Take Me Back: A Sermon for Christ the King

I preached this sermon on Sunday, November 20, 2022, the Feast of Christ the King. The lectionary texts cited are Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Luke 23:33-43.

Maybe it’s the holidays, or the winter setting in, or maybe it’s the fact that we have arrived at the final Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year, but around this time each November I get a little bit nostalgic. The smell of familiar foods and the melody of old songs and the sight of candles glowing in the darkness behind icy windows—it takes me back. 

Maybe it takes you back, too. Back to memories of childhood, or to when you were first in love, or maybe even just a few years ago; nostalgia connects us to those periods of our lives that contained some measure of simplicity, a special sweetness. And while we know that “the good old days” were never actually as simple or perfect as we might recall them to be, it remains true that the pull of the past is powerful, and the longing we experience for it is real: longing for the faces and the places we once knew and even the versions of our selves that we used to be. 

Every so often a certain memory wells up in us and we feel the gap between then and now and we cry out “Take me back!” Though we always say with a bit of irony, for we know that it’s not possible: we can’t go back, because time unfolds in only one direction, and our memories are windows into a land we can’t reenter. 

If I ever get a bit self-conscious, though, about my tendency towards this November nostalgia, I remind myself that it’s simply part of the human condition. People have been haunted by their memories in every age. In Scripture we encounter generations of people caught between the past and the future, strugglng to make sense of both. Think of Israel in exile, longing for Jerusalem. Think of Jesus’ contemporaries, agitating to overthow the Empire and restore the political glory of their nation. Think of how such impulses both console and plague us, even now.

Going back in time—or at least wanting to—has been written upon the human heart since Adam and Eve stumbled out of Eden and the gates were closed to them. From that day, it seems, we have been looking over our shoulders, longing for the time “before”, longing for the people we were back then. You might even say that nostalgia is one of the most prevalent themes throughout the Bible, and while it doesn’t always serve people especially well in those stories (I am reminded of Lot’s wife), I find some reassurance in the fact that it is not just our generation that feels like it’s a long way from where it started.

But what struck me for the very first time, as I was reflecting on the passages for this Christ the King Sunday, is that we humans aren’t the only ones who feel nostalgia, why cry out “take me back.” God, too, seems to long for the time before. The time before kings and conquests. The time before we and God lost sight of one another on the long road through the centuries.  

Now it’s true that the words of the Lord spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, which we heard this morning, like most prophetic writings, are all future tense—I will do this, and this will happen, and the days are surely coming, but implicit in them is God’s desire that things should return back to the way they were supposed to be—namely, to when God was the shepherd, the provider, the one who would not abandon his people or exploit them or lead them astray. God wants to go back to when there were no mortal kings of Israel, back to when God was their only sovereign, when God’s heart spoke directly to theirs. 

God longs for unmediated intimacy with his people. He remembers how he walked alongside them, leading them in a pillar of flame through the deep night of the desert wilderness. God remembers how he made his dwelling place in their midst, how they sang hymns of liberation to him on the other side of the Red sea, how he fed them from his own hands with manna. And God remembers even farther back still, back to Paradise, when he walked among the trees in the cool of the evening and his creation knew the sound of his voice and the fruit still trembled, unpicked, upon the branch. Yes, God remembers it all: the smell of the familiar foods and the old songs and the fire glowing in the darkness. And he longs for it as much as we do. 

Take me back, he says, without any irony. Take me back. Take me back. 

How humbling that the King of Glory, the Creator of the Cosmos, would ask such a thing. That he would ask us such a thing. 

Of course, we could not go back—neither back in time, nor back to him, for it seems that we are made only to tumble forward into the future. Gone, the food and song and fire. We could not recover it. We could not undo what had been done. We could not pry open the gates to Paradise. At least, not by ourselves. Not without help.

But we are here this morning, on Christ the King Sunday, because help did arrive. God determined, in the end, how to move beyond nostalgia, his own and ours, how to finally reclaim the past. He did the only thing, perhaps, that was left to do: he brought all that we had lost directly to us, in the flesh. In Jesus.

He showed up with the food in his own hands and the song on his own lips and the fire in his own eyes. He came as a different sort of king—a king who would not engage any power except the powers of love and mercy and justice. A king who would die rather than compromise his commitment to those things. One who would rise again to show us that these are the only things that are truly powerful.

And so he was born into the margins and stood at the margins, and he broke down the thin margin between heaven and earth with the force of his love, and he died, this image of the Invisible God, with a name affixed above him: The King of the Jews. 

And whatever the authorities intended for him, there was no irony in that title. 

For this is what he was and is: the one true King—the last king of his people, and the first king of all people. The Alpha and the Omega. The one who, from his throne on the cross, forgives us for all that has been lost, and who promises that nothing, and no one, ever need be lost. The king reopening the gates into Paradise, which is really just the gate into his heart.

Take me back, says Christ, our King. 

Take me back, we reply. 

And for once, maybe for the first time, it is possible.

Real: A Sermon for All Saints’ Day

I preached this sermon on November 6, 2022, All Saints Sunday, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 6:20-31.

One of my favorite books when I was little was The Velveteen Rabbit, and I will admit that even now, many years later, it still brings a tear to my eye when I read it. If you’re not familiar with the book, by Margery Williams, it tells the story of a toy rabbit who is given to a young boy as a Christmas present. The toys talk to each other when people aren’t around, and the little rabbit befriends a threadbare old hobby horse, learning from him the secrets of what is called “nursery magic,” including the mysterious concept of becoming “real.”

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day. ”Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. …Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

And thus begins the Velveteen Rabbit’s own journey toward becoming “real,” which, as you might imagine, is not just about becoming more realistic, like the other rabbits who can jump and run and play, but about becoming more true: it’s about discovering the luminousness that radiates from within a person when they have given themselves over to a life of deep and faithful love.

For the little toy rabbit, this process of becoming real proves surprising, and costly, and beautiful, and I will leave it to you to revisit the story to find out exactly what happens to him. You can find the full text of the story online

I was moved to do so myself this past week because the Velveteen Rabbit’s journey feels especially appropriate for the feast we are observing today. In the world of nursery magic it might be called becoming “real,” but in the Christian tradition we have another, very particular name for following the long and twisting road towards love: we call it sainthood. 

Sainthood, to be honest, has an unhelpful reputation. We too often associate it with the opposite of “real”: plaster statues of seemingly perfect people, with their halos and their dreamlike gaze directed towards heaven. We might feel inspired by such figures, but we might also struggle to see how their seemingly exemplary lives bear any resemblance to our own imperfect ones. 

But if you have ever felt that way, I have good news for you: the saints, even the most famous and revered ones, are far messier and more real than you might expect. If you have never done so, find a biography about one of them and read it. They struggled with doubts, with despair, with health conditions, with war and economic instability. They fought with their colleagues. They ended up in prison and in exile. Some of them were beloved in their own time, many were not. And really, in the end, the only thing that is consistently true about them is that they were somehow dedicated to the vision of blessedness that Jesus elucidates in the Beatitudes from today’s Gospel: that God stands on the side of those who are vulnerable and trampled upon, that God enlivens those who give their lives away for love’s sake, that God does not forget those who pay the cost of caring deeply in a callous world. 

