Holy Week at Home #6: Good Friday

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

Look up.

He is unfurled
aloft,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look up, into his face.

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

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

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

Look up. 

Holy Week at Home #5: Maundy Thursday

A continuation of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; on Maundy Thursday we commemorate Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, as well as Jesus’ anguish and arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. 

Before I must die, he says, let me show you what cannot be killed.

Always, your tyrants will stumble. Your temples will fall. Time and plague lay will lay waste. Enmity will wound.

But there is something else, something underneath and beyond the brittle, crumbling certainties of this (and every) age. Something eternal.

Let us gather together at this table so you might glimpse it, dancing in the shadows as your faces shine in the lamplight. Let me feed you here, let me cleanse you. Let me be with you forever in this moment, even when I must go.

Begin to understand, beloved ones, that there are things more precious than that which you can hold onto. You must begin to see the strange inversion of Truth: how service is power; how love is relinquishment; how death opens us to life.

I admit that I could never explain this to you adequately in words alone. So now I can only demonstrate. I can only *be* for you what is commanded for us all. My tools are bread and wine and water basin. And tomorrow there will be other instruments, but let us not speak of them yet.

Oh, beloveds, how I have loved you, ever since my breath first swept across the waters, ever since I molded you from dust. How I have longed to be known by you.

And so, as you have said to me so often through the cascading generations, I now say to you:

Here Am I.
I Am Here.

I have come from across eternity to kneel before you. To breathe across this water. To wash the earth from your feet of dust.

I am the unkillable offering. I give you myself so that you will know how, even if you do not know why.

Do the same, always, in remembrance of me.

Holy Week at Home #4: Spy Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Holy Week at Home #3: Holy Tuesday

Our entire life can be spent waiting for something to happen. Waiting for *that* thing to happen, the one we can’t quite name: the consummation of an unarticulated desire; the answer to a half-posed question, caught in our throat like a crumb of daily bread.

It is all-too-easy, though, to let this waiting be sufficient. To exist in a state of vague expectancy, neither starved nor nourished, having grown accustomed to glancing at life–at ourselves and one another–indirectly, furtively, never head-on.

But today we must let that go. We must risk an encounter with the emerging fullness of God’s purpose for us.

In Tuesday’s Scripture, Jesus does this. He accepts his own, pivotal role in that mysterious purpose: to be lifted up and poured out, revealing an unending effusion of mercy sourced in the headwaters of creation.

It is not the answer he wanted. Not the path he might have chosen. But we come to understand, in time, that our lives, lived most deeply, are not completely our own. And when the hour comes and the wait is over–when that existential answer arrives–it will inevitably lead us out, beyond the familiar and deadening malaise, beyond safety, to the place where our heart will be pierced and our eyes will be opened. The place of pure, unmediated Life.

Holy Week at Home #1: Palm Sunday

With liturgies suspended for this (most unusual) Holy Week, I wrote some brief daily meditations/reflections/poems on social media as a way to navigate the passage from Palm Sunday to Easter without the usual guideposts of communal worship. 

The process of daily writing and posting was a reminder for me that our praise of God is just as much about what we offer–the oblation of our hearts–as it is what we receive. So even now, when we are separated by circumstance and the usual blessings of the liturgy feel distant, we can still present our humble gifts with gratitude. With this in mind, here are the posts I shared last week.

PALM SUNDAY: 

You know that anxious feeling of entry into something unfamiliar and inevitable, like the first day of school or that difficult conversation you simply can’t put off? The dry mouth and the churning gut? The sweat on the back of your neck?

Such is Palm Sunday. Bright, dizzying, crystallized, expectant, palm leaves that scratch your own palms, cries of praise that leave you hoarse. The big event that doesn’t quite satisfy.

Palm Sunday has a feverish quality, like infatuation that has convinced itself that it’s love. It is desire without generosity. Longing without trust.

As we stand at the roadside, or peer from our windows, at the man who enters our midst on a donkey, let us be mindful of all that we still project onto him, all the ways we demand him to solve the heartbreaks and hatreds of our own creation. He comes to illuminate suffering, but not to erase it. He comes to show us life, but we must still traverse through the narrow gate that leads there. When we cry Hosanna, when we wave the branch, we are greeting a very different sort of salvation than the one we privately hoped for. If we truly understood it, its magnitude and its cost, we would likely fall silent as he passed by.

