Dancing Alone: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 16, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 5:21-37, wherein Jesus speaks about the radical demands of the Law upon the heart.

In the California desert, along a lonely highway that cuts through the merciless expanse of Death Valley, there is a town. It’s hard to call it a town, really; it’s more of an outpost—a cluster of low buildings huddling together in the searing, shimmering vastness of the Mojave, the only sign of human habitation for miles and miles in any direction.

Death Valley Junction, it is called—built in the 1920s by a mining company that has long since disappeared. There is an abandoned gas station, and a cafe that never seems to be open, and an old hotel with an empty parking lot. Driving past, you would be forgiven for thinking that it is just a ghost town, a dessicated relic, like so many other ruins that dot the western landscape of the United States.

And in some ways it is. On most days in Death Valley Junction, the only sound you will hear is wind raking over the scrub brush, whistling through the empty buildings. But I urge you: if for some odd reason you are ever passing through this place, stop the car and get out. In fact, if you are ever near Death Valley at all, make your way to this forgotten corner of the desert. Because hidden among those decaying buildings is a miracle.  A strange, wonderful miracle.

It’s called the Amargosa Opera House. From the outside it is unremarkable, just a white stucco structure in a dusty lot with a simple wooden sign above the doors. You won’t find any big headliners performing here, nor throngs of eager patrons lining up outside. But the Amargosa Opera House contains something better, something far more precious, inside its walls. Because when you step into it, as your eyes adjust to the dim light, you will encounter a vision: a vision of truth, a vision of authenticity, a vision of what I think love really looks like. 

You see, in the early 1960’s, a successful ballet dancer and artist from New York City by the name of Marta Becket was traveling through Death Valley with her husband on a camping trip. They got a flat tire and had to stop in Death Valley Junction. Even then it was a largely empty place, and as she waited for the car to get fixed, Marta wandered among the decrepit buildings, pondering their history.  And then something happened.

As she peered into the windows of an abandoned community hall, with its peeled paint and its battered old stage, she had a revelation.  Marta knew, in a flash of insight, that somehow she belonged there. 

“My life split in two at this junction,” she later told a newspaper reporter. “I looked at the stage and knew it was my future. I knew I’d perform here the rest of my life.”

And that’s exactly what she did. Marta left New York and moved to Death Valley Junction with her husband and fixed up the old performance hall. She rechristened it the Amargosa Opera House. She started performing one-woman ballets of her own creation. As you can imagine, given the location, the audiences were not large.  A local rancher or two; some workers from a nearby brothel; the occasional traveler. Sometimes, quite often in fact, no one would show up for the performance, but Marta would dance anyway–for an empty house, in the empty desert. 

Later, Marta and her husband divorced. And despite the protestations of her friends back east, she remained there alone in the Opera House, in the middle of Death Valley, now the sole inhabitant of the town, restoring buildings, welcoming the occasional visitor, and dancing, always dancing, through the decades, for anyone or no one at all. 

At some point, she had another inspiration: if no audience would come to her, she would create her own. And so she painted the interior of the Opera House with murals filled with people—huge, vivid murals that make you feel like you are standing inside a grand European theater, with gilded balconies and elegantly dressed figures and a big blue sky overhead with billowy clouds and laughing cherubs. 

And so, with her painted audience cheering her on, Marta danced, night after night, on her desert stage, dedicated fully to that vision, to the calling she felt when she first peered through the dusty window: unashamed, unafraid, utterly devoted to her singular vision of creative expression.  Utterly in love with her unusual life. Utterly authentic. 

I met Marta just a couple years before she died at the age of 92. She had continued dancing until she was 87. And ever since I stumbled upon the Amargosa Opera House, and saw her murals and learned about her story, it has been something of a beacon for me in moments when I feel lost. Each of us, in our own way, comes face to face with the question: who am I? What am I supposed to do with this life I have been given? How can I live purposefully, courageously, authentically?

I tell you this because I am convinced that’s what God desires from each of us, my friends: to be authentic. That doesn’t mean moving to Death Valley, necessarily. That was Marta’s story, her particular calling.

But God does ask us to show up in the world as fully and deeply ourselves as possible; to share our gifts for the betterment of the world; and to trust that this alone is enough, that we are enough, even if nobody else understands us, even if we end up dancing onstage alone.

That is what it means to be the bearers of God’s image: to discover what is true, what is sacred—in ourselves and in each other—and to love it, tenaciously. 

And so when we hear Jesus teaching in today’s Gospel about the intense, seemingly impossible demands that the Law places on our hearts—when we learn from him that the kingdom of heaven looks something like those rare moments when our inner motives are in perfect alignment with our outward actions—I believe we are hearing his invitation to a brave, self-giving, authenticity. 

It is not enough, Jesus tells us, to go through the motions of virtue if you are harboring fear and anger and covetousness deep within you. It is not enough to proclaim peace with your lips if there is war in your heart.  It is not enough to fulfill the legal and ceremonial obligations of your culture if you are not also attentive to the injustices that your culture perpetuates.

