Fisherman: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on January 22, 2023 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 14:12-23.

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

My grandpa, like any person born and raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, loved to go fishing. And in particular he loved to go ice-fishing.

If you are not among the hardy (foolhardy?) souls who have tried this pastime, maybe you can still picture it: a frozen lake in the dead of winter, all sentient life wisely hibernating or hunkered down in a warm place. Except for the intrepid ice-fishers, who drag their shacks and their camp chairs out onto the quiet snow-blown expanse to drill holes in the ice and to sit—in bitter cold and in pensive expectation—waiting for a bite. 

I confess, the few times I went out ice-fishing with my family as a kid, I didn’t get it. I was bored and restless—and cold! I didn’t understand why anyone would willingly do this for fun, especially when you could just get fish at the grocery store. But then, I was a kid who grew up mostly in cities and in California sunshine, and the lake water didn’t run in my veins like it did for my grandpa. The stoic beauty of the ice-fisherman’s reverie was lost on me.

He would sit out on the ice, munching on a sandwich, sipping coffee from a thermos, contemplating the tree line, the sky, maybe his place in the universe; I was never quite sure. Sometimes he’d catch something, often he wouldn’t. He never seemed to mind. And truth be told, I think he liked the ritual of the trip to the lake—its sensations and its silences—just as much, if not more so, than bringing home a catch. 

Now you still aren’t likely to find me out on a frozen lake these days, but as I look back, I have come to appreciate not only the spare beauty my grandpa found in ice-fishing, but also how his going out onto the ice was, in many ways, an encapsulation of who he was in the rest of his life. The quiet and the deliberative spaciousness of ice fishing were the same qualities he evoked most other days, with his family and with his neighbors and friends. 

He had his hot-tempered moments, but for the most part he moved through the world with a gentle attentiveness to things and to people: content to be who he was, where he was, patient, not obsessed with the elusive big catch of one sort or another that many of us chase after. Maybe he had always been that way. Or maybe all those years of ice-fishing helped make him that way. I’m not sure, but I do know that it was a part of him.

My grandpa and his ice-fishing have been on my mind this week, of course, because Jesus, in calling the first disciples, finds a handful of fishermen by the Sea of Galilee and invites them, in a clever turn of phrase, to “fish for people” instead. It’s a beloved scene in the Gospels, but oftentimes I think we focus so much on the abruptness of the disciples’ response—how they seem to drop everything and follow Jesus on the spot—that we don’t spend a lot of time pondering what they were doing beforehand: namely, their original vocation as fishermen. I wonder, though, why Jesus singles them out, these men on the shore, among all the other people he might have invited into his circle. 

Was Jesus calling them just because they happened to be there, without regard for their previous life experience? Was he, in effect, asking them to become someone entirely new, or did he see some particular potential in these men with their nets and their boats and their weather-beaten faces?

Given who Jesus is, I like to think he saw something already formed in them after a lifetime of traversing open waters and mending things that are frayed and waiting, day after day, with persistent hope for an unseen harvest from the deep. I like to think he saw something that made these fishermen exactly the right people for the journey that was about to unfold.

Because I believe that who we are and what we have done with our lives, no matter how simple or quiet or humble, matters to God. It matters in the Kingdom of God. 

In the same way that my grandpa’s ice fishing and the rest of his life seemed to mutually inform one another, perhaps these Galilean fishermen already had what Jesus needed them to have as future apostles. Maybe their decision to follow him, as dramatic and abrupt as it seems, was not, in fact, a clean break from their past. It was not a rejection of who they had been, a rinsing off of the smell of fish and mud, but an embrace of what these things had taught them—it was the decision to trust that their lives, their skills, and their gifts might be brought forth in a new way for the purposes of God. 

Maybe Jesus did not call them away from themselves and their original vocation, but deeper into those things. For he did not say follow me and I will make you something other, something better than a fisherman, but follow me, and I will make you fishers of people. In other words, I will make you the fullness of who you already are.

And so those fisherman had the courage to follow him away from the shore because they knew that they had what they needed within them; they were already enough. And if that is so, then perhaps we have what we need, too, perhaps we are already enough for wherever God is calling us to go. Not running away from ourselves but going deeper into ourselves so that we might embody what God created us to be.

