Where are you?: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on June 6, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The primary text cited is Genesis 3:8-15.

I remember once when I was a little boy, I got into an argument with my dad. I don’t really recall what it was about, probably something unimportant. I just remember that in the middle of the argument, I ran out the back door into the yard and hid in some bushes. I guess I just wanted a quiet place to sulk and cry a little bit by myself.

But then my dad came out, looking for me, and the thing that I recall most clearly as I hid under the leaves, a little ball of fury, was the catch in his voice, a note of sadness and worry, as he called out my name, trying to find me. So I got over myself and crawled out, covered in dirt, and said, “here I am,” and he just looked at me, relieved, and said, “come inside.” And I did.

What a blessing it is, in our lives, to experience the kind of love that seeks us out and doesn’t abandon us to ourselves; the kind of love that sees past the fears and the frustrations of our petty, wounded hearts, the kind of love that looks at us unflinchingly and simply says, “it’s been a long day; come back inside.” 

I hope and pray that you have known and continue to know that kind of love in your life, whether from a parent, another family member, a partner, or a friend. I hope and I pray that that’s the sort of persistent, active, reconciling love we are practicing in our common life here at Trinity.

And I also hope that this is the sort of love that informs our understanding of today’s reading from Genesis 3, that pivotal moment when Adam and Eve are, themselves, hiding in the bushes after that fateful, perilous bite of ripened fruit.

“They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

Where are you? In those three words, I think we can learn everything we need to know about God’s disposition towards us, from that moment in Eden until this very day, wandering the solitary paths of paradise, searching for his children’s faces. 

Where are you? We have been formed in many different understandings of the nature of God’s love, but I hope, when you hear that question, you can hear, not the threatening yell of a vengeful authority figure, but that of a loving parent, that note of sadness and worry, the voice of one who knows that, yes, something has gone terribly wrong but is nonetheless fervently seeking you out, seeking a way to save you, looking for you in every shadowy corner, under every weeping branch where you might be cowering, seeking you and refusing to abandon you to the despair of your hiding place. 

Where are you? It is the question God has been asking every day since that breezy evening in Eden, since that point in time, for reasons we may never fully understand, when it became possible for us to estrange ourselves from God’s loving embrace. It is the question that underlies the record all of God’s fierce and wild emotions in the Old Testament—

God’s grief and rage over Israel’s waywardness—where are you?

God’s sense of betrayal over humanity’s failure to embody justice, mercy, and peace—where are you?

God’s heartbreak as bow down before the work of our own hands instead of Divine majesty, trembling under the weight of our own fears, all while our One True Love continues to call out—where are you? Where are you? Where are you? 

It is also the question that Jesus came to ask us, face to face: little children, my mother, my sisters, my brothers, I see you now with my own eyes, and you see me, but where are you, in your deepest heart? Do you even know? Do you remember where you belong?

And still, God is asking us that question. Still, God is waiting for us to reveal ourselves, to step forward and to offer the response that Adam and Eve never quite could, the response that a true relationship requires. The word for that response, in Biblical Hebrew is hineini

Hineini. Here I am. 

So much depends on us responding to this love that seeks us out, this love that calls to us in the cool evening breeze even as we keep hiding, even as the evening shadows fall down around us. 

Everything that can be good and true in this fractured world depends upon us saying, as Abraham and Moses and Mary all did: Here I am

Here I am, God.  Covered with dirt and leaves and tears, my best intentions gone awry, my understanding limited, my heart a little bit broken, but here I am, God. I can’t promise to be perfect, but here I am. I am afraid, God, sometimes too afraid to speak, but here I am.

I wonder what it would look like if we could each step out from our hiding places, the ones we’ve run to, the ones we’ve built up around ourselves, and step a little bit closer to one another, a little bit closer to that place where God stretches a hand out to us in the twilight, and I wonder if we might let that question and that answer, that call and response, guide the shape our lives. 

What if we said each day, Where are you? 

Where are you present in my life, God? And where is my neighbor, where is the stranger I forgot to welcome, where is the enemy whom I was taught to fear? Where is the deep, tender heart of the blessed earth, where is the hidden paradise, the love hidden in plain sight? How do I press my soul down into its embrace? Where are you?

