“And”: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 18, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 22:15-22:

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

“Tell us whose side you’re on,” the Pharisees and the Herodians are asking Jesus today. “Tell us who has the ultimate power: the God of Israel, or this Emperor to whom we owe our taxes?”

They are trying to trip Jesus up with this question, of course, because taking a side in this particular dispute will either undermine the Roman authorities (bad idea) or disappoint Jesus’ Judean followers. A perfect conundrum, his inquisitors assume. 

But do you remember that moment, early in his ministry, when the people of Nazareth get really angry at Jesus’s preaching and try to drive him off of a cliff, and then somehow, inexplicably, he simply “passed through the midst of them and went on his way”?

Yeah, he pretty much does the same thing here. Jesus is really good at transcending these no-win situations. His answer, as simple as it is, stuns the questioners—“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the Emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It’s the first century equivalent of a mic drop–and so they just sort of shut up and go away. 

But I don’t think our takeway is simply that Jesus is really good at giving clever answers or getting himself out of a bind. No, what we see here is that Jesus brings an entirely different mindset to the world than that of his challengers. Unlike them, he does not see things as a choice between binaries—this world OR the next one, insiders OR outsiders, attentiveness to the realm of God OR Caesar. 

Instead, Jesus is someone who almost always operates in terms of “both/and.” He demonstrates, time and again, that a meaningful response to the complexities of the human condition require us to live in the tension of opposites, making space for both THIS thing and THAT thing, THIS person, and THAT person. We don’t get to opt out of loving God or our neighbor just because things are complicated and nuanced.

I had a professor in seminary, Caroline McCall, who taught us to drop the word “but” from our vocabulary when we were engaging in dialogue with one another—ie. I like what you said, BUT, I think my idea is better.  That is important, BUT this is more important.

Instead, she encouraged us to say “AND.” That is important. AND, this is also important.

I came to understand from Caroline’s teaching that this wasn’t just a strategy for civil discussion; it was a social and theological lens that allows for the coexistence of diverse values and perspectives. It is a way of communicating that invites more ideas into the circle, even paradoxical ideas, even ideas we might not agree with, and in doing so our hearts and our minds become just a bit more open, charitable, Christlike. I might disagree with you AND I am still committed to loving you.

And this is, in effect, what Jesus does to answer the Pharisees and the Herodians today. He is saying: take seriously the demands of the present social order AND love God and your neighbor with all your heart and soul and mind. Engage as a participant in this world, as imperfect and broken as it might be, AND never forget that God is breaking in, forging a new world all around you.  Do both. Be both.

Those who are committed to binaries, to zero-sum games, to seeing the world as winners and losers, are likely to be challenged by this. Still, as followers of the way of Jesus, we need to embody non-binary thinking now more than ever.

When we are confronted in our own lives by people who always try to force us into picking sides, into seeing the world as nothing more than a never ending power struggle in which we must vanquish our perceived enemies, we need to pause, and take a breath, and pass through their midst. Not out of fear or apathy, but because the answer to every question lies on the other side of our enmity.

And I know how tempting it is in these polarized times to pick a team, to pick a side, to think of everyone as either an ally or an enemy, but I am telling you this: if the church doesn’t lead the way in opting out of this binary way of thinking and categorizing the world, if people of faith and good conscience don’t do it, then it will not happen, and we will continue to grow more suspicious of one another and farther and farther apart, long past any particular election season or pandemic. And if we are suspicious and apart, we will never flourish, not one of us.  

The change has to begin here, now, among us and within us, because first and foremost we are citizens of God’s Kingdom, and that is a place fundamentally shaped by the word “AND”: a place that is just AND compassionate, free AND interdependent, abundant AND equitable. Rooted in history AND looking towards the future.

And you know what is so fantastic, so beautiful? It is that we are already doing this; we are already living in this spirit right here at Trinity. We demonstrate this every week by coming together with people—people similar to us and people very different from us—to turn our hearts towards God and one another and by saying YES: yes, life is hard, yes, the world can be angry and cruel, yes, I am exhausted and scared and money is tight and my relationship is on the rocks and my dog is sick and I am so tired of political ads on TV–

AND…

AND life is a gift, and God’s blessings are everywhere, and Christ is in the face of the person next to me, and how amazing it is to be alive today, to breathe the crisp fall air, and how good it is to strive for justice and mercy in this land, and how perfectly imperfect is this very moment, here in the presence of Jesus who is passing, lovingly passing through our midst, passing through our fears, passing through our binaries, guiding us out into the True Answer to every question.

