The Language of Our Hearts: A Pentecost Sermon

I preached this sermon on Pentecost, June 5, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Acts 2:1-21, the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the Apostles.

A few weeks ago I traveled up to South Bend to attend a conference for all of the Episcopal Churches in Province V, which is a region that roughly encompasses the midwestern United States. It was a wonderful time, both for the workshops and other sessions offered, and also, just as importantly, for the chance to connect with new people and reconnect with some familiar ones—friends and colleagues that I hadn’t seen since well before the pandemic started. As we know from gathering together here at Trinity each Sunday, there is something heartening and healing about being together in person, seeing each other’s faces, hearing each other’s voices.  

When we celebrated the Eucharist at the conference, we were invited to do something that perhaps you’ve experienced before if you’ve attended a large Episcopal gathering or convention, especially one with a diversity of attendees: at that moment in the liturgy when we all join together to say the Lord’s Prayer, we were asked to pray it in “the language of our heart.” The language of our heart. I love that phrase.

And so, after a brief pause, a cacophony of voices rose up in prayer—some praying in the traditional English language version that is so dear and familiar to us here; some in the more contemporary English translation; but also in Spanish, and in other languages—a seminary friend of mine who was there offered prayers in Lakota. The cumulative effect was messy, but beautiful—a collision of hearts and tongues naming God, praising God, asking God for protection and provision. 

Maybe it was because I hadn’t heard the Lord’s Prayer offered that way in a little while, but it touched me deeply, it gave me a different sense of the vastness of that prayer, the billions of times it is offered up each day, in grand churches and in homeless shelters, on mountaintops and on commuter trains, by people we will never meet, people so different from us and yet so fundamentally connected to us, each crying out in the language of their deepest heart. Our Father, who art in heaven. Padre nuestro. Ate unyanpi. (That last one is in Lakota, if you’re curious). 

One of the great tragedies of Christian history has been the idea that being one in Christ means being exactly the same as one another. The idea that being part of the universal Church is more about fitting in than it is about becoming the fullness of who God made each of us to be. That pressure to conform, to get in line, to deny the parts of yourself deemed different or unacceptable—that is a particular cultural force at work, not the Gospel itself. That urge to suppress diversity is the work of tyrants and empires, not the work of God’s Kingdom. Because the Spirit of God speaks in every language, shows up in every type of person and place and circumstance, the Spirit radiates out of every color of the rainbow. 

And, to put it more bluntly for those of us here in the United States: God does not only speak in or understand English. God does not only work through people similar to us. And I thank God that we are part of a church that recognizes the joy and the strength of diversity of every type—social, economic, political, theological, racial, linguistic, and every other sort, too. We are messy, but we are beautiful, this collision of hearts and tongues that we call The Episcopal Church. 

By not simply tolerating our differences but striving to cherish them and learn from them, we live into the reality of the Church that was born on that first Pentecost, when the Apostles were caught up in the whirlwind of the Spirit and were able to proclaim the gospel in the native tongues of the immigrants to whom they spoke. 

There is a nuance here that is essential for us not to miss: the miraculous gift of the Spirit was not that these immigrants could suddenly understand the Apostles speaking in one universal language—which would likely have been Greek or Latin, the dominant languages of the Roman Empire. It was that the gospel was carried to their ears in the language of their hearts—the language of their blood, the language of their native soil, the language their parents sang to them in lullabies, the language by which they learned to count the stars and name the creatures of the earth. 

On this day the gospel–the fiery incandescence of God’s love–was transformed on the lips of the Galilean preachers and rendered into the particular poetry of the hearers’ innermost self. This is the day God called out to each of them not in the language of empire, of conquest, of sameness, but in a voice that was as familiar as their own.

There is a crucial lesson in that, a fundamental Christian truth, especially as we grapple with our own challenges of living in a diverse society where some would still have us give up our God-given uniqueness, would have us mute our stories, our perspectives, our voices, in favor of a monolithic, lifeless consensus masquerading as peace.

