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.

The Life Before: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on December 27, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is John 1 (“In the beginning was the Word…”).

Pop quiz: What is the first story of the Bible? 

Most of us, if asked, would probably say it’s the story of creation, in Genesis 1: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…”

That’s where it all started, right? 

But then we have today’s reading, that poetic, eternally lovely opening of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him.

That’s the first story, right there. Right in the middle of the Bible, or more accurately, in the 43rd of the 66 books that make up the Bible, we are given a glimpse, not just of how THINGS started–things like the earth and the sky and the animals and the elements and you and me–but back, waaay back before any of that, back in what we might call the “prequel” to creation, when there was Simply God. John’s gospel isn’t special only because it is beautiful language, but because it reveals to us WHO GOD IS and what God was up to before any thing, before every thing

And who exactly was God before there was even a creation to utter the word “God”? 

Again: “He was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, [the Word] was in the beginning WITH GOD.” This is the hidden life, the hidden love, the hidden dynamic relationality at the core, the source, of everything that would follow.

It’s a bit mind-blowing when you think about it…and humbling, really, to acknowledge that God had (and still has) an entire life and reality apart from a relationship with us. Because I think we tend to place ourselves at the center of God’s narrative, as if we are the only object and culmination of God’s total concern, but it is something altogether different to recognize that it is the other way around– God is at the center of our narrative. God is everything to us, but we are just one part of him.

It’s sort of like that moment when you find a snapshot in an old shoebox of one of your parents, taken back when they were young, long before you were born—an image of them laughing on a beach at a joke you will never hear, or holding hands with someone, an old friend or partner who you will never know—and suddenly you realize, in a flash, with a shock—that your parent was a REAL PERSON. That they had a whole life, a whole complex reality that came before you. And even once you came along, they retained that rich inner life, all those layers of memory and identity and connection, even when it was hidden to you, even when they seemed to exist for you alone, as Mother, as Father. 

So here, in John, we get a dim, yet deeply evocative snapshot of God, in the beginning before our beginning: before the angels, before the stars, before the wind swept over the face of the waters. It’s good to sit with this image for a bit, to think about the Divine Life before, long before we were even a twinkle in God’s eye, to see whether it has anything to teach us about our own lives.

And, of course it does. 

Looking back at the text of John 1, (acknowledging that our human language is stretched to its limits here) if God somehow was the Word and was with the Word and was also alive as the Word within God’s own self, the one thing we can be sure of from all this is that God was always intrinsically relational. We might even say that God is RELATIONSHIP itself. And this is not some new concept, because we affirm this every time we talk about God as Trinity—three Persons, one Divinity, a dynamic, integrated community of love. 

God is this for us, yes, but God was always this, even before us. And thus, if we are made in God’s image, then we, too, are created primarily for relationship. We are relational beings. And futhermore, all of creation—the earth and all living creatures—are made for the same purpose. To connect. To support. To interdepend.

We are good at talking about this conceptually—one human family, love thy neighbor—but you and I know it is mightily difficult to live out. Greed, competition, mistrust, lies, fear—all of the manifestations of broken relationship that we call “sin”—are a stumbling block to our true vocation, the one that Jesus embodied, which is to be as deeply intertwined, as intimate with God and with one another as God is within Godself, a dynamic described again by Jesus later when he says, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

We are meant to abide with one another and within one another. With and within. Why else do we kiss and hug and hold close those whom we love if not to act upon our most basic impulse to exchange part of ourselves with them? To be with and within them; to sanctify our flesh with holy, unmediated relationship?

This is what Jesus teaches us, and shows us: every time we take even the smallest step towards relationship, towards community, towards love, we move an inch or two closer to God. Sometimes we take great leaps. Somtimes we shuffle along. Sometimes we run the other way, directly into our deepest isolation.

