Homesick: A Sermon

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

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

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

It is good to be home. I missed you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pause: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We wait…and wonder…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So pause

And don’t be afraid.

And now, sing. 

Maps: A Trinity Sunday Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Language of Our Hearts: A Pentecost Sermon

I preached this sermon on Pentecost, June 5, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Acts 2:1-21, the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the Apostles.

A few weeks ago I traveled up to South Bend to attend a conference for all of the Episcopal Churches in Province V, which is a region that roughly encompasses the midwestern United States. It was a wonderful time, both for the workshops and other sessions offered, and also, just as importantly, for the chance to connect with new people and reconnect with some familiar ones—friends and colleagues that I hadn’t seen since well before the pandemic started. As we know from gathering together here at Trinity each Sunday, there is something heartening and healing about being together in person, seeing each other’s faces, hearing each other’s voices.  

When we celebrated the Eucharist at the conference, we were invited to do something that perhaps you’ve experienced before if you’ve attended a large Episcopal gathering or convention, especially one with a diversity of attendees: at that moment in the liturgy when we all join together to say the Lord’s Prayer, we were asked to pray it in “the language of our heart.” The language of our heart. I love that phrase.

And so, after a brief pause, a cacophony of voices rose up in prayer—some praying in the traditional English language version that is so dear and familiar to us here; some in the more contemporary English translation; but also in Spanish, and in other languages—a seminary friend of mine who was there offered prayers in Lakota. The cumulative effect was messy, but beautiful—a collision of hearts and tongues naming God, praising God, asking God for protection and provision. 

Maybe it was because I hadn’t heard the Lord’s Prayer offered that way in a little while, but it touched me deeply, it gave me a different sense of the vastness of that prayer, the billions of times it is offered up each day, in grand churches and in homeless shelters, on mountaintops and on commuter trains, by people we will never meet, people so different from us and yet so fundamentally connected to us, each crying out in the language of their deepest heart. Our Father, who art in heaven. Padre nuestro. Ate unyanpi. (That last one is in Lakota, if you’re curious). 

One of the great tragedies of Christian history has been the idea that being one in Christ means being exactly the same as one another. The idea that being part of the universal Church is more about fitting in than it is about becoming the fullness of who God made each of us to be. That pressure to conform, to get in line, to deny the parts of yourself deemed different or unacceptable—that is a particular cultural force at work, not the Gospel itself. That urge to suppress diversity is the work of tyrants and empires, not the work of God’s Kingdom. Because the Spirit of God speaks in every language, shows up in every type of person and place and circumstance, the Spirit radiates out of every color of the rainbow. 

And, to put it more bluntly for those of us here in the United States: God does not only speak in or understand English. God does not only work through people similar to us. And I thank God that we are part of a church that recognizes the joy and the strength of diversity of every type—social, economic, political, theological, racial, linguistic, and every other sort, too. We are messy, but we are beautiful, this collision of hearts and tongues that we call The Episcopal Church. 

By not simply tolerating our differences but striving to cherish them and learn from them, we live into the reality of the Church that was born on that first Pentecost, when the Apostles were caught up in the whirlwind of the Spirit and were able to proclaim the gospel in the native tongues of the immigrants to whom they spoke. 

There is a nuance here that is essential for us not to miss: the miraculous gift of the Spirit was not that these immigrants could suddenly understand the Apostles speaking in one universal language—which would likely have been Greek or Latin, the dominant languages of the Roman Empire. It was that the gospel was carried to their ears in the language of their hearts—the language of their blood, the language of their native soil, the language their parents sang to them in lullabies, the language by which they learned to count the stars and name the creatures of the earth. 

On this day the gospel–the fiery incandescence of God’s love–was transformed on the lips of the Galilean preachers and rendered into the particular poetry of the hearers’ innermost self. This is the day God called out to each of them not in the language of empire, of conquest, of sameness, but in a voice that was as familiar as their own.

There is a crucial lesson in that, a fundamental Christian truth, especially as we grapple with our own challenges of living in a diverse society where some would still have us give up our God-given uniqueness, would have us mute our stories, our perspectives, our voices, in favor of a monolithic, lifeless consensus masquerading as peace.

That is not what we were made for. That is not what Jesus died for. That is not the type of peace he leaves with us. And that is not what the Spirit came for at Pentecost. The Spirit came to fill each of us with life abundant, to winnow away with fire all the lies we tell ourselves, leaving the clarity and the particularity of our divinely-made selfhood, and the Spirit came to catch us up into a bond of fellowship that honors our differences while uniting us in common practice, in common mission. 

Authenticity and courage and truth, that is our peace. And that is not just who we can be or hope to be, that is who we are when we surrender our fear and our bitterness and our prejudice to the expansiveness of God’s Spirit. A people reborn, a people who are unafraid to speak in the languages of our hearts and yet somehow still understand one another in the wordlessness of grace, the ultimately unspeakable mystery of life and of love. 

Let that Spirit of love be yours today. Let it shape all of your days. Let it shape the work that we do together in this community, in this nation, on this planet. None of the challenges that we collectively face can be met without this Spirit—a Spirit that honors difference, and yet demands from us the discipline of remaining together IN that difference. No retreating into corners; no demonizing one another; no insistence that God only speaks in ways that we alone understand. 