And what if we also said each day, Here I am. Here I am, Lord. Here is my face, seeking your face. Here is my voice, speaking your unutterable name on my breath. Here is my body, and here is my mind, and here is my heart; may your Spirit mold them into vessels of your love. You don’t have to search or grieve for me any longer. Hineini. Here I am.

Where are you?

Here I am.

Perhaps this small conversation is the one God has been waiting to have with us for our entire life. Perhaps all God ever wanted was to find us, to bring us home, not back to the beginning, not back to Eden, for we know too much now, we are grown now, but back to our true home, which is within God’s very own heart.

You don’t have to hide from God anymore. We never truly did.

God is calling to you, and there isn’t anything to be afraid of now.

So get up. 

And say, “Here I am.”

And come inside. 

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. 

“And”: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 18, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 22:15-22:

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

“Tell us whose side you’re on,” the Pharisees and the Herodians are asking Jesus today. “Tell us who has the ultimate power: the God of Israel, or this Emperor to whom we owe our taxes?”

They are trying to trip Jesus up with this question, of course, because taking a side in this particular dispute will either undermine the Roman authorities (bad idea) or disappoint Jesus’ Judean followers. A perfect conundrum, his inquisitors assume. 

But do you remember that moment, early in his ministry, when the people of Nazareth get really angry at Jesus’s preaching and try to drive him off of a cliff, and then somehow, inexplicably, he simply “passed through the midst of them and went on his way”?

Yeah, he pretty much does the same thing here. Jesus is really good at transcending these no-win situations. His answer, as simple as it is, stuns the questioners—“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the Emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It’s the first century equivalent of a mic drop–and so they just sort of shut up and go away. 

But I don’t think our takeway is simply that Jesus is really good at giving clever answers or getting himself out of a bind. No, what we see here is that Jesus brings an entirely different mindset to the world than that of his challengers. Unlike them, he does not see things as a choice between binaries—this world OR the next one, insiders OR outsiders, attentiveness to the realm of God OR Caesar. 

Instead, Jesus is someone who almost always operates in terms of “both/and.” He demonstrates, time and again, that a meaningful response to the complexities of the human condition require us to live in the tension of opposites, making space for both THIS thing and THAT thing, THIS person, and THAT person. We don’t get to opt out of loving God or our neighbor just because things are complicated and nuanced.

I had a professor in seminary, Caroline McCall, who taught us to drop the word “but” from our vocabulary when we were engaging in dialogue with one another—ie. I like what you said, BUT, I think my idea is better.  That is important, BUT this is more important.

Instead, she encouraged us to say “AND.” That is important. AND, this is also important.

I came to understand from Caroline’s teaching that this wasn’t just a strategy for civil discussion; it was a social and theological lens that allows for the coexistence of diverse values and perspectives. It is a way of communicating that invites more ideas into the circle, even paradoxical ideas, even ideas we might not agree with, and in doing so our hearts and our minds become just a bit more open, charitable, Christlike. I might disagree with you AND I am still committed to loving you.

And this is, in effect, what Jesus does to answer the Pharisees and the Herodians today. He is saying: take seriously the demands of the present social order AND love God and your neighbor with all your heart and soul and mind. Engage as a participant in this world, as imperfect and broken as it might be, AND never forget that God is breaking in, forging a new world all around you.  Do both. Be both.

Those who are committed to binaries, to zero-sum games, to seeing the world as winners and losers, are likely to be challenged by this. Still, as followers of the way of Jesus, we need to embody non-binary thinking now more than ever.

When we are confronted in our own lives by people who always try to force us into picking sides, into seeing the world as nothing more than a never ending power struggle in which we must vanquish our perceived enemies, we need to pause, and take a breath, and pass through their midst. Not out of fear or apathy, but because the answer to every question lies on the other side of our enmity.

And I know how tempting it is in these polarized times to pick a team, to pick a side, to think of everyone as either an ally or an enemy, but I am telling you this: if the church doesn’t lead the way in opting out of this binary way of thinking and categorizing the world, if people of faith and good conscience don’t do it, then it will not happen, and we will continue to grow more suspicious of one another and farther and farther apart, long past any particular election season or pandemic. And if we are suspicious and apart, we will never flourish, not one of us.  

The change has to begin here, now, among us and within us, because first and foremost we are citizens of God’s Kingdom, and that is a place fundamentally shaped by the word “AND”: a place that is just AND compassionate, free AND interdependent, abundant AND equitable. Rooted in history AND looking towards the future.