That is not what we were made for. That is not what Jesus died for. That is not the type of peace he leaves with us. And that is not what the Spirit came for at Pentecost. The Spirit came to fill each of us with life abundant, to winnow away with fire all the lies we tell ourselves, leaving the clarity and the particularity of our divinely-made selfhood, and the Spirit came to catch us up into a bond of fellowship that honors our differences while uniting us in common practice, in common mission. 

Authenticity and courage and truth, that is our peace. And that is not just who we can be or hope to be, that is who we are when we surrender our fear and our bitterness and our prejudice to the expansiveness of God’s Spirit. A people reborn, a people who are unafraid to speak in the languages of our hearts and yet somehow still understand one another in the wordlessness of grace, the ultimately unspeakable mystery of life and of love. 

Let that Spirit of love be yours today. Let it shape all of your days. Let it shape the work that we do together in this community, in this nation, on this planet. None of the challenges that we collectively face can be met without this Spirit—a Spirit that honors difference, and yet demands from us the discipline of remaining together IN that difference. No retreating into corners; no demonizing one another; no insistence that God only speaks in ways that we alone understand. 

For if the Spirit of God is like fire, like wind, then it is elemental, and limitless, and free—it is available to everyone, kindled in hearths unknown to us, blowing across landscapes we will never see, speaking in languages we will never understand. Today we honor that vast freedom of the Spirit, we put our hope in it, because it means that we, too, might yet be free. We, too, might yet be liberated from the language of empire and speak, instead, the living language of our hearts.

Come, Holy Spirit. Only speak the word, and we shall live. Speak the word, and we shall be healed. 

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. 

Wounds: A Sermon

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

I was 18 years old when my body betrayed me. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cup: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that will be enough.

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

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

Tonight is the night that story begins, again. 

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

The Church is Crumbling: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, April 3rd, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is John 12:1-8, when Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus with precious nard.

Now, I don’t want to alarm anyone inordinately on a Sunday morning, but I have to tell you that the church is crumbling.

I’m actually not making a dire prediction about the future of the institutional church (plenty of others are doing that these days). I mean, quite literally, there are bits of Trinity’s building that are crumbling on the outside that will need a little maintenance. Fr. T.J. and I were walking back from lunch the other week when he noted a spot on the exterior of the nave that needs some repair to the mortar work. Such things are to be expected in a building nearly 160 years old, and don’t worry, the members of the Vestry are keenly aware of the ongoing project list to care for these old stone walls. It is part of our collective labor of love as stewards of this community for future generations. 

In every age, as the ones entrusted with the care of the present moment, it is our task to keep an eye out for the cracks in the world around us: the broken bits of buildings and of hearts, the accumulating dust of neglect, the water streaming down in rivulets from leaking roofs and from tear-filled eyes. All of us, both building and people, get a bit tired and careworn eventually. All of us need tending. And so we patch each other up, we put mortar into each others’ broken spots, we carry one another and we carry on. This is our shared responsibility in life, as it always has been.

The tendency towards decay and disorder, whether in church walls or in other human endeavors, has a name derived from science. It is called entropy. The word was coined in the 19th century by the German physicist Rudolf Clausius, who was a leader in the study of thermodynamics. Clausius observed that the energy in heat-powered systems, like steam engines, was not all harnessed; some of it was lost and dispersed, no matter how efficient the system. This unavoidable tendency towards loss and disintegration of energy, he concluded, was the default mode of the material universe.  In other words, entropy suggests that when left to their own devices, things tend to fall apart.

The idea of entropy has since been applied to many aspects of human life, not just physics. And intuitively, I think it makes a lot of sense, even in non-scientific terms. Ideological, cultural, and political movements change and decline over time. Relationships, when we don’t invest in them, drift apart. All the seemingly solid markers of fame, prestige, and strength that we might accumulate in our life eventually diminish. And, eventually, each of us will die and, as we were reminded at the outset of this Lenten season, to dust we shall return, to mix with the crumbling stones and the memories of a thousand generations. 

Holy Scripture is full of the idea of entropy, even if it doesn’t name it as such—think of the Book of Ecclesiastes: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” Or the Psalmist, who says “those of high degree are but a fleeting breath, even those of low estate cannot be trusted. On the scales they are lighter than a breath, all of them together.”