For if the Spirit of God is like fire, like wind, then it is elemental, and limitless, and free—it is available to everyone, kindled in hearths unknown to us, blowing across landscapes we will never see, speaking in languages we will never understand. Today we honor that vast freedom of the Spirit, we put our hope in it, because it means that we, too, might yet be free. We, too, might yet be liberated from the language of empire and speak, instead, the living language of our hearts.

Come, Holy Spirit. Only speak the word, and we shall live. Speak the word, and we shall be healed. 

Names: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, May 8 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is Acts 9:36-43, in which Peter raises a woman from death.

How many names do you have?

The immediate answer to that question might seem obvious—many of us have a first, a middle, and a last, with maybe one or two more thrown in for good measure by our parents. But it’s not always that straightforward—some of us also have old nicknames, the recollection of which might make us squirm with delight or embarrassment; affectionate names given by friends and romantic partners; and names that we have claimed for ourselves later in life as we have better understood who we are and how we wish to be known to the world. There might be other names, too, that we’d rather not hear—the hurtful, insulting ones that were hurled at us at one point or another, the ones that still rattle around in our memory like heavy stones. 

There is great power in the names we carry; power to heal and to harm; to remember who we are and to be reborn. It should not be surprising, then, that much of Scripture is taken up with the giving and the changing and the remembering of names, including the ones we have applied, with the limitations of human language, to the unspeakable name of God. 

We might say that, in some way, the entire story of God’s people thoroughout the Bible is the search for a name—a name by which to know ourselves, a name by which to address the ineffability of divine truth, a name to call out into the silent infinitude of the stars—a name that is sufficient to say what life is, a name that can capture in full something that is ultimately beyond words.

I got to thinking about names because of today’s passage from Acts, where Peter restores to life a woman in the city of Joppa, a woman who bears two names, Tabitha and Dorcas. As the writer of Acts informs us, Dorcas is the Greek translation of the Aramaic name Tabitha, which means “gazelle.” Now, it would be easy to pass right over this detail as we read about her miraculous resurrection, but I think we would miss something important if we did so. 

Commentators note that Tabitha/Dorcas, in addition to being a woman of some financial means who was able to support the widows in her community, was also a woman that straddled two worlds. Joppa is a port city, and given her two names, it is likely that this disciple of Jesus was a Greek-speaking Jewish woman who occupied a liminal space between her Israelite identity and her ties to the Hellenized world of the Roman empire. Her two names suggest that she had learned to traverse the ambiguous territory between colonized and colonizer, between membership in an oppressed nation and the society of the imperial oppressor.

We do not know how she managed this interplay of names and identities, but we do know that in the midst of them, this woman who was both Tabitha and Dorcas dedicated her life to service in the name of Jesus. And perhaps, for her, the name of disciple–follower of the Way, sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd–was the thread that bound her disparate roles in a fractured world. 

But then note what happens in the passage. Peter (himself another bearer of two names) comes to see the body of the woman, and in raising her back to life, he says, “Tabitha, get up.” Not Dorcas, but Tabitha. Her first name, the name that was with her from the beginning, the name spoken in her people’s original language: this is the name by which she is called back to herself, this is the name that inaugurates her resurrected existence. It is Tabitha, tzvia in ancient Hebrew, the same word that names the gazelle leaping on the mountainside in the Song of Solomon, that is the name of life for her. That is the name by which God, through Peter, breathes life back into her body. And while the Scriptures do not tell us anything about her life after this miracle, I can’t help but imagine that, for the rest of her days, she remembered the sacred power of being brought back to life by the sound of her original name. Tabitha, get up. 

What is the name by which God would call you? What is the name that encapsulates your deepest self, the name that is life to you? And, conversely, what names have been put upon you that no longer work, that no longer tell the whole story of who you are called to be?

I speak not only of given names and surnames, but also of the roles and identities by which we are known and named, which, while important, are too often over-simplified, objectified, and used to label and limit our complexity—old, young, healthy, sick, parent, child. Priest, layperson, spiritual wanderer. Gay, straight, trans*, Black, Brown. American. Foreigner. Pro-Life. Pro-choice. Democrat. Republican. Do these names actually tell you who you are, or who your neighbor is?

Or is there a deeper name, an original name, by which you must identify yourself and those whom you encounter if we will ever hope to actually know one another? Is there a name for ourselves that will bring the dying parts of this world back to life?

There is, in fact.

And it turns out that the woman known as Dorcas heard that it day as she awoke from the sleep of death. Because a funny thing about the name Tabitha—tzvia. That word, in its original language, doesn’t only mean gazelle, but also, simply this: beautiful. Her name was beauty. 

Beautiful one, get up. 

This is the name by which God knows each of us. This is the name that God has called us from the moment the world began. And this is the name by which God, in Christ, desires us to know one another—the name underneath our names, the name beyond every label and slur and stereotype. The name that will bring anyone back to life. 

Beautiful one, get up.