And you know what is so fantastic, so beautiful? It is that we are already doing this; we are already living in this spirit right here at Trinity. We demonstrate this every week by coming together with people—people similar to us and people very different from us—to turn our hearts towards God and one another and by saying YES: yes, life is hard, yes, the world can be angry and cruel, yes, I am exhausted and scared and money is tight and my relationship is on the rocks and my dog is sick and I am so tired of political ads on TV–

AND…

AND life is a gift, and God’s blessings are everywhere, and Christ is in the face of the person next to me, and how amazing it is to be alive today, to breathe the crisp fall air, and how good it is to strive for justice and mercy in this land, and how perfectly imperfect is this very moment, here in the presence of Jesus who is passing, lovingly passing through our midst, passing through our fears, passing through our binaries, guiding us out into the True Answer to every question.

How gut-wrenching it is to love him, to follow him where he goes AND how necessary, how grace-filled, how complete.

We will only glimpse God’s fullness, brothers and sisters and sibilings, when “AND” becomes the vocabulary of our hearts. When we live as though there is space enough for everyone, and mercy enough for everyone, and peace enough for everyone, and food and shelter and justice enough for everyone. There can be. There will be. Because no matter how many blustering emperors come and go from this earth, we worship a God who is ultimately on everyone’s side–a God who will not rest until the day we are all resting together. 

That day feels a long way off sometimes. A long way off.

And:

We will get there.

In the Marketplace: A Sermon

This sermon was preached online for Sunday, July 5, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’  (Matthew 11:16-17)

Outdoor markets are vibrant, wonderful places. If you have ever had the chance to visit one, especially a market in another country, I am sure you know what I mean. Whether you are wandering the mountain-town markets of Guatemala or the urban night markets of Hong Kong, or even spending a Saturday morning at the Fort Wayne Farmer’s Market, to visit one is to be surrounded by the smell of ripe fruit and spices and grilled meat; the sounds of haggling customers and music; a profusion of colors and textures spilling out into your field of vision, each stall offering an invitation to trail your fingers along the contours of the earth’s abundance and of human creativity. 

And, at the very same time, marketplaces are confusing, intimdating places, as well. The rules of negotiation are sometimes cryptic, the languages spoken might not be your own, the crowds can close in, and there is always the chance that you might take a wrong turn and end up lost amid a maze of counterfeit goods and beckoning strangers.

In their jumbled offering of both the delightful and the dangerous, markets are a microcosm of our common life—their sights and sounds represent the enticement of the ideas and experiences people exchange with one other, but they also signify the inherent risk of venturing beyond home, the vulnerability of relying on the trustworthiness of strangers, the calculated risk of enmeshing ourselves into a deep system of interdependence–one that extends far beyond simply finding a fair price for honey and housewares. 

In the commerce and connections we foster in the marketplace, we belong to one another; we take our place in the unpredictability and fluidity of life, and who we are and how we are in that space conveys–and ultimately shapes–the kind of world we wish to see prosper. Are we people of curiousity and fairness? Or of suspicion and exploitative self-interest? Do we engage in just and sustainable practices, or is the cheap bargain more alluring to us?

The marketplace reveals every option and allows us the freedom to choose. We might also say it places upon us the responsibilty of choosing, because our conduct in the public square is never just about ourselves; it has broad impact. 

And so we hear Jesus, this morning, comparing his generation to children, “sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,” children who say “we played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn.”

These children in Jesus’ analogy are disappointed because their companions have not engaged in the interplay of mutuality that a vibrant communal life requires; the signals of both celebration and grief, of flute and funeral dirge, have gone unheeded by those too busy, too distracted, or perhaps too self-conscious to respond to the opportunities that beckon in the public square. Their chiding reminds us that it is not enough to simply be present in the world—we must also choose how we are going to respond to it. Will we be attentive to the signs around us and shape our actions accordingly, or will we scurry through the market with our heads down, lost in our own impulses and hesitations?

In its immediate context, Jesus is using his market imagery to critique the crowd’s inability (or unwillingness) to discern the prophetic and proclamatory missions of John the Baptist and himself—like unresponsive children, Jesus sees them as a people who refuse to hear or respond to the signals given that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and that they should therefore listen and follow him, adopting the radically compassionate values of the new, Divine economy which he teaches and embodies.