How gut-wrenching it is to love him, to follow him where he goes AND how necessary, how grace-filled, how complete.

We will only glimpse God’s fullness, brothers and sisters and sibilings, when “AND” becomes the vocabulary of our hearts. When we live as though there is space enough for everyone, and mercy enough for everyone, and peace enough for everyone, and food and shelter and justice enough for everyone. There can be. There will be. Because no matter how many blustering emperors come and go from this earth, we worship a God who is ultimately on everyone’s side–a God who will not rest until the day we are all resting together. 

That day feels a long way off sometimes. A long way off.

And:

We will get there.

I’ve Had Enough: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 11, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 22:1-14:

Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Several weeks ago, a number of us came together for an online retreat here at Trinity, focusing on the parables of Jesus. We spent a couple of days studying and praying with these enigmatic depictions of the Kingdom that Jesus uses to teach and form his followers, including us.

One strategy that I shared during our retreat, which I personally find helpful when engaging with a parable that is especially strange or troubling, is to imagine who I might be in the story as I read it through, aligning my perspective with that character, seeing what insight arises for me. Then, I will pick another character, one I might not readily identify with, and put myself in that person’s shoes. I read the parable again from that perspective and see what new discoveries the Holy Spirit might offer. 

Reading the parables in this way helps me break free from the assumption that there is only one way to understand a story, only one way to understand what the Kingdom of God is all about. As a spiritual discipline, it helps me build empathy for perspectives other than my own, and opens me up to the new word that God always seems to be offering us if we are willing to listen for it.

How badly we need a new word right now, at this moment in our world when the characterizations used in our public discourse feel especially brittle and caustic, like spiteful caricatures of a once-robust story. 

How urgently we need a new paradigm, a new lens through which to perceive what citizenship in God’s Kingdom asks of us. How desperately we need to reconsider who we are in the unfolding narrative of our time. 

Our gospel lesson today is a perfect example of this need. The most common approach to this morning’s parable is to imagine God as the vengeful king; in fact, nearly every commentary I came across this past week started with the assumption that this is the correct way to interpret Jesus’ words here. And if God is the king in this story, then it follows that those who reject God’s invitation and those who fail to adequately prepare themselves for God’s expectations will suffer at God’s hand and will be cast out into the darkness.  The chosen few will enjoy the feast. End of story. Amen.

Many of us know this type of Christian narrative of election and condemnation from other seasons of our lives; many of us have felt its sting or have pushed up against its suffocating certainties. 

But with all due respect to those who promote this dominant narrative, I, for one, have had enough of a theology of angry kings and burning cities and exclusive guest lists. I have had enough of Christian communities that use parables like this to judge and exclude under the guise of truth-telling. I have had enough of purity tests and moral posturing and spiritual violence masquerading as love. I have had enough. 

That story is played out, and it doesn’t sound anything like the Jesus I know and love.

So, I would offer, it is time to stretch our imagination, time to recast this story.

What if God is not actually the king of this parable? What if God is not any of the people in this parable? 

Jesus never actually says who God is here—we have read that into the text ourselves, collectively, over generations. But one thing we do know, from the very shape of his own life and death and resurrection, is that Jesus has little interest in emulating earthly kings. He usually operates, in fact, as the antithesis of a typical king.

To cast God, then, as the petty tyrant of this parable might tell us more about our own understanding of power in this world than it does about the liberating power of God’s kingdom. 

So here’s my new cast list, for your consideration. 

Sometimes, we are the king in this story. We are this king every time we act out of our need for control, every time we manipulate others so that they will do what we want. We are this king when we start deciding who is and is not worthy of mercy, when we encouter people with whom we disagree and desire to annilhate them in our hearts, to cast them into the darkness beyond the limits of our compassion. 

And sometimes, we are also the guests. 

We can be those initial guests—the ones who don’t show up—whenver we decide that we have better things to do than giving our lives over to Christ. We are those guests when we become distracted, deceived by the illusion that we can create our own personal heaven rather than participating in the real heaven, the one that is only found in the mutuality between us and God and our neighbor.

And we can be those final guests, too—the hesitant, the unprepared, the speechless—and in them we see reflected our own moments of speechlessness, our own fear and confusion about what is expected of us, and we’re given a stark reminder that we need to get clear about who we are and why we are here; that this Christian life is not meant to be observed from the sidelines, but lived in fervent fullness.

