Obituaries: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 26, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Mark 9:38-50.

I have always been moved by obituaries. I come across some of them in my role as a clergy person, of course, but even before then, they were of great interest to me—the way that the complexities of a human life are distilled down to a few essential details—the summary of a life’s work, the naming of a few enduring and precious relationships, and maybe a brief phrase or two that attempts to capture the lovely particularity of the person who has died. And whether they are long and eloquent or brief and matter-of-fact, obituaries all seem to convey the same basic message: this person mattered. They were loved. Someone, somewhere, remembers them fondly, with grateful tears.

And while it might sound strange to say so, what is also striking to me in the obituary is all the stuff that is not written down. We don’t generally find a long list of the person’s failings or their frustrating personality quirks.  And furthermore, there is never a rebuttal of the obituary: no pointed letter to the editor in the next day’s paper that says, actually, that guy was a real piece of work. And, for the most part, nobody is standing up at the funeral saying waving around the newspaper clipping, saying, we really need to set the record straight on all the mistakes she made during her life. 

Even though we know that people are complicated and sometimes infuriating, even though we often hurt one another in this life, we don’t do any of that. In the end, we let it be. We lay down our swords. 

Isn’t that remarkable, when you think about it? Especially when you consider all of the energy that can be expended over a lifetime of feuding and arguing and taking offense, only to realize that eventually, at the end, we will just put it to rest. We will, in most cases, release the frustrations and the enmity and try to forgive. 

I sometimes wonder what it would be like if I could muster the strength within myself to lay down my sword a little sooner, to accept the truth that, when all is said and done, my so-called enemies are not so different from me. I wonder how the relationship wounds I bear would change if I could skip ahead to that obituary state-of-mind, where judgment is tempered by the wisdom of letting go. 

But in the heat of the present moment, we are so quick to make distinctions and dividing lines, aren’t we? Especially when the world feels big and confusing and scary—we immediately jump to delineating various categories of “us” and “them.” And the suspicion and the rage we feel towards “them” whoever they are, it soothes us, in a pitiful sort of way, because it convinces us that we alone understand how the world ought to work, when in reality, we’re all just trying to figure it out together, and, in truth, both “us” and “them” are going home each night and kissing our loved ones, and washing the dishes, and catching our tired reflection in the mirror, and praying that tomorrow will be a little bit better than today.  We can forget that on some level we are all still children, a little bit afraid of the dark, searching for the light.

The disciples start to fall into this trap of forgetfulness in today’s Gospel passage—they hear about this exorcist who they have determined is apparently not “one of them” but who is casing out demons in the name of Jesus. And so the battle lines are drawn: How dare he! He’s clearly just out to make a name for himself, to grab the spotlight, to hog all the glory—someone should definitely write a letter to the editor and set the record straight. Can you imagine the nerve of this guy?

This is ironic, of course, because just a few passages earlier, these very same disciples were squabbling amongst themselves about which one of them was the greatest one acting in the name of Jesus. They are doing what comes all too easily to us: comparing, competing, refashioning the boundary lines to our greatest advantage.

But Jesus will have none of it. Do not stop this exorcist, he says, quite pragmatically. Whoever is not against us is for us. In other words: whatever this exorcist’s motivations are, in whatever manner you disciples have decided that he is outside the clique, the only truly important thing is that he, like you, has been caught up in the work of the Kingdom. And it is you, wayward disciples, it is you—so quick to determine who is in and who is out, so ready to draw battle lines between yourself and others—it is you who are distracting yourselves from the actual point of all this. It is you who have placed yourselves outside of God’s purposes.

Because the moment we decide who our enemies are and prepare for battle with them, we have already lost. And when we fight—and God knows how long and hard we have fought across the tired, staggering, bloody ages—is it not almost always true that, eventually, we end up standing at the gravestones of our supposed enemies, looking at the stony names inscribed therein—names once whispered on a mother’s smiling lips—and we say, with a sudden shock of grief or humility: oh, I see. This person was not my enemy. 