Because in that gap between the person God intends for us to be and the person we might have allowed ourselves to become—that is the void where sin and despair creep in. The Law, which Christ fulfills, beckons us beyond despair, into the glory of God, and, as St. Irenaeus writes, “the glory of God is the human person, fully alive.” Fully oneself.

True life, true blessedness, Jesus tells us, will only come when there is an integration between humanity’s heart and its hands; when we need not swear by any power beyond ourselves–by heaven or by earth— because we are so fully, authentically present to each other and to the world that Yes truly does mean Yes, and No truly does mean No.   To know ourselves, and to be ourselves, unvarnished, unapologetic, humble, rooted—this is what it means to know peace, and this is what it means to be a peacemaker.  This is what we are offered when we follow Christ.

But make no mistake; this much easier said than done. The embrace of authenticity always has a price in this broken world of ours. Sometimes a very steep one. The world is not always kind to the vulnerable, the meek, the open-hearted.

And each of us, looking back at our lives, can probably recognize a juncture when embracing the true and necessary thing might have cost us a great deal. Our sense of security. Or our livelihood. Or maybe friends and loved ones who have rejected us.

The road that leads deep into the heart of life can be lonely.

Like Jesus, and like Marta, it might lead us far out into the desert, where the evil one whispers in the Valley of Death that we are lost, that we are living with ghosts, forgotten, and that our fragile dreams are not worth tending, that nobody cares enough to come join us in the dance that we were born to do. 

But I have stood in the Amargosa Opera House, my friends. I have seen its vivid colors swirling and laughing defiantly in the heart of emptiness, and I can tell you that God shows up when we inhabit the places we fear the most. There is abundant life, abundant truth, when we allow God’s grace to form us into ourselves.

Because somewhere out there, in the vastness, in the kingdom of heaven, at the center of our deepest longings, Marta is still dancing, shrouded in lamplight and smiling mysteriously, knowingly, like a saint who has glimpsed the secret.

She is silent; silent as the desert. But her art, her life, her story speaks for itself. 

May the same be said for each of us, whoever we are called to be. 

In the Water: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on January 12, 2020, the Baptism of Our Lord, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Isaiah 42:1-9 and Matthew 3:13-17.

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

 

So there is John, fueled by God and by his diet of locusts and wild honey, baptizing in the River Jordan, calling people into repentance, into preparation, for the coming Messiah. Prepare the way, Make straight the paths! Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is ever nearer to to you!

We might imagine a group of his followers gathered there on the banks at dawn, sharing a simple meal as they wipe the sleep from their eyes, praying fervently, glancing over at the river, moody and turgid, the water both beckoning and menacing to them, just like John himself. To climb down into to those chilly depths, to be submerged in them by this eccentric prophet: will it change them? Are they ready to repent, to receive a new vision? Can someone ever be ready for a thing that is beyond comprehension?

And yet the river is flowing, and a raspy voice is crying out in the wilderness, and the bruised reeds at the waters edge are trembling, whispering amongst themselves, and they know that today, yes, surely today, is the day their lives will change forever.  Today they will slip into the water and be cleansed of their sin. Today they will prepare the way of the Lord, whatever that might mean. 

But there is one man in their midst, a stranger from Galilee, who isn’t so tentative. He keeps to himself, mostly, but he seems to know what he is doing there. He looks at the water with a sense of determination and acceptance, like the face of one who suddenly understands what must be done, and it is clear that whatever has drawn him here, he will not be deterred.

The group approaches the riverbank, and one by one they wade out alone into its chilly embrace where John awaits them, hurling enticements and warnings. Words thundering across the water, and then a submersion, and a gasp of breath and sunlight, and the reeds in the water are whispering, still whispering—he is coming.

He is almost here. 

Prepare the way.

Prepare the way. 

The man from Galilee steps forward.

Did Jesus know what was about to happen as he approached the river? Did he fully understand what it meant to be plunged deep down into the water, that same water that he, the Eternal Word, breathed over at the beginning of time? Did he realize, as he crested the surface, that his life was now what it was always meant to be? That the time of preparation was over?

We have some idea that he did. “Let it be so now,” he tells the Baptizer. “For it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” 

In other words, this is God’s will, John: 

You and I, the one before, and the one after, and the one who encircles all things. Let us go down into the deep together, baptize me with your cleansing water and I will baptize you with the fire of God’s  descending Spirit, and you will see—we will see together—how the two are inextricable from each other. 

Washed and illuminated and transformed and yet fundamentally ourselves. This is what will fulfill the emergence of God’s righteous purpose.