Palm Sunday is                                                                                                                                   the irony of ripping branches                                                                                              zealously;                                                                                                                                                to kill the tender green                                                                                                    prematurely–                                                                                                                                         a misguided homage to the One
Who would not break a bruised reed.
In our plundering jubilation we are convicted–
but soon
he will gather the trampled fronds and
mend the broken branches back
onto the Tree of Life.

 

To Bite the Fruit: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, March 1, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 (Eve & Adam’s temptation in the garden) and Matthew 4:1-11 (Jesus’ temptation in the desert). 

It is Lent, and Eve is standing in the garden. 

Eve, our primeval mother, the original bearer of our human bodies and our human longing, has paused under the leafy boughs of a tree laden with promises; the tree that offers the one thing she and her companion Adam do not already have: the ability to share fully in the mind of God. The ability to understand, from God’s perspective, the nature of all things. The ability, as the serpent suggests, to not simply be in relationship with God, but to be like God.

And although in the Eden narrative we often focus on themes of wickedness and disobedience, we should not forget that in this crucial moment of decision–as her hand reaches out toward the tantalizing object of her desire–Eve still loves God. She loves God so much, in fact, that she wants something beyond intimacy, something that can never be taken away. As she and Adam bite into the ripe flesh of the fruit, they are hungering for God’s very being to become part of them. They are seeking a perfect, indissoluble union with their Creator. 

There is a problem, though, with trying to consume the things we love: they tend to get destroyed in the process. And in a flash of insight, all too late, Adam and Eve realize a fundamental truth: loving God is not the same as possessing God.

How often we confuse these two things: loving and possessing. If we are to speak of original sin, we might consider it as the seemingly irresolvable void between the two—the former being the dynamic truth of a relational God, and the latter the constricting delusion of the crafty serpent.

I think of the people in my life whom I have loved most deeply and enduringly, and I realize that one common thread in those relationships is a certain sense of freedom—a freedom to be myself, and for the other person to be themselves. No agenda of control imbuing our time together. No manipulation masquerading as affection. Just two people, supporting one another in our mutual growth and inevitable failings.  And, sometimes, parting ways when life makes that necessary.

To love like this is harder because it is far more uncertain. We can’t control its outcome. And I would be lying if I said that I had never seen fruit on the tree and longed to devour it. We are all Eve and Adam on some level; we are all caught in this tension between the need to love and the compulsion to possess.

This is partly what makes Lent so valuable. We enter into this season and we are invited to take a hard look at all the relationships that comprise our lives: our relationships with people, with things, and with habits. And in each instance, we might consider this question: where am I practicing love, true, selfless, life-giving love; and where am I merely trying to possess, to consume, in order to satisfy a deeper, insatiable hunger within myself? 

It is with these questions in mind that we must journey into the desert alongside Jesus in today’s Gospel, out to the place where the devil awaits him. 

When we hear the story of Christ’s temptations: to turn stones into bread; to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple; to trade his relationship to God for earthly power; I think we would do well to picture him also, standing alongside Eve at the tree in the garden, as the eternal, fundamental questions reverberate between them and down to us through the ages:

Do you love God, or do you want to be God?

Do you love the world, or do you want to possess the world?

And maybe, just maybe, in his hunger and his isolation, Jesus saw the fruit of the tree, and perceived how good it would be to bite it, to possess it, to rule the world on his own terms, to be a king like other kings, to feed people with the bread they already knew.

Perhaps for a moment he, like Eve, thought that loving God and claiming God were the same thing. 

And perhaps, for a moment, every creature in the garden held its breath, waiting for a recapitulation of the original mistake.

But then, he speaks:

       ‘One does not live by bread alone,  but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’

        ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

        ‘Worship the Lord your God, 

        and serve only him.’

With these ancient words, drawn from the depths of the Law, Jesus is saying: It is in relinquishing power that I find true strength. I only need to trust, and to serve, for this is what love looks like: mutuality, freedom, vulnerability. A hand outstretched, not to take, but to offer itself. 

