Names: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, May 8 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is Acts 9:36-43, in which Peter raises a woman from death.

How many names do you have?

The immediate answer to that question might seem obvious—many of us have a first, a middle, and a last, with maybe one or two more thrown in for good measure by our parents. But it’s not always that straightforward—some of us also have old nicknames, the recollection of which might make us squirm with delight or embarrassment; affectionate names given by friends and romantic partners; and names that we have claimed for ourselves later in life as we have better understood who we are and how we wish to be known to the world. There might be other names, too, that we’d rather not hear—the hurtful, insulting ones that were hurled at us at one point or another, the ones that still rattle around in our memory like heavy stones. 

There is great power in the names we carry; power to heal and to harm; to remember who we are and to be reborn. It should not be surprising, then, that much of Scripture is taken up with the giving and the changing and the remembering of names, including the ones we have applied, with the limitations of human language, to the unspeakable name of God. 

We might say that, in some way, the entire story of God’s people thoroughout the Bible is the search for a name—a name by which to know ourselves, a name by which to address the ineffability of divine truth, a name to call out into the silent infinitude of the stars—a name that is sufficient to say what life is, a name that can capture in full something that is ultimately beyond words.

I got to thinking about names because of today’s passage from Acts, where Peter restores to life a woman in the city of Joppa, a woman who bears two names, Tabitha and Dorcas. As the writer of Acts informs us, Dorcas is the Greek translation of the Aramaic name Tabitha, which means “gazelle.” Now, it would be easy to pass right over this detail as we read about her miraculous resurrection, but I think we would miss something important if we did so. 

Commentators note that Tabitha/Dorcas, in addition to being a woman of some financial means who was able to support the widows in her community, was also a woman that straddled two worlds. Joppa is a port city, and given her two names, it is likely that this disciple of Jesus was a Greek-speaking Jewish woman who occupied a liminal space between her Israelite identity and her ties to the Hellenized world of the Roman empire. Her two names suggest that she had learned to traverse the ambiguous territory between colonized and colonizer, between membership in an oppressed nation and the society of the imperial oppressor.

We do not know how she managed this interplay of names and identities, but we do know that in the midst of them, this woman who was both Tabitha and Dorcas dedicated her life to service in the name of Jesus. And perhaps, for her, the name of disciple–follower of the Way, sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd–was the thread that bound her disparate roles in a fractured world. 

But then note what happens in the passage. Peter (himself another bearer of two names) comes to see the body of the woman, and in raising her back to life, he says, “Tabitha, get up.” Not Dorcas, but Tabitha. Her first name, the name that was with her from the beginning, the name spoken in her people’s original language: this is the name by which she is called back to herself, this is the name that inaugurates her resurrected existence. It is Tabitha, tzvia in ancient Hebrew, the same word that names the gazelle leaping on the mountainside in the Song of Solomon, that is the name of life for her. That is the name by which God, through Peter, breathes life back into her body. And while the Scriptures do not tell us anything about her life after this miracle, I can’t help but imagine that, for the rest of her days, she remembered the sacred power of being brought back to life by the sound of her original name. Tabitha, get up. 

What is the name by which God would call you? What is the name that encapsulates your deepest self, the name that is life to you? And, conversely, what names have been put upon you that no longer work, that no longer tell the whole story of who you are called to be?

I speak not only of given names and surnames, but also of the roles and identities by which we are known and named, which, while important, are too often over-simplified, objectified, and used to label and limit our complexity—old, young, healthy, sick, parent, child. Priest, layperson, spiritual wanderer. Gay, straight, trans*, Black, Brown. American. Foreigner. Pro-Life. Pro-choice. Democrat. Republican. Do these names actually tell you who you are, or who your neighbor is?

Or is there a deeper name, an original name, by which you must identify yourself and those whom you encounter if we will ever hope to actually know one another? Is there a name for ourselves that will bring the dying parts of this world back to life?

There is, in fact.

And it turns out that the woman known as Dorcas heard that it day as she awoke from the sleep of death. Because a funny thing about the name Tabitha—tzvia. That word, in its original language, doesn’t only mean gazelle, but also, simply this: beautiful. Her name was beauty. 

Beautiful one, get up. 