And I know all of us, myself included, have parts of ourselves, parts of our story, parts of our personality, parts of our past, that feel worthless, parts we would just as soon leave behind. The embarrassments that enmesh us in a net of shame. The regrets that linger on us like the scent of lake water. The things that prevent us from believing we have anything of value to offer. 

But Jesus is standing there, seeing all of it, knowing all of it, and he is saying, yes, you. I’ve been looking for someone just like you. Follow me. Follow me as you are. Follow me with what you have, no matter how great or small. Fishermen, follow me. Tax collectors, follow me. Saints and sinners, follow me. The mighty and the lowly; the famous and the forgotten; everyone, follow me— for everyone is needed where we’re going. And all that you have been and known and done will be gathered in and it will be made purposeful, it will be made beautiful by my love. It will be more than enough. 

That, in the end, is what I learned from my grandpa and how his quiet, patient days fishing on the ice spilled over into his quiet, patient life: to trust in the sufficiency of who you are; of what you love; of what you know. Trust it to guide you, with God’s help, into what you do not yet know. Trust that God is already at work in the small things of daily life, shaping you for the vast and timeless purposes that only God can truly understand. 

And regardless of whether it is ice-fishing or mending nets on the shore of Galilee or raising your kids or caring for your neighbor or striving for your daily bread, whatever it is that has formed you into who you are today, trust that you are ready to respond when Jesus calls you. You are ready and able, not in spite of your life but because of it, because every life has potential, every one of us shimmers with the possibility of God’s glory, like ice glittering in the sun. 

Follow me, Jesus says, and I will make you fish for people.

So follow him. And let him show you the blessedness of who you can still be. The blessedness of who you already are.

The Road Taken: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, January 8, 2023 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 3:13-17.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Even if you are not a fan of poetry, I suspect you’ve probably heard this verse, from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It has been passed down by generations of readers, and that last line about the road less traveled is often used as a sort of poetic motto by those who are eager to pursue meaningful, purposeful, adventurous lives. 

Now, I don’t want to be a total downer this soon into a promising new year, but if you’ve ever been inspired by this verse’s invitation to take the road less traveled and chart a singular, unconventional course through life, I am about to ruin it for you. 

Because if you read the entire poem very closely and look into the backstory of its composition, it becomes clear that Frost was being ironic. His point, in fact, is not that there is one blessed byway for the adventurous and a boring one for the rest of us, but that both of the roads diverging in the wood are, in fact, comparable. The narrator of the poem, no matter how they choose to recall it later, is probably not fundamentally changed by the particular road chosen. Frost, with his typically wry sensibility, is subtly poking fun at our anguish and indecision over the choices we make and the illusion that there is one perfect course to take through life—he does this so subtly in fact that it’s easy to miss! But now you know. Sorry.

But Frost wanted to challenge us with this not because he was a nihilist, not to suggest that the paths we take in life are meaningless, but to suggest the opposite, something hopeful—that meaning is found on every path.  Frost, like many poets, saw that true significance is found in the actuality, the givenness of the world around us—that what is good and true is available everywhere, no matter which road we have chosen.

And I, for one, am actually relieved that this is what the poem is getting at, because there have been many times in my life when I grieved the roads not taken—the sense that I had missed some big opportunity or make some irreversible blunder into the weeds. As one moves farther and farther through life, down whatever path we’re on, it’s all too easy to be consumed by what-ifs: what if I had gone there instead? What if I had stayed there just a bit longer? What if I had said yes to that? What if I had said no to that?

It’s natural to wonder such things, but what-ifs can also stop us in our tracks, prevent us from embracing the reality of whatever is in front of us right now. And, as Frost might want to remind us, whatever is in front of us is itself sufficiently meaningful. The journey we are actually on is a good one, because it is real, it is what we have chosen. 