And God. If not a king, then where is God in this recasting? That is quite simple:

God is the wedding feast itself. 

God is the abundant table. 

God is the bread and wine and the scent of roses. 

God is the water trembling in the crystal bowl,

the color of ripe fruit,

the candlelight reaching out to illuminate your face. 

God, always, forever, is the Eucharistic banquet, the promise of sustenance, available to anyone, to everyone—to the angry king and the frightened guest alike, to you and to me—if only we would lay down our arms and our anger and our apathy and gather together for the meal that has been prepared for us, the kingdom that has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world. 

God is the feast. The feast of life.

So, whoever you are this morning, whoever you have been before, come.  Let us sit down together, and rest, and eat. 

Let us tell a new story.

For Such a Time as This: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 20, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Philippians 1:21-30 and Matthew 20:1-16.

I know it might feel like a lifetime ago in this ever-frantic news cycle, but just the other week my social media feeds were full of eerie, dark images from friends in the San Francisco Bay Area: a thick mantle of smoke from the voracious, deadly wildfires on the west coast had literally blocked out the sunlight. Office towers were illuminated at midday, and cars crept through the haze with headlights on, like ghosts floating through the thick, amber-tinted gloom that many described as “apocalyptic.”

And while these images were striking in their severity, this rampage of flame and smoke is not a  novelty out west. In fact, as a seminary student in Berkeley a couple years ago, long before the coronavirus pandemic, I was already the owner of several N95 face masks, because the ash from the autumn wildfires would get so thick that our lungs would burn just walking a block or two to class. 

I remember my friend and classmate, Alison, collecting masks and handing them out to the folks living on the streets in our neighborhood, who had to sleep every night under that blanket of toxic air. I remember keeping a bag packed in my dorm room with essential documents and mementos, just in case those sparks of fire began devouring the hills looming outside my window.

As a native Californian, I can tell you that these fires, in recent years, are worse than they ever have been. Their intensity and destrutiveness, exacerbated by climate change and unchecked population growth in fire zones, threatens the life and livelihood of millions of people in our country.

But, as with so many other urgent societal challenges of our time, the debate over what to do about this crisis has been overtaken by the fear and resentment that pervades our public discourse. The need to reckon with complex challenges devolves into false dichtomies and endless posturing. Meanwhile, the land continues to seethe and burn, and our brothers and sisters weep amid ashes both literal and figurative, in a season that indeed feels like an endlessly encroaching twilight.

So when they were talking about apocalyptic skies, my friends might have been engaging in a bit of anxious poeticism, but not by much—becasue we ARE living through an apocalypse, in the strictest sense of that word. Not necessarily the “end times” of popular imagination, but an apokalypsis—which in the Biblical Greek means a revelation, an uncovering of things not previously known. This period of crisis is revealing US, forcing us to face who we are and what we stand for.

Not who we THINK we are. Not who we assume OTHERS to be. But who we actually are, when the rubber meets the road, when times get tough, when we can no longer hide our fears and flaws behind the pleasantly numbing qualities of prosperity and power. When the type of love espoused by Jesus, in all of its raw urgency, is all we have to rely upon and guide us.

If we glean anything from the letter of St. Paul today, who realizes that for him the greater good is to stay and engage in the “fruitful labor” of this troubled world, we must come to understand that sitting this one out, that waiting for the ethereal promise of better days, is not part of our Christian vocation. This is the time for us to stop posturing, to put aside our resentments and regrets about what might have been or should have been, and start getting real about doing God’s work. The needs are great. The hour is coming and is now here.

In today’s gospel, we hear from Jesus that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner hiring workers for his vineyard. And while we often focus, rightly, on how this parable illustrates God’s almost-scandalous generosity, it also has something important to tell us about simply showing up and laboring in the first place. 

Consider those workers who are lingering in the marketplace near the end of the day. We don’t know why they waited so long without being hired. But to the landowner, it doesn’t really matter. He is willing to take them. Because however late the hour, the laborers did show up. They stepped out in the public square and presented themselves as willing hearts, willing contributors to the harvest, even with only an hour or two of daylight left. Even when it might seem that any chance to make a difference has passed them by.