God’s mission in Christ is to make these things real, to make them tangible, indeed, to make them inescapably present even as the forces of death and despair surround us—this is what we mean when we talk about the kingdom of God. And sainthood, far from being a sort of self-satsified, holier-than-thou lifestyle choice, is simply what it looks like to participate as best we can in that kingdom, in the redemptive work of love in our lives, for as long as we can, until most of our hair has been loved off, and our eyes drop out and we get loose in the joints and very shabby, until our carefully cultivated defensiveness and artifice have been worn down so thin that we burn, burn, burn brightly with the fearlessness, with the joy, with the reality of love. That is what a saint looks like. And, however imperfect our lives and our circumstances, that is what we have been invited into, from the day of our baptism until this very moment.

This morning, baby Natalie will be baptized into the Body of Christ, taking her own place within the Church’s long journey toward becoming real, becoming saints, becoming all that God made each of us and all of us to be. We will bathe her in water and in prayers, passing on that which we have been given in our own baptisms: a glimpse of what is real, and the One who is real, and the wondrous hope that we will come to know that reality in our very flesh…that over the course of our lives, we will become as part of it. Natalie’s share of this story is just beginning, and we rejoice for her and her family. 

And yet, as it is said, “in the midst of life we are in death,” and so this morning, on All Saints, we also summon the memory of those whose stories have ended—those whom we love and see no longer and yet who are no less real simply because they are absent. In fact, we might say that that they are even more real now, blessed and at peace in the nearer presence of the Living God. 

Our beloved dead are so real, now, that our limited senses cannot quite perceive them, except in our hearts, in those moments when we still feel the weight of our love for them, how it endures beyond death, how it cannot be destroyed, how we are bound together for all time, beyond all time. We say their names out loud, each one a life now infused with eternity, and in the silences between, we listen for the music of heaven.

And so here we find ourselves, beloved ones, saints-in-progress, weary hearts still daring to believe in nursery magic—here we are, suspended on this November morning between life and death, between warmth and winter, between the promise of the future and the tenderness of the past. Here we are, asking what is true and what is real and what is worth living and dying for, and knowing, in the end that the answer can only be love, that it can only be the name of love, which is Jesus. 

Here we are, rich and poor, hungry and full, laughing and weeping, longing for him, for the Savior who will gather up our worn out bodies and call us blessed, who will make us whole, who will make us truly alive. Not perfect, plaster saints, but real ones: threadbare, wise, and full of grace. 

Just Finish: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 23, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is 2 Timothy 4:6-18, 16-18.

When I was probably about 10 or 11 years old, my mom took up a new hobby — rollerblading. It was the 90s, so rollerblades were all the rage. And for those of you who know my mom, who is quite the adventurous person, you can imagine that she took on this new pastime with great enthusiasm. So much so that before long, she had signed up to compete in a local rollerblade race where you go in laps around an empty office park on a Saturday afternoon—yes, this was actually a thing back in the day (at least out in California in the 90s.)

Now, I will admit that I had little to no interest in rollerblades. I had a pair, and I would sort of wobble along in them around the neighborhood after school, but I was not then–nor am I now–the most athletic or graceful person. I wasn’t fast or agile or daring. Most weekends I would’ve rather been reading a book or singing along to the soundtracks of my favorite Broadway musicals. You know, we just are who we are. 

But my mom was so excited about this rollerblade race that she was bound and determined that I would also sign up and be in the kid’s competition, making it a sort of family activity. And for some reason I will never understand, I agreed to do so. 

We showed up that morning and I was in my little skates with my baggy jeans and knobby knees and thick glasses and a helmet askew on my head, and the other kids…I mean, they looked like they’d been training their whole short lives for this race. They were in lycra shorts and fancy rollerblades and they skated more gracefully than I could even walk. It was one of those moments when you realize you’ve made a very bad decision, but now it’s too late and you just have to roll with it. Literally, in this case.

We all gathered in a cluster at the starting line and they blew the horn and we took off, and the crowd was cheering, and….you can probably imagine exactly what happened next. Those other kids took off  on their skates like they were sprinting, and they went so fast around the course that they lapped me at least once, if not more, and meanwhile I was stumbling along on my skates, breathing heavily, trying to stay upright, telling myself “you just have to finish. Just finish.”

And I did. It wasn’t pretty, but I made it.

Eventually, long after the other kids were done, here I came, stumbling across the finish line by myself. 

But you know what? It was ok. Now, would I ever do it again? Not a chance. But it was ok. Because when I got to that finish line, some of the people were still there, my mom included, waiting to cheer for me. I was so relieved to be done that it felt like arriving in heaven, and people gave me hugs, and the sound of their encouragement was, in that moment, like the sound of angels rejoicing. 

I think of that rollerblade race once in a while, because it reminds me that on the other side of embarrassment, on the other side of disappointment, there is a strange sort of grace that you sometimes find in simply finishing what you set out to do. Especially when the road is long and challenging, just finishing can be its own sort of victory.

I think many of us spend our lives feeling like we need to jockey for a place at the front of the pack of whatever we’re doing—to win the contest, to be the best at whatever it is, or at least to feel like we’re not the worst. We’re afraid of falling behind, of stumbling and skinning our knees—of becoming an object of derision or pity as the race of life wears on. 

And it’s all too easy to approach our faith like this, too, somehow imagining Jesus as the leader at the front of the race, the one who runs fastest and hardest, the one we’re chasing, just out of the reach of us mere mortals with our aching joints and our eyes burning with sweat and tears. We know we can’t overtake him, but somehow we think we’re supposed to try. 

I wonder, sometimes, if this is how Paul first understood Jesus after his conversion on the Damascus Road. Paul, after all, was a Roman citizen who was well acquainted with the competitive spirit of the Empire and who loved using athletic metaphors in his writing. In his early letter to the Galatians, he expresses anxiety about his mission to the Gentiles, wanting “to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.” He uses similar language in his letter to the Philippians, and, though its authorship is uncertain, there is that famous line in the letter to the Hebrews which encourages believers to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

So one can imagine a younger Paul, bursting with energy and determination, ready to win the race for the sake of the gospel—to be the best, to go the farthest, to conquer his opponents, to be right up in front, ahead of all the other apostles, trailing just behind Christ.

But then in today’s reading we meet Paul at the end of his life: an old and infirm man, sitting in prison, awaiting execution, writing to his companion Timothy, trying to make peace with the way his life has actually turned out:

“I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness.”

Not, “I have won the race,” but simply “I have finished.” Not “the crown of victory”–the laurel wreath of the athletic champion–but “the crown of righteousness,” the crown of blessedness, the crown worn by those who finish last in this world—the crown worn by his savior, and ours. The crown of thorns.