This is the name by which God knows each of us. This is the name that God has called us from the moment the world began. And this is the name by which God, in Christ, desires us to know one another—the name underneath our names, the name beyond every label and slur and stereotype. The name that will bring anyone back to life. 

Beautiful one, get up.

And this is the only name that can heal us, that can see us through the divisions and the suspicions that have plagued not only our recent history but the entirety of the human story. It is only when we know ourselves as beautiful, as beloved, and when we see that same thing in the face of our neighbors, in the face of our enemies, as Jesus taught us to, that we will begin to move back from the brink.

It is only when we see and name the inherent beauty and dignity of all creation and develop a reverence for what God has made and called good that we will move closer toward the kingdom wherein we were meant to dwell. It is only when we stop name-calling and start naming each other as beautiful, when we start noticing the beauty we see, even in the places and people where it’s not first apparent—it is only then that we will finally speak our own true names, and it is only then our mortal tongues will begin to utter something that approaches the one true name of God. 

The God who woke Tabitha from the dead.

The God who woke Jesus from the dead.

The God who will wake each of us, on the last day, saying, quite simply:

Beautiful one, get up. 

The Cup: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that will be enough.

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

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

Tonight is the night that story begins, again. 

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

No Regrets: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, March 6, 2022, the First Sunday in Lent. The lectionary text cited is Luke 4:1-13, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

We inhabit an unsettled moment. That statement is true on many different levels, but in this instance I am referring to something deeper and more elemental than the news headlines. I am thinking instead about the changing of the seasons that accompanies our entry into Lent in the northern hemisphere.  Amid the turbulent moods of early spring, when we are caught up in the vacillating space between ice and dewdrops, between dirt and blossom, between the cradle and the Cross, there is a keener sense perhaps, of the fertile mix of decay and growth that characterizes our lives on this earth. On Ash Wednesday, the cold mud of winter was imprinted on our brows, and eventually on Easter Day we will convulse with joy among the fields of lilies, but for now we are held in the tension of the time-being, suspended in the middle of frost and flower, mortality and miracle. 

Lent is the pungent season when life and death speak to one another. Too often we keep these two realities isolated in separate corners of our minds, so it is good for us to listen to their conversation over the next several weeks, to notice how life and death layer upon and fertilize the other, both in the Liturgy and in the world around us. Lent is when this life—the delicate, earthy existence we have been given—is brought into clarity and focus by accepting its brevity and, indeed, sometimes its cruelty and brokenness. But it is also a season for celebrating that life, for rediscovering the urgency of living deeply and well while we have the chance, before it is too late, and we go down to the dust once more. 

There was an article that became popular online several years ago, written by a hospice nurse. In it, she reflected on the conversations she’d had with the countless people she’d cared for in the final weeks and days of their lives, and she shared the top five regrets that people expressed as they prepared to die. They were as follows:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

And while these five regrets might not be true for every person in every time and place, I think they are striking, because they point to the heart of the things that matter when everything else falls away, when there are no illusions left to hide behind, when the wind blows cold across the bare fields and we remember the trace of that muddy cross on our brow. We might say they are the insights of a Lenten spirit, from the passage between life and death, the unadorned space between the seasons of the soul. 

And they reveal that when we die, the thing we might grieve the most is simply that we never allowed ourselves to truly live. That we didn’t connect with others. That we didn’t connect with our deepest selves. And that, having been tempted by other distractions, we might face the great mystery of eternity without having deeply savored the great mystery of now.

God knows this is our struggle. God has always known this. And that is why, I suspect, we see the same struggle woven through God’s own life among us in Jesus. Consider today’s gospel passage from Luke, when Jesus is compelled by the Holy Spirit to enter the wilderness and submit to the temptations that humanity has always faced—the temptation to control our own destiny rather than trust in God’s providence, to adorn ourselves with the false security of power and prestige and material comfort; to laud safety and strength rather than vulnerability and humility. 

These were the same temptations that Israel faced in the wilderness and again when they reached the Promised Land. They are the same temptations that each of us must contend with in our own particular way. And if and when we succumb to them, the result is the same—disconnection, distrust, inauthenticity, the cultivation of a brittle and strident spirit, and then, at the end, a litany of sorrows that might sound something like:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. I wish I’d expressed my feelings. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

But Lent is an opportunity to pull back from this trajectory in our own lives. And Jesus, in a Lenten moment of his own in this Gospel, shows us how to do so. He faces the temptations of the devil—those temptations to pattern his life in self-serving ways, to become something that he is not, and he chooses, instead, to be exactly who he is, exactly who his Father wills him to be. Which is to say, he chooses relationship, he chooses simplicity, he chooses depth, he chooses trust, he chooses love. And the words he speaks are a ray of light burning away the frost, a budding promise to us, even now, as we wait for the spring:

One does not live by bread alone.

Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.

Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

Simple, ancient words, drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures. True words. Words that are almost like a death, in that they remind us of the fleeting nature of most of the things we fixate upon and obsess over, and instead call us back to what is eternal. These are the words that allowed Jesus to stay focused on who he was, and they can do the same for us whatever our journey looks like. They are the words that invite us to a life—and a death—that is the opposite of regret.

How do we get there? How do we live as Jesus chose to live? How do we die as Jesus chose to die?

1. Have the courage to be yourself. Abide deeply in the love that is inside of you, the love that God gave you to share with others.

2. Don’t work so hard, at least not for the things we usually give away our lives for. Work for God’s kingdom, and rest in knowing that you don’t have to do it all by yourself. You were created for wonder and praise more than you were for achievement. 

3. Express your feelings. Jesus certainly did. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, to be wrong, to show your weaknesses, because they are part of what will save you. We worship a God who was crucified before he was glorified. 

4. Stay in touch with your friends, and with all of the important people in your life. They are the most likely place where you will experience the love of God firsthand, and are thus the true treasures of this world. 

5. Let yourself be happy. Let yourself love this imperfect world, whether it’s deep winter or glorious spring or the messy middle with all of its unanswered questions. Let yourself be dazzled by the mystery of existence, by the mystery of God’s love, embrace it while you live, and then you will regret nothing, because you will experience everything. 

This is the life Jesus chose in the wilderness. This is the life he invites to choose. And this is the strange, holy, in-between season where we must make our choice. This is Lent. 

And so here we stand, with a trace of mud on our brow, leaning into the light; children of the broken earth, children of God. Tempted, yes. Stumbling, sometimes. Seeking, always. 

But loved, always loved, in death and in life, in winter, and in spring, and in the glorious mystery that is beneath and beyond all seasons.

And with a love that powerful, that eternal, that true, there is nothing to regret. 

Bones: A Sermon for All Hallows’ Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 

There is no other commandment greater than these.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obituaries: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

Parting Words: A Sermon for Good Friday

I preached this sermon on Good Friday, April 2, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is the Passion Narrative from John’s Gospel. A recording of the service can be found here.

What can we say, now that we have arrived here?

This is the moment in the Christian year when words fail us, when our platitudes turn to dust. What meager phrase is adequate to express what we see, what we feel, what we fear in this place: the first and only time in the history of creation when we face the prospect of being truly, utterly alone in the cosmos? What could we say that would ever be a sufficient offering, a word of consolation to our God as he hangs on the cross?

For that is what we are doing today, on Good Friday: we are keeping vigil at the side of our Lord as he dies for us. We plant ourselves here, amid the skulls, at the foot of his cross, and we wait, and we watch, not because we can change anything or solve anything, but because somehow we know that to love him is to be present in this moment. Nobody should have to die alone. 

But in our waiting and watching, still, perhaps, we wonder how to express to him what we feel—all the things that we always wanted to say, but never quite could.

My Lord and my God, how quickly the time went; how much more I wish I had told you while we were together. But now we are here in this valley of shadows, and you are slipping away, and there is so little time left. Please don’t leave us. But if you must leave us, what would you have me say?

If you have ever lost someone close to you, you know that this is not just a Good Friday conundrum; when death is imminent, when it is time for that last conversation, we often struggle with what to say. We are often not very good with endings. 

And in those moments, beside the hospital bed, in the moment before we must finally turn away, memory and regret and fear can leave us as inarticulate as Mary and the Beloved Disciple, gazing upon the face of the one who is leaving us, but saying not a word, our tongues parched by grief. 

For what can we say, now that we have arrived here? 

I recently read, though, that, in the end, there are, in truth, just four things that are most important to say to someone you care about before they die. Four statements that we can offer: Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.

So perhaps that is what we can offer today; perhaps that is the best we can do, to give our dying God the same, humble tenderness we might offer each other. To say to him: Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.