But I would also say that Jesus’ critique continues to resonate for us today. Right now, in an historical moment when the marketplaces we inhabit are both physical and digital, we must continue to ask ourselves how we are showing up in those spaces—in every space wherein we take part in our expressions of common life. Our social media feeds. Our grocery stores and other businesses. Our political forums. Our parishes and our civic organizations. Although our physical presence has been limited in some of these places lately, we might take this as an opportunity to ponder the values which we will carry with us as we return.

And principal among those values, according to today’s Gospel? A willingness to listen, and look, and learn, and respond. We are asked to be brave, responsive participants in the marketplaces of the world—people who dance with the joyous and grieve with the injured. People who look for the signs of the Kingdom and take action to support its emergence. We are asked, in short, to be people who are all in for the world, who are so attuned to the colors and the sounds and the smells surrounding them that their love for God’s creation is, ultimately, the currency by which they trade. 

We just celebrated Independence Day in the United States, and given the strained fabric of our national life, you might feel a poignant mixture of gratitude and discomfort this year. In the current environment, celebration is tinged with grief and concern. Many of us in this country have been blessed with abundance and freedom, and others among us have been prevented from receiving their share of that same vision.

But imperfect as our union might be, this is nonetheless the marketplace in which we find ourselves. This is the world that requires our loving response. This is the moment we are given, both to dance and to mourn. Let us do both, and tomorrow, and the day after that, let us begin again.

Jesus, the Incarnate Lamentation of God

I offered this address as a video teaching on June 21, 2020, as part of a parish retreat, “The Transformative Power of Lament.” That video can be viewed here.

This weekend we have spent a great deal of time considering how and why we lament. We have talked about God’s ability to hear and hold our lament; about how God wants us to express our sorrow as one part of the deep fullness of what it means to be human. 

But what about God? Is God simply an impassive sort of figure, up there, who calmly, magnanimously receives our cries of grief and frustration with a cosmic pat on the head? Or does lamentation itself somehow bear the image of Divine Life? Can we say that God, that perfect Trinity of Love, is also a figure of lamentation?

Yes, I think we can. And as followers of Jesus, I would say that we must. Because in Jesus, in both his earthly life and in his passion and crucifixion, we see and hear God’s enfleshed lament. God’s anguish. God’s piteous tears.

The idea that God might have a lamentation to offer back to creation was intuited long before the Incarnation, of course. The tradition of the Hebrew prophets already bears the imprint of God’s sorrow over Israel’s brokenness

From the prophet Amos:

Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:

Fallen, no more to rise,

is maiden Israel;

forsaken on her land,

with no one to raise her up.

For thus says the Lord God:

The city that marched out a thousand

shall have a hundred left,

and that which marched out a hundred

shall have ten left.

For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel:

Seek me and live. (Amos 5:1-4)

And then in Jesus, we hear something so very similar, uttered on the human lips of that very same God, who has come to be as one with creation, and thus issues a cry in his own voice: 

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:42-44)

That is, of course, the pathos of God from the very beginning of our story, from Eden, through the Exodus, to Calvary and beyond —an inability to be fully recognized by creation in those moments of visitation. The Father weeps, in a sense, over our inability to see his face clearly through the tears of our finitude; the Son weeps over the hardness of our hearts, ossified by fear and apathy; the Holy Spirit weeps over our inability to hear her crying out across the the desert, across the void of infinite closeness between us.

Thinking about God as a figure of lamentation changes a few things. First, it recasts a lot of the ideas about God’s “wrathfulness” in a new light. What would be like if you imagined all of those “angry” proclamations from God in Scripture as being, instead, expressions of deep grief, said through tears and sighs? Would that affect how you imagine God’s realationship with the world?

This should not be especially surprising, if we think about it, because as Christians, Jesus reveals precisely what God has to say to the world about its brokenness, unmediated through the prophets, and far from being an expression of vengeful anger or rage, it is an expression of lament. Somehow God knows, in Holy Wisdom, that lament is the necessary message. 

Why is this? 

The theologian and scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that it is grief and lament, rather than rage, which God offers to us in Jesus because God understands that lament is the fundamental act which penetrates the numbing self-interest of systems of domination and death; it is God’s solidarity wtih us, God’s joining in our anguish and asking us to learn from anguish rather than acting out of denial. It is in taking up our cross that we encounter the narrow but certain path to wisdom and redemption. The way, the truth, and the life.  Thus it is Only lamentation—that which we express and that which we listen to from others—which can build compassion within us, soften our hearts, and open us up to the mystery of transformative love.  

