Love Made Strange: A Sermon

This sermon was preached on August 9, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 14:22-33, wherein Jesus walks upon the sea. 

 

One of the most frightening things in life is when the familiar, the comforting, becomes strange to us. 

10 years ago, I remember the horrific shock of seeing my father intubated in a hospital bed after his first major heart attack. Here was a person I knew better than almost anyone else—the man who had held my hand on the sidewalk as a child, the man whose voice was the very sound of warmth and safety—here he was draped in shadow and blinking lights, in dreamless slumber, his skin slick with sweat, his features empty. 

He was not yet gone, but he was far from me, and seeing him there as a figure unreachable, uncomprehensible, was a formative moment of terror—the last gasp of my childhood, the unraveling of certainties, the perilous thinness of the boundary between what is given and what is taken away. 

If in our gospel passage we are speaking of voyages across stormy seas, then in that moment for me there was no shoreline in sight—only the roiling waves, the wind, the deep, and the realization that as much as I loved him and as much as I needed him, my father’s fragile life did not belong to me and never had; he did not exist solely to provide me with security—his soul had its own wild freedom, and I could only stand there and behold it, suspended in the wind, at the outset of its own new journey.

We all have to reckon with this realization at some point in our lives—that the things we cherish are always slightly beyond our grasp, like a sunset we cannot make stay. 

Perhaps you, too, have felt that same mixture of suprise and fear at some point, when you realize that the person or the thing you love most is not entirely your own—standing beside a hospital bed, as I did, or waving goodbye as the car pulls out of the driveway, or in the evasive eyes of a lover whose love has left, or even in the daily news headlines that suggest the world is far more complex, unpredictable, and frightening than you thought it was. 

These are the destabilizing revelations, the mini-apocalypses of our lives—the inbreaking of awareness that everything we thought we knew, everything that felt within our grasp, was never actually within the parameters of our control. 

And this is what terrifies the disciples on the boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee—not the storm itself, but the vision of Jesus approaching them through the storm, his feet suspended above the raging depths, an enigma and an impossibility. 

How beyond understanding he has become, their humble teacher: the one they love and trust and rely upon, the one they thought they knew. How very strange he seems now, a ghostly image striding across the waters, no longer the benevolent offerer of bread and fish and a healing touch, but the embodied and eternal voice speakign out of the whirlwind, the untamed majesty of the transcendent I AM who parted the Red Sea and called from the flaming bush, as free as the wind and as inscrutable as the depth of night. 

This is the very same Jesus, yes, but it is an overflowing manifestation of his fullness that defies the disciples’ comfortable assumptions, despite the miracles they have already witnessed. And he has a lesson for them, and for us.

One of the greatest temptations we will ever face is to feel threatened by that which we cannot understand. When we are afraid, we can reject the unfamiliar becasue it undermines our sense of an ordered and safe world. And in this singular impulse we can trace a myriad of tragedies throughout human history—the othering of minorities, the persecution of the innocent, the viciousness of groups, both religious and cultural, who insist upon the purity of their own moral vision. The institutional church is not exempt from this, as we are all painfully aware. 

In ways large and small, each of us has likely participated in this tendency, every time we try to fashion another person into our image, every time we assume that our own social location, our own priorities, are the universal standard of judgment. In our fearfulness, you might say that we are all in the same boat, and, scared of what we glimpse in the tempest, we close our eyes, rowing desperately toward the familiar shoreline of our understanding. 

But Jesus would not have us look away from him so easily. He is not simply the God of the comfortable shoreline, but also the one who emerges de profundis, from the deep places of our lives, who beckons with an authority that calls us, like Peter clambering out of the boat, to move toward that which frightens us. He shows up as God In the Storm, reaching to us across the waves, so that we will know he is there, so that we will not hide from the storms in our own lives. 