Paul came to understand, as each of us must when we are inevitably humbled by life–when we finally see things as they are, not as we expected them to be–that winning was never the point. Coming in first was never God’s expectation for us. And Jesus, whom we try so hard to follow, to be like, to catch up to, was never, in truth, at the front of the pack, showing off his divine athleticism and daring us to match it. 

On the contrary, Jesus was (and remains) at the back of the pack, watching over those of us who are moving slowly, those of us who are just struggling to keep up. He’s back alongside the ones who were never graceful or impressive or strong. And he’ll stay there, bringing up the rear of the race until every last one of us has made it over the finish line, aching joints and skinned knees and all. 

And when we do, I imagine that he will say to us,

“It is enough that you finished. It is enough that you fought the good fight and kept the faith. It is enough. You were enough, just as you were, even if it took you a long time to get here. Even if you were in last place, I loved you from the first.”

And perhaps this is what Paul wanted to remind us at the end of his own race, in his final message to Timothy and to those of us who would one day come along, stumbling on our skates, breathing heavily, trying to stay upright.  Maybe he just wanted us to know:

You might not end up in first place. You might look like a total failure at times. It doesn’t matter. If you have stayed the course with gentleness in your heart, if you have cared for your neighbor along the way, if you have loved this broken world as you have travailed across it, you have already won.

So just finish the race. Just finish.

And when you do, when you stumble across that finish line, there will be arms outstretched to welcome you, and the angels will rejoice.

Small Things: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 9, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15 and Luke 17:11-19.

I don’t know why, exactly, but fall is a season when I start to reflect on the past — something about the approach of holiday traditions and the winding down of the year and the brilliance of the autumn leaves lends itself to the sharpening of particular memories. These recollections waft on the air like woodsmoke, sweet and sharp, occasionally stinging the eyes. 

And it’s interesting—I don’t know if this is true for you, but I have noticed that when I am looking back on life and remembering things and people and places that are long gone, long past, my most vivid memories are of very small things, very particular little details, rather than one big grand narrative playing out in my mind. 

I might suddenly recall the sound of my dad’s laughter one afternoon in late September when I was 15, or the particular way my grandmother carved a chicken on Sunday afternoons, or the scent of the gardenias my mom used to buy on the way home from work when I was a little boy. 

All ordinary things, unremarkable, perhaps, to an outside observer, but nonetheless these are the little things that stick, that signify meaning, long after the worries and speculations and fantasies of the past have faded away. I don’t remember most of the conflicts and longings and unsatisfied desires that seemed so important when I was 12 or 22, but I can recall with crystalline specificity the small moments of beauty and kindness and care that have been strewn along the path of my life.

This suggests to me that it is, in the end, these small things that imbue our lives with significance, with holiness, with hope. And it is these small things that are vessels of God’s grace, far more than the big concerns and bold plans that so often preoccupy our imaginations.

We may have great expectations, but it is the small things that sustain us. It is the small things that save us. 

But this isn’t always easy to see. Naaman, the mighty general seeking a cure for his leprosy in today’s reading from 2 Kings, doesn’t quite understand the value of small, ordinary things, or perhaps he has simply forgotten it in all of his conquering and striving to be important. He is a man burdened by disease, but he is also burdened by the sense of his own significance, and so he presumes that any healing he might receive from the prophet Elisha will come at great cost and will arrive with great dramatic impact. No humble, commonplace treatments for this man. And so he loads up his treasures and his servants and his other accumulated defenses and brings them to Elisha’s door, ready for anything. 

For anything, that is, except for the rather anticlimatic thing that actually happens. Elisha, in his wisdom, doesn’t even come outside, and instead simply sends out a message Naaman: go take a bath in the river. 

Imagine having come all that way, with so much build-up, with your whole entourage looking on expectantly, and then being asked to take a dip in an unremarkable, muddy body of water. Naaman, who expects so much more of himself and of the world, is offended by the simplicity of it all. Surely that can’t be it? Surely this God of Israel, if he is so powerful, would reveal his works in a more impressive way? Surely healing requires something more than this? Surely, after I have suffered so much and traveled so far, salvation cannot come from such a small thing?

We might laugh a bit at Naaman’s pride and his self-importance, but I also have to say I relate to his disappointment a little bit. I look back at my life, and I look around at the problems facing our world today, and I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of longing for a big and decisive answer. I know what it feels like to want a dramatic solution, to yearn for God to appear in glory and make it all better, make it all clear, to lift us up from the mud and the misery. 

So maybe I, too, would be frustrated by the instructions to go bathe down in that mud instead. Maybe I, too, would just want to pack it in and go home. Because I confess that some days I get tired of meager solutions to big problems. I get tired of relying on small things when the grief of the world is so big. 

Maybe somedays you get tired, too. Naaman would certainly understand if you do. 

But then, at the moment when all hope seems to be lost, another small thing: this time it is the voice of one of Naaman’s servants, the voice of practical wisdom—

“if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, `Wash, and be clean’?

In other words, yes, the journey has been long, and the outcome may be uncertain. But it can’t hurt to do the small thing that is asked of you in this moment. And, in fact, it may be that finding hope in such small things, believing in the power of small things, is more reflective of God’s purposes than any dramatic solution. Why that might be, I cannot say for sure. I only know that I remember my father’s laughter, and my grandmother’s hands, and the scent of my mother’s gardenias in the cool of the evening, and that these things matter more than I can say. 

They matter in the same way that it matters that God offers us himself in the frail body of a man, and in a morsel of bread and in a sip of wine. It seems that he longs for us to love the small things, to submit ourselves to their humble grace. He asks us, like Naaman, and like the grateful Samaritan healed by Jesus, to remember that when we encounter love and beauty, no matter how simple or small, we are seeing God. 

He is in the muddy waters and in mended bodies. He is in the gifts we share with one another. He is in the moments when we remember to say thank you.  He is in everything, every small thing, holding the universe together with love. 

Naaman does, of course, eventually take Elisha’s advice. He strips off his many layers of armor and submerges himself in that muddy water and emerges, the text tells us, with flesh appearing as it did long ago, skin gleaming like when he was a young boy. When he himself was a small thing: bright, laughing, free.

And perhaps that is the mystery of love: not only that it flourishes in small things, but that it distills us back down to smallness ourselves, like children, sloughing off our grief and our delusions of grandeur, leaving only our essence, our innoncence, our intense and enduring joy. 

Can you remember what that felt like, back when you were small, too? Can you remember that version of yourself, back through the turning of the seasons? Can you remember when you believed in simple things, when love was not a memory, but an ever-present gift, as numerous as the autumn leaves? 

God, help us to remember.

What You Had to Do: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 18, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 16:1-13, the parable of the dishonest manager.

When I was in the 7th grade, my family and I found ourselves living in a trailer park out in California. The story as to why we ended up there is a long one for another time, but suffice to say that it was a new experience for all of us. 