The question is, what do we do with this knowledge? If everything in the universe has a tendency towards disintegration, towards chaos, towards loss, then why bother? Why not let the walls come tumbling down?

This is, essentially, the question that this Gospel passage from John asks us. It is the question that Judas and Mary of Bethany are both faced with in those final days leading up to Jesus’ passion and death, and their diverging responses are instructive for us. 

First, there is Judas, who is outraged and offended by Mary’s display of deep devotion—the anointing of Jesus’ feet with precious nard, the intimacy of her hair wound around him in tendrils like branches clinging to the vine. Whether it is out of pure greed or, as I suspect, a whole host of more complicated emotions and motivations, Judas thinks all of this is shameful, wasteful. 

I wonder, though, if this is not so much a matter of Judas misunderstanding what’s going on, but in fact understanding all too well what is about to transpire in Jerusalem. Perhaps Judas has taken Jesus’ prediction of his own death seriously. Perhaps Judas has already given up on him. Perhaps he has seen the cracks in the mortar, if you will, and is ready to walk away from the whole thing.

“Why was this perfume not sold…and the money given to the poor?” he asks, but there is bitterness underneath his words, not generosity. They are the words of a man who has given up on dreams, on love, on friendship, because the entropy of the world and the looming failure of Jesus’s mission has caused Judas to retreat into himself, into his own protective self-righteousness, into his own understanding of how things ought to be.

How hard our hearts become when we try to keep them from breaking. And so Judas decides to break Jesus, instead. He decides to tear down the walls rather than wait for them to fall. 

If we are honest with ourselves, that same tendency is in each of us. Afraid of loss, we run away. Afraid of vulnerability, we slam the door shut. Afraid of being a fool, we become a cynic, with entropy the only news we have to proclaim to the world.

But then there is Mary of Bethany, who is sometimes conflated with Mary Magdalene, but in this moment we will let her be herself. Mary is not naive in her gift-giving. She, too, knows what is coming. She knows that Jesus is approaching an ending. She knows that the nard is costly, and that anointing her Lord will not prevent the pain or loss that is to come. But she does it anyway. She does it because it is what she can do. She does it because she loves him. She does it because she knows, in a way that Judas does not, that in loving someone, nothing is ever wasted. 

Mary, and all of us who would follow in her footsteps, do not deny that death and decay are real. We are not ignoring the fact that things tend to fall apart, that chaos is always at the doorstep. We know that it is. We see the crumbling stones, and we witness the crumbling hopes of too many in every generation. But we show up anyway. We try to mend the cracks anyway, even if we are taken as fools, even if it never seems to amount to very much, because it is what we can do. It is what love requires of us. 

What Mary knew–and what Jesus reveals–is that while entropy might be the most pervasive force in the universe, the most powerful force is love. It is only love that will dare to bind up what is broken. It is only love that can gather in what is lost. It is only love that refuses to give up even when things keep going wrong. And no matter how things disintegrate and scatter, no matter how our own lives fall apart, no matter if these walls do keep crumbling down, no matter if the entire universe breaks apart, God will always be bigger than our brokenness. God holds us. God refuses to give up on us. 

And so we must do the same. What God has said to us, and what Mary says back to God, we must also say:

I will hold what is broken. I will bless it with my deepest tenderness. I will spend all of my love on the things that are doomed to decay, which is, in fact, everything. And though I may weep, though my heart might break at the seeming futility of love, I know in a way beyond knowing that it will all make sense some day. That it will have been worth it.

It is worth it. That’s the good news.

So if you get a chance this week, take a walk around the church building. You might spot the broken bits I mentioned or the places where the garden needs tending after a long winter. You might notice a crack in the plaster here and there. Our work continues, always. But notice, too, the patches, the repairs, and the additions of those who came before us—the small acts of care by generations of people, some of whom we will never know, but who did what they could even as the walls crumbled in their own time. 

And perhaps, like me, you might offer a prayer of thanksgiving for those people–those with the heart of Mary of Bethany–for the sweetness of their offerings, the memory of which still lingers like perfume in the air.  Perhaps, like me, you might marvel at the fact that because of them, and because of us still trying our best, despite the entropy of the world, we are still standing, and these stones are still standing, held together by love as much as by mortar. 