For this is precisely what the Baptism of Our Lord signifies: emergence. Rising up from the water, we behold the emergence of Jesus, the humble man of Nazareth, into his public revelation as the Son of God; the one who arrives like the Servant heralded in Isaiah:

My chosen, in whom my soul delights

I have put my spirit upon him

He will bring forth justice to the nations. (42:1)

In his baptism, Jesus is revealed as an embodiment of this servant, the one who will be in total obedience to the will of his heavenly Father, and who, through his self-giving service, will inaugurate a kingdom characterized by peace, redemption, and healing. A new world is revealed that morning in the River Jordan—a world with the Triune God at its center, and with Christ as its servant king.

And so when the voice from above says, “this is my Son, whom I love” and when the Spirit descends like a dove upon him, it is not that Jesus becomes something he wasn’t already. It’s that now he is seen more fully for who he always was. He is God,  who has come to us in our frailty, to live as we live, and who calls us into a path of service, so that we might live as God lives.

 What a thing to have witnessed on that day beside the river. 

And what a thing we are witnessing today, in this place, as we baptize two people into the very same experience of God’s enveloping love and concern. 

Because we must remember: our baptism draws us into the reality that Jesus experienced at his own baptism. Just as he emerged from the water to hear himself named as the Beloved, the Servant, the One called to embody his Father’s will, so do we. 

Whether in the river or at the font, the water and the Spirit do their work on us—they name us as God’s children, they incorporate us into God’s household, and they propel us forward into lives that are patterned after Jesus’ own life. Lives of service, and justice, and peace, and self-giving.

For those who will be baptized today, as for each of us who have been marked by the sacrament of baptism, this is the moment when the wait is over. The way has been prepared. A new life in Christ begins now. And they are ready; as ready as anyone can be for something that is beyond comprehension.

So rejoice, this day, my friends, for the Savior has come to the river. He has waded down into the water with us; he is standing in solidarity with us as we cry out for healing, for cleansing, for consolation. He is treading gently amidst the bruised reeds and he is guiding them back upright. 

And when we plunge into the depths and feel what it’s like to die, he will be there; 

and when we emerge into the morning light and breathe in the fulness of life, he will be there; 

there, in the water, calling us Beloved,

calling us onward,

calling us home.

Courage: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on December 22, 2019, the fourth Sunday of Advent, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25.

I have discovered in recent months that one of the great privileges of a life in ordained ministry is the invitation to be present with people in those deep, delicate moments when life’s urgent mysteries present themselves:

In the act of placing our Lord’s body, hidden in bread, into an outstretched hand;

In the silence between a question asked and an answer given during a vulnerable conversation;

In the prayers offered beside hospital beds or when gathered around tables for meetings and meals;

In the tears and the jokes, the handshakes and the hugs.

There is, for me, no greater joy than to see the infinite iterations of love that flow in and through this parish—in and through each of us who gather here. 

And throughout this Advent, as I reflect on the many ways that love shows up here at Trinity, the word that keeps coming up in my mind is courage.  

Now, courage is perhaps not a word that we might typically associate with the quiet, expectant season of Advent, but courage is something that I see demonstrated in the lives of every person seated here today. As we learn one another’s stories and better understand each others lives, we often find out how much courage is contained in the people around us, in ways we couldn’t have begun to imagine beforehand. 

Courage is something of a misunderstood word. We tend to equate it with showy displays of bravery or strength, as if it is a quality reserved for the fearless and the bold. But the ancient root of the word courage, “cor” simply means “heart”—and so to be courageous is to be full of heart; to let whatever resides in our heart to overflow into our lives and into the world around us. 

And that is what you and I do in our lives as disciples of Jesus—we seek the heart of Christ and cultivate our own hearts to mirror his. We engage in a thousand small, daily acts of courage—of heart-centered action. Most of these acts the world will never notice, but they are, in fact, the very things upon which the flourishing of the world depends. The quiet gestures of attentiveness that sustain our common life.

So if you do not tend to think of yourself as courageous, I have news for you: you are. By getting up each morning and doing the thing that you must do—to offer the care that you must offer, to send up the prayer that you must send, to grieve what you must grieve—you are full of heart. You are full of courage. And, as our texts this morning reveal, God is with you in all of it. 

God with us. Emmanuel. This is the name we hear in Isaiah and in Matthew; and it is not just a name, it is a promise.

It is, in fact, the definitive promise of the entire Biblical narrative: that God is with God’s people, through everything. Through creation, through estrangement, through exile and restoration, through waiting, through weeping, through victory and vanquishment, through the thrill of love and the void of loneliness—God is with us. God is the one who gives us the courage—the hopeful, faithful heart— to face all of it, and God is the one who makes meaning out of all of it. 

For King Ahaz, who was ruling over the kingdom of Judah in a time of political instability, the name and the promise of Emmanuel was the sign he didn’t ask for. For whatever reason, he refused the prophet Isaiah’s offer of an assurance from God.  But God offered the sign anyway, in the form of a baby about to be born whose name-Emmanuel–literally bore the promise of God’s presence. And for the time being, anyway, the people of Judah were safe. God was with them.