As Brueggemann writes, “Newness comes precisely from expressed pain. Suffering made audible and visible produces hope, articulated grief is the gate of newness, and the history of Jesus is the history of entering into the pain and giving it voice” (The Prophetic Imagination, 91).

And so when we look at Jesus on the cross, the ultimate expression of God’s lamentation, we are looking at that gateway into newness. We are looking at the articulation of God’s grief over a broken creation, and of God’s deep longing to be so close to us that he is willing to be broken himself. And then, in the resurrection, the definitive evidence that lament, for all its power, is a prelude to something even more powerful: healing, liberation, and enduring life. 

But in Jesus we learn that it is a necessary prelude. There is no shortcut around Golgotha, no avoiding an intentional engagement with grief. This, in some ways, is one of Christianity’s unique contributions to the faith traditions of the world—that suffering is itself a wisdom path, a holy road, one that Divinity itself has trod.

It is not a road for the fainthearted, but it is also not one that we walk alone. God walks with us, and we walk it with each other, to encourage, to listen, to grieve, and to celebrate as one body.

So, as we conclude our retreat, the question is: are we willing to go down that road? Are we willing to go through the gate of newness that is the cross? Are we willing to articulate our grief, and respond to the grief of others? Are we willing to weep with Jesus at the edge of the city, to bear that same fierce love he does, for people, including ourselves, who have not recongized the things that make for peace?

If we are willing, then lamentation is where we begin. 

God bless you on the journey. I will see you out there.

The Church that is Willing to Die: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on June 21, 2020 for the online services at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 10:24-39

What does it mean to be the church in a time such as this? At this turning point in our national life, when old values, old practices, old ways of being are called into question, when the mythic landscape of American history is being challenged and reordered by pandemics, protests, and political turmoil, when certainties are few and far between, here and now we are urgently led to revisit this question: what does it mean to be the church? Who are we Christians in this fraught moment: this moment of lament, this moment of reckoning with the unjust systems we have built and sustained, this moment of questioning the bedtime stories with which we have comforted ourselves about blessing and destiny and progress? 

What is the church now when the wind comes howling in through the open window, when the doors to the building are locked and the bottom drops out and we are falling, falling down into the gloom of an unknown tomorrow? What are we then? Who are we then?

For so much of our nation’s history, to be part of the church has been a designation of institutional membership, a cultural practice encoded in spiritual language handed down from generation to generation; an elegant packaging of some laudable core values, and a safe, enclosed space in which to work out the meaning of life according to those values. In this understanding of church as institution, which patterns itself according to the societal contexts in which it operates—the world outside the walls—there are usually a number of factions, organized along political, liturgical, or ideological spectrums, and whoever dominates in numbers or funding tends to dictate what we stand for and the ways in which we do so. It’s not that we ignore the gospel in this mode of church; it’s simply that the “good news” we share often sounds like the good news we want to hear, or more specifically, the good news that the powerful want to hear. 

For many, being church in this way feels very navigable—it maps rather neatly onto the rest of our lives, it absorbs the language of the zeitgeist like a sponge, such that the progressive and the conservative, whatever those labels happen to mean in a given moment, have equal opportunity to bedeck themselves in Scripture and silk vestments, to continue their eternal struggle via the proxy wars of theology and church politics. 

This is not a new thing, and perhaps, for much of our history, this mode of being the church felt sufficient for the majority of people. Since the peace of Constantine in the 4th century, when Christianity became legalized in the Roman Empire and later adopted as the religion of that Empire, there has been little distinction between the idealized values of citizenship and the  core teachings of the sacred in dominant Western culture—especially for those of us who enjoyed the privileges and powers that such citizenship affords. The easy mix of civic and ecclesial agendas was simply a given. Church was, in effect, where you learned how to be a good and loyal participant in the realm, to support its structures, to promote the peace of the established order.

But established orders tend to fall apart eventually. Structures give way under their own weight. And what is the church, then? Who are we, then? 

Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel:

Do not think that I have come 

to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, 

but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)

Jesus’ words today remind us that there is another choice when it comes to understanding the meaning of the church—a choice that is unsettling, a bit scary even—one that looks nothing like the established order in which we are tempted to become comfortably numb. He describes the cost of following him in the starkest of terms—it is to give up family bonds, it is to give up one’s safety, to give up one’s own life, even, in order to find and participate in whatever strange, magnetic sweetness he seems to carry within himself.  This is not a metaphorical invitation. It is quite serious.

To be church in this way—to relinquish, to descend, to die—has little to do with the striving and the strategies that characterize so much of public life in the West.  It is, instead, an intentional upending, a deconstruction of those values, especially whenver they deny life and dignity to the least among us. For, as Mary proclaims, He has lifted up the lowly and the rich he has sent away empty.

To be the church that responds to Jesus’ invitation is to search for the cracks in the veneer of decadence, to find them and to tear them open,  to name what is rotten underneath and, crucially, inescapably, not simply to name and to criticize, but to cast ourselves, with equal measure of grief and  hope, down into the rottenness, down to the places where we do not want to go, down to where we will finally see what is true, what endures, what refuses to die, even there. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Here and now, in our present turmoil, some of that work has been done for us. The veneer is already cracked. Some of the rottenness is already exposed. But we still have to choose whether we will get down there and look at it. We still have to choose whether we will do something about it. Nobody will force us to, not even God; and the urge to look away, to go back to the old mode of being, will continue to be powerful. But what we decide will determine what sort of church we are part of. Are we an insitution of the present order, subject to the whims of history, or are we a community of disciples, of learners, of passionate lovers of God, seeking Holy Wisdom into the uncomfortable places she calls us?

Most days, I doubt that I have the strength and the courage to choose this latter vision. Most days, I just want to roll over and go back to sleep. It would be so much nicer to stay on the surface of my Christian identity, to let church function as an ornament, as a daydream where we talk about forgiveness and love in hazy terms without ever submitting to the fierce demands that such things actually require. 

But then, always, there is Jesus, with his unsettling words and his compelling gaze that cuts through me like a sword. I see him looking back at me from the cross, forgiving my weakness, unimaginably patient with my fear. I see him in the faces of my homeless neighbors, my black and brown neighbors, my lgbtq neighbors, my conservative neighbors, my liberal neighbors, my neighbors of every background and belief, and I hear his voice: 

Follow me. Follow me wherever it might take you. Follow me out past the church you thought you knew, out beyond a brittle, compromised peace, follow me out past certainty and cynicism, follow me into the heart of the world’s sorrows and see what lies on the other side of fear and lamentation. I promise you, everything real, everything joyful, everything good, is there. I am there. 

If we listen to Jesus, if we really listen to him, what other choice can we make?

Holy Week at Home #8: Easter Day

The final installment of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; a meditation on happiness and joy in a season when both feel harder to inhabit. Yet still we say: Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

Something I am continuing to discover is how joy and happiness are not the same thing. And on this particular Easter, when the usual signs of celebration are absent or muted by grief, understanding that distinction feels more important than ever.

Happiness is precious and usually comes, in its purest form, unbidden, from humble things. A flower blooming, a familiar voice, a gentle hand outstretched. But happiness also vanishes as quickly as it comes, and cannot be pursued. We must learn to hold it gently, and then let it go.

Thus I think of Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus in the garden on Easter morning. There is a flower and a voice and an outstretched hand, yes, but also this: “Do not hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father, to my God and your God.” This happiness is only momentary. Resurrection is not just reunion. It’s also letting go.

So, we must consider what we mean by joy, and Easter joy in particular. Not mere happiness, but perhaps, instead, a fullness. Fullness of life. Fullness of presence, both God’s presence and our own. A fullness that contains happiness, yes, but also grief, and confusion, and wonder, and mercy, and everything else that emanates from the deep heart of Life. A fullness that sustains us even when our pleasures feel meagre, as they sometimes do.

As we live into the reality of this unusual Eastertide, I find myself kneeling in the garden with Mary Magdalene, having experienced such a collision of grief and happiness that my soul feels stretched beyond its capacity. But I am choosing to trust that in the stretching, there is the shape of joy. In the stretching, Christ is forming me into something new. Something that can contain a bit more of the vastness of God’s dream, wherein Resurrection finds its source and endpoint.

Blessed Easter, dear friends. I wish you happiness to soothe your spirit. And I wish you joy, that each of us might become who God made us to be.