And this is the only name that can heal us, that can see us through the divisions and the suspicions that have plagued not only our recent history but the entirety of the human story. It is only when we know ourselves as beautiful, as beloved, and when we see that same thing in the face of our neighbors, in the face of our enemies, as Jesus taught us to, that we will begin to move back from the brink.

It is only when we see and name the inherent beauty and dignity of all creation and develop a reverence for what God has made and called good that we will move closer toward the kingdom wherein we were meant to dwell. It is only when we stop name-calling and start naming each other as beautiful, when we start noticing the beauty we see, even in the places and people where it’s not first apparent—it is only then that we will finally speak our own true names, and it is only then our mortal tongues will begin to utter something that approaches the one true name of God. 

The God who woke Tabitha from the dead.

The God who woke Jesus from the dead.

The God who will wake each of us, on the last day, saying, quite simply:

Beautiful one, get up. 

The Cup: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Maundy Thursday, April 14, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The communion cup, which had been suspended in our parish during the COVID-19 pandemic, was restored at this service.

There isn’t a general confession in tonight’s liturgy, so allow me a bit of time for a very minor confession of my own. While I generally try to embrace material simplicity, there is one area in which I have grievously failed, and it is this: I have an embarrassingly large collection of cups and mugs in my kitchen at home. Far more than any one person should have. Perhaps you can relate to this. When I open up my cupboard, there they are, stacked on top of one another, balanced precariously, mismatched, the designs a bit faded in spots, but comforting—a jumble of memories. 

There is the juice glass I used to use every morning as kid visiting my grandma’s house. There is the coffee mug from a monastery I visited when discerning the priesthood. There is a cup that my mom and I picked up while driving Route 66. There is the 175th anniversary coffee mug from Trinity Fort Wayne. There is a wine glass I bought in Europe. There is yet ANOTHER coffee mug that I don’t especially love but that was given to me by someone whom I do love. You get the idea. 

In terms of problems to have, it’s a very silly one. But it reminds me that there is something very evocative about cups. For some strange reason we are drawn to them; they mean more to us, somehow, than just a receptacle to hold a beverage.They hold memories, too, they tell a story about where we come from, the things we have seen, and what our life has been about. When we bring them to our lips, we kiss the past and we hold a part of ourselves. The cups reveal, in some small way, who we are. 

Maybe that’s why it has been so disorienting, these past two pandemic-shaped years, to have no cup offered during the Eucharist. The Church decided, out of an abundance of caution, to suspend this aspect of Holy Communion, and while we’ve certainly been on solid theological ground receiving only the bread during this time, I admit I have still felt a bit lost at sea without that other component of the Eucharistic feast: the common cup shared among us, the sweetness on the lips, and those words that satisfy our deepest thirst: the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

It is fitting, deeply fitting, then, on this Maundy Thursday when we remember and celebrate Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, that the common cup is returning to our communion offering. This evening when you come forward to be nourished by Christ’s body in the form of bread, the chalice of his blood will be offered to you as well, and if you feel comfortable doing so, you are invited to drink, and remember what this particular cup reveals about where we come from, the things we have seen, and what our life together is about. 

But this cup that we drink from is special, it is singular, because unlike the mugs and the glasses stacked on our shelves, each holding our own private histories, this Eucharistic vessel also reveals something essential about about God’s history, about who God is and what God has done. In truth, the Eucharistic cup is God’s cup first and foremost, not our own. It bears the story of God’s journey alongside and among humankind.

In the Hebrew Scriptures the prophets and the Psalmist speak often of the cup: the cup of consolation, the cup of wrath, the cup of trembling, the cup of astonishment—a cup that holds the strange mix of grace and fury that is God’s complex and unfolding relationship with the world. And tonight we come to realize that it is this same cup that Jesus must reckon with in Gethsemane—Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Ultimately he does what God has always done: he accepts the cup as the price of loving his wayward creation, drinking in the sweetness and the bitterness of his solidarity with the children of the earth.

And so I imagine that if we were to go to heaven and rummage through the cupboards, we’d open them up and find, in quiet repose, this one cup, ancient, gleaming, heavy with significance, hallowed by its use, held aloft at a thousand feasts, emptied out upon a thousand battlefields, stained with the blood and the salt-tears of our Creator. The same cup that, in the mystery of Eucharistic grace, is handed to us on this night, that we might take hold of its heavy glory. No longer God’s cup alone, but also ours.

“I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,” Paul tells the church at Corinth, recounting the words of Jesus at the Last Supper—a meal, of course, at which he himself was not present, but which, we must conclude, he must have come to know as part of the all-encompassing, all-consuming revelation of Christ he experienced on the Damascus road. 

Paul understood, somehow, in the lifelong aftermath of his conversion, that this particular meal, this particular bread and cup, reveal the truth about God’s deepest self—and that as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are taking part in God’s own feast—the banquet prepared from the foundation of the world. In so doing, God’s story, God’s sustaining life becomes ours as well. 