Centuries later, as Matthew recorded the story of Christ’s birth, the moment that God appeared to us in human flesh, he drew on this ancient narrative of a baby carrying God’s eternal promise—God’s eternal “en-couragement,” if you will—and connected the name Emmanuel with the name of Jesus.  So it is a name we sing out to this day, especially at this time of year, with fervent hope and gratitude, offering it as the answer to every question that this troubled word might offer.

O come, O Come, Emmanuel. O, Come, O Come, God, to be with us.

This is the heart of our faith: that even when it seems otherwise, we believe that God is with us. That God will always be with us. The prophecy of Isaiah has been and continues to be fulfilled, especially and ultimately through Christ.

God’s name and God’s promise of presence is written on our hearts, and that name and that promise gives us the strength to do what we must do, those everyday acts of courage. Those small, unglamorous, but vital offerings:

the feeding of a hungry mouth,

the wiping of a tear,

the holding of a trembling hand,

the speaking of truth to power. 

In each of these, we find the presence of God.  In their accumulation, we find the significance of our entire lives. 

So yes, in Advent, we are reminded of the big, beautiful things: of God’s promises to us, and how the coming of Jesus Christ fulfills those promises for all time; how the birth of a child who we call Emmanuel will make the mountains sing and the stars dance in the night sky.

But we are also reminded, in Advent, of the humble things, the earthy things, the tender, powerful things that comprise our lives, that fill our periods of longing and waiting, and we are assured that these things are courageous enough, beautiful enough, just as they are. As the offerings of our hearts to God, as the demonstration of our courage, they tell the same story, they bear the same name: Emmanuel.

Because the God who will be with us as an infant in a bed of straw is also the God who is with us as we wait beside the hospital bed; 

the God who is with us as a thundering voice from on high is also the God who is with us when we cry silent tears into our pillow at night; 

the God who is with us as the sovereign of all creation is also with us as we stand in the lamplight of a familiar doorway, being welcomed home. 

So no matter where you find yourself in this season, and in the seasons to come, take courage. God is with you, and within you, working through you. In your waiting, in your wondering. In your pain and in your joy. In every act of love that you give or receive. 

In each of your names, I hear a whisper of his name, Emmanuel. In each of your faces, I see the face of Christ. What a gift we are given, to find God in one another. To be courageous for one another. To love one another. 

This–simply this–is enough.

This–simply this–is everything there is. 

“Who Is This King of Glory?”: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on November 24, 2019, Christ the King Sunday, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Luke 23:33-43 and Colossians 1:11-20

Recently, I enrolled in a weeklong evening workshop to learn how to paint an icon—those beautiful religious images that are especially associated with the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition. We were tasked with creating an icon of Christ on the cross, and after nearly 20 hours of sketching, painting, applying gold leaf, and layering colors, the last step was to add Jesus’ name, in Greek, and a title above the cross: The King of Glory. This final act of inscribing the name and title, our instructor told us, gave the image its sacred quality. It defined who the icon was, and how it should be viewed by those who gaze upon it.

And it is this title which I carefully added to the icon, “The King of Glory,” that has been on my mind all week.

It is a designation found in only place in the entire Bible, in the 24th Psalm:

Lift up your heads, O gates!

and be lifted up, O ancient doors!

    that the King of glory may come in.

Who is this King of glory?

    The Lord of hosts,

    he is the King of glory.

And the question keeps presenting itself to me, like an insistent whisper: who is this King of Glory? Who is he indeed? Where is he to be found? What sort of king is he?

On this day, Christ the King Sunday, at the conclusion of the church year–at the threshold of Advent–we, too, are asked to open the gates and doors of our hearts and ask ourselves this question: who is this King to whom we have pledged our lives, our resources, and our trust? Who is this King whom we worship and wait for?

There is, perhaps, no more important question we will ever ask ourselves, because the nature of our King—the one in whom we place our identity and our destiny— tells us, fundamentally, who we are and how we are to live. To understand Him is to glimpse our ultimate significance as God’s people.

But truth be told, there is a strangeness in naming Jesus as king and ourselves as his subjects. Not just because you and I happen to live in a country where the concept of monarchy is foreign. But because humanity’s usual ideas about the nature of a king and of royal prestige are wrapped up in power dynamics that Jesus seems to undermine at every turn. 

Far from being a mighty ruler in the gilded halls of influence, our King is the one who walks dusty roads alongside the marginalized, the one who hangs pitifully on a cross, scorned and abandoned, and who, at the end, offers no satisfying retribution against his enemies; only forgiveness and a whisper of paradise. 

This is a far cry from the King whom the Psalmist describes; in the Psalm, the King of Glory is the Lord of Hosts, the Lord of mighty armies, charging into battle to defend his people with impressive strength. He is the one who subdues the nations and ensures his justice by the power of the sword. 

And frankly we know a lot about kings like that—too much, in fact; they haunt our violent history, and their successors are still rattling around among us, weaponizing power and treating the world like a playing field for their own deluded ambitions.