I did not come from a wealthy family by any means, but we always had enough to get by, and so it was eye-opening for me as a 12 or 13 year old to suddenly be surrounded by neighbors whose circumstances were decidedly more desperate.

Next door was Pearl, a woman in her 50s from Oklahoma, who peered out of her screen window all day long, puffing on cigarettes, offering a lively commentary on all the comings and goings she had seen. 

There was Mike, who lived behind us; a gentle and quiet man who tended the flowers outside his trailer. He was on parole, having killed a man many years before in a drunken bar fight, doing his best to stay sober. There was a family whose name escapes me now, two parents and two adolescent kids and a dog, who had fallen on hard times and were living in a 12 foot motorhome, trying to figure out how to get enough money to move across the country to live with some relatives. One morning they were just gone, and while I have no idea what happened to them, I always hoped that they made it where they needed to go. 

The park was rough. It wasn’t the type that you stay in on a deluxe RV vacation. There were cracks in the pavement and cracks in the trailers and cracks in the hearts of the people who lived there. It was a mixture of long-timers and those just staying for a little while until they could get their lives together. It was a colorful and complicated mix of personalities, thrown together by chance and by limited funds—people getting by as best they could, people doing what they had to do. 

It’s been a long time since I moved away from that place, but those folks in the trailer park have been on my mind this week as I’ve been reflecting on our gospel text, a really challenging one in which Jesus offers a confusing parable about a dishonest manager and some perplexing teachings on the use of money. 

We’re used to passages in Scripture that express some skepticism or even outright suspicion of money and those who place their faith in it. In this context, Jesus saying that one cannot serve God and money at the same time makes sense. 

But the parable about the manager who lies and cheats his way into a secure position, and the fact that his shrewdness is praised by his employer and, it seems, by Jesus, too, runs counter to our expectations. Shouldn’t we condemn those who misuse money? And why on earth should we use “dishonest wealth” to make friends?

Now I’ll admit there are no simple answers—people have been wrestling with this passage forever. But as I said, while I was pondering the text this week, I kept thinking of my old neighbors in the trailer park—people who had almost no money, people who had made some bad choices here and there, people who barely made ends meet each month. People who, in their economic circumstances, were probably far more like the crowds listening to Jesus than I am now. And I wonder whether, in the parable of the shrewd manager, they would see a distasteful and offensive character, or if they would simply see a man on the brink, doing what he had to do to make it in this world?

Because I know that we talk a lot about spiritual and material poverty in the Christian tradtion, and how Jesus says “blessed are the poor” and how we ought to detach ourselves from worldly concerns. 

And that’s all fine and good, but I think it’s only half of the story. Because it is very easy to talk about the evils of money when we ourselves have enough of it. It is very easy to extol the virtues of poverty when you have never actually been poor—when you have never wondered how you are going to feed your children or put a roof over your head or patch up the cracks that keep forming under your feet.

And so I wonder if this parable challenges some of us because we don’t really understand the stakes implicit within it. I wonder if maybe Pearl and Mike and the others in the trailer park would see something else in the shrewd manager that’s harder for me, with a steady income, to see: a flawed person, sure, but one who does what he must in order to survive. A person who might have a family of his own to take care of; a person who is willing to risk the wrath of his rich employer as long as it means that he won’t starve to death. 

I wonder if part of the reason that I struggle with his decision, with his brazenness, is because my own back has never truly been against the wall? I wonder, if I were that desperate and determined to simply stay alive, whether the greatest mercy, the truest form of grace, would indeed be for someone to simply say, in the end, “Yes, I understand; you did what you had to do”?

Because we—especially those of us who have more than enough—have to remember that when Jesus says “blessed are the poor,” he doesn’t mean poverty is a thing that God loves. He means that God sees and understands and cares especially about the struggle of the people who are just getting by. And God stands with them in that struggle. God challenges our tendencies to either ignore poverty or to spiritually glamorize it, so that, in either case, we don’t have to be troubled by what it is actually like to be poor. 

And so when Jesus tells us to make friends by means of “dishonest wealth,” maybe he means to shock us a bit, to wake us up, especially those of us who have the luxury of disdaining money, of thinking of it as dirty and crass because we have never truly needed it. Maybe he would like us to understand that the true economy of grace is not ethereal; that the Kingdom of God is not too lofty to be concerned with hungry bellies and flat tires and leaky roofs. Maybe salvation starts with ensuring people have a place to sleep, that they don’t starve, and maybe their shrewdness is indeed something to be celebrated because it really just means that they wanted to live.

Maybe. 

A few years ago, when I was back in California for seminary, I took a drive up to that trailer park. For whatever reason I just needed to see it one more time. As you might imagine, none of the people I remembered were there anymore, but the place pretty much looked the same: rough and timeworn and honest. There were still cracks in the pavement, and cracks in the trailers, and I suppose there are still some cracks in my heart, too. 

But I am so grateful that I was there for a little while. I am grateful for Pearl and for Mike and for the others who linger at the edge of my memory. I am grateful, if only so that I might never forget that sometimes, for some of us, just getting by is its own blessedness. Sometimes in this life we are not expected to be saints, but simply to survive.

And sometimes, God sees you and loves you fiercely, because you did what you had to do. 

One: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 4th, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is Philemon 1-21.

A few months ago I had one of those paradigm shifting moments that make you question something that had, before, always seemed so obvious. I was reading a book called The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, by Dan Egan, which chronicles both the history of the lakes and the challenges that they have faced through the years due to agricultural runoff and pollution and the threat of invasive species. As someone who has grown up with a deep love for the Great Lakes, it was both fascinating and sobering to take a deeper dive, if you will, into the singular natural wonder that is practically in our backyard. 

But back to the paradigm shift. Many of us can easily picture the Great Lakes on a map, and we know that there are five of them—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario. But early in the book, Egan writes, “they might be called the Great Lakes, but the five inland seas are essentially one giant slow-motion river flowing west to east, with each lake dumping like a bucket into the next until all the water is gathered in the St. Lawrence River and tumbles seaward.”

One giant river. 

That just blew my mind, even though when you actually look at a map, it makes perfect sense—all of the lakes are connected to one another by smaller rivers and straits and waterways, the most final and dramatic of which is Niagara falls, as the system that began in Lake Superior tumbles down into lake Ontario and on towards the ocean. One giant river. 

Egan’s point was that what happens in one lake, for better or worse, ultimately happens in all of the lakes, given enough time—and that even though we see them as massive and immovable entities, they are in fact a broad and delicate network of relationships, larger and more complex than the human eye can perceive, a single flow of interdependent life. 

It makes sense, though, that we would tend to see the lakes as separate bodies, ascribing to each its own personality and landscape. Separating everything out, giving things a name and a discernible boundary, is how we make sense of the vastness of the landscape around us. This is as true for people as it is for lakes. We make distinctions, we give each other names and we assess one another’s basic qualities because it helps us navigate a world that would otherwise feel overwhelming. And just as we can easily picture a map of the Great Lakes in our mind’s eye, each of us, somewhere within ourselves, carries a sort of emotional map upon which we locate the people and places we know—those that feel like home, and those that, perhaps, we’d rather not revisit. 