And so, tonight, like the disciples who gathered in the lamplight of the Upper Room, we glimpse salvation upon this table, and we drink from this cup—the cup of memory, the cup of sorrow, the cup of laughter, the cup that holds the fermentation of finitude and eternity, the cup that holds ALL THINGS in the costly covenant of love—we drink from this cup tonight for Jesus’ sake because he drank from it for our sake. He drank it to the dregs, knowing what it meant to do so, knowing that living also means one must die, knowing that it was worth dying for us in order to live for us. 

All of that significance, all of that history, all of that costliness, all of that promise, all held in a single sip. A sip he now asks us to take as well, so that at last, we might know him for who he is. 

I know all of this is true, I know it is real, but I cannot really comprehend it. And yet, like you, I will hold that cup in my hands, I will receive it with wonder and gratitude, trusting that even if I never really understand the mystery of death and life, even if I never understand the depth and breadth of God’s love, at least I will know what it tastes like. 

And that will be enough.

For as we will discover repeatedly throughout these holy days, words can only take us so far. Ultimately we must do a thing for it it be real. The feet must be washed. The bread must be broken. The cup must be poured out. 

These actions are both a question and their own sort of answer, because they are the pieces of God’s story that speak best for themselves, like a cupboard full of jumbled vessels, passed down, love-worn, inexplicably precious, infinitely capable of holding our own stories—the old stories, the ones we are living through today, and the story that God, with us, is only now beginning to tell.

Tonight is the night that story begins, again. 

Drink it in, beloved children of God. Drink it all in. 

No Regrets: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, March 6, 2022, the First Sunday in Lent. The lectionary text cited is Luke 4:1-13, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

We inhabit an unsettled moment. That statement is true on many different levels, but in this instance I am referring to something deeper and more elemental than the news headlines. I am thinking instead about the changing of the seasons that accompanies our entry into Lent in the northern hemisphere.  Amid the turbulent moods of early spring, when we are caught up in the vacillating space between ice and dewdrops, between dirt and blossom, between the cradle and the Cross, there is a keener sense perhaps, of the fertile mix of decay and growth that characterizes our lives on this earth. On Ash Wednesday, the cold mud of winter was imprinted on our brows, and eventually on Easter Day we will convulse with joy among the fields of lilies, but for now we are held in the tension of the time-being, suspended in the middle of frost and flower, mortality and miracle. 

Lent is the pungent season when life and death speak to one another. Too often we keep these two realities isolated in separate corners of our minds, so it is good for us to listen to their conversation over the next several weeks, to notice how life and death layer upon and fertilize the other, both in the Liturgy and in the world around us. Lent is when this life—the delicate, earthy existence we have been given—is brought into clarity and focus by accepting its brevity and, indeed, sometimes its cruelty and brokenness. But it is also a season for celebrating that life, for rediscovering the urgency of living deeply and well while we have the chance, before it is too late, and we go down to the dust once more. 

There was an article that became popular online several years ago, written by a hospice nurse. In it, she reflected on the conversations she’d had with the countless people she’d cared for in the final weeks and days of their lives, and she shared the top five regrets that people expressed as they prepared to die. They were as follows:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

And while these five regrets might not be true for every person in every time and place, I think they are striking, because they point to the heart of the things that matter when everything else falls away, when there are no illusions left to hide behind, when the wind blows cold across the bare fields and we remember the trace of that muddy cross on our brow. We might say they are the insights of a Lenten spirit, from the passage between life and death, the unadorned space between the seasons of the soul. 

And they reveal that when we die, the thing we might grieve the most is simply that we never allowed ourselves to truly live. That we didn’t connect with others. That we didn’t connect with our deepest selves. And that, having been tempted by other distractions, we might face the great mystery of eternity without having deeply savored the great mystery of now.

God knows this is our struggle. God has always known this. And that is why, I suspect, we see the same struggle woven through God’s own life among us in Jesus. Consider today’s gospel passage from Luke, when Jesus is compelled by the Holy Spirit to enter the wilderness and submit to the temptations that humanity has always faced—the temptation to control our own destiny rather than trust in God’s providence, to adorn ourselves with the false security of power and prestige and material comfort; to laud safety and strength rather than vulnerability and humility. 

These were the same temptations that Israel faced in the wilderness and again when they reached the Promised Land. They are the same temptations that each of us must contend with in our own particular way. And if and when we succumb to them, the result is the same—disconnection, distrust, inauthenticity, the cultivation of a brittle and strident spirit, and then, at the end, a litany of sorrows that might sound something like:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. I wish I’d expressed my feelings. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

But Lent is an opportunity to pull back from this trajectory in our own lives. And Jesus, in a Lenten moment of his own in this Gospel, shows us how to do so. He faces the temptations of the devil—those temptations to pattern his life in self-serving ways, to become something that he is not, and he chooses, instead, to be exactly who he is, exactly who his Father wills him to be. Which is to say, he chooses relationship, he chooses simplicity, he chooses depth, he chooses trust, he chooses love. And the words he speaks are a ray of light burning away the frost, a budding promise to us, even now, as we wait for the spring:

One does not live by bread alone.

Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.

Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

Simple, ancient words, drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures. True words. Words that are almost like a death, in that they remind us of the fleeting nature of most of the things we fixate upon and obsess over, and instead call us back to what is eternal. These are the words that allowed Jesus to stay focused on who he was, and they can do the same for us whatever our journey looks like. They are the words that invite us to a life—and a death—that is the opposite of regret.