I think of all the times that I have been late to show up for the truly important people and pursuits in my life. I surely had all kinds of reasons, some better than others. Sometimes because I thought I had better things to do, other times because I was distracted, or scared, or angry, or I just didn’t know where to begin. Maybe you’ve had those experiences too, where you feel like you’ve missed the boat, missed the call, missed the opportunity to do something meaningful.

But what we learn in this parable—something God really, really needs us to learn right now—is that it is NEVER too late to start doing the work we have been called to do. Whether we start in the dawn of our life, or at midday, or at dusk, God will always come find us, will always offer us a place in the vineyard, and most importantly, will always show us that even the smallest thing we do has value in the Divine economy.

So what is the labor that you can contribute, here and now? What is the work of your hands, the work of your heart, that you might offer in this perilous season? There is not one among us who cannot take part, no matter our age, health, or circumstances. 

Daily prayer for the needs of the world is a great place to start. Supporting the life and work of your parish, of course, is of vital importance for so many of us. Extending a hand of friendship and compassion out into the lives of our neighbors, especially those in need. Speaking truth to power in the great prophetic tradition of our faith. Caring for God’s imperiled creation. 

There are so many ways to labor fruitfully, and there is no one solution to all that we face, but neither is there any excuse to exempt ourselves from showing up some way, somehow. As the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” And so each of us has to take that step, whatever it is for us.

God is waiting for us to say yes, like our Blessed Mother Mary, to say yes to something bigger than ourselves, inviting us into the joyful, necessary labor for which we were made.  We cannot let our fear, or frustration, or bewilderment impede us from jumping in and offering what we can. Those who came before us, those who struggled valiantly to make this world a kinder, fairer place, deserve at least that much.

So I pray that the smoke will clear from the skies out west. I pray that the smoke will clear from this pandemic, and from this election season, and from any number of other challenges we are facing. But alongside God’s grace and providence, we have a crucial part to play in the healing of this age.  And we can’t wait til there are clear, sunny skies to jump in and get to work. We do not have the luxury of waiting. Our land continues to burn, and so our hearts must burn in response.

Brothers and sisters, there is no one else on earth that can do the thing you were created to do. There is no one else that can contribute what you were born to contribute.

No matter the hour of life in which you find yourself, this is the hour you are called. I know things feel hard, and scary, and exhausting, but remember: we were born, we were named as God’s beloved, we were baptized into Christ’s death and life for such a time as this. So, take a deep breath; give thanks for those who have labored before us; imagine those who will come after us; and then, here and now, let us go into the vineyard together.

Love’s Enclosure: A Sermon

This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 6th, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Romans 13:8-14.

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another,” Paul urges today in his letter to the Romans, and it sounds so simple doesn’t it? How liberating, how wonderful, that the only thing we have to worry about in this life is loving each other. No long lists of rules and regulations for us, thank you very much—just love, for all of the people, all of the time. 

But experience teaches us that choosing love is often far from easy or straightforward, and we might at times wish there WAS a clearly outlined set of rules and instructions from God about how to do this thing called life. For all its truth and wisdom, though, Scripture is less of a how-to manual and more of an illustration—a vivid image of love’s redemptive entanglement with frailty.

And so, we must stand alongside one another, scrutinzing the image, discerning, together, often messily, what love mandates, here and now, and somehow reproduce it in our own lives.

At times, especially in this hard, angry, suspicious age in which we find ourselves, it can feel nearly impossible to love everyone and everything we encounter. When faced with the brokenness and the meanness of the world, we are tempted to retreat, to run away in horror and frustration. In such moments the idea that we must always be governed by love, in all times and places, can feel like a cruel joke. For it is a certainty that no matter how kind we are, no matter how gracious, not everyone will love us back.

And yet, that is indeed what is depicted, time and again, in Scripture. We are told that love is the through-line of every commandment Moses grapsed on stormy Mt. Sinai. We are told that choosing to love, despite all evidence to the contrary, builds the type of life that bears the imprint of eternity. “Love,” Paul says, “is the fulfilling of the Law.” In other words, Love is the fulfilling of God’s plan for creation.

You already know the stakes of this if you have ever cared for someone deeply—a partner, a parent, a child, a friend. Love’s requirements, when taken seriously, are all-encompassing. It demands everything we have to give. Love, as a rule of life, encloses us. It limits the scope of our freedom to some degree, as we commit to the care and nurture of this person, this place, this time. Sure, we could choose to run away, but love keeps us grounded, and in doing so, it helps us become what God intended.