But here’s the thing—once the paradigm shifts, it’s hard to go backwards. Now, no matter how many times I see a map of the Great Lakes, I will know that they are actually just one giant river. And while I will always have a particular affection for this piece of the shoreline of Lake Superior or that little town along the shore of Lake Michigan, I cannot unsee their essential unity now that I have seen it. 

And as for all of the people located on that inner map I carry, especially the ones whose company I’d rather avoid, well, it’s the same thing. I cannot, as a follower of Jesus, forget the fact that we are, essentially, one body. 

This fundamental unity is something that is absolutely essential for understanding what St. Paul is up to in today’s epistle, the letter to Philemon. To summarize the letter: Paul is sending this letter to Philemon, a wealthy householder and church leader, asking him to receive back into his home a man named Onesimus, an enslaved person who at some point fled Philemon’s house and came to stay with Paul while he was under house arrest. Onesimus has come to faith in Christ, and so Paul requests that Philemon now receive Onesimus back no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother. It is a very pragmatic and human letter in many ways, one of the most personal that we have of Paul’s writings. It’s also a complex letter, given its ambiguity on the insitution of 1st century Roman slavery and whether Paul is condoning it or not. 

But the essential takeaway for us is not just that Paul was a nice guy trying to do a nice thing in an imperfect world. It is not just that Philemon, we hope, received Onesimus back with a more socially enlightened perspective. No, it is far more radical than that. 

The essential takeaway, the underlying argument that Paul is making about the nature of Christian life–the argument that is in fact woven throughout most of his writings–is that in Christ, we are fundamentally ONE. And that the categories that we use to distinguish ourselves from one another, to create order, to map out the world that we can see, are ultimately knit together in the Kingdom of God. And so when Paul says of Onesimus, “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you,” he is not speaking poetically, like a slogan on a Hallmark card. He is speaking quite literally, because in Christ we are one body. And when he says “welcome him as you would welcome me” he is not speaking metaphorically, but literally, because in Christ we are one body.

One giant body. All connected to each other. 

And so Paul doesn’t need Philemon to just “do the right thing” legally or ethically by choosing to welcome Onesimus as a brother. He needs him to understand the stakes of his choice. It is not just whether Philemon, too, will choose to be a nice guy doing a charitable thing. The question is whether Philemon actually believes that the Body of Christ is a real and living thing, and whether he actually plans to live as though it is—whether he plans to reorder his understanding of other people, whether he is willing to dissolve the boundaries between his interests and theirs, to live as though they are indeed the limbs and the organs of his own body. Is he willing? 

Are we willing?

When you look into the face of a person, especially one whom you struggle to love, struggle to live alongside, can you look into their face and see a glimpse of your own looking back? Can you choose, in that moment—even in the hurt and in the confusion and resentment—to remember that the same blood and breath and water flows through each of us—that we are not separate bodies encased within rocky shorelines, but one flowing stream, one giant river, tumbling forward together?

Paul hopes that we do. He hopes that we remember Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one—that we open our eyes and see that we already are one, that we always were. 

Nobody knows for sure what Philemon decided to do—whether he welcomed Onesimus as a beloved brother. Though I like to think that the fact that the letter survived through the centuries suggests that he did—that the letter was, perhaps, the precursor to a moment of sheer grace.

I imagine a treasured family story lovingly passed down in the household of Philemon about the day when two men, so very different, separated by time and station and circumstance, saw one another as if for the first time, and fell into one another’s arms and wept tears of joy and regret and forgiveness. Tears welling up from some hidden place their souls. Tears that mingled and fell onto the earth, pooling together, indistinguishable from one another, as if they flowed from the same body. 

Flowed, like one giant river. 

Homesick: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, August 7, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Genesis 15:1-6 and Luke 12:32-40.

A funny thing happened while I was in England for a conference a couple of weeks ago. It was near the end of the trip, my very last night in the country, and I was staying overnight next to Heathrow airport. I decided on a whim to take the Tube, London’s subway system, into the center of the city to walk around for a couple of hours. But as I was sitting there on the subway, figuring out which stop I should get off to catch a glimpse of Buckingham Palace, I suddenly developed an urgent and intense craving for a Fort Wayne Coney dog. I don’t even get over to the Coney Island that often, but right then and there in the middle of London I wanted one so bad I could taste it—with extra mustard and extra coney sauce. I found Buckingham Palace, but needless to say no Coney dogs were in sight. 

That moment really made me smile, though, because after three years of living and serving alongside you here in Fort Wayne, I was blessed with the sense of feeling a little bit homesick for Northern Indiana. I had the most incredible time in the UK, but it was time to come home—to come back to the dense and verdant cornfields along the highway, back to the fireflies and fireworks in the late summer darkness, back to coffee and doughnuts in the Common Room and the familiar smiles of the people who don’t forget you when you’re gone.

It is good to be home. I missed you.

Homesickness is, in a strange way, a gift. Whether we experience it as kids on a hard day at summer camp, or as our families drive away on that first exhilarating and terrifying day of college, or perhaps later, in more subtle ways, when life’s chances and changes have led us far from all that we once knew, it’s that familiar pang in the stomach, that tremble of longing in the chest, which is in fact encouraging evidence that we belong somewhere, to someone—homesickness is the tightening of the tether of memory and feeling, calling us back to the people and places that have shaped us and held us.

And the longer we stay in any once place, the more it does its work upon us, imparting something of itself into our hearts, such that you might be lying awake some night in a far distant city, remembering the way the thunder rolls into town on an August evening, or the scent of your grandmother’s roses in the garden, or the way the organ music swells at the end of Mass, or yes, perhaps even the taste of a Coney dog.  To be homesick for such things is a reminder that somewhere, at some point, you were given the gift of knowing what home is. 

When you look for it, the question of home—where and what it is, how to get there, how to get back when you’ve drifted away—is a theme that shows up time and again in our faith tradition. It stretches all the way back to the beginning, really, when Adam and Eve stumbled out of Eden and knew for the first time what homesickness felt like. And in today’s reading from a bit later in Genesis, we encounter Abram, soon to be Abraham, the one who received God’s promise of a homeland that might endure through his descendants, even when he could barely hope to dream that such a thing was possible. 

Because although he’s already in Canaan, Abram is homesick, too—longing for the reassurance that God will be faithful, that he, Abram, will not simply die a stranger in a strange place, but that somehow he and his children might belong to the earth upon which he stands. That is what homesickness is, in the end, no matter where we are: our soul’s deep hunger to belong somewhere. To know and be known, to remember and to be remembered. 