Lord Jesus, forgive me. Forgive me for all the times I forgot you, while you patiently waited for me to remember. Forgive my stubbornness and my smallness, and all the times that I got in the way of the joy that you yearned to nurture within me. Forgive me for all the ways that I have passively accepted a world that still crucifies the vulnerable and disregards the poor and the meek and the hungry, whom you have blessed. Forgive me for my silence when I ought to have spoken; and for my careless words when I ought to have been still. Forgive me for holding you at a distance, for trying to preserve myself from the transformational intensity of your love. Lord Jesus, forgive me.

Lord Jesus, it may sound strange to say it, but I forgive you, too. I forgive you for not being present in the ways that I needed you to be when I felt so alone. I forgive you for inaugurating a church that at times, in your name, has harmed so many people. I forgive you for creating a world that allows for sin to break people apart, for this mortal life where we seem to lose everyone we love. I forgive you for being so hard to understand at times, and so hard to follow. I forgive you for not being the type of strong and mighty savior that I expected, the kind that would keep me safe. I forgive you for all these things, mostly because I need to let them go, in order to see you properly, in your fullness, and not the incomplete version of you that has been distorted by my own pain and confusion and resentment. I forgive you because I want to know you as you are, not as I wish you were. Lord Jesus, I forgive you.

Lord Jesus, thank you. Thank you for loving me beyond comprehension. I know that your love is why you hang upon the cross, why you choose to lay down your life for your friends, and although I cannot fully understand it, I feel it—its saving, healing power—deep in my soul. Thank you for showing us what it means to live as a human being fully alive, fully in communion with our Father in heaven, fully in partnership with our neighbors and with the web of all creation. Thank you for the outpouring gift of your grace in water and bread and wine and oil; for giving your flesh and your Spirit to us, unworthy as we may be. Thank you for your church, which, at its best, has saved my life and taught me the meaning of community. Thank you for the invitation to live a life caught up in the joy your life, and to love with a heart enraptured by your undying love. Lord Jesus, thank you.

Lord Jesus, I love you. Not perfectly. Not as consistently as I might hope to. But I love you. I love you for challenging me to be better; for believing in us, in our potential, these wayward children that you have fashioned out of the dust of the earth. I love you for your tenacity and your gentleness; your courage and your peace. I love you because you have taught me how to be myself, the way you created and intended for me to be. I love you because you were yourself, purely and utterly yourself. And as your life slips away on this day, know that I will carry you with me now, for all the days to come, until death is but a memory, until I see your face again. But for now, Lord Jesus, just know that I love you. And it’s ok to go, if you must. I know you must. 

What can we say, now that we have arrived here? 

Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you. 

And then, it is finished.

But is enough. It is, perhaps, all he ever wanted us to say.

Only Questions: A Good Friday Sermon

This sermon was preached on Good Friday, April 19, 2019, at Christ Episcopal Church in Alameda, CA. 

Shortly before condemning Jesus to death, Pilate asks him–and thus unknowingly asks God–a bitter, heartbreaking , fundamental question, one that humanity has likely been asking from the very beginning: “what is truth?”

He receives no answer.

There is no answer to give that could be encapsulated into words. Truth, the very embodiment of Truth, is a bruised and battered face staring back into his own face, and it is beyond articulation.

Like Pilate and everyone else who participates in the crucifixion of God Incarnate, we are deep in a mystery now, a place where words are largely inadequate, where answers are few, where only questions prevail. We must tread carefully, for this is terrifying holy ground we stand upon today, Good Friday, and we should not profane it with endless speculation.

We are at the foot of the Cross, gazing up at Jesus, who in turn gazes back at us, blood and tears streaming down his face—and in this place, tidy, insightful observations about the nature of God and clever turns of phrase about sin and forgiveness and sacrifice all dry up like chaff and blow away in the wind.

The Cross rejects every attempt to understand it fully. It is not a place for self-assured theologizing or domesticated spiritualizing. It is a raw, awful, unspeakable place in which we find ourselves.

Last night, on Maundy Thursday, Jesus told us to love one another, and we did so. We washed one another’s feet and broke bread together with the best of intentions. We perceived that this was the proper way to live, to care, to be present in God’s kingdom. And on Easter we will no doubt come back together as a people renewed and forgiven for all the times we have failed to love, returning to our senses after this day of desperation and horror, and we will recommit ourselves to the fullness of life that God offers freely in the light of resurrection.