How do we get there? How do we live as Jesus chose to live? How do we die as Jesus chose to die?

1. Have the courage to be yourself. Abide deeply in the love that is inside of you, the love that God gave you to share with others.

2. Don’t work so hard, at least not for the things we usually give away our lives for. Work for God’s kingdom, and rest in knowing that you don’t have to do it all by yourself. You were created for wonder and praise more than you were for achievement. 

3. Express your feelings. Jesus certainly did. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, to be wrong, to show your weaknesses, because they are part of what will save you. We worship a God who was crucified before he was glorified. 

4. Stay in touch with your friends, and with all of the important people in your life. They are the most likely place where you will experience the love of God firsthand, and are thus the true treasures of this world. 

5. Let yourself be happy. Let yourself love this imperfect world, whether it’s deep winter or glorious spring or the messy middle with all of its unanswered questions. Let yourself be dazzled by the mystery of existence, by the mystery of God’s love, embrace it while you live, and then you will regret nothing, because you will experience everything. 

This is the life Jesus chose in the wilderness. This is the life he invites to choose. And this is the strange, holy, in-between season where we must make our choice. This is Lent. 

And so here we stand, with a trace of mud on our brow, leaning into the light; children of the broken earth, children of God. Tempted, yes. Stumbling, sometimes. Seeking, always. 

But loved, always loved, in death and in life, in winter, and in spring, and in the glorious mystery that is beneath and beyond all seasons.

And with a love that powerful, that eternal, that true, there is nothing to regret. 

Other Nations: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, January 9, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary texts cited are Psalm 29 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

Last summer I was browsing in a used bookstore, as I tend to do, and I came across a copy of The Outermost House, written in 1928 by the author and naturalist Henry Beston. It is considered a classic in the genre of nature writing, and although I’d never heard of it before, I was quickly drawn into the author’s vivid, poetic reflections that capture a year he spent alone in a small cottage on a lonely, windswept beach at the edge of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. 

His only companions are the fog-enshrouded beacon of a distant lighthouse, the layers of sound made by the undulation of the waves, and the wild wind of midwinter storms—and all of these he observes with a sense of reverent wonder. But more than anything, he notices and celebrates the wildlife along the shore, especially the birds who pause there in the midst of their migratory patterns, hunting for food, resting on the long journey north or south, attending to their own mysterious rhythms of existence. I am not an especially devoted birdwatcher, but even I was moved by his description of what he calls the “constellations” of shorebirds flying in perfect, intuitive unison above the sea:

He writes: “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…for the animal shall not be measured by man…they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

They are other nations. I love that line. In the magnificent otherness of the birds, Beston realizes that we cannot always interpret everything in the world as simply an extension of ourselves. Some things are foreign to us, unknowable, inhabiting their own truth, inaccessible, and yet still beautiful, still worthy in their own right.

I find a sense of restfulness in that observation. The restfulness of not needing to understand something or someone fully in order to love them. The restfulness of letting them be what they are without trying to control them or shape them into our own likeness.

How much more peaceful my own life might have been, at several junctures, if I had done this. If I had let others—friends, family, partners—be who or what they were, rather than trying to fashion them into what I expected or demanded them to be. And how peaceful it might have been to let myself be what I was, rather than conform to what others expected or demanded of me. How good it is to fully inhabit the mystery of our deepest selves, and to honor that mystery in others.

I was reminded of all this—of birds and freedom and flight and identity—as I reflected this week on the image of the Holy Spirit, who comes like a dove, descending upon Jesus at his baptism. 

This aspect of the scene is a bit enigmatic, when you think about it, but I suspect that when we hear this passage, we tend to focus more on the figure of Jesus in the water, or even on the reassuring voice of the Father from heaven, so much so that we might overlook the descent of the dove, who is, lest we forget, also God. 

Our gaze might easily sweep right past her; we might not stop to wonder where she has come from, this dove, where she is going, or what it means that she chooses to anoint this moment with her arrival, with a brush of her wings, carried on the breeze blowing down from the open gates of heaven. What is her part in this revelatory moment? A specific answer is not given to us. The dove who is God remains just beyond our grasp, just beyond our comprehension.

And if we don’t know quite what to do with the dove in this story, I would also say, too, that we often don’t know what to do with the Holy Spirit at all. The Spirit is unpredictable, elusive, wholly other—wing and wind and flame. Jesus, we can see, we can listen to, we can follow. And the Father we can imagine, at least to some degree, because we know what it is to have or to be a parent. 

But the descending dove—she is not like us. Her experiences, her senses, her scope of vision are beyond ours. She is the person of God that cannot be domesticated or contained. She is free. She is another nation, sovereign and unassailed. She arrives and departs and shapes events on her own inscrutable terms.

And while that can be a bit unsettling, I also love that about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches us not to be afraid of the things we don’t know, the things that we cannot know. She reminds us that sometimes we have to let go of controlling outcomes in our life—for we cannot harness the wind. She humbles us. 