In Abram’s case, of course, we know that God does indeed make a home for him and his descendants in Canaan. And even when they end up in slavery in Egypt, God hears their cries and leads them back. And even when they are sent into exile in Babylon, and the homesickness threatens to overwhelm them, he leads them back again. God, it seems, is very invested in leading us back home, no matter how many times we get lost. And just like the children of Israel, we get lost a lot, both literally and figuratively.

I don’t know about you, but I think the moments of truest homesickness I’ve felt in my life were not just during a long trip, but in those moments when the person who I used to be, and the people that I used to know, and the certainties that I used to hold feel very far away from me. When I look up from the path and see my life and wonder: where am I? How on earth did I get here? That’s when I really miss home. Have you ever felt that way? I hope not too often, but I suspect each of us does at some point. 

Because that’s the tricky thing about homesickness—it finds us even when we are stationary. Even if you live in one place your whole life, surrounded by the same people, things still change, and loved ones leave, and there is loss, and still we end up longing for peace and rest and the scent of our grandmother’s roses; and yet we know deep in our bones that Eden is no more, that the gates of the garden are barred to us, that going back is not really an option, and neither is clinging tightly to that which is passing away.

But there is an answer to our homesickness, in the end. A very simple one, elegant in its simplicity, yet earth-shattering in its implications. Something more enduring, even, than a homeland promised for a thousand generations.

It is our true home. The one that does not change. The one that we can always find. It is Jesus. 

God, with infinite mercy, perhaps, knew how easily we get lost—how our fear and our selfishness and our broken hearts leave us in a perpetual state of homesickness. And it seems God was not satisfied with just telling us how to get home. So instead, he simply came and made his home among us. As one of us. To live and die and live again in us so that our true home—the heart of God—is as close as our own breath. Never far away. Never inaccessible. Neither a faded memory nor a squandered hope. Simply home, here. And all we must do is be ready to welcome him. The only gate that is barred and must be opened now is the gate of our own heart, to let him in where he longs to reside. 

“Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet,” Jesus says, “so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks…truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”

I know we are a frustrating and stubborn human family, and we make a mess of things quite often. But I have to hope that, perhaps, seated up at the right hand of the Father, our Lord—who himself has known the sound of thunder and the scent of roses—is maybe a little bit homesick for us, too. And that when he comes again to find us, to redeem all things, and when the banquet is prepared—whether it is Coney dogs or whatever else heaven tastes like—that we might look into the face of God and God might look into ours and we might say to each other, with simple joy, in one voice: It is good to be home. I missed you.

Kindness: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on July 10, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 10:25-37, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.

As we speak, a deputation from our Diocese is in Baltimore at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. It is a major gathering that happens every three years for the discussion of important issues facing the church and the broader society and for addressing all the business of legislation and governance that pertain to our denomination. Some conventions are witness to monumental changes in the life of the Episcopal Church, and some are relatively less eventful. We will see how this one turns out, especially given the pandemic-related delays and cuts made to the agenda. 

But I think it is safe to say that at every General Convention there is one question, often unspoken, that pervades all of the conversations and debates. It is a question that hovers like a ghost at the back of the meeting halls, and asserts itself implicitly in every resolution that is passed or defeated. It is the big, lingering question underneath all of the urgent questions of the day, in the Church as a whole and here at Trinity. And it is simply this:

In an era that feels so uncertain, so perilous, what must we do?

What must we, the Church, do to meet the moment? What must we do to survive, or even to flourish, when the challenges before us are so many? What must we do, right now, to be who and what God would have us be? What must we do to inherit and embody the fullness of God’s undying love? 

Now, because we are an institution, we tend to think in institutional terms and so we might wonder, is it a new formation program that will save us? A new structure? A better marketing platform? A stronger response to the issues of the day? Undoubtedly all of these things will be discussed in Baltimore, and I commend those who gather there for their sincere and earnest investment in debating such things. The process is part of our shared call to build a more just and life-giving Church body.

But I must confess that none of those things feel like the whole answer. Because if we Episcopalians were redeemed and renewed by systems and programs and public statements alone, then we’d have reached the promised land a long time ago. 

So maybe we’re a little bit like the lawyer who questions Jesus in today’s Gospel passage. He might be trying to ‘test’ Jesus, true, but maybe he is also looking at the world around him—perilous, turbulent, angry—and truly wondering: what must I do to inherit eternal life? What must I do to feel like things are actually going to be ok? What must we do to feel and know, deep in our souls, that God has not forsaken us? 

What must we do? 

Well, as our Lord has so effectively modeled for us today with the parable of the Good Samaritan, I will respond to this question not with a tidy answer, but with a story of my own.

About 17 years ago, when I had just graduated from college, I took off for Mexico with almost no savings and with a very flimsy plan. I had decided to get a certificate to teach English as a foreign language, and so I went to the Yucatan Peninsula and spent a month taking the necessary courses, interspersed with a lot of time on the beach and nights out with my classmates. I was not quite the prodigal son, lost in dissolute living, but I definitely had more optimism than good sense. 

After the course I took a bus to a large city in central Mexico, Queretaro, where I knew no one and nothing. I had heard that it was a good place to find a job teaching English but I had no solid leads. I just showed up and stayed in a cheap motel near the center of town, unsure of how to actually find a job, still a bit rusty in my Spanish. As the days went by and I made little progress, and my funds started getting lower and lower, my sense of dread began to escalate. And it came to pass that one evening I found myself sitting on a park bench in the main plaza of the city with absolutely no money to pay for another night in a hotel and no easy way for me to reach my family for help. The shadows gathered around me, the night was quickly encroaching, and I felt a sense of panic. I had never been in such a precarious situation. In my naivety, it just hadn’t occurred to me that I would actually end up without any options. I wasn’t attacked by robbers or lying naked in a ditch on the side of the road, like the man in Jesus’ parable, but I was lost in a sort of wilderness, and the passersby did not know me, and did not stop, and I was alone. 

And then, quite suddenly, a young man came walking past me, probably about my age at the time, dressed in a work suit. Why he stopped and approached me I will never really know. But he did, and he had a kind, gentle smile, and he asked (in Spanish—he spoke almost no English) “are you ok? Do you need anything?” And I greeted him in my broken Spanish, and we had a conversation. 

Long story short, his name was Julio, and he was a law student from that city, and when I described to him both my reason for being there and my continued search to find a job, he said, without any hesitation: my family has an empty house on the outskirts of the city. It’s not very nice, but you can stay there if you want until you find what you need. 

Now, mind you, I had not even told him about my financial straits. He just knew, somehow, that that was what I needed. And I accepted, with profuse gratitude, and I moved into that little dusty house and I lived there for almost two weeks until I was able to find a job teaching English and eventually get into a small rented place of my own. 

I saw Julio once before I moved back to the United States and I asked him, why did you help me that night in the plaza? And he said, simply, “you looked like you needed a friend.”

My friends, I have traveled many places, I have seen many beautiful things both near and far, but I will tell you that few moments in my life were more miraculous, more mysterious, more salvific, than that moment when a man stopped what he was doing to help a lost stranger who had run out of options. 