He says: I do not need to control the world in order to love the world; in fact, loving it means the exact opposite: it means accepting creation in all its finitude, serving humanity in all its frailty, and giving my life for its healing, and its redemption.

And in that moment the devil departed, for he knew that that this time the fruit would remain on the tree. This time, this Son of Man, this Firstborn of All Creation, had made the proper distinction between love and its counterfeits. 

We are, each of us, through our baptism, both children of Eve and Adam and children of God. That ancient temptation still pulses in our veins every time we feel the longing of desire and reach out to grasp at things not meant for us. And in today’s world, with its many promises and perils, giving into this impulse can feel quite natural, acceptable, even noble.

But in Lent, at the edge of Eden and deep in the desert, we are invited, instead, to let go. To leave the fruit untouched. To let the stones remain stones. To turn and face the world in all its terror and promise trusting in God alone. And trusting that somehow, at the end of our long journey, we will be ushered into someplace altogether new.  Another garden, perhaps, but one with an open gate, and an empty tomb. The garden where Eve stands once more, singing a song of redemption, basking in a love that feels, finally, like freedom. 

 

Dancing Alone: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lift up your heads, O gates!

and be lifted up, O ancient doors!

    that the King of glory may come in.

Who is this King of glory?

    The Lord of hosts,

    he is the King of glory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is this King of Glory?

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

Former Glory: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

We are not now that strength which in old days 

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

One equal temper of heroic hearts, 

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That which we are, we are.”

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

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

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

“Though much is taken, much abides.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Saying Goodbye: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on September 8, 2019, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, Indiana. The lectionary texts cited are Luke 14:25-33 and Philemon 1-21.

In late August of 2001, I stood by a fountain on a crowded brick-lined plaza, hugging my dad goodbye. We had just driven from Upper Michigan to northern Virginia, to the small college where I was about to begin my freshman year, and after unpacking my meager belongings into a dorm room, it was time for him to get back on the road.

We embraced, and I let go of him, and he smiled in his gentle way and disappeared into the crowd. And although I knew I would see him again at Christmas time, this goodbye was different, deeper, more definitive than those I had known before. It left me feeling hollow and full all at once, like a balloon untethered, drifting into the summer sky, into an unknown future.

I think that this particular goodbye felt so significant because I knew, intuitively, that I would not be the same person in a few months; that life at college would intervene in unexpected ways, and that when my father and I saw each other again in December, we would behold each other with new eyes. Our relationship would be changed.

Such is the nature of leaving home: it’s never quite the same when you go back.

Little did he and I know, on that late summer afternoon 18 years ago, how dramatically life would indeed intervene—for us, and for everyone in this country, just a couple of weeks later on the morning of September 11th, 2001, when many of us were forced to say a “goodbye” of a different sort: a goodbye to the illusion of our country’s impenetrability, a goodbye to the confident expectation that there might be peace in our time, and a goodbye to the clarity and innocence  of a world that had seemed relatively less complicated, at least for some of us, on September 10th.

It became clear to me, that first semester of college—and to many of us, I think, in that twilight of the year 2001—that we could take very little for granted. The precariousness of our previous assumptions about safety and security demonstrated that any moment—any moment at all—might turn into the unanticipated goodbye, the half-appreciated embrace, the unresolved question of our incomplete entanglements–cut short by time, or violence, or misfortune. 

We were then, and perhaps to some extent still are, a people collectively holding our breath, waiting under the specter of another imminent loss. 

But I also believe that, in that season of uncertainty, when the world shifted beneath us, each of us realized, at least for a little while, how important it is to live as if we are always about to lose each other—that is, always savoring the magnificent gift we discover in one another, the vibrancy of loving that which is changeable, and the transfiguration of the human heart that is revealed in those moments before we say goodbye, before we go our separate ways at the fountain on a summer day, before the smoke and dust envelop us, before we become dust ourselves. That urgent, insistent, keenly felt connection with the friend, with the stranger, and with our own fragile lives, was a gift revealed in the shadowlands of September 2001.