And perhaps, like me, you will find strength in knowing this: that even if everything else turns to dust, this love will remain. It is the one thing that cannot break. It is the one thing that will never go away.

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. 

Transfixed: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 27, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 9:28-36, an account of the Transfiguration.

Like many of you, I have been transfixed by the images coming out of Ukraine the past several days. I was transfixed by the video clips of parents kissing their children goodbye. I was transfixed by the story of a young couple who got married one day and signed up to defend their city the next. I was transfixed by the images of people sheltering in subway stations last night, the thought of lives upended and ended, and of the incomprehensibility of yet another needless war blighting the face of God’s beloved creation. I have been transfixed by the question: what now? What next?

I use that word, transfix, intentionally. It means “to make motionless with amazement, awe, or terror,” and in the face of the brutalities that too often characterize life in this world, I do sometimes find myself shocked into motionlessness. I find myself without words or insights or any idea how to meaningfully respond. My prayer this week has been little more than silence and variations of, “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.” Even the beautiful language of the Prayer Book has felt dry and heavy on my tongue.

It is easy to feel this way when we are inundated with challenging news. Ukraine is the latest iteration of the world’s grief, but in this interconnected planet, I think we are more keenly aware than ever of the collective heartbreak of the human family. We’ve faced our share of it together in the past few years. And it can feel, some days, like too much to process. Like my heart and my mind can’t hold it all. And so I am simply transfixed. 

But our generation is not alone in this experience. As I reflect on all of this, I feel some connection to Peter and John and James in today’s gospel—up on the mountain to pray, they see something incomprehensible—the figures of Moses and Elijah appearing in glory, speaking with Jesus, who is himself visibly changed in some mysterious way. And while we might tend to think of this as an exciting and beautiful vision, in truth it was terrifying and overwhelming for the disciples. It was too big for them, not something they were prepared to process. 

I have an icon in my office of this scene, and in it, the disciples are not gazing placidly, reverently up at Jesus and Moses and Elijah. They are falling back in shock, tumbling down the mountainside, as if they are in the process of being struck dead.

Luke describes their state of being while all of this was going on by saying “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep.” They were tired. They were frightened. We might say that they were transfixed. And so I have to wonder whether their prayer as the cloud enveloped them on the mountaintop was also some version of “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.”

In the face of what is new, and strange, and frightening, it is natural for us to not know what to do, and therefore to end up doing very little. We cannot comprehend the mind of God. We cannot save the world. We cannot explain the persistence of evil. And so we get stuck. We tell ourselves that we are just bystanders, poor pilgrims caught up in the storm on the mountain, waiting for the clouds to break, waiting for things to go back to normal. Waiting, transfixed, until someone else figures out what to do, what the next step should be.

But I fear we might be waiting a long time if that is all we do. Because here’s the thing, both about this gospel passage in particular and about our lives as followers of Jesus more generally: it’s not about being transfixed. It’s a different “t” word.

The word of the day today, the key word in this story, and the key word for our discipleship in moments such as this is not transfixion but transfiguration. That is what is happening up on the mountaintop. Transfiguration—the transformation of one thing into another, better thing. 

Let me say that again: the transformation of one thing into another, better thing. Now you might think, wait a second—Jesus is already fully God and fully human, long before he went up this mountain—he doesn’t need to be transformed into something better. And you would be correct.

Because in truth, although we usually focus on his changed appearance, Jesus is not the one being transfigured in this encounter. It is the disciples. It is the disciples who are changed—it is the disciples who are given eyes to see and ears to hear. It is the disciples who in this moment perceive the fullness of God’s truth, who feel what it is to bear the glorious weight of God’s love. It is the disciples who are being stretched and shaped and re-formed by this experience into who God intends them to become. And that invitation, that challenge, extends to us as well, we who are the disciples of the present, perilous moment.