But God is still there, still reaching out, never losing interest in a relationship with us, because God is relationship. And the old snapshot of him is still true: God is laughing on the beach, but the smile is meant also for you, and God is reaching out to hold someone’s hand, but it is also your hand, and no matter how the years go by, no matter how many other layers of memory and mystery are added, God is no stranger to you or to me. God will always be that person, the one in the beginning before our beginning, the one who was and was with and was in, weaving through time and through our lives like a thread, like a song, like undiminished light.

So as we consider the year that is nearly ended and the new one that is about to begin, I invite each of us to consider this word, RELATIONSHIP, maybe even write it down and stick it in our wallet or our bag and look at it from time to time and ask ourselves:

Am I moving toward relationship?  Am I moving toward life-giving relationship?

Am I moving toward life-giving relationship with my family members, with my friends, my fellow parishioners?

Am I moving toward life-giving relationship with the strangers that I meet, with my neighbors in need?

Amy I moving toward life-giving relationship with myself, all the tender parts of myself that need love and nurturing and honesty?

Am I moving toward life giving relationship with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, with the God is who my parent and my creator, my friend and my Lord?

Am I spending time investing in these relationships with conversation and prayer and presence, or are they on auto-pilot? And, am I assessing those relationships that are broken or toxic and determining whether they can (or should) be mended? 

Am I–are you–are we– living into our essential, God-given identity as ones who were made to be connected to others, to take our place as an integral part of things, as part of God’s abundant, interconnected creation, foreshadowed and sustained by God’s own inner, secret, relational joy? Am I taking part in that unfolding, eternal relationship?

We can ask no more fundamental question than this.

Because in the beginning—the very beginning of the story—that is all there was. And, I suspect, I hope, I trust, that at the very last, that is precisely what will remain. 

An Advent Poem

They say that Advent is
waiting
for Light in Darkness
for a bright white God,
Night-erasure,
Knowing.

They say that the world is
tired
dish-water gray and that
Salvation looks
much paler, bleach-bone
sanitized and safe:

But I have been caressed by
the Spirit
in a thousand tender shadows.
She whispers
dreams and visions
under moon and cave and cloud.

God is not afraid of the dark.
And so I wonder
If perhaps I shouldn’t be—

If maybe this Coming
in womb;
like night-thief
means that blackness is
Divine
And Love
Is an Unknowing, too,
a Hiddenness.

I wonder
if wonder requires
The embrace of deep
Unseen things—

I wonder, when I
meet the Son
if it will be less like
the sun
and more like a kiss
at cool dusk.
Eyes closed. Soft.
Like rest.

Dying: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the Feast of All Saints, Sunday, November 1, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 5:1-12, wherein Jesus teaches the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”).

This is a sermon about dying, but it is not about death. 

Dying is all around us, especially now, in the late fall, when the night lengthens and the trees lose their color and the landscape quiets itself for a deep slumber. There is a sense of relinquishment at this time, a pang of letting go, deep in our bones, as the year, in equal measure of grace and resignation, gives itself over to an inevitable ending. 

And so it is not surprising that, in this hinge-point between abundance and absence, people turn their thoughts to the dead—the saintly dead, our beloved dead, as well as the more ambiguous spectres of our haunted imaginations. 

Allhallowtide, as this brief cluster of observances is known on the liturgical calendar—All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day, All Souls Day—is rooted in a consciousness older than the church, as old as the seasons itself, but it is also a particular opportunity for us, as Christians, to gather in the fading light of the year and to reckon with dying—how it shapes us, how we ought to live with it, what it can teach those of us who believe in a God who is willing to die for humanity. 

Other than perhaps the mournfulness of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Allhallowtide is one of the few instances in the church year when dying is brought to the forefront of our liturgical attention. We might attend a funeral, of course, but those services, at their core, are actually focused more on life—the earthly life of the one who has left us, and the resurrected life promised to each of us in the risen Christ. 

And so it is really just here, for these few days in the fall, that we as a Church consider what it means to die—and to die well—as a Christian. In a culture that tends to deny the reality of death altogether, this is actually rather courageous: the willingness to acknowledge, without succumbing to existential terror, that each of us must eventually die. 