I’ve been thinking about all of this—of roads diverging and life’s purposes—because today we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and however else we might interpret or understand Jesus’ baptism, it was indeed a pivotal decision in his own journey through the world. Just a couple of weeks ago we honored his birth, and now we observe him as a grown man, setting out with the song of the road on his lips and the fire of heaven in his eyes. “Let it be so now,” he insists to John the Baptist as he prepares to enter the River Jordan. “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” He is eager to begin, eager to go wherever the Spirit-wind of God is blowing. 

And I wonder, in this moment, sensing in himself the need to fulfill some deep and all-consuming purpose, did Jesus ever ask himself, “what if?” Did he ever consider taking another path? To stay in Nazareth, perhaps, and live a quiet life? Go to Jerusalem straight away and try to make it big there? Or did he worry, at the age of 30 or so (not considered all that young in his time and place) that maybe he had already missed his chance to do his Father’s work? Perhaps. 

But in this moment, in his baptism, no matter what else has come before, we see him make a commitment to the path that he is on. As he goes into those waters, he is saying, whatever this life is, whatever this journey is, whatever this road is, I choose it. I will love it. I will follow it to the end. No more what-ifs. Here I am, Lord. And here I am—the Lord. 

And then he emerges from the river, and heaven rejoices that he has said yes, that he has chosen. For this is what heaven always does—rejoice—when we choose to love what is in front of us. 

And this is what Jesus’ baptism—and our own baptism—invite us into: a life that always chooses love for whatever, whoever comes into our path. A life that isn’t haunted by the roads not taken, but a life that says, instead, this place where I stand is good. And even if it’s not what I imagined, this place where I stand is still full of possibility, it is a place where I might yet “fulfill all righteousness.” For this place is beloved of God, and therefore I will make this place, this life, this path my own beloved, too. I will no longer be distracted by roads never traveled, I will no longer be consumed by what-ifs and whys but I will instead throw my arms open, still bathed in those baptismal waters, still drenched in God’s love, and I will say, “what now? What next? What might I do here, on this road, in order to truly live?”

For what Frost implied, and what God knows, and what Jesus demonstrates is clear: there is no road you can take, no road you have taken before, that will ever remove you from the landscape of God’s Kingdom or the realm of God’s Spirit. Wherever you go–and even if you have stumbled along the way, as we all do–if you move through this world with love and compassion and a thirst for righteousness, you are not lost. For in the end it is not the road we travel that matters most, but the heart of the one who travels upon it.

So wherever you find yourself today, in this new year—whatever has come before, whatever might lie ahead—know that God, through your baptism, invites you into the fullness of life right here, right now; the fullness of life that Jesus embraced.

And when you do come to a fork in the road, make your choice, but remember that God will travel with you wherever you go. God’s mercy will surround your path like falling leaves, God’s peace will be the ground under your feet, and God’s Son—the song of the road on his lips, the fire of heaven in his eyes—will greet you at the end of your journey.

And on that day, “ages and ages hence,” when there is no more sighing, may we add our own words to that famous verse, saying, instead:

Two roads diverged in a wood

And I—

I saw my Lord would never leave my side

—and that has made all the difference.

The Mother of All: A Homily for Our Lady of Guadalupe

I preached this homily at a Choral Evensong observing the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne.

She appeared in 1531, near a small village at the outskirts of Mexico City.

She appeared in the winter, when roses do not bloom. She appeared in the wild, where the powerful do not venture. She appeared to an indigenous man, a person at the margins who saw what others did not, could not see. She appeared just as she had lived and loved and labored in her earthly life—in the hidden, borderless, bracing landscapes where heaven and earth intertwine, where the wind rushes over the hillside and the angels cry ave and the dream of God is revealed, not to calculating kings, but to the wakeful wanderer. 

It is not sufficient to describe Our Lady of Guadalupe as a pious legend or a miraculous tale, for no matter what you believe about the veracity of Juan Diego’s vision of Mary in 1531, it is indisputable that she is real in the hearts and souls and prayers of millions across our continent and beyond. She is everywhere, her image burned into our consciousness, into our culture, as surely as it was onto that peasant’s cloak over 450 years ago. 