So whether we are considering the baptism of our Lord, or our own baptism, or any other aspect of our faith, it is good to remember and celebrate this wild, strange, impregnable aspect of God’s activity in our midst. For as much as we long for intimacy with our Creator, and as much as we seek to know and be known by our Savior, I think we also desperately need to be surprised by God. 

We need a God, perhaps now more so than ever, who can do a new and unexpected thing in our lives. We need a God who is not bound by the limits of human imagination, who is not subject to the old, tired tyrannies, not governed by the mistakes of our past, a God who can, as the Psalmist says, split the flames of fire and shake the wilderness—in other words, a God who can dazzle us, wake us up, surpass the timid longings of the earth, and teach us how to fly. 

It is true that our salvation is found in a God who loves us enough to become as one of us, but our liberation requires a God who is not like us. A God who is another nation, who conquers us with grace.  Because only in the power of God’s strange and insistent newness can we dream of a newer world. Only under her wing can we be carried there.

Where is that wild Spirit of God calling you? Which expectations or disappointments must you lay down to let God’s freedom be your own? To what great mystery are you willing to entrust your heart as you navigate “the splendor and travail of the earth?”

For we must learn to trust in the things we do not fully understand. That is the essence of faith. And that is the essence of God’s love—a nation unto itself, but now descending, softly, on the wings of the dove, to anoint you with uncompromising authenticity. 

Stand on the shore, at the edge of comprehension, and marvel at her arrival, at all that she is, all that she brings, this bearer of God’s deep, inexpressible, freely given self. Let everything be possible again.

How much more peaceful it might be when we do.

No Paradise: HBO’s “The White Lotus” and the Limits of Natural Theology

This reflection does not contain specific plot spoilers for the HBO seriesThe White Lotus” but it does refer to the overall trajectory of the storyline.

If you are looking for the key question that underlies HBO’s limited series The White Lotus, you will find it in episode 4, during a dinner conversation among the wealthy white Mossbacher family and their daughter’s BIPOC friend, Paula. In the midst of a terse intergenerational argument over race, class, and social change, the normally quiet teenage son Quinn erupts in frustration:

What does it matter what we think? If we think the right things or the wrong things, we all do the same shit. We’re all still parasites on the earth. There’s no virtuous person when we’re all eating less fish and throwing all our plastic crap in the ocean. Like a billion animals died in Australia during the fire. A billion. Where does all the pain go?”

Where does all the pain go, indeed? Who pays the price for widespread abuse and destruction, be it climate change, systemic social injustices or otherwise? 

Although it looks and sounds like a straightforward TV series centering intertwined human dramas, it is the tension between ethics and ecology that is, in truth, the force propelling the stories of the indolent guests at The White Lotus resort. Certain questions linger and prod at us throughout the series: can we (especially we white, economically-privileged westerners) insulate ourselves from the raw forces of nature, including the self-destructiveness of our own predatory instincts? Will nature eventually humble us into a greater sense of mutuality and interconnectedness with our neighbor and our planet?

For The White Lotus, at least, the answer is yes to the first question and no to the second.  Without giving away any specific plot points, it is safe to say that there is no dramatic comeuppance for the hotel guests. They emerge from their vacations largely unscathed, still ensconced in their entitlement, while those who serve them or tread in their wake are left to bear the brunt of the tragedy that ensues.

This can feel a bit disappointing, especially if you were hoping for the emotional gratification of seeing some problematic people get their just deserts. The sinister, sickly-golden artifice of the resort, which at the outset of the series hints at the possibility of some moral reckoning lurking among the hibiscus flowers (like a modern-day Fantasy Island) gives way to an even more sinister truth at the end: there is no reckoning, at least not for those at the top of the food chain. The world, the show seems to admit, continues to reward the dominant and chew up the vulnerable. There is no moral arc intrinsic to the natural order of creation. 

A bleak takeaway for an intelligent and entertaining TV series, perhaps. However, there is much here to consider through the lens of Christian faith—especially for those of us who operate in generally progressive Christian circles or who frequently emphasize the inherent goodness of creation. Here’s why.

If you or anyone you know has ever said something like, “I sense God’s presence most clearly in nature,” you have participated to some degree in what is called natural theology, which explores “what can be known of God through the natural world without any divine guidance or revelation” (McGrath, Christian Theology, 141.) When we behold the beauty of a sunset or marvel at the intricacy of an ecological system and then consider how those things might reveal something of their Creator, we are, in that moment, natural theologians. In our wonder we echo the words of the Psalmist who cries out that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the heavens proclaim the work of God’s hands” (Psalm 19:1). 

This can be a sacred and life-giving pursuit. Natural theology is a deeply important approach, especially because in an age of overly-spiritualized Christianity it emphasizes the goodness and the preciousness of the created world and our responsibility to it. For if nature bears some imprint of God’s own majesty, then presumably we are called to honor it and care for it, just as we do for our neighbor whose own face reveals to us the face of Christ. In the era of destructive climate change, this perspective is more urgent than ever. 