They mattered. They were loved. Someone remembers them fondly, with grateful tears.

Love does not divide the world into “us” and “them.” Love has no true enemy except for the practice of enmity itself, the lie of the great deceiver, and Jesus has already conquered that. What will it take for us to accept this, to live like this is true? What will it take to see one another as siblings and partners, and not as threats?

It will take letting go of fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of people we do not understand. Fear of our own failures. Fear of our vulnerability in an uncertain world.

Letting go of that fear, though, requires us to face it. We must face the ways we have cultivated enmity within ourselves and within our world, and then choose a better way. And that is hard to do, especially when the world around us seems to thrive on division and mistrust. 

But again, that’s why I have a peculiar love for obituaries. Because they give us a sneak preview of what is going to happen with all of the division and posturing and the obsession with being right—none of it is going to matter. 

The only questions left, in the end, will be: how much did you love? How did you contribute to the flourishing of the world? How did you protect the vulnerable entrusted to your care? What was the unique radiance that sparkled behind your eyes? What small, meaningful things did you do in the name of Jesus?

And then, someday, when every obituary has been recorded; and when life is revealed, at last, for what it truly is; when all is made new; when “enemy” is no longer a word in the language of the human heart, on that day we will simply behold one another face to face and we  say: 

You matter. You are loved. And you, my sister, my brother, my friend, will be remembered, fondly, forever. And there will be no more tears.

This Peaceful Body: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on April 18, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 24:36-48.

Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.

I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies this week—about how inseparable our bodies are from our own particular identity and story. I’ve been thinking about bodies that grow and move through the world, gathering experience and wisdom, and other bodies that are broken, bruised and scarred. Bodies that connect, and bodies that retreat from companionship. Bodies that stand tall and hopeful, and bodies that lie low upon the earth, down where the blood cries out from the ground. Bodies that live. And bodies that die and are laid to rest.

And I’ve been thinking about one body in particular, the body of Jesus, who, in today’s Gospel passage, appears in his body and stands in our midst in the strange light of Eastertide saying, “peace be with you.” 

A risen body. An offering of peace. Somehow, it seems, these are connected—two notes of the same song. 

The disciples’ bodies trembled, though, when he appeared to them and gave them this greeting; they were “startled and terrified” and “disbelieving.” I can’t say I blame them, for how can our limited imaginations possibly begin to picture deathless life? And what do we know of true, embodied peace? How could we begin to recognize it or comprehend it if it appeared in front of us?

Because the peace of God is a beautiful thought, yes, but I will admit that this week, like too many before it, I’ve been distracted and dismayed and far from peaceful, thinking about those bodies that know no peace, bodies to whom no peace is offered—black and brown bodies beaten and gunned down in the streets. Bodies ravaged and silenced by COVID, by cancer, by injury or addiction. The bodies that sleep under bridges and the ones that go to bed hungry.

And all of them are so present, their suffering so urgent and persistent, that I sometimes do not know what to do with this invitation to peacefulness, which can ring a bit hollow when I hear it, as if ‘peace’ is just a polite way of saying that those broken bodies are someone else’s problem, that the world’s violence ought not disturb the tranquility of our spiritual endeavors. 

But no, this can’t be what Jesus means when he says “peace be with you,” although, if we are honest, it is what we are used to—a world that seems to foment only our capacity for rage or apathy.

And so perhaps it is not so shocking that the disciples, in encountering the risen, peace-bearing Christ, are confused, even in their joy. Because they, like us, could not quite understand what it is that he proclaims or represents. Because they, like us, were accustomed to the expendability of fragile bodies caught up in imperial systems; they, like us, were intimately acquainted with the prevalence of death, whether from disease, disaster, or violence. They, like us, were conditioned to accept the machinations of a society that favors the powerful, that privileges forcefulness, and that mischaracterizes “peace” as acquiescence, passivity or disengagement. 