But today we are no-place. Today we have murdered the very best of our intentions to love. We have traveled to the Place of the Skull, the place where confidence is shattered like bone. Today we stand at the farthest point from comfort, the place where Jesus, God-With-Us, He who was the smiling babe in the manger, the youth in the temple, the wise teacher on the mountain, the Holy One, cries out to the Father for some sign of presence and receives…nothing. No answer. No words.

And in that silence we know what it is to forsake and to be forsaken.

Yes, we are deep in a mystery, one so strange and terrible that any attempt to sort it out, to prod at its depths, to explain it, results in cheap, brittle platitudes.

Think about of all the things that you should never, ever say when someone has experienced a great loss in their life: things like

“It’s all part of God’s plan.”

“Everythinghappens for a reason.”

“When one door closes, another one opens.”

These are things we say to each other that are usually more about soothing our own sense of confusion and fear rather than simply being present, deeply present, to the pain of another.

And yet these trite, hollow, inadvertently callous attempts at comfort are exactly what we so often apply to our encounter with Jesus on the Cross. We want to justify this awful thing, to make sense of it, to assure ourselves that God knew what God was doing the whole time. We approach Golgotha and see the crucified Christ writhing in agony and fear, and we say, to Him, as we do to others: “everything happens for a reason! Your suffering is part of God’s plan!”

And these words are like yet more nails, hammered and stammered into the endless void of His suffering.

The Church has done this since the beginning, in various ways. It’s only human, perhaps. We don’t like sitting with questions, and we rely too much on explanations.

Some of us want to reason the Cross away as God’s clever, elegant, brutal plan to atone for our sins, to make proper restitution for our brokenness, as if the cosmos were constructed like an accounting system or a court of law.

Or, equally tempting for some of us and yet equally limiting: we confine the Cross to the realm of  human political drama, as if Jesus was nothing more than an enlightened social justice prophet murdered by “conservative” religious authorities and imperial forces—those bad, unenlightened others that of course look nothing like us. As if the Cross was merely an unfortunate byproduct of a backwards political system rather than what it actually is: the fundamental, unanswerable question at the core of all the pain which we experience and inflict upon each other.

Every time we try to reconstruct the Cross in a way that suits us, in a way that provides easy answers, in a way that excuses us from the narrative, we are simply building another instrument of torture to re-crucify that which we cannot understand.

No more of this, I ask you. No more. Lay down your easy theories of atonement that taste of sour wine; stop casting lots for your competing theologies of the Cross. For one day, let us stop trying to figure it out. Look into the face of Christ crucified and let Him be all that He is, uncertain and frightening and heart-rending, the face of Truth.

And let that wordless recognition of Truth, terrible as it may be, let it be enough today, because it is all we are given. Just as with Pilate, Jesus has no further answers for us.

It is called Good Friday because it is God’s Friday—the day in which God presents us with a mystery, a deep mystery, a Man who is on a cross for reasons so strange and intimate that they are as distant as an all-consuming black hole, and yet as close as our own breath.

And yes, we know in our hearts that there is more to the story, and that perhaps soon, very soon, we will fumble our way toward the answer of the empty tomb and the radiant joy of something entirely new. But not now. Not yet.

What is truth, we ask? Look at the Cross. It is staring us in the face, wordless and unutterable. Approach it cautiously, without certainty. Touch it if you dare; look into the void and see God staring back at you. Today, this is all we have.

 

Sermon: A Tale of Two Liturgies

I preached this sermon today, November 27th, at All Saints Chapel, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, CA. It was given as my senior-year sermon for the Master of Divinity program. Lectionary texts are Revelation 14:14-20 and Luke 21:5-9.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” (Luke 21:9)

This morning, in the midst of these apocalyptic readings from Revelation and the Gospel of Luke, I felt called to share a word…about liturgy. If my time at CDSP has taught me anything, it’s that there is nothing—absolutely nothing—more essential for us to talk about than liturgy.

But I’m not being glib or preciously High-Church when I say this, nor am I just giving a shout-out to Dr. Meyers. Liturgies—understood broadly as those ongoing structures of relational action in which we participate—are what define us. The daily liturgies of our lives shape our reality and determine the parameters of our hope.

