are given: the answer that emerges from this moment, from this font, which will continue to roll down like mighty waters, to take shape, to run its course through the rest of our lives. 

No matter how scary or uncertain the world seems to be, no matter how hopeless things might seem in the moment, we can do this. We can face it, we can sustain, because…we are His. He’s got us. 

And in these waters, we come to see that He always will. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Life Before: A Sermon

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

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

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

That’s where it all started, right? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, of course it does. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can ask no more fundamental question than this.

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

Ordinary: A Christmas Sermon

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is for him we say:

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

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

Dying: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the Feast of All Saints, Sunday, November 1, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 5:1-12, wherein Jesus teaches the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”).

This is a sermon about dying, but it is not about death. 

Dying is all around us, especially now, in the late fall, when the night lengthens and the trees lose their color and the landscape quiets itself for a deep slumber. There is a sense of relinquishment at this time, a pang of letting go, deep in our bones, as the year, in equal measure of grace and resignation, gives itself over to an inevitable ending. 

And so it is not surprising that, in this hinge-point between abundance and absence, people turn their thoughts to the dead—the saintly dead, our beloved dead, as well as the more ambiguous spectres of our haunted imaginations. 

Allhallowtide, as this brief cluster of observances is known on the liturgical calendar—All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day, All Souls Day—is rooted in a consciousness older than the church, as old as the seasons itself, but it is also a particular opportunity for us, as Christians, to gather in the fading light of the year and to reckon with dying—how it shapes us, how we ought to live with it, what it can teach those of us who believe in a God who is willing to die for humanity. 

Other than perhaps the mournfulness of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Allhallowtide is one of the few instances in the church year when dying is brought to the forefront of our liturgical attention. We might attend a funeral, of course, but those services, at their core, are actually focused more on life—the earthly life of the one who has left us, and the resurrected life promised to each of us in the risen Christ. 

And so it is really just here, for these few days in the fall, that we as a Church consider what it means to die—and to die well—as a Christian. In a culture that tends to deny the reality of death altogether, this is actually rather courageous: the willingness to acknowledge, without succumbing to existential terror, that each of us must eventually die. 

And the saints, in their glory, help us with this. In remembering the saints of God on this feast day, we affirm that they are in Communion with the life of the Trinity, and one another, and with us, in a manner surpassing the mystery of death.

But at the same time we begin to understand that, more than anything, this blessed, living Communion is in fact largely characterized by a certain capacity for dying.

Again, dying, not just the state of death itself. The death of the body is an inescapable biological fact, one that is, of course, shared by all living things, the trembling king and the trembling autumn leaf alike. So it is not death per se that informs our connection to the Christian Saints, but dying as a verb, as a practice of faith, as a definitive pattern of release, of selflessness, of loving surrender, one that is and always has been intrinsic to the Christ-shaped response to life. 

As Paul describes in his letter to the Romans, we have been baptized into Christ’s death as well as his life, and thus we cannot separate the two; we cannot experience the Living of Jesus without also taking on the Dying of Jesus. Indeed, it is this dynamic tension between living and dying, of affirming and negating, that characterizes so much of Jesus’ teaching about what is real and true—and it’s everywhere once you look for it, including, I would argue, in our gospel passage for today, the Beatitudes.

At first glance, this passage doesn’t seem to have much to do with dying and everything to do with how to live. And so we might assume that we are given the Beatitudes on this feast day as a sort of instruction book for how to be “saintly,” as if we might just follow a few simple steps to achieve the holiness of the ones who have gone before us.

But on closer reading this interpretation starts to break down, because the Beatitudes don’t actually tell us what to do, in all times and all places. How precisely does one act poor in spirit? How do I most efficaciously practice meekness? How do we measure whether we have mourned successfully, or hungered and thirsted most efficiently for righteousness? How do we quantify adequate peacemaking and maximize our purity of heart? What sort of persecution should we aim for, exactly?

These questions are slightly absurd, of course, because blessedness is not a one-size fits all garment, and the Beatitudes are not just a code of conduct, a checklist of tasks for each of us to complete and compare against the progress of others. They are, instead, a cumulative illustration of what life looks like, what is true and enduring, once we have let every distraction and impediment to sanctity—to pure, holy being— die and fall away. The Beatitudes depict the spare essentials of God’s movement through creation—what is truly important once our delusions and denials have been stripped from us, by choice or circumstance. 

And so, more than being explicitly prescriptive, Jesus offers the Beatitudes to help us to discern how to practice dying while we still live—how to discern what to let go of so that there is more space for Christ within us. 

Whatever it is in ourselves and in our society that distorts this vision of blessedness, that is the thing which must be relinquished, cleared away, so that God’s mission of healing and mercy might assume its proper place in our lives. And then, as time passes and circumstances change, we must be willing to repeat the process, like the turning wheel of the seasons, letting something else pass away in order to welcome the urgent promise of new life.

This is what the saints have done, each of them in their own particular way: they have let die, lovingly, whatever it is within them that obstructs their pathway into the heart of God, and they have named and challenged those same obstructions in the world around them, clearing the way for the poor, the hungry, and the merciful. 

The saints are simply those Christians who have taken the gospel in full seriousness and have understood it in full joy: that dying opens the gate to new life—and that this is something as true in our small daily acts of dying to sin and selfishness as it is in the ultimate mystery of death and Resurrection. They are the practitioners of this Way of Love, this Way of Dying and Living, and they invite us to be strengthened and encouraged by their example, even if our own time, our own story, seems very different from theirs.

Because ultimately, there is just one story: the story of a falling leaf that nourishes the earth for the coming spring. The story of a grain of wheat which falls into the ground and dies but bears much fruit. The story of a God who taught us how to lay down our lives for love so that we might live in love eternally. It is the story of beatitude. It is the story of sainthood. It is God’s story, and your story, and mine, and ours. This day, and forever.