And so against all of that, what could this moment–this resurrection encounter–possibly mean, strange not only because their Lord has reclaimed life after a cruel and senseless death, but also because he does so as one proclaiming peace, rather than retribution? 

What is the significance of this resurrected body of his, which has conquered death and yet still bears the marks of torture? This body challenges us, for how can any of us look upon the violence and the degradation imprinted upon his flesh—upon all flesh—and yet proclaim, with hope and without irony, “peace be with you?”

I think we still struggle to resolve these questions. And yet it is fundamentally important that we try to do so, because without joining the disciples and facing the uncomfortable paradox of Jesus’ wounded, resurrected body, we will not ever truly know him, nor the type of peace that he offers; a peace that is unlike anything the world can give us.

“Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself,” Jesus tells the group, and much like Thomas in last week’s Gospel passage, we observe that it is in examining the marks upon his body, in touching the scars and the bruised places, that the Lord invites the disciples to recognize him, to know him for who he is. And it is only once they have done so that they can even begin to imagine the possibility of what he represents—not just their Lord and teacher returned to them, but a new life, a new type of peacefulness, the kind that does not come about by vanquishing enemies but by loving so fiercely, so fully, that the idea of enmity itself is nullified. A peace that is deep enough, and true enough, to stand in solidarity with the woundedness of the world, rather than evade it.

Because that is what Jesus is doing in this wounded, resurrected body of his—he is standing in solidarity with the disciples, and with you and me and everyone who has ever been wounded or broken or beaten down, and he is saying: 

I see you, I understand you, and whatever it is that you have faced, and whatever new horror the world tries to inflict upon the vulnerable among you, it will not prevail, not truly. Because I have taken these wounds and grafted them onto my own, undying, Spirit-infused, eternal body. And it is THIS frail and magnificent body, so much like your own, still bearing the marks of human sorrow, it is THIS body which is ascending to the Father—wounds and scars and bruises and all. I am taking this pain—your pain and my own and all the pain of the world—and I am going up, up to glory, up to the right hand of God—and I am binding the world to myself, I am binding you to myself, so that nothing can separate us ever again. 

This is good news, to say the least, because it means that our sanctity and our salvation have nothing to do with pretending we are whole or perfect or pure. We do not have to be unblemished, unwounded to be beloved, to enter the Kingdom of God, because the Wounded Holy One has already gone there to prepare a place for us. 

Jesus shows us that the Christian life–the life of true and lasting peace–is not about glossing over or refusing to acknowledge the painful parts of life, or bravely pretending for one another that everything is fine. It is about truth. It is about facing and naming the things that are hard and ugly even as we celebrate the things that are beautiful.

It is about cultivating reverence for the wounded, resurrected body of our Lord upon this altar so that we might carry that same reverence into our encounters with our neighbors, that we might tend to their bodies and their wounds with the same care that we offer his.

His risen body shows us that the life he offers is about entering into the fray, into the heaving heart of the world and saying: Peace be with you.

True and courageous peace be with you.

The peace of the wounded, resurrected Jesus be with you.

The peace of love’s tender and deathless power be with you.

The peace that is the inheritance and the destiny of every beloved, broken body be with you. 

God’s peace be with you. 

Alleluia.

Parting Words: A Sermon for Good Friday

I preached this sermon on Good Friday, April 2, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is the Passion Narrative from John’s Gospel. A recording of the service can be found here.

What can we say, now that we have arrived here?

This is the moment in the Christian year when words fail us, when our platitudes turn to dust. What meager phrase is adequate to express what we see, what we feel, what we fear in this place: the first and only time in the history of creation when we face the prospect of being truly, utterly alone in the cosmos? What could we say that would ever be a sufficient offering, a word of consolation to our God as he hangs on the cross?

For that is what we are doing today, on Good Friday: we are keeping vigil at the side of our Lord as he dies for us. We plant ourselves here, amid the skulls, at the foot of his cross, and we wait, and we watch, not because we can change anything or solve anything, but because somehow we know that to love him is to be present in this moment. Nobody should have to die alone. 