But natural theology has its limits, and we must be mindful of acknowledging them. For as much as we celebrate in the Christian faith that God created the earth and called it good (see:Genesis) this ought not send us into a mawkish romanticism that sees nature simply as a benign object of admiration. For example, it is unarguably lovely to imagine God revealed in a sunset or a rainbow, but far more troubling to consider God as exercising Divine prerogative in an earthquake or a hurricane. And although the record of Scriputure does both, it is far too easy to reject the latter while blithely retaining the former. God becomes the object of our pleasure rather than our awe, and God then suspiciously begins to look a lot like us, as malleable as the landscape we exploit.

And while they do not seem to profess any particular faith, this is, in fact, what the characters of The White Lotus are prone to do in their Hawaiian pseudo-paradise. They are natural theologians in extremis. They admire the waves and the flowers and the hula dancers as scenery while carefully ignoring their own complicity in the subjugation of the land and the people in whose midst they are traveling. Nature is beautiful and largely banal to them because, as those residing at the top of the ecosystem, they can afford to ignore the ugly, brutal stuff. But others (the hotel workers and those in more precarious social circumstances) cannot help but notice that stuff because they are the ones left to clean it up, both literally and figuratively.

Natural theology, unmitigated, can result in a subtle sort of idolatry in which the world as it is is interpreted as an end in itself. Our reverence for creation risks turning into reverence for ourselves with creation as a soothing backdrop, which might sound like a harmless form of self-empowerment until you see it at work among those who hold all of the power and who claim that this is both natural and divinely sanctioned (see: white supremacy.) At the risk of gross understatement, we’ve seen too much of this, and there must be a corrective.

Thankfully, there is. A central aspect of our faith, which can get lost in our contemporary enthusiasm for natural theologies, is that Christianity is revealed—that is, God’s activity and self-disclosure in Christ are outside of the natural order. This activity is characterized by intervention, by miraculousness, and what might be called a loving antagonism against the established natural and social order of the world. 

Because if we, like the creators of The White Lotus, observe that nature is inherently amoral in its ordering, such that “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” (Ecclesiastes 8:14), then God has provided a revolutionary new thing (Isaiah 43:19) in the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. This new thing  is categorically unnatural, because it overturns the tendencies of death and domination that pervade nature as we know it. 

And in its unnatural character, God’s work in Christ liberates us from the expected outcomes. It is a promise that those who feast and laugh (and, ahem, take expensive and exploitative beach vacations) at the expense of others must eventually be accountable for their share of the world’s suffering.  

Divine judgment, which tends to make us progressive Christians squirm, is actually a promise that the brutality of nature is not the end of the story. Hence Mary’s jubilant song: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53). 

This is the moral outcome which is utterly lacking in The White Lotus, but our dismay about that absence is actually a sign of encouragement. For if nature itself (and the society we have built upon its back) is largely indifferent to our basest impulses, then from whence comes our longing for justice and our capacity for selflessness? How can we imagine pure benevolence when we have no direct experience of it in the world around us? That these questions are inherently “unnatural” and unsupported by prevailing evidence suggests that there is more going on in God’s universe than what we can readily perceive.

This is our hope: that the answers to these questions transcend the limits of natural theology and invite us into something more vast than the largest ocean and more beautiful than the most perfect sunset—something made known to us not by human wisdom or striving, but only in the revelation we receive as followers of Christ. While Jesus does not deny that domination and death will still shape our experience of life and discipleship (see: Calvary), he also promises through his conquering of death that yes, there is place where all the pain goes. It goes to a place where it is held and transformed and redeemed by Love itself. We usually call it the Kingdom of God. It is a realm where we are are not just on vacation, but where we—and all of creation—can finally experience what the hapless travelers at The White Lotus never actually find: true peace. 

Fruitfulness: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on May 2nd, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are 1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8.

Jesus said to his disciples, ”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

When I was about 10 or so, I was given a role in a community theater musical version of Rumpelstiltskin. I loved doing theater in school as a kid, and I was so excited that I got to be on stage with adults and live musicians—I felt like I had hit the big time!

And I remember on the first day that the director told me that I was going to be the page boy, one of the king’s servants, and I thought, yup, this is my big shot—next stop Broadway, surely—and there was this big opening number where all the villagers were presenting gifts to the king—one person presented a ham, and another one brought some lemons, and another one brought a big basket of limes, and then the director said, “Phillip, this is where you come in,” and I thought, wow, do I get to sing a solo here, or give a dramatic monologue? And then the director said, “you don’t actually have any lines in this play; we just need you to pick up the basket of limes and carry them off the stage. Then you’re done.”

Yup, that’s it. That was literally the entirety of my part in Rumpelstiltskin. So, I carried that basket of limes offstage. Needless to say, no Tony award was forthcoming. 

But honestly, I still loved it. And probably because it was the only scene I was in, I have never forgotten that particular musical number, where the characters were presenting the lemons and the lime–the fruits of their labors–hoping to one up each other, to impress the king, to win his favor and maybe to earn some bragging rights among their neighbors. 

Maybe we can all relate to that impulse a little bit. Because on some level, in whatever context we might find ourselves, I think we all hope that we’re going to make a good impression. We hope that our fruitfulness, whatever that means for us—maybe our work or our pastimes or other manifestations of our personal fulfillment—is really going to WOW whoever it is that we think is assessing us. Our family. Our neighbors. Our friends at church. The people on Facebook. Maybe even God. 