But this is not what we are given in Jesus, and I think it is a mistake when we attempt to fashion him in those terms. As revealed in today’s gospel, it is a Crucified King who reigns over us: a man of sorrows, whose earthly palace is the Place of the Skull; whose coronation is an execution; and whose royal title, “The King of the Jews,” is a cruel bit of imperial irony. There is no pomp and splendor here, no adoring crowd, no royal feast.

Christ is, in fact, revealed to us on the cross as the anti-king, the one who upends our entire notion of dignity and honor and power, who reveals himself to the world not in the heights of glory but in the depths of vulnerability and weakness. And this tender pathos is part of him always; even the risen Christ still bears the wounds of his humiliation.

So when we sing of thrones, we also sing of thorns, because in Jesus the two realities—the glory and the sacrifice—are bound up in one another. For our King, true power is revealed in the moment when power is given away for the good of others. For our King, it is a surrender to God’s will, not triumphalism, that leads to eternal glory. 

And all of this makes *Christ the King Sunday* a rather subversive occasion. 

Because just as the earliest members of the Church proclaimed that it was Jesus, crucified, risen, and ascended, who revealed the true nature of kingly authority, and not the passing tyrants of a declining Roman empire, so we, as Christians, must proclaim the same thing today to all the would-be leaders of our own time: that their power is contingent. That they are answerable to something greater than themselves, greater than all of us. That justice without mercy, and strength without humility, is an abomination.

This is an uncomfortable position, no matter where one falls on the political spectrum, because it requires each of us to relinquish the illusion that any one person or party or movement will save us, or any one earthly ruler, even those whom we admire. It requires us to challenge both those with whom we tend to disagree and those whom we desperately want to follow.

These leaders will not save us. They cannot save us.  Because the ultimate questions of power and destiny have already been resolved by another—by Jesus Christ, the King—the firstborn King of all creation and the Last King, who will return to us in a blaze of mercy. This is our King of Glory, the only authority who has ever mattered, and who reveals himself in a most unexpected way: born in a shed, living in obscurity, dying in shame, rising again in quiet, piercing light. 

In the end, our only duty is to seek him in the shadow of his cross and in the radiance of his love, and to live as he would have us live.  Our true identity is found only here—in Christ’s kingdom, where we are not merely passive subjects, but active citizens, patterning our lives after his own, proclaiming his mission of justice and reconciliation, and trusting that his eternal glory will belong to us as well.

This requires much of us—everything, in fact, that we have to offer. And as the cross reveals, it is not a life that guarantees comfort. But there is nothing more true, nothing more real, nothing more for which we were made. And so, as St. Paul prays in his letter to the Colossians, “may you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience.”

Who is this King of Glory?

For us it is Jesus, broken and yet eternal; wounded and yet wondrous; rejected and yet reigning supreme. It has always been Jesus, the Christ, Our King. And it always will be. 

Former Glory: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, November 9th, 2019 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Haggai 1:15-2:9 and Luke 20:27-38.

Before the weather took a cold turn and we all started buttoning up a bit more, some of you might have noticed when the sleeves of my shirt were rolled up that I have tattoos on both of my forearms.

I got them at different times in my life and they each have a different personal story behind them, but as I was reflecting on the scripture this week, my eyes kept straying to the tattoo on my left arm. It is the very last line of the poem “Ulysses” by the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which has been a favorite of mine since I was young. That poem speaks in the voice of Ulysses (or Odysseus), the legendary explorer-king of Greek mythology, and it concludes with this reflection from him, speaking as an elderly man nearing the end of his life:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ 

We are not now that strength which in old days 

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 

One equal temper of heroic hearts, 

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

In Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses offers these words as encouragement to his beloved, now-aged companions as they recall their former glories and wonder how they might still live a purposeful life.

Something ere the end,” Ulysses urges a bit earlier, with fervent hope in his voice,

Something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done.

Come, my friends, tis’ not too late to seek a newer world.”

Poetic words from a mythical king, and yet, I can’t help but imagine something similar being uttered by the prophet Haggai as he called out to the people of Israel amid the rubble of King Solomon’s temple, encouraging them to rebuild the House of God. 

“Take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord. Work, for I am with you…according the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.” (Haggai 2:4-5)

We can actually date this particular prophetic statement with startling precision: according the to the information contained within the text, Haggai spoke these words on October 17th in the year 520 BCE, shortly after the return of the Judean exiles from Babylon. The original, grand temple of the Israelite monarchy had been destroyed by their conquerors over 60 years prior, and the primary focus of Haggai’s prophetic work was ensuring that the temple was rebuilt. 

But this was easier said than done. Those who had returned from Babylon, most of whom had been born in exile, were attempting to rebuild their society in a devastated land with few resources, and the initial attempts at temple construction proved less than inspiring.

Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?” Haggai asks, well aware that those who have lived long enough to remember the original temple are thus far underwhelmed by the progress on replacement. “Is it not in your sight as nothing?” he inquires, but the question is rhetorical. This new temple, built on a shoestring budget in the ruins of a fallen monarchy, pales in comparison to its predecessor.

Like Ulysses and his friends, the people of Judah have been “made weak by time and fate” and Haggai is aware that their nostalgia for the glory that once was threatens to undermine the necessity to do what can be done with the resources of the present moment.

And thus the prophet reminds them that even if the new temple is not yet as grand as the former, they must persist in their task anyway, because God remains with them. “My spirit abides among you. Do not fear. The latter splendor of this house will be greater than the former” (Haggai 2:5,9).

In other words: do what you can now, work with what you have now, and God will take the hollowed out crater of your disillusionment, the rubble of your broken dreams and will refashion them into something so glorious that you cannot yet imagine it. Do not forget this Divine Promise! For this is our God, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the Living God—the one who knows us. The one who has preserved us. The one who calls us His children. 

“That which we are, we are.”

Now, this tension between the lure of nostalgia and the urgency of the present is still with us in contemporary societies, in the Church, and perhaps for each of us in our private histories. There are days and seasons where it seems that everything good has been lost. Some will claim that the glory days are over, never to return. The wind has blown in from the north and the bleak midwinter beckons. The world looks like a threatening place. 

And in these moments, we might be tempted, like the Judeans, to be paralyzed by longing, to be consumed by a remembrance of past greatness (or at least by our imagined version of that past) and thus find the present moment intolerable. 

Now, when the pain of loss is especially great, whether personal or collective, this is an understandable impulse.  Lament and longing have their place in the language of our hearts. But we cannot succumb to them forever. Because God is always calling us forward into an unfolding story—God’s unfolding story. God has never left our side, and never will. So remember the past, yes, celebrate its joys, learn from its trials, but live now. Work now. Minister now, in the bleak pre-winter chill, in the rubble, in your brokenness. Let that brokenness open up your heart to the world’s present needs and present possibilities.

“Though much is taken, much abides.”

And just as Haggai proclaimed the Lord’s promise that the Temple would be rebuilt with an even greater splendor than they had known before, so it is that what is yet to come for us, for the Church, and for all of God’s people, is greater than we can possibly envision. 

What is yet to come is the resurrected life of which Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel: a new Jerusalem, a renewed creation, a radiant and unending Life that is so deep and true and free that even our greatest human conceptions of love and union are a mere glimpse, a prelude, to the Love awaits us when we fall to our knees before the throne of the Triune God. 

This promise of new Life, unfolding and enduring, is the context of our missional life together. We are knit together by the Holy Spirit with all who have come before us, and all who will follow us, rebuilding the ruined temples of our age–perhaps with tearstained faces and cracking voices–but doing so in hope, in trust, and in joy. Striving, seeking, finding, and never yielding because God will never yield in His love for us. 

He has proven that this is so through His Son, and we are here in this place and in this time and in this very moment to say YES; to say, Lord, we are ready;  to say together that we are indeed “one equal temper of heroic hearts” and we will walk together, cherishing our past but moving forward into the future that God has prepared for us, toward the Holy Temple, toward the Holy Dwelling Place that can never be destroyed.

“Take courage, says the Lord; work; for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts.”

May we believe it to be true, and live accordingly. 

Love, Named Twice: A Sermon

This sermon was preached today, March 17, 2019, the feast of St. Patrick, at Christ Church, Alameda, CA. The lectionary text cited is Luke 13:31-35.

How many of you have either read or seen Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet?

I would guess that the most famous scene in the entire play is the balcony scene, when Juliet, just having met and fallen instantly in love with Romeo, the son of her family’s mortal enemies, leans out into the night and sighs, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

In that single line, a whole universe of emotion is encapsulated: the thrill of new love, deep desire for the beloved, and a sense of resignation that the fruition of this love will face some serious obstacles. And for Juliet and Romeo, most of us know how tragic those obstacles will prove.

Romeo…Romeo. A name said twice, softly. So simple, this repetition, and yet so full of significance. To call out a name just once is utilitarian and authoritative: PHIL! That might be an identification, an invitation, or a command. But to say a name twice is to linger on it, to express attachment, investment, yearning. It is not the pronouncement of a ruler, but the call of a lover.

And so there is Jesus, the consummate Lover of creation, calling out in today’s Gospel: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” In these two words, in the name of that beloved and holy and imperfect city, uttered twice, is contained the entire pathos, the entire sweet misery of God.

Jerusalem is the city that embodies God’s chosen people Israel, and yet it is the city that kills God’s chosen prophets. It is the city of promises kept and the city of hope abandoned. And just as Juliet intuits in her bones when she sighs into the darkness for Romeo, so Jesus knows in his bones that his love for this radiant, wretched city is both the fulfillment of his life and the assurance of his death.  “Jerusalem…Jerusalem.” It is the longing of God uttered on the human lips of God.