So while I am no expert in church governance or budgets or fancy programs for this initiative or that one, when I wonder “what must we do” as a Church, as followers of Jesus, to meet the uncertainties of this or any age, I keep coming back to that encounter. 

And I think the answer, in the end, is as profound and as simple as it has been since the very beginning: we will be saved by kindness. We will be saved by the kindness that God has shown to us in Christ, and in this life we will experience God’s salvation in the daily, ordinary acts of kindness that we show to one another.

Not the flashiest answer, I know. It probably won’t make any headlines. It doesn’t even have a program budget attached to it. But still, I would guess that, at the end of our long journey through this life, it is those moments of kindness—the ones given, and the ones received—that will be the true measure of all things. And it will be the kind people, like Julio, who will linger in our memories long after more impressive figures have faltered and faded away. 

So, what must we do to inherit eternal life? More than anything, we must simply be kind. 

Because, when you think about it, the whole arc of Scritpure, the impenetrable mystery of grace and salvation might be summed up just like this:

That we were sitting on a park bench as the evening shadows stretched around us, and the night was encroaching, and we were out of options and didn’t know what to do. And suddenly a stranger with a gentle smile approached us, and sat with us, and gave us shelter, and when we could not understand how or why, he simply said, with infinite kindness, “you looked like you needed a friend.”

Pause: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on June 19, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 8:26-39, in which Jesus heals a man possessed by many demons.

In 1899, the composer Jean Sibelius wrote a piece of music for a public concert in his native Finland, which at that time was under the control of the Russian Empire. Even if you are not that familiar with Sibelius or the history of that region, this particular music might still be recognizable to you—it is called Finlandia, and the main melody from it was used later for the hymn “Be Still My Soul,” as well as a few other anthems and folk songs. My grandma’s family was from Finland, so this piece of music was very special to me growing up. That melody is woven through my childhood memories.

If you’re curious, look up Finlandia and give it a listen; it’s only about 9 minutes long. And what is so interesting to me about the full symphonic piece is that it has two very distinct parts—the first two-thirds sounds nothing like that recognizable hymn. It is turbulent, tense, even militaristic at times—blaring horns, thundering drums, and mournful strings; it is the sound of a universe caught up in struggle and strife. 

But then, somewhat jarringly, at about 6 minutes in, all of that tension swells and then trails off, like an unfinished thought. And only then, after the briefest pause, does that famous melody come in: sweet and wistful and full of hope, completely unlike everything that came before it, as if the world had suddenly become something new, fresh and tender and smiling, even through its tears. It was a melody that, for Sibelius, held the dream of freedom for a subjugated nation—the dream that one day they might live in dignity and freedom.

But as much as I love that song (like, really love it: the hymn’s name is tattooed on my arm) it’s that pause in the music that I want to reflect on this morning. The pause between the old music and the new melody. It is so easy to miss, but upon it everything hinges. It’s that pause that arrives when the past is gone, when what’s done is done, but in which the future has not yet revealed itself. The pause that asks a question: what now? What next? What note lies on the other side of this still and pregnant moment? Is it, indeed, a new song that we will hear? Or will it be just more of the same old tune? 

You don’t have to be a musician to understand the significance of this pause. It shows up in life in many ways. 

There’s the long and disorienting pause that the pandemic has imposed upon our common life, and the sense that in this very moment we are suspended, somehow, between what used to be and whatever will be. 

There is that pause that stops us in our tracks—the one of stunned, sickening silence, as when we learn of yet another mass shooting—this week at an Episcopal Church in Alabama, with three of our sibilings in Christ murdered at a potluck. 

There is the pause just before you answer the phone call that comes at 3AM, when you know intuitively that everything is about to change. 

And there is the slow sort of pause when you wake up in the weak morning light, bleary eyed, when you feel like nothing has changed and never will.

And in each of these pauses, we ask ourselves: What now? What next? 

It is just such a moment that we discover in this morning’s Gospel story, in which Jesus travels to the country of the Gerasenes and heals a man tormented by demons. The pause is easy to overlook, though, given the dramatic content and imagery of the story. Listen for it. 

Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.

Do you hear it there? Do you hear the pause? Right in between the healing of the demoniac and the people’s response.  What if I told you that this is in fact the most important moment in the entire story? 

For it is in that moment that the Gerasenes are faced with a choice. How will they respond to this new possibility embodied in their neighbor set free of his affliction? How will they respond to the wondrous power of this moment when God has acted decisively among them, when the parameters of what they know have been upended? We might ask: what song will they sing now that the old music—the music of pain and powerlessness—has been silenced?

We wait…and wonder…

But in this moment, they cannot hold onto the new melody that Jesus offers. It is too much for them. And so they ask him to leave. He might have demonstrated his power over the evil forces of the world, but it seems they have grown accustomed to those forces. They have made their uneasy peace with evil. They have, perhaps, accepted that some among us are simply destined to be lost to the wild places, to live among the tombs, to huddle naked in the shadows. They have accepted the idea that we are not all meant to live and flourish and stand upright. They have accepted that some suffering at the margins is bearable as long as we don’t have to see it or think about it too much.

In short, they have become, as people do, accustomed to the devil they know. 

And whatever Jesus signifies, whatever healing he offers, whatever strange, heavenly music he embodies, it is too unfamiliar, too uncertain, too costly. They are seized with great fear. And when we are afraid, it is hard to learn how to sing a new song. 

Those of us who have come to know Jesus as Lord and teacher and redeemer would probably like to see ourselves in this story as the man who has been healed, the one restored to himself, the one sent out to proclaim the good news of God’s power. And I pray to be that sort of person. 

But if I am honest with myself, and if we are honest with ourselves, we are just as often more like the Gerasenes, not yet sure whether we can bear to dream that another world is indeed possible. Not yet sure that we actually believe that what Jesus promises is true,  and that it is worth giving up what we know, what is comfortable, however broken and brutal it might be. 

For it would be so much easier to accept that this is all there is. To accept that nothing will ever change, to accept that eking out some sense of our own personal safety, our own personal satisfaction is enough to hope for in this life— to capitulate to the old music, the tempest and the drumbeat, the weeping and the howling of those who make their home among the graves. It would be so much easier to let that song go on and on and pretend we don’t hear it. 

But that is not what Jesus asks of us. In this moment when we pause, and ask what now? What next? He asks us to trust him. He asks us to follow him. And he asks us to listen to the inbreaking melody of heaven and to sing—to sing the new song. A song that is sweet, and wistful, and full of hope. A song that sounds nothing like that came before it. We don’t have to be good at it. We don’t have to hit every note perfectly. We just have to find the courage to try. 