I think our society needs a reminder of this, especially now, when it seems as though the pursuit of the common good has gone out of fashion. Without the grounding of a generous love, we risk becoming lost in the maze of our own private desires and impulses, wandering, like prodigal sons and daughters, into the “quarreling and jealousy” Paul warns us against, believing ourselves liberated, but in truth, enslaved by our own selfishness.

That is not how God designed the world to work. So we must constantly return to that image we have been given—the image of Love—and let our hearts be mended by it.

Speaking of images, the one included in your service bulletin (or viewable here) is one panel of the famous Unicorn tapestries, which can be found at The Cloisters museum in Manhattan.

These particular tapestries date from the late middle ages/early Renaissance, sometime around 1500, and they are massive, covering the walls of the large room in which they reside. They are also something of a mystery—nobody knows exactly who made them or where they came from, and art historians have spent a lot of time speculating as to what they mean. 

In various scenes, as you move around the gallery, the unicorn is discovered in a forest, then hunted, then killed, and then brought back to a castle by a large crowd of lords and ladies. Then, finally, quite strangely, there is the image that you see before you: the unicorn alive again, resting peacefully in a fenced enclosure, as the ripe fruits of a pomegranate tree drip their blood-red nectar onto its white coat.

We do know that the unicorn loomed large in the imagination of medieval European culture; it was a remnant of the writings of antiquity, a pagan symbol that combined equal measures of ferocity and gentleness, and as such became associated with the figure of Christ. The original King James Bible even translated the Hebrew word for wild oxen, re’em, as unicorn.

But what intrigues me most for our purposes today is the fence that surrounds the unicorn in this tapestry. Notice how low it is, how easy it would be for the creature to jump over it and escape. It begs the question, why does the unicorn stay there, when it could so easily leave? Why does it have such a tranquil expression, after having been hunted and confined within this absurdly small space? 

Imagining the Unicorn as an image of Jesus, the Scottish clergyman Harry Galbraith Miller, in a meditation he wrote many years ago on this very same tapestry, gives this answer:

“we come to sense that [the unicorn] is only held there because that is what it itself wishes. It is its own love that holds it, and in all its beauty, restrained power quivering in every limb, it rests there captive. The captive of love…love draws it in self-sacrificing gentleness.”

The captive of love—yes, this is indeed our Lord and our God. And as followers of Jesus, we, too, are invited to be love’s captives. We, too, are asked to lay down amid the fruits of this bloodstained paradise, and to let the bonds of charity hold us fast to this heartbroken earth, even when we would rather run away.

The majesty of the unicorn here is that it chooses to remain within our grasp, we who can grasp so little. It chooses to stay so that we might gaze upon it and be changed by it, we who did nothing to deserve its startling beauty, who will never fully comprehend it.

The unicorn, as the image of God, invites us into love’s enclosure, invites us to lay down our swords, invites to live for something other than ourselves.

For you and I, right now, that might mean wearing a mask to protect our neighbors. It might advocating for justice and reconciliation. It might mean offering forgiveness to one who has wronged us, or making amends if we have wronged someone else.

Every time we do these things, every time we accept the responsibilities of love, we are, as Paul says, putting on the armor of light—the dazzling garment of the gentle warrior, a figure not unlike the unicorn itself, proud and strong and free, yet choosing to stay, choosing to fight for love, despite the odds.

We might not always get it right. We will probably make plenty of mistakes. But how good it is try. How good it is to lay down within this enclosure, where the fruits of the Spirit drip nectar onto our skin, where the Law of Love grows up around us like wildflowers.

That is where we are meant to be. That is who we are meant to be.

The Church that is Willing to Die: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on June 21, 2020 for the online services at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 10:24-39

What does it mean to be the church in a time such as this? At this turning point in our national life, when old values, old practices, old ways of being are called into question, when the mythic landscape of American history is being challenged and reordered by pandemics, protests, and political turmoil, when certainties are few and far between, here and now we are urgently led to revisit this question: what does it mean to be the church? Who are we Christians in this fraught moment: this moment of lament, this moment of reckoning with the unjust systems we have built and sustained, this moment of questioning the bedtime stories with which we have comforted ourselves about blessing and destiny and progress? 

What is the church now when the wind comes howling in through the open window, when the doors to the building are locked and the bottom drops out and we are falling, falling down into the gloom of an unknown tomorrow? What are we then? Who are we then?