Jesus, in revealing his eternal inner radiance, is actually inviting the disciples, and us, to let go of that sleep-heavy paralysis, that transfixed state of limited imagination, and to step out into a transfigured life, a life in which we are awake. A life in which we may not have all the answers, a life in which pain and suffering and war still persist, but also a life in which we are ready to face whatever lies ahead because we have seen, we have held, we have tasted–if only for a moment–the fullness of the glory of God.

And if you wonder, how can I live that way? Where will I find the courage? What if I am not  good enough or strong enough or centered enough? Well, yes, I ask myself those things every day, too.

And then I look again at those parents kissing their children goodbye, willing to die to protect them–parents who just a week ago were not very different from you and me. I think of that couple whose marriage is being consecrated as we speak in the laying down of their lives for their friends. And I think of all the saints and the martyrs, the advocates and the prophets, the justice-seekers and the wound-healers, the citizens of God’s kingdom, the famous and the unsung, the ones who gave their lives over to God’s dream of peace even in world that mocks peace, and I don’t know why it must be this way, or how it all works, but I see that it does, indeed, work—that in the mystery of grace, transfiguration is possible. That we can face the moment when it comes. That we won’t be transfixed forever.

So yes, let us pray for peace. In Ukraine, and around the world. And let us also pray for peace to transfigure our hearts, that we might become makers of peace.

And until then,

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

The Island: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 13, 2022 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mishawaka, IN. The lectionary text cited is 1 Corinthians 15:12-20.

I spent most of the summers of my childhood in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my dad’s side of the family lived for generations. Now here in Mishawaka, you all live relatively close to Lake Michigan, so you have a good sense of the beauty of the Great Lakes, and if you have ever gone way up north, you know how rugged and beautiful it is on the shoreline of Lake Superior—rock formations and dense forests colliding with the open expanse of the water in its many shades and moods. 

And although there are any number of places along the shore of Lake Superior where one might be struck by its wild beauty, there is one particular spot we would visit as a kid that always stayed with me—the type of place that impresses itself upon your psyche, such that you might recall it out of nowhere while absentmindedly washing the dishes or just before drifting off to sleep at night—a pleasurably haunting memory, a dream, a landscape pregnant with unspoken meaning. 

It is a rocky, forested point of land, stretching out into the lake, with a small sandy beach at its tip and then, across a churning channel of  water, an island—so close that you can see it clearly, and, when the waters are calm, even dare to wade across to its shore. I have a distinct memory of doing so, by myself, as a child—scrambling through the water and ending up on the other side, giddy with freedom—just a couple hundred feet from the mainland but a world apart.

The point of land, the channel of water, the island—the image of that place stayed with me through many long and parched seasons of my life—chronic illness, the uncertainties of young adulthood, the sudden death of my father and, then, later, my grandparents. And although I had not been back to visit Michigan for nearly a decade and hadn’t been back to the lake for even longer than that, when I moved to Indiana nearly three years ago to serve at Trinity Fort Wayne, one of the first things I did was make the long drive north through the landscape of my past, through the mining towns and the forests. Eventually I ended up at Lake Superior, and I found the point of land again, and I walked out to the edge of it.

What struck me, though, was how deep the waters were this time—choppy waves and wind blowing in off the lake, no rocks visible to scramble on, no chance of crossing over. All I could do was stand and stare at the island, that childhood dreamscape, so close, but just beyond my reach. 

As we grow up and grow older, we tend to experience life as a sort of expanding distance from the solidities of the past. Sometimes we are grateful for that increased distance, and other times we mourn it, but either way, I think that there comes a time in each of our lives when we stand at the edge of what we know and glimpse the islands of youth and memory as beloved, yet inaccessible kingdoms. And we might despair how death consumes what was once so present to us—the places, the faces and the voices of another time.  And perhaps we start to believe that this is simply our portion in a fragile and fleeting world.

But there is another choice. There is another way to see this. 

“How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” Paul asks the church at Corinth. “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”

Apparently there were some among the Corinthians who accepted that Christ indeed had risen from the dead, and that this was a miraculous act of God, but they could not accept the idea that all of the rest of us were destined for the same undying life. In a world where it is self-evident that everything and everyone dies and decays, perhaps it felt foolish to them, naive, even, to claim such a possibility.  They were content, it seems, for Jesus to be the inaccessible island, beautiful to behold but not part of their actual lived reality—not a place they themselves could ever dare to venture. 