If we look back through Scripture, God often names twice the ones who are beloved:

“Abraham! Abraham! Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son”

“Jacob! Jacob! Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt”

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

In each of these instances, just as in Jesus’ calling out to Jerusalem, God is offering us, at the same moment, both an assurance and a question. The assurance is that from the foundation of the world, God has loved us, and called us by name. God will never stop calling us name.  The question is this: can you find it in your heart to return that love? Can you return the cry and say “Lord, Lord, here I am?”

This, I think, gets to the heart of what we are doing in Lent. We are slowing down a bit; we are getting rid of some distractions; getting quiet, and asking ourselves: who is the person, what is the place, what is the thing that our heart is reaching for? To where or to whom is our deepest love and longing directed? If we were to stand with Jesus, looking out over the landscape of our lives, to whom would we call out, twice?

Because if we can figure that out, if we can name it, we will get a clue about what God needs us to do next.

I am reminded of St. Patrick, whose life we are commemorating today. Surprisingly, Patrick was actually not from Ireland, but likely from what is now northeastern England. As a teenager, around the year 406, he was kidnapped by bandits and taken away to Ireland as a slave, where he was in bondage for six years. Eventually he escaped and made his way back to his family in England for what might have been a simple, happy ending to his hardships. But that was not the end of the story.

Church tradition tells us that in the middle of the night, Patrick started having dreams and visions of the people back in Ireland, the people who had been his captors, and he heard their voices from across the sea calling out to him, asking him to return: “we beseech thee, holy youth, to come and walk among us once more.” I would like to imagine that perhaps he heard his own name whispered in the dark. Patrick…Patrick.

And so he went. With a small group of companions, without any protection, he returned to the land of his enslavement to preach the gospel. He ventured willingly, like Jesus, back to the place of his greatest despair, back to his own version of Jerusalem, back to what was, for him, the “city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it,” back to the place that he feared and yet, the place that his longing led him. And in doing so, he fulfilled his calling as a bearer of the gospel, as the apostle to Ireland, and as one of the saints we cherish most dearly…with green sweatter, and big parades and green beer. And prayer, of course!

As Jesus knew, gazing down at Jerusalem, and as Patrick discovered, returning to the shores of Ireland, when we attend to the deepest longings of our hearts, we are attending to God’s longing that we will become everything we were meant to be. By listening and responding to that longing, we are taking a step into the fullness of life that God offers us, the fullness of life lived in and for Christ.

If the news of the past few days tells us nothing else–the murder of our brothers and sisters in New Zealand, the senseless destruction and scandal that we see at home and around the world–if they tell us nothing else, then these things tell us we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the longing of God that calls out to us. We have to follow it, now, as seekers of truth and reconciliation. We must respond.

And so I ask you: what is your deepest longing? Name it to yourself, twice.

It could be the person with whom you need to reconcile. Name them, twice.

It could be a cause of justice or service toward which you are drawn, especially one that scares you a little bit. Name it, twice.

It could be a new place, or a new vocation, or a new relationship, or a new practice that will bring healing to yourself and others. Name it, twice.

And just as Jesus cried out “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” and as Juliet sighed “Romeo, Romeo,” find within your own heart that mix of love and generosity and hope and trepidation and name it. Follow it into a place of service. Follow it into a place of risk and holiness. Follow it into the city, follow it to the farthest shore of your imagination. Follow it with reverence and joy. Because this is the task for which we are created. This is the longing of God enacted through us.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem. Two words, containing in the space between them all the weight and glory and possibility of life. All the weight and glory and possibility of the love of Christ.

Jerusalem.

Jerusalem.

On Failure and Faithfulness: A Sermon

I preached this sermon March 13, 2019, the commemoration of Bishop James Theodore Holly, at All Saints Chapel, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, CA. The lectionary text cited is John 4:31-38.

As we settle into the reflective season of Lent, and as I look beyond graduation to whatever lies ahead, there is one thing that I am acutely aware of: despite all of my personal formation at seminary, I am still deeply afraid of failure.

And that can show up in a lot of ways: failing to do well in classes, failing to find the right church position, failing to maintain my integrity in difficult conversations, failing to find a life partner, failing to deliver an effective sermon…and the list goes on. Despite the wisdom that our tradition offers about the value of humility and the holy foolishness of the Cross and the preeminence of love over success, I still find myself operating in a system that categorizes life and its activities in terms of success, failure, and the spectrum of perceived merit that lies in between those two poles.

This is certainly true in seminary, where we are constantly graded and assessed, and I suspect most of us will continue to encounter something similar in the institutional church or wherever we do our work. My fear of failure, in its many permutations, will likely be a demon I wrestle with for a very long time. Maybe I am not the only one who struggles with this.