But in our waiting and watching, still, perhaps, we wonder how to express to him what we feel—all the things that we always wanted to say, but never quite could.

My Lord and my God, how quickly the time went; how much more I wish I had told you while we were together. But now we are here in this valley of shadows, and you are slipping away, and there is so little time left. Please don’t leave us. But if you must leave us, what would you have me say?

If you have ever lost someone close to you, you know that this is not just a Good Friday conundrum; when death is imminent, when it is time for that last conversation, we often struggle with what to say. We are often not very good with endings. 

And in those moments, beside the hospital bed, in the moment before we must finally turn away, memory and regret and fear can leave us as inarticulate as Mary and the Beloved Disciple, gazing upon the face of the one who is leaving us, but saying not a word, our tongues parched by grief. 

For what can we say, now that we have arrived here? 

I recently read, though, that, in the end, there are, in truth, just four things that are most important to say to someone you care about before they die. Four statements that we can offer: Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.

So perhaps that is what we can offer today; perhaps that is the best we can do, to give our dying God the same, humble tenderness we might offer each other. To say to him: Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.

Lord Jesus, forgive me. Forgive me for all the times I forgot you, while you patiently waited for me to remember. Forgive my stubbornness and my smallness, and all the times that I got in the way of the joy that you yearned to nurture within me. Forgive me for all the ways that I have passively accepted a world that still crucifies the vulnerable and disregards the poor and the meek and the hungry, whom you have blessed. Forgive me for my silence when I ought to have spoken; and for my careless words when I ought to have been still. Forgive me for holding you at a distance, for trying to preserve myself from the transformational intensity of your love. Lord Jesus, forgive me.

Lord Jesus, it may sound strange to say it, but I forgive you, too. I forgive you for not being present in the ways that I needed you to be when I felt so alone. I forgive you for inaugurating a church that at times, in your name, has harmed so many people. I forgive you for creating a world that allows for sin to break people apart, for this mortal life where we seem to lose everyone we love. I forgive you for being so hard to understand at times, and so hard to follow. I forgive you for not being the type of strong and mighty savior that I expected, the kind that would keep me safe. I forgive you for all these things, mostly because I need to let them go, in order to see you properly, in your fullness, and not the incomplete version of you that has been distorted by my own pain and confusion and resentment. I forgive you because I want to know you as you are, not as I wish you were. Lord Jesus, I forgive you.

Lord Jesus, thank you. Thank you for loving me beyond comprehension. I know that your love is why you hang upon the cross, why you choose to lay down your life for your friends, and although I cannot fully understand it, I feel it—its saving, healing power—deep in my soul. Thank you for showing us what it means to live as a human being fully alive, fully in communion with our Father in heaven, fully in partnership with our neighbors and with the web of all creation. Thank you for the outpouring gift of your grace in water and bread and wine and oil; for giving your flesh and your Spirit to us, unworthy as we may be. Thank you for your church, which, at its best, has saved my life and taught me the meaning of community. Thank you for the invitation to live a life caught up in the joy your life, and to love with a heart enraptured by your undying love. Lord Jesus, thank you.

Lord Jesus, I love you. Not perfectly. Not as consistently as I might hope to. But I love you. I love you for challenging me to be better; for believing in us, in our potential, these wayward children that you have fashioned out of the dust of the earth. I love you for your tenacity and your gentleness; your courage and your peace. I love you because you have taught me how to be myself, the way you created and intended for me to be. I love you because you were yourself, purely and utterly yourself. And as your life slips away on this day, know that I will carry you with me now, for all the days to come, until death is but a memory, until I see your face again. But for now, Lord Jesus, just know that I love you. And it’s ok to go, if you must. I know you must. 

What can we say, now that we have arrived here? 

Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you. 

And then, it is finished.

But is enough. It is, perhaps, all he ever wanted us to say.