But Paul will have none of this. For he understands that we are not just people who have beheld the resurrection of someone else, of Jesus, but we are, ourselves, resurrection people. Where Jesus goes, we go too. And if the chasm between where we stand and where he has risen seems impassable, that is because we have still bought into the lie that death wins. It does not. Not any more. With Jesus, death is not the last word of any story. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied,” because then we have missed the actual endpoint, the actual telos of following Jesus. Follow me, he says, not just through this world but onward, onward, “further up and further in” as C.S. Lewis wrote, to the undying life of God that makes everything possible.

I think sometimes as good, reasonable Episcopalians, we are hesitant to really lean into this paradigm of resurrection, of life eternal. We don’t want to think so much about heaven that we discount the beauty and the urgent need of this world. But the danger is that we go too far the other way—that we become so focused on our present reality that we forget that we are inheritors of the resurrection—that another world is not only possible, it is promised, and it is already making itself known in our midst. 

And when we see that, it changes EVERYTHING, because death is no longer the precipice over which our love inevitably vanishes. Death is no longer an impassable, stormy channel separating us from God’s life. For God’s Son has calmed the waters, he has made it passable. And so the island beckons once more; its golden shores are a place we were meant to stand; the kingdom beyond death where Jesus stands, welcoming us back into life.

What does this mean for us, here and now, to be Resurrection people? It means that we can be people of joyful courage. We don’t have to stand wistfully on the shore, mourning what once was. Because to believe in Resurrection is to believe that nothing is truly lost; that every good thing is still possible. Even when we are poor, hungry, grieving, or lonely, even when the world is changing, even when the church is changing—every good thing is possible. This is our proclamation and our practice.

And here at St. Paul’s, and down at Trinity Fort Wayne, and in every parish and faith community that comes together in the name of Jesus, we have an opportunity to practice at this together—to practice being Resurrection people. Everything we do in our faith communities—serving, donating, tending to one another, worshipping, studying, feeding, mending, advocating—all of it is a way of saying yes to God’s aliveness, it is a step out into the water, confident that we can reach the other side, that that Divine life awaits us, as long as we hold onto each other and keep our eyes on Jesus.

I know it has been a long hard couple of years, but don’t turn back. Don’t give up. We can get there.

I haven’t been back up to to Lake Superior since that day, and I don’t know if or when I will make it there again. But I think that the island will remain in my mind’s eye forever—a reminder that I have a choice—that life can be viewed either as a wistfully inaccessible, passing dream or it can be viewed as a promise that lies on the other side of death. Every day, with God’s help, I mean to choose the latter. I mean to choose the promise. 

And perhaps, one distant day, when the waters have been stilled forever, I will cross that channel and stand on the other side once more, and life will feel new, and nothing will be lost, ever again. Perhaps that’s where we’re all headed in time. I pray that we are.

And on that day, Resurrection will be not just a promise glimpsed far off, but the ground upon which we stand. 

Porches: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Nations: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, January 9, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary texts cited are Psalm 29 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

Last summer I was browsing in a used bookstore, as I tend to do, and I came across a copy of The Outermost House, written in 1928 by the author and naturalist Henry Beston. It is considered a classic in the genre of nature writing, and although I’d never heard of it before, I was quickly drawn into the author’s vivid, poetic reflections that capture a year he spent alone in a small cottage on a lonely, windswept beach at the edge of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. 

His only companions are the fog-enshrouded beacon of a distant lighthouse, the layers of sound made by the undulation of the waves, and the wild wind of midwinter storms—and all of these he observes with a sense of reverent wonder. But more than anything, he notices and celebrates the wildlife along the shore, especially the birds who pause there in the midst of their migratory patterns, hunting for food, resting on the long journey north or south, attending to their own mysterious rhythms of existence. I am not an especially devoted birdwatcher, but even I was moved by his description of what he calls the “constellations” of shorebirds flying in perfect, intuitive unison above the sea:

He writes: “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…for the animal shall not be measured by man…they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

They are other nations. I love that line. In the magnificent otherness of the birds, Beston realizes that we cannot always interpret everything in the world as simply an extension of ourselves. Some things are foreign to us, unknowable, inhabiting their own truth, inaccessible, and yet still beautiful, still worthy in their own right.