Hold onto that thought for a minute. I’d like to offer you a story:

On March 13th, 1911, James Theodore Holly died in his sleep at a church rectory in Port au Prince, Haiti. He was the founding missionary of the Episcopal Church in that country, and had been ordained as the missionary bishop of the church in Haiti in 1874, the first African American in the Episcopal Church to enter into that order of ministry. If you read the official commemorative materials about Holly, that’s mostly what you’re going to learn about him. But, as with every life, the story is far more complex.

At the time of his death, Holly’s ministry was, in the eyes of many, a story of continuous disappointment and unrealized dreams:

  • The main church in Port au Prince had burned down a couple of years prior, in 1908, and there was essentially no support from the American church to help rebuild it. His attempts to raise money for a church endowment through speaking tours across the U.S. were similarly unfruitful.
  • A combination of ongoing political unrest and natural disasters in Haiti had proved immensely detrimental to the growth of the mission, beginning almost immediately upon its initiation in 1861.
  • The Bishops and other church leaders in the United States, because of the Civil War; because of their own personal preoccupations; and, let’s be honest, because of deep seated cultural and institutional racism, had been lukewarm at best in providing any resources to an autonomous black church in an autonomous black nation state.
  • Furthermore, Holly’s initial dream—the dream that launched the whole mission in the first place—to inspire a mass emigration of black Americans to Haiti through the building up of a strong, national church, was largely rejected by black persons who, in the years before and after the Civil War, preferred to stay in the US, their homeland, and fight for equality there.

Holly arrived in Haiti 1861 with 101 people as part of his church mission; 80% of them died or left within a year; his own wife and young children were among the dead. 50 years later, when he died, the church severely lacked resources and had not yet reached 2,000 communicants. One publication, in announcing his death, assessed his life and ministry curtly by observing that the church in Haiti “has not prospered so greatly as was at one time hoped.”

Some eulogy.

In the US, at the time of his death, he was largely dismissed or forgotten. The only officially recorded acknowledgment of his death by The Episcopal Church was a note in the board minutes to strike his salary from the budget for the remainder of 1911.

And so I ask you: was James Theodore Holly’s ministry a failure?

I would say, firmly, no, but we could debate that question for a long time. And if we did, we’d have to account for many things:

  • The racism and oppression that impeded his work from the very start.
  • The political and historical and theological contexts that shaped his decisions and those of the people he encountered.
  • The relative meanings of failure and success as measured over time and the criteria used to do so.
  • The fact that the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti is, today, both the largest diocese in our Church in terms of membership and yet is one still beset with a number of challenges.

Yes, I am sure we could ponder the question of whether Bishop Holly failed or not for a very long time indeed.

But it’s the wrong question to ask.

It is the wrong question that we keep askingabout our spiritual forebears and about ourselves. Failure and success are the wrong modes of assessment. They are, through the metaphor of today’s Gospel passage, the wrong type of food with which we keep filling our plates, over and over again.

 “’He said to them, I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, surely no one has brought him something to eat? Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.'”

The demand of Christ on our lives is not a demand to be successful.

I am coming to see, more and more, that the demand of Christ on my life is to forget the language of success and failure, and to let myself instead be governed and judged by faithfulness. Faithfulness to the will of the One Who has called me; faithfulness to the vision of the kingdom that God is revealing in our midst.

This simple, daily faithfulness, made up of the longing in our hearts for God and the steadfast trust and devotion which we lay at the feet of Jesus in all that we do: this is the sole criteria of our discipleship.

Not the degrees we earn or the income we gather.

Not the churches we help grow.

Not the titles we acquire or the vestments we are allowed to put on.

Because if we use those things as the ultimate measure, as ends in themselves, then we get mired in the landscape of success and failure, and we might start to believe the toxic lie that our shifting fortunes serve as indicators of God’s favor upon us.

“Do you not say, four months more, then comes the harvest?” Jesus chides his disciples. But what if the crop fails? What if life is not what you expected it to be? What if the church burns down and the money stops coming in and you die, disregarded and poor, in your bed? How can the language of success and failure ever get to the heart of what you have faced, what you have learned, whom and what you have loved?

It can’t. We have to toss that language out. Our lives are sown and reaped not in power and influence and success, but in faithfulness—in fidelity and love, which gives us new vision, a new mode of assessment. It is by our faithfulness which we reveal the extent to which we have embedded our lives in God.

“But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.”

Whatever else can be said of James Theodore Holly, whatever the ups and downs of his life and ministry, he saw the ripe fields of God’s kingdom, and he was faithful to that vision. His fervent advocacy for the liberty and self-determination of black Americans; his unflagging belief in the potential of the nation of Haiti and in the church’s role there; and fundamentally, his unfailing trust in the liberating, life-giving God he found in Jesus Christ—these are the marks of a faithful disciple. These are the reasons we commemorate him today. He inspires me to let go of my fear of failure and my hunger for success, and challenges me to dwell in faithfulness, no matter what happens next.

Because if his life is a failure, then may God grant each of us the grace so to live, and so to fail.

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