As the Psalmist says of God, so might we say of the Virgin of Guadalupe: where can I flee from your presence? We cannot, for she appears everywhere. She looks back at us from prayer cards and bumper stickers and paintings, from the pages of books, from the pages of our collective memory—even if we know nothing about her or the details of her original apparition, even if we doubt or dismiss the story, somehow we instinctively recognize her, this woman draped in stars, this woman carrying a child in her womb, this woman with dark hair and downcast eyes. 

Unlike many other Marian apparitions, there has always been something visceral about Guadalupe, something that almost transcends the structures of faith and doctrine and resonates, instead, with a more elemental and universally human need: the need to know that we have a mother who loves us. The need to know that we were born into a world that wants us. And to have somewhere to turn, someone who remembers us, someone who calls us their beloved child, even when we are no longer children. Especially when we are no longer children. 

For generations of people, Our Lady of Guadalupe has been an embodiment of that longing for the profound gentleness of heaven, particularly for those who felt estranged from the patriarchal images of God mediated through the historic colonial church. 

For the indigenous people of north and central America, who understandably might have associated images of Jesus and God the Father with the conquerers and clerics who upended their ancient ways of life, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared as something altogether different—a divine message of love and care directed to them, a messenger of grace who stood with them and for them, who could subdue the high and mighty not with a sword, but with her peaceful word, with her fecundity, with the possibility of roses blooming in the snow. 

She appeared, not just as the mother of a foreign God, but as the mother of all people, and especially the mother of the impoverished and forgotten, those original inhabitants of an old land called the New World. She imprinted herself, not on the robe of a bishop, but on the flimsy tilma of a poor man. 

And though centuries have passed, there she remains, a mother for any and all of us who find ourselves feeling poor and forgotten, those of us who still navigate the uncertain landscape of this New World that is not yet a new heaven and earth, this land with its collision of promise and deprivation, wealth and uncertainty, privilege and peril. Amid the rubble of colonialism, astride the divisions of nations and ethnicities and languages, still she stands, hands clasped, waiting, seeing, saying to us the things we do not know how to say to each other: 

This land can hold all of you, God can hold all of you, you who have been harmed, you who have done harm. You who came from afar, you who were always here. You of every color, you of every path, you of every loss, you of every dream—I can love you if you will let me, if you will give your heart into my care. 

Come to me, and let me show you the true nature of God, the God who is like a child, who is like a dove, who is like a rose climbing up from the cold, dark earth. Come to me, you who know a mother’s love, you who have lost it, you who never felt it before. Come to me, for I have come to you, and I will not leave you. 

No, we cannot flee from her presence, this Lady of Guadalupe. And thanks be to God that we cannot. Thanks be to God that she has not forsaken us, that her image endures, that she remains, still, everywhere we wander, a sign of God’s relentless desire to care for each of us, for all of us. For it is your life, too, that she carries in her womb, it is your name she remembers in her prayer, and it is your homeland that lies beneath her mantle of stars. She is God’s mother, and your mother, and ours, forever. 

Take Me Back: A Sermon for Christ the King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take me back, says Christ, our King. 

Take me back, we reply. 

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

Real: A Sermon for All Saints’ Day

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

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

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

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

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Finish: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So just finish the race. Just finish.

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

Small Things: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, help us to remember.

What You Had to Do: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe. 

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

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

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

One: A Sermon

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

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

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

One giant river. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One giant body. All connected to each other. 

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

Are we willing?

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

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

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

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

Flowed, like one giant river. 

Ghost Town: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on August 21, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Isaiah 58:9-14 and Luke 13:10-17.

Out in the western part of the United States, one thing that you will often come across is a ghost town, tucked into some forgotten valley or huddled along a lonely highway. If you have ever traveled out there, perhaps you have heard of or even visited one—Bodie, California, famous for its gold mines and its lawless inhabitants; Rhyolite, Nevada, which boomed and went bust over the course of just five years; or, one of my particular favorites, Glenrio, Texas, an abandoned town on Route 66, bypassed by the interstate, in which you can wander down the middle of the abandoned highway, where the only remnants are a crumbling gas station, a shuttered diner, and an empty motel in which the only guests are the occasional wild animal and the desert wind blowing through the cracked windows. 