But it’s easy to forget this hard, valuable lesson, especially once life resumes its typical patterns. We get accustomed to new realities, and they become normal, and we settle into them as best we can. We assemble some sense of security and perhaps convince ourselves that this time we are safe, this time letting go won’t be necessary, at least not for a while…until, of course, the next time that life intervenes, as it always does, and a new goodbye is thrust upon us, shocking us back into life, catching in our throat like a pill we aren’t quite able to swallow.

So, why all this talk of goodbyes?

It’s because I think that by considering what it means to say “goodbye,” which is really a condensed form of the phrase “God be with you,” we might find a new way to approach this week’s Gospel passage, where Jesus offers us some challenging words about hating our families and even life itself in order to be a disciple, along with bearing our cross and giving up our possessions. 

Those latter two conditions we hear elsewhere in Scripture and are somewhat more familiar to us, but hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters? This is a hard teaching to understand or accept for a way of life that is supposed to be rooted in love.

Now, commentators often claim that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole to drive home a certain point—that we need to make him and his Way the priority in our lives, the One who comes before all other allegiances, the One who lays full claim upon our selves, souls, and bodies.  

And that is quite true, but we are still left to wonder, as our children play in the nursery and our spouses and parents sit next to us in the pews: how can loving our families—our birth families, our chosen families, our church families—how on earth can this love be considered a stumbling block to following Christ? Are we supposed to conclude that we should leave them all behind and become itinerant preachers in the wilds of Indiana so that we might be called disciples?

I don’t think so.

No, Jesus, in this jarring talk about hating those whom we love, is, I think, trying to wake us up, and teach us an important lesson about being able to say goodbye, about letting go of the people and things we love the most, precisely because he knows that letting go is the price of loving as deeply and as selflessly as he calls us to do, especially when life intervenes in unexpected ways: a move across country; an illness; a breakup; a national tragedy. 

To love in the way that Jesus does, without clinging to safety, without controlling, without turning inward: this is the mark of a disciple. 

A disciple is one who arrives into every moment, every interaction, with the clarity and gratitude of someone who is already prepared to say goodbye. One for whom every joyful greeting is already shaped by the sweet, appreciative sorrow of departure.

Because it is only in those moments when we are compelled to say goodbye to the people and places we love the most, when our eyes are blurred with tears—at the airport curb, at the schoolhouse door, at the graveside—it is only then that our hearts finally see clearly: that these people and these experiences are a fleeting gift to us, not an entitlement—a blessing from God, not a fixed commodity. 

Our families, our possessions, even our own lives—as Christians, we are given the grace to perceive that these treasures all belong to the Triune God Who sent them, not to us, and we must release them, daily, into the care of the Holy One, saying, with reverence, in every moment: Goodbye. God be with you. Because I cannot hold onto you forever.

Thus, being a disciple who is able to say goodbye is about freedomthe type of freedom that allows life to be what it is, with its encounters and departures, its quiet predicability and its shocking upheavals—and to still seek God in the middle of all of it, to be servants of the God who endures despite all change, and to know ourselves as God’s beloved, above all else.

It is a strange freedom, this, one that upends everything we think we know about the world. It shapes Paul’s request to Philemon in today’s epistle, in which a severed relationship is restored under new terms. 

No longer, says Paul, are Philemon and Onesimus to be understood as master and slave, as they once were, but as two brothers, two disciples, united in the love of Christ. Philemon, like us, must learn to “hate” the old way of being—he must say goodbye to the old understandings of himself and others in exchange for something new, something entirely unexpected— something Jesus requires of him, and of us. 

And when he and his former servant are reunited, perhaps by a fountain on a brick-lined plaza, life having intervened in unpredictable ways, they, too, will behold one another with new eyes.

After all, such is the nature of leaving home: it’s never quite the same when you go back.

What is it that each of us must say goodbye to in this season? What must you and I release into the care of God, not because we love it any less, but because we love it so very much? Who or what can each of us set free, so that we can be free, so that we can be disciples, as Jesus invites us to be? 

Whatever it is, I pray that you will taste that magnificent, slightly disorienting freedom. In letting go, I pray that we will be surprised by an exquisite, grateful, and enduring love. In goodbye, may God be with you. May God be with all of us.