I find a sense of restfulness in that observation. The restfulness of not needing to understand something or someone fully in order to love them. The restfulness of letting them be what they are without trying to control them or shape them into our own likeness.

How much more peaceful my own life might have been, at several junctures, if I had done this. If I had let others—friends, family, partners—be who or what they were, rather than trying to fashion them into what I expected or demanded them to be. And how peaceful it might have been to let myself be what I was, rather than conform to what others expected or demanded of me. How good it is to fully inhabit the mystery of our deepest selves, and to honor that mystery in others.

I was reminded of all this—of birds and freedom and flight and identity—as I reflected this week on the image of the Holy Spirit, who comes like a dove, descending upon Jesus at his baptism. 

This aspect of the scene is a bit enigmatic, when you think about it, but I suspect that when we hear this passage, we tend to focus more on the figure of Jesus in the water, or even on the reassuring voice of the Father from heaven, so much so that we might overlook the descent of the dove, who is, lest we forget, also God. 

Our gaze might easily sweep right past her; we might not stop to wonder where she has come from, this dove, where she is going, or what it means that she chooses to anoint this moment with her arrival, with a brush of her wings, carried on the breeze blowing down from the open gates of heaven. What is her part in this revelatory moment? A specific answer is not given to us. The dove who is God remains just beyond our grasp, just beyond our comprehension.

And if we don’t know quite what to do with the dove in this story, I would also say, too, that we often don’t know what to do with the Holy Spirit at all. The Spirit is unpredictable, elusive, wholly other—wing and wind and flame. Jesus, we can see, we can listen to, we can follow. And the Father we can imagine, at least to some degree, because we know what it is to have or to be a parent. 

But the descending dove—she is not like us. Her experiences, her senses, her scope of vision are beyond ours. She is the person of God that cannot be domesticated or contained. She is free. She is another nation, sovereign and unassailed. She arrives and departs and shapes events on her own inscrutable terms.

And while that can be a bit unsettling, I also love that about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches us not to be afraid of the things we don’t know, the things that we cannot know. She reminds us that sometimes we have to let go of controlling outcomes in our life—for we cannot harness the wind. She humbles us. 

So whether we are considering the baptism of our Lord, or our own baptism, or any other aspect of our faith, it is good to remember and celebrate this wild, strange, impregnable aspect of God’s activity in our midst. For as much as we long for intimacy with our Creator, and as much as we seek to know and be known by our Savior, I think we also desperately need to be surprised by God. 

We need a God, perhaps now more so than ever, who can do a new and unexpected thing in our lives. We need a God who is not bound by the limits of human imagination, who is not subject to the old, tired tyrannies, not governed by the mistakes of our past, a God who can, as the Psalmist says, split the flames of fire and shake the wilderness—in other words, a God who can dazzle us, wake us up, surpass the timid longings of the earth, and teach us how to fly. 

It is true that our salvation is found in a God who loves us enough to become as one of us, but our liberation requires a God who is not like us. A God who is another nation, who conquers us with grace.  Because only in the power of God’s strange and insistent newness can we dream of a newer world. Only under her wing can we be carried there.

Where is that wild Spirit of God calling you? Which expectations or disappointments must you lay down to let God’s freedom be your own? To what great mystery are you willing to entrust your heart as you navigate “the splendor and travail of the earth?”

For we must learn to trust in the things we do not fully understand. That is the essence of faith. And that is the essence of God’s love—a nation unto itself, but now descending, softly, on the wings of the dove, to anoint you with uncompromising authenticity. 

Stand on the shore, at the edge of comprehension, and marvel at her arrival, at all that she is, all that she brings, this bearer of God’s deep, inexpressible, freely given self. Let everything be possible again.

How much more peaceful it might be when we do.