And so, in light of today’s Gospel passage, I would ask that we sit here a moment with Jesus, gazing up at the finely ornamented temple of 21st century life in this country, and I would ask us to consider the “wars and insurrections” of our time, and how they form a twisted, macabre liturgy of their own. A liturgy of Death.

In this liturgy, the hymns are composed with the staccato of gunshots, and incense rises up in clouds of tear gas. In this liturgy, the Gloria is sung to acclaim the power of whiteness and the prayers of the people read like a shopping list. In this liturgy the prophets preach the commodification of well-being and the anesthetic of endless, consumable content. This Death liturgy is the shiny, shambling procession toward the void of human possibility: the howling emptiness we sometimes call sin, and we perceive its highly effective “missional outreach” whenever we read the daily news headlines.

But this liturgy is not the exclusive possession of our age. Our compulsion for death, both physical and spiritual, has always been with us. The blood in the ground cries out to bear witness through the generations. And this is why Jesus tells us, “these things must happen.” Because we are enthralled by sin. Wars and insurrections and toppling temples must happen, not because God needs them or delights in them, but because they are the perverse oblation of the liturgy of Death, the destructive “work of the people” that inevitably occurs in the absence of God’s grace.

It is this liturgy of destruction that is attested, also, in the book of Revelation, where the harvest of the earth is crushed by God’s winepress. But lest we misread the text, we must remember: the blood that flows from the winepress is not that of the wicked in the hands of a vengeful deity, but the blood of the martyrs. We kill the martyrs. Like Christ before them, they are trampled by Death’s liturgical procession and their lives are poured out over the earth.

We see this already, every day. In the liturgy of Death, the innocent are slain on the altars of nationalism, economic exploitation, homophobia, misogyny…and the list goes on. And in our complicity, in the things we have done and left undone, we bow at the altar of death and drink the blood of our victims. It is a bitter cup, and in those last days it will taste like wrath to those who drink it. This is the liturgy to which we are bound.

Except…

We are here, now, because we have encountered and been reborn into a different liturgy. The liturgy of God’s love. The liturgy of Life with a capital L. This is what Christ offers us in his resurrected body: the promise of Life, and the absolute rebuke of humanity’s penchant for death and destruction. His empty tomb destroys the lie that Death’s liturgy leads to our final resting place, or that God’s ultimate posture is one of destruction. God is revealed in the resurrection of Jesus as God has always been—permanently creative, eternally life-giving, infinitely merciful.

And God’s liturgy is so beautiful, so poetic, because it takes the very instruments of Death’s liturgy and transforms them into signs of hope. The cross, an instrument of torture, becomes the banner of victory. The innocent blood poured out becomes the cup of life, the cup of forgiveness. And thus the winepress of the wrath of God is revealed for what it truly is: the beating, bleeding heart of Christ, spilling out, flooding the earth, inundating the liturgy of death, drowning it with life.

This is our choice then: which liturgy will we inhabit today? Will we orient our hearts toward the altar of Death, or that of Life?

We are here, at CDSP and in the Church, because no matter how loudly Death processes in the streets, we choose the liturgy of Life, over and over again. We have been given the gift of spending time here in this community, exploring the contours of God’s love, finding words to describe it and to share with those whom we will serve elsewhere. We are here to embody that Life-giving liturgy with one another, and to let it shape us. We are here, too, because we have seen the liturgy of Death, each in our own personal way. We have peered into the void, and we have heard God’s NO:

NO to death’s proclamation of expendability,

NO to its mockery of the life which God has declared good,

NO to its glittering idols of self-interest.

We have heard the NO to Death and we are saying Amen, Amen, Amen, come, Lord Jesus, come and give us Life once more.

When we choose to be swept up in the liturgy of Life, when we perceive its unconquerable movement, we come to understand Jesus’ words a bit better: these wars and insurrections must take place, this temple will fall, this river of blood must flow, but you, child of God, you do not have to be terrified, because you know that the Lord is not guiding us toward destruction, but is reshaping us, guiding us back into our proper relationship with Life. Death itself is the only thing that will be destroyed.

This is the Good News that our liturgy tells us. May we be ever mindful of its power, and ever grateful for its promise.