For so much of our nation’s history, to be part of the church has been a designation of institutional membership, a cultural practice encoded in spiritual language handed down from generation to generation; an elegant packaging of some laudable core values, and a safe, enclosed space in which to work out the meaning of life according to those values. In this understanding of church as institution, which patterns itself according to the societal contexts in which it operates—the world outside the walls—there are usually a number of factions, organized along political, liturgical, or ideological spectrums, and whoever dominates in numbers or funding tends to dictate what we stand for and the ways in which we do so. It’s not that we ignore the gospel in this mode of church; it’s simply that the “good news” we share often sounds like the good news we want to hear, or more specifically, the good news that the powerful want to hear. 

For many, being church in this way feels very navigable—it maps rather neatly onto the rest of our lives, it absorbs the language of the zeitgeist like a sponge, such that the progressive and the conservative, whatever those labels happen to mean in a given moment, have equal opportunity to bedeck themselves in Scripture and silk vestments, to continue their eternal struggle via the proxy wars of theology and church politics. 

This is not a new thing, and perhaps, for much of our history, this mode of being the church felt sufficient for the majority of people. Since the peace of Constantine in the 4th century, when Christianity became legalized in the Roman Empire and later adopted as the religion of that Empire, there has been little distinction between the idealized values of citizenship and the  core teachings of the sacred in dominant Western culture—especially for those of us who enjoyed the privileges and powers that such citizenship affords. The easy mix of civic and ecclesial agendas was simply a given. Church was, in effect, where you learned how to be a good and loyal participant in the realm, to support its structures, to promote the peace of the established order.

But established orders tend to fall apart eventually. Structures give way under their own weight. And what is the church, then? Who are we, then? 

Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel:

Do not think that I have come 

to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, 

but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)

Jesus’ words today remind us that there is another choice when it comes to understanding the meaning of the church—a choice that is unsettling, a bit scary even—one that looks nothing like the established order in which we are tempted to become comfortably numb. He describes the cost of following him in the starkest of terms—it is to give up family bonds, it is to give up one’s safety, to give up one’s own life, even, in order to find and participate in whatever strange, magnetic sweetness he seems to carry within himself.  This is not a metaphorical invitation. It is quite serious.

To be church in this way—to relinquish, to descend, to die—has little to do with the striving and the strategies that characterize so much of public life in the West.  It is, instead, an intentional upending, a deconstruction of those values, especially whenver they deny life and dignity to the least among us. For, as Mary proclaims, He has lifted up the lowly and the rich he has sent away empty.

To be the church that responds to Jesus’ invitation is to search for the cracks in the veneer of decadence, to find them and to tear them open,  to name what is rotten underneath and, crucially, inescapably, not simply to name and to criticize, but to cast ourselves, with equal measure of grief and  hope, down into the rottenness, down to the places where we do not want to go, down to where we will finally see what is true, what endures, what refuses to die, even there. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Here and now, in our present turmoil, some of that work has been done for us. The veneer is already cracked. Some of the rottenness is already exposed. But we still have to choose whether we will get down there and look at it. We still have to choose whether we will do something about it. Nobody will force us to, not even God; and the urge to look away, to go back to the old mode of being, will continue to be powerful. But what we decide will determine what sort of church we are part of. Are we an insitution of the present order, subject to the whims of history, or are we a community of disciples, of learners, of passionate lovers of God, seeking Holy Wisdom into the uncomfortable places she calls us?

Most days, I doubt that I have the strength and the courage to choose this latter vision. Most days, I just want to roll over and go back to sleep. It would be so much nicer to stay on the surface of my Christian identity, to let church function as an ornament, as a daydream where we talk about forgiveness and love in hazy terms without ever submitting to the fierce demands that such things actually require. 

But then, always, there is Jesus, with his unsettling words and his compelling gaze that cuts through me like a sword. I see him looking back at me from the cross, forgiving my weakness, unimaginably patient with my fear. I see him in the faces of my homeless neighbors, my black and brown neighbors, my lgbtq neighbors, my conservative neighbors, my liberal neighbors, my neighbors of every background and belief, and I hear his voice: 

Follow me. Follow me wherever it might take you. Follow me out past the church you thought you knew, out beyond a brittle, compromised peace, follow me out past certainty and cynicism, follow me into the heart of the world’s sorrows and see what lies on the other side of fear and lamentation. I promise you, everything real, everything joyful, everything good, is there. I am there. 