That sense of needing to be impressively fruitful can shape how we think about our faith, our relationship with Jesus, and it can affect how we interpret certain passages.

So, for example, in today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus talking about being the vine and his Father being the vinegrower, and we are the branches who are expected to bear fruit, to bear MUCH fruit, in fact, so that we can glorify God…or else we’ll be burned up and thrown away into the fire. And if we’re accustomed to always thinking that somehow we need to be impressive to be of value, that sounds a little intimidating. like an ultimatum—be fruitful or else!

And so then in our anxiety we might start to act like those villagers in the play, eager to prove our worth:

God, look at these fruits, I mean, these are really impressive fruits, amazing fruits, I am so darn FRUITFUL, Lord, you just wouldn’t believe it. And no offense, no judgment, but mine are a little nicer than his fruits over there. I mean, look at these LIMES. Just look at ‘em. The Holy Spirit was really doing something amazing right here. So…I win, right? I’m the best one, right? 

Now of course, we naturally want to celebrate the fruitful ways in which God is at work in the world—the blessings we receive, the ways in which we share abundant life with others. 

But I want us to think carefully about whether our personal anxiety about being fruitful enough—which we might interpret at times as being saintly enough, as busy enough, as able enough, as successful enough—obscures what Jesus is really getting at here in this parable of the vine and branches. Because, I would offer, this is not so much a parable about God’s assessment or judgment of individual achievement as it is a parable about connection, about the divinely-perfected integration of heaven and earth.

“God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us,” the first letter of John says, and we need to take that quite seriously as we receive this image of the vine and branch. In Jesus, in the Incarnate mystery of the risen and eternal God, which we enter by our baptism, there is an inseparability between our life and God’s life.  Just as the vine transfers nutrients and water and life force into the branch, so God lives in us. God’s life, God’s love—God’s very essence—is sustaining everything that we do, big or small, shaping our hearts, giving breath to our words, bending the limbs of our body as we move in the world. 

“I am the true vine…abide in me as I abide in you…apart from me you can do nothing.” This is not a threat—it is an assurance. Christ is saying there is nothing you can do that is not already part of me, because we are one in love. I have given my life to you. We are connected. You are never alone. In me, no one is ever alone.

And this is a radical shift, even from the Old Testament imagery of Israel as the vine and God as the gardener, because now God has integrated God’s own life into the plant itself, so that it will never have to survive by itself.

Christ as the vine, as the one who sustains us directly, replaces the idea of fruitfulness as our offering TO God and replaces it with the idea of fruitfulness as God’s offering to US. 

Abide in me, God says, let me offer myself to you, let me give you the fruits of MY spirit, so that you never need be estranged from me again. This is my love for you—to give you myself! Too long you have tended your own vines and trembled and wept at the insufficiency of your own meager harvest, but I tell you now that my life is your life, my harvest is your harvest. Rest and live in that knowledge. Rest and live in me.

This fulfills what the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed,  “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” and “their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.”

In our life in Christ, this is what is true about the universe: that we are one—one organism, one cycle of life and love. There is no need for anxiety, nor for competition. There is no falling short before the king’s throne. In Christ, you are already part of everything. You are already enough.

I confess, though, that even knowing this is true, there are days, especially after the exhaustion and despair of this past year, that I still worry, because, if anything, I feel a lot more like that withered branch in the parable, the one that is all dried up and gnarled, with seemingly no fruit at all. 

In those times, forget the basket of limes; I don’t even feel like I have a single blossom. My prayers feel dry and my heart is heavy. And I wonder, sometimes, in that feeling of deadness and dryness—am I apart from God? Am I just a useless appendage to be cast away, as the passage says, “gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned”?

Because if we’re honest, there’s no shortage of dead branches in any of our lives and in our world at large—our failures, our squandered opportunities to love and care for one another, the burdens of our grief and the fear that our lives don’t amount to much.

But today, I want you hear those seemingly dire words anew, remembering, again, that God is love and nothing can separate you from the workings of that love. Nothing. You are part of love’s eternal cycle. And God is redeeming even those fruitless branches in our lives, those dead ends in our heart. 

So yes, God is gathering dead branches and putting them into the fire, but God is tenderly gathering them, tenderly gathering up our grief and our brokenness. God is putting them into the flames, yes, but they are the flames of his transformative mercy, reducing that which has died to ashes, not to annihilate, but so that it might go back into the earth to fertilize the growth of new life. To God, nothing is dead forever. And nothing is ever wasted.

This is the truth of which you are a part. This is the Life that imbues your own life. 

That will always be so, whether you are feeling abundant and confident, or whether you aren’t. Whether you are center stage, or whether you’re just standing in the wings with a basket of limes, wondering what the heck you’re doing.

What sweetness, what relief, and what possibilities for joy when we realize that fruitfulness is something given to us, not something proven by us. And when we realize that we are already known. Already acceptable. Already abiding on the vine, in God’s own life, forever. 

10-year old me as the Page Boy in Rumpelstiltskin. Not sure where the limes went.