Holy Week at Home #7: Holy Saturday

A continuation of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; on Holy Saturday we are caught in that space between grief and hope. I have a particular love for the Virgin Mary on this day, who is known on Holy Saturday as Our Lady of Solitude. She has been with me through many seasons of waiting and wondering, including this one. I dedicate this poem to her.

In between beginnings, I must learn to live in interims.

And today I am here, in that shadow-place at the intersection of memory and hope,
The dove-grey moment
when the past ebbs, unreachable
and the cloud bears no hint of light.

Where have you gone, my beloved?

I wait, and yes, I grieve
the yet-unsatisfied promise
But I also find that

shadows cast their own illumination over those who pause to consider–
who ponder in their heart–
the saintliness of not knowing;
The beatitude of contingency.

And as the night enfolds understanding
As your absence drapes over me like a mantle of fog
I perceive how needed it is
To say goodbye, and to mean it

To let this waiting be its own solace
Its own teacher
Its own revelation of the
unchanging liminality
at the heart of my restless heart.

After the going and before the coming
There is simply this,
The sufficient poverty of now,
And that must always be enough
Or nothing ever will.

Son, behold your mother
in repose
in recollection
in the resilience you required of her
wild as the sea-grass
Bending
in solitude
But rising
in strength.

Holy Week at Home #6: Good Friday

A continuation of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; on Good Friday we stand at the foot if the Cross as Jesus is crucified. 

Look up.

He is unfurled
aloft,

Like a flag of surrender,
So that you might see, and know
It is finished.

Like a scroll,
So that you might read the lines on his skin and find the place
where it is written in rivulets of tears:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.
I have been anointed to proclaim release.
And I am releasing—
I am giving up
my spirit.

A broken body
Arched like a question
inquiring into your frailty;
testing whether it is tolerable
For love to cost this much.

But if you will stay
In this place without answers
Then you will learn that the
rending and the mending of the world
are two notes of the same song.

You will learn that there is no such thing
as dispassionate salvation
or tentative redemption.

And how in the Divine economy
everything is given
And returned
Eternally.

You will learn that nothing is ever wasted
even when waste is the only credible conclusion.
Even when all the evidence suggests defeat.

You will learn that victory is not the same as winning;
that truth is not the same as certainty;
And that peace is not the same as pleasure.

But all of this is offered now, only now,
On this desiccated and necessary hill,
The final bequeathment of a dying God
Who cannot teach you the secrets of eternity
Without entering finitude.

Look up, into his face.

Look up, and see how he is grieving all of your endings.

Look up, and see how he is dying all of your deaths.

Look up, and see the world pass into something new.

Look up. 

Holy Week at Home #4: Spy Wednesday

A continuation of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; on Holy Wednesday, also known as “Spy Wednesday” we focus on Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus. His reasons for doing so have been long debated in the Christian tradition; the Gospels leave a number of possibilities open to interpretation. 

Facades are so tempting; they promise to make us presentable to the world, maybe even impressive. We plaster all the cracks, drape over the torn fabric of the heart. We adorn ourselves with fear and fig leaves, trembling and hidden like Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening, terrified of being truly seen. 

Thus we find Judas, the “spy” of Spy Wednesday, peering out from behind his mask of virtue while rage, or jealousy, or longing, roils deep within. We don’t know precisely why he betrays Jesus, and that unknowability, that unbreakable facade is, itself, part of his tragedy–and ours. Empathy is only possible when we see below the surface. Without it, we are lost to one another, as Judas is lost to us.

But we should not dispose of him so easily, lest we exempt ourselves from the questions his story poses. Do any of us fully understand why we harm one another? Can we ever discern the exact balance of love and fear that motivate our daily choices? Is there a way to break free from the artifice, the suffocating ornamentation, under which we have burdened and betrayed ourselves?

Following Jesus is partly an attempt to reckon with those questions, even if our answers are fumbling. He stands there in the night, ready to receive our kiss, asking whether we know why we offer it. He stands there, forgiving us for the paltry silver we’ve gathered to justify our unexamined lives.

And here, finally, in the cool of another evening, we experience the ultimate futility of hiding from him; there is no more time for our pitiable facades.

He understands, even when we do not: only love and death, now. Only the integrity of naked flesh, and wood, and stone, now. In them, we will finally face ourselves. In them, all truth will be revealed.