If we listen to Jesus, if we really listen to him, what other choice can we make?

Lamentations of the People

I wrote these liturgical “Prayers of the People” a few weeks before the national protests in response to George Floyd’s killing, but they have taken on a new resonance for me now, and so I share them with you here.

Lamentations of the People

In grief and in undaunted hope, let us cry out to God, the undivided Trinity, saying:
Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, Have mercy upon us.

God, your Church is splintered and sorrowful. We are undone by the virulence of the age into which you have called us. We hunger for the bread only you can give; we long for the solace of an absent embrace. Gather us close, hide us under the shadow of your wings, and strengthen us to be your ministers amidst the uncertainties that lie ahead.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, our nation is diseased. A pandemic has brought us to our knees, but we have been kneeling before false gods for too long: economic and environmental injustice, systemic racism, the death-dealing myth of white imperialism, the vainglory of unexamined consumption. We need you, the Divine Physician, to heal the heart-wounds we cannot see, so that we might heal the broken bodies and broken systems we can see.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, the world is so vast, and so small. We are overwhelmed by its complexities, yet we are reminded how tightly our lives are knit together. The old lies of extraction and exploitation have laid waste to our planet and have oppressed our siblings in every land. Lead us out into the wilderness beyond self-satisfaction, beyond denial, beyond plunder, and teach us new ways to live simply, humbly, close to the earth.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, our communities are being crushed by the yoke of sin: political enmity, economic inequality, gun violence, racism, xenophobia, disparities in health and education, pollution, loneliness, and despair. Our brothers and sisters are sleeping in the streets, weeping in the streets, bleeding in the streets, like strangers in their own land. And so many of us choose to look away. Give us, instead, your easy yoke, your light burden: to open the doors, to step out, to speak out, to trust one another, to be taken where we do not wish to go, to the foot of the Cross, to the tomb, where you will meet us, where real life begins.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, our loved ones are sick and dying, from viruses and from violence. The silence of silenced bodies overwhelms our ears. The IV-drip of memories stings and burns as it works its way through our veins. We are weak and helpless, but don’t allow us to be hopeless. Make your presence known to us, especially when we cannot be present to one another. Heal our ailments and mend our hearts.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, you have taken so many away. Their names tumble from our lips, a remembrance, an insistence, a plea. We say their names so that they won’t be forgotten. We say their names so that we won’t be the type of people willing to forget. As we grieve and grasp at the mystery of death, take their names and bind them to yourself; open your everlasting gates and welcome them home.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God of our Sorrows and our Joy, we lament today so that we might rejoice tomorrow in your promise of justice, of healing, and of never-ending life; for you are the One in whom all things are made new, and it is to you whom we turn in trust, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever.

Amen.

Holy Week at Home #2: Holy Monday

A continuation of my “Holy Week at Home” posts; on Holy Monday the Gospel reading depicts Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus with precious ointment (John 12:1-9).

Spring is a season of guileless generosity. The trees and flowers cry abundant, blossoming tears of gratitude for the gentle return of warmth to the earth. The soft evening air feels gently magnanimous, like new love, or a reconciliation.

On Holy Monday we are told of Jesus’ anointing at Bethany; how Mary, the sister of Martha, pours precious fragrance on his feet and wipes them with her hair. Extravagant and unnecessary, says Judas, who cannot see beyond the imperatives of his limited, grasping imagination.

No, says Jesus, she has done this out of deep wisdom, for my burial approaches.

Extravagance is only harmful when it gathers bounty toward oneself, into the bottomless void of a misunderstood hunger. The extravagance of giving is the only possible satiation.

So, like springtime, like the exuberant wildflowers bending to kiss the dark soil, with the gratitude of one who has perceived the true cost of Love, thus has Mary poured out her gift. Thus has she anointed God with her necessary offering, for his necessary offering which is to come.

Help me now, Lord, in my fear of your Cross, and of my own. Allow me to rest at your feet. Allow me to gather what beauty I can, and then to offer it back; to let the blossoms loose and fall, as they must: an anointing of the earth, a making way, so to bear the fruit not yet tasted.

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. 

 

Courage: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the feeding of a hungry mouth,

the wiping of a tear,

the holding of a trembling hand,

the speaking of truth to power. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This–simply this–is enough.

This–simply this–is everything there is. 

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.