What is it about ghost towns that captivate our attention, maybe even send a chill up our spine? Most of them, as far as I know, don’t have a ton of actual ghost stories associated with them—they are less haunted place than they are haunting places—haunting us with their faded memories of something that was once vibrant but is now only a shadow of itself. A place that, for one reason or another, has outlived its usefulness. 

I think ghost towns compel us and scare us a bit because, we, too, live with the prospect of loss, of dereliction, the fear of what it might feel like to watch the years go by as one forgotten, to wait for visitors that no longer come. They remind us of the fragility of things, of ourselves, even, and they teach us that communities are not inevitable—they must be built and tended and invested in, lest we all find ourselves cut off from one another, living with ghosts. 

The Scriptures are full of people who are themselves cut off from the living, from any sense of community. Think of the Gerasene demoniac we heard about several weeks back, the man who was plagued by demons and who lived among the tombs, an outcast in a literal city of the dead. 

Or the woman in today’s Gospel lesson, who has been afflicted with an unnamed illness for 18 years, bent over, unable to stand up straight, in a time and culture in which disease and disability isolated one socially as much as it did physically (not that much has changed in that regard). She herself, like so many who are burdened by physical limitations, is treated as a ghost within her community, practically invisible, unheard, disregarded and forgotten, perhaps even thought of as someone who has outlived her usefulness, such that her healing by Jesus is received more as an affront to religious order than as a miracle of restoration. 

Because this is the accepted way of things, isn’t it? Whether its with towns decaying along the side of the road or people decaying along the side of the road—there is a certain measure of acceptance that this is just the way it is, that perhaps that place or that person just couldn’t keep up with the pace of society, perhaps it’s just the sad state of affairs in a competitive and changing world that some communities must die, and that some people must be left behind. It’s tough out there. Can’t save ‘em all. 

And so we visit ghost towns with their broken buildings and we see the haunted faces of our broken neighbors and we shudder at the brokenness but we accept it. We accept it all as part of the landscape, because, what else can we do? Ruined cities and ruined people, always there, always just beyond the edge of where we dare to look. 

But God looks. God sees them, the fallen cities, the stooped over women and men. God sees them. And God does not accept it. God says: no, another life, another world is possible.

God says,

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Where we see a ghost town, where we see a lost soul, a regrettable curiosity, God sees and speaks of possibility, of healing, of hope. 

This is why the healing power of Jesus, and the perspective of God that it signifies, is so radical, so shocking, so powerful, because it flies in the face of all our expectations, all of our resignation to the decline and decay of people, of places, of ourselves. 

“Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” Jesus says, and he speaks the same word to all who will hear him. Rise up, daughter of Abraham. Rise up and reclaim your place among the living. Stand tall again and know that you were not meant to be forgotten, that you cannot outlive your usefulness, because to God you are infinitely precious, and there is never an expiration date on your belovedness nor on your promise.

As Isaiah proclaimed, 

The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places,  and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

So rise up again, you who have accepted your home among the ghosts. Rise up and be who you always were, inhabit your life fully once more, for in the reign of God you are not collateral damage to progress, you are not lost to time, you are part of a life, a community, a story that will never die. All you have to do is accept that this is possible, despite what the world seems to suggest, despite the ruins all around us. That is faith. Have faith that life—your life, our life together, the life of this earth—will find a way.  With God’s help, it can. It will. We were never destined for dereliction. We were never meant to be ghosts. 

In one of the places I mentioned earlier, Rhyolite, Nevada, there are actually some sculptures in the desert just beyond town. An artist put them there decades ago in a sort of open air museum. And one of them is called the Last Supper—its a platform of life-size figures in a tableau, all draped in white shrouds, like ghostly disciples waiting for the meal to begin in the middle of the wilderness. 

It is a haunting piece of art, but when I look at it, it is also strangely encouraging. For it seems to say that there is nowhere—not even in the most remote, most forgotten place, not in the most remote, most forgotten life—nowhere that God will fail to show up and prepare a feast. There is nowhere, n one that God will pass by. God will find us. God will not forget. God will lift us up.

And on that day the ruins will be rebuilt. 

And on that day we will stand tall, and we will live. 

The Last Supper, 1984, Charles Albert Szukalski, Goldwell Open Air Museum, Nevada