Because I don’t need to tell you that there are still people among us who are lost among the tombs, and they need a new song. There are people who are afraid to be themselves for fear of rejection or harm, and they need a new song. And God’s creation is worn and battered and exploited and it needs a new song. And the people for whom the Juneteenth holiday is still a promise unfullfilled, they need a new song. And so many people—so many of us—are tired and lonely and aching for something beautiful to hold onto, and we need a new song. We all need a new song. The song that says God is with us. The song that says love will always be more powerful than evil. The song that says that while our troubles may be legion, we will indeed be set free, because Jesus has come in our midst and he has taught us new music.

Can you hear it? Can you hear the new melody? It is right here among us.

So pause

And don’t be afraid.

And now, sing. 

Maps: A Trinity Sunday Sermon

I preached this sermon on Trinity Sunday, June 12, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is John 16:12-15.

Ever since I was a little kid, I have loved looking at maps. Our family went on lots of road trips, and there was a sort of weighty, sacred significance in the big printed road atlas that was usually kept somewhere in the car. Even if we weren’t going anywhere in particular, we would get it out and we would look at it together, and I would trace my finger along the blue and red and green roads and highways crisscrossing the printed page like ribbons, or rivers, or veins, each one an invitation, a daydream, a path leading somewhere, towards a place just over the horizon of the present moment. A place that, to my young mind, was mysterious. A place that was beautiful. 

To this day I still love looking at maps and pondering places to explore, both near and far. And so it happened that this weekend I was scrolling on my phone across the map of this area and I noticed the place, about an hour from here, where the state lines of Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan converge. As best I could tell, it was just a spot along a country road pretty far from anything, with a little stone marker.  Worth driving an hour each way? I’ll let you be the judge of that, but the map was calling out to me, and so I hopped in my car on an impulse and headed north. 

After getting off of the interstate, I ended up on one of those beautiful two-lane country roads that we have in abundance around here. The land rose and fell gently, like the belly of a sleeping giant. The clouds were big and voluptuous, the trees an insistent shade of green, the red barns and the farmhouses nestled among the fields. And still I kept driving, and driving some more, far past any town, out to where the roads arent quite yet dirt, but where they’re starting to think about becoming dirt. 

And suddenly, there it was. Just off the road, with a little place to pull off: a stone marker perched on a small rise, which indicated that 130 feet to the south, the three states meet in one spot. And so I parked the car and walked a little ways, and there it was—not much to see, I’ll admit—just a little metal plaque embedded into the middle of the road with the letter “M.” So I’m guessing Michigan got to put it there.

And as you do when you drive over an hour to see a letter in the middle of the road…I stood on it. And then I took a couple of pictures of my feet standing on it. And I looked around at the loveliness of that quiet road, accompanied only by the birds and the breeze rustling the flowers and the wild grass, and I thought about how strange and yet oddly thrilling it was to be standing upon the precise intersection of three places, each with their own unique character, each with their own people and histories and hopes, and yet here, together, gently resting up against one another, hidden away in the middle of nowhere, or, depending on how you look at it, in the middle of everywhere. 

And while it was not quite as glamorous as some of the places on the map I’d daydreamed about as a kid, it was mysterious. And it was beautiful.

Now, given that today is Trinity Sunday, that day in the Church year when we preachers try, however imperfectly, to ponder and speak about the God revealed to us in Scripture who is both three and one, you might already see where my imagination is going with this. And although I admit any attempt to reduce the Trinity to a tidy analogy or image is destined to be insufficient, I couldn’t help but think about it as I stood on that spot in the road, trying to imagine where exactly on that little plaque one state ended and the other started, searching for the infinite vanishing point between uniqueness and unity. 

Uniqueness and unity. We could say something similar about the Triune God, a theological mystery which is itself perhaps marked with an M, somewhere out beyond the cosmos, in the backroads of heaven, among the fields of wheat and the wildflowers and the swooping doves. Theologians and preachers and all kinds of other people have written a lot of words trying to map the Trinity, to describe its contours and characteristics and the best way for us mere mortals to approach it. We all want to “get it” or get close to it. And yet as close as we might get, we can never quite reach the center of what or where or how the Trinity is. It is hidden from us, just out of reach, that infinite vanishing point where Father, Son and Spirit touch and intertwine, beyond the limited scope of our perception. It is nowhere, and it is everywhere. It is mysterious. And it is beautiful.

How thrilling and humbling it is, when you really think about it, that as Christians we give our lives, our whole selves, over to something—to Someone—whom we can’t quite understand. But that’s what love is, in the end, isn’t it? A headlong leap into mystery. 

And so today, on Trinity Sunday, we honor that mystery of God’s love, not trying to solve it like a riddle or simplify it into a diagram, but instead to celebrate the journey that we make together in its general direction, like travelers with a map in our hands—longing for the promise that lies beyond the horizon of the present moment, searching for that place at the end of the long road, the place where all of our unique stories, all of our hopes and our homelands meet, gently resting up against one another— a place we know is real because Jesus has revealed its possibility to us, even if we can’t quite describe it or see it yet.

But that’s the whole point—we haven’t fully arrived. We haven’t plotted the precise coordinates of the Kingdom—no, not a single one of us. And we as the Church are at our best when we acknowledge that our journey toward understanding God is still a work in progress. The depth of the Trinity, that is to say the depth of God’s grace-filled self, is still being revealed to us. And admitting this prevents us from all manner of ills: legalism and self-satisfaction and complacency and hardened certainties. It keeps us tender, open to being surprised, open to admitting that perhaps God is even more wondrous, more loving, more liberating than we—or anyone—has ever dared to hope. 

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel passage. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…he will declare to you the things that are to come.” 

This story—this revelation of the divine life of the Trinity—is not over yet. The Spirit is still working within us and within the present moment; the Son is still journeying with us, even to the end of the age; and the Father stills waits to greet us, his prodigal children, at the end of our travels, running across the field, arms open wide, a feast heavy upon the table. The Trinity is all of this, and more. It is mysterious, and it is beautiful.

Our only task is to keep going. Keep going, even when we stumble. Keep going, even when it feels like we’ve lost the path. Keep going, even when nobody else seems to want to come with us. Keep going, even when the map is stained with our tears and the lines bleed together. Keep going.

Because if nothing else, to speak of the Trinity, the way it moves and holds and calls us, is to speak of God’s ongoing invitation to keep going. It is the proclamation that God was, and God is, and God will be with us as we do so, and that wherever we are going, we will meet him in the end. We will converge, somewhere on that hidden road, into that infinite vanishing point of uniqueness and unity, of God and of creation, of flesh and blood and bread and wine and breath and wind and flame. We will stand right there at the intersection of eternity, and finally, we will know. Finally, we will be known.

I still keep an atlas in my car, by the way. Every once in a while I’ll take it out and trace the roads on the map with my finger, dreaming of what more there is to see. There’s always more to see. The only difference is that now, I have come to know that you don’t have to travel very far to see wondrous things. The infinite mysteries of the universe—of love, of life, of God—are close to you, closer than you can imagine. 

Sometimes, if you know how and where to look, they’re just under your feet. 

Standing on the spot where Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan converge.