And the saints, in their glory, help us with this. In remembering the saints of God on this feast day, we affirm that they are in Communion with the life of the Trinity, and one another, and with us, in a manner surpassing the mystery of death.

But at the same time we begin to understand that, more than anything, this blessed, living Communion is in fact largely characterized by a certain capacity for dying.

Again, dying, not just the state of death itself. The death of the body is an inescapable biological fact, one that is, of course, shared by all living things, the trembling king and the trembling autumn leaf alike. So it is not death per se that informs our connection to the Christian Saints, but dying as a verb, as a practice of faith, as a definitive pattern of release, of selflessness, of loving surrender, one that is and always has been intrinsic to the Christ-shaped response to life. 

As Paul describes in his letter to the Romans, we have been baptized into Christ’s death as well as his life, and thus we cannot separate the two; we cannot experience the Living of Jesus without also taking on the Dying of Jesus. Indeed, it is this dynamic tension between living and dying, of affirming and negating, that characterizes so much of Jesus’ teaching about what is real and true—and it’s everywhere once you look for it, including, I would argue, in our gospel passage for today, the Beatitudes.

At first glance, this passage doesn’t seem to have much to do with dying and everything to do with how to live. And so we might assume that we are given the Beatitudes on this feast day as a sort of instruction book for how to be “saintly,” as if we might just follow a few simple steps to achieve the holiness of the ones who have gone before us.

But on closer reading this interpretation starts to break down, because the Beatitudes don’t actually tell us what to do, in all times and all places. How precisely does one act poor in spirit? How do I most efficaciously practice meekness? How do we measure whether we have mourned successfully, or hungered and thirsted most efficiently for righteousness? How do we quantify adequate peacemaking and maximize our purity of heart? What sort of persecution should we aim for, exactly?

These questions are slightly absurd, of course, because blessedness is not a one-size fits all garment, and the Beatitudes are not just a code of conduct, a checklist of tasks for each of us to complete and compare against the progress of others. They are, instead, a cumulative illustration of what life looks like, what is true and enduring, once we have let every distraction and impediment to sanctity—to pure, holy being— die and fall away. The Beatitudes depict the spare essentials of God’s movement through creation—what is truly important once our delusions and denials have been stripped from us, by choice or circumstance. 

And so, more than being explicitly prescriptive, Jesus offers the Beatitudes to help us to discern how to practice dying while we still live—how to discern what to let go of so that there is more space for Christ within us. 

Whatever it is in ourselves and in our society that distorts this vision of blessedness, that is the thing which must be relinquished, cleared away, so that God’s mission of healing and mercy might assume its proper place in our lives. And then, as time passes and circumstances change, we must be willing to repeat the process, like the turning wheel of the seasons, letting something else pass away in order to welcome the urgent promise of new life.

This is what the saints have done, each of them in their own particular way: they have let die, lovingly, whatever it is within them that obstructs their pathway into the heart of God, and they have named and challenged those same obstructions in the world around them, clearing the way for the poor, the hungry, and the merciful. 

The saints are simply those Christians who have taken the gospel in full seriousness and have understood it in full joy: that dying opens the gate to new life—and that this is something as true in our small daily acts of dying to sin and selfishness as it is in the ultimate mystery of death and Resurrection. They are the practitioners of this Way of Love, this Way of Dying and Living, and they invite us to be strengthened and encouraged by their example, even if our own time, our own story, seems very different from theirs.

Because ultimately, there is just one story: the story of a falling leaf that nourishes the earth for the coming spring. The story of a grain of wheat which falls into the ground and dies but bears much fruit. The story of a God who taught us how to lay down our lives for love so that we might live in love eternally. It is the story of beatitude. It is the story of sainthood. It is God’s story, and your story, and mine, and ours. This day, and forever. 

“And”: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AND…

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

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

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

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

And:

We will get there.