Jesus is the one who asks us to let go of our fear, not because the world is a paticularly safe place—it isn’t— or because our lives will always be comfortable—they won’t—but because he is the one who sustains us despite our fear; he is, as 1 John describes, the perfect Love who casts out our fear. He is the silent stillness beneath the waves, the ground of certainty who persists in his pursuit of us, in all conditions. 

We need a God who startles us a bit, if only to remember that we don’t have God all figured out. We need to let Jesus surprise us from time to time; we need to let him be just a bit more than we are comfortable with him being, so that we can learn to trust in a goodness that transcends mere pleasantness. 

He remains the familiar, gentle Savior who calms the winds, yes, but he is also the wild Holy One who dances upon the storm and invites us to dance with him. When we allow Jesus to be all of this, to be both friend and stranger, both familar and new, then we begin to perceive how everything and everyone we love is also both of these things—forever ours…and forever free. 

Because that was the thing about seeing my father that day in the hospital—beyond the shock, beyond the fear, beyond the strangeness, there was still love. Changed, perhaps, nuanced by grief and impending loss, but love nonetheless, spacious enough and strong enough to withstand circumstances beyond my understanding.

A love enduring, unkillable, and true. A love all-encompassing, as deep as the raging sea.

In the Marketplace: A Sermon

This sermon was preached online for Sunday, July 5, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’  (Matthew 11:16-17)

Outdoor markets are vibrant, wonderful places. If you have ever had the chance to visit one, especially a market in another country, I am sure you know what I mean. Whether you are wandering the mountain-town markets of Guatemala or the urban night markets of Hong Kong, or even spending a Saturday morning at the Fort Wayne Farmer’s Market, to visit one is to be surrounded by the smell of ripe fruit and spices and grilled meat; the sounds of haggling customers and music; a profusion of colors and textures spilling out into your field of vision, each stall offering an invitation to trail your fingers along the contours of the earth’s abundance and of human creativity. 

And, at the very same time, marketplaces are confusing, intimdating places, as well. The rules of negotiation are sometimes cryptic, the languages spoken might not be your own, the crowds can close in, and there is always the chance that you might take a wrong turn and end up lost amid a maze of counterfeit goods and beckoning strangers.

In their jumbled offering of both the delightful and the dangerous, markets are a microcosm of our common life—their sights and sounds represent the enticement of the ideas and experiences people exchange with one other, but they also signify the inherent risk of venturing beyond home, the vulnerability of relying on the trustworthiness of strangers, the calculated risk of enmeshing ourselves into a deep system of interdependence–one that extends far beyond simply finding a fair price for honey and housewares. 

In the commerce and connections we foster in the marketplace, we belong to one another; we take our place in the unpredictability and fluidity of life, and who we are and how we are in that space conveys–and ultimately shapes–the kind of world we wish to see prosper. Are we people of curiousity and fairness? Or of suspicion and exploitative self-interest? Do we engage in just and sustainable practices, or is the cheap bargain more alluring to us?

The marketplace reveals every option and allows us the freedom to choose. We might also say it places upon us the responsibilty of choosing, because our conduct in the public square is never just about ourselves; it has broad impact. 

And so we hear Jesus, this morning, comparing his generation to children, “sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,” children who say “we played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn.”

These children in Jesus’ analogy are disappointed because their companions have not engaged in the interplay of mutuality that a vibrant communal life requires; the signals of both celebration and grief, of flute and funeral dirge, have gone unheeded by those too busy, too distracted, or perhaps too self-conscious to respond to the opportunities that beckon in the public square. Their chiding reminds us that it is not enough to simply be present in the world—we must also choose how we are going to respond to it. Will we be attentive to the signs around us and shape our actions accordingly, or will we scurry through the market with our heads down, lost in our own impulses and hesitations?

In its immediate context, Jesus is using his market imagery to critique the crowd’s inability (or unwillingness) to discern the prophetic and proclamatory missions of John the Baptist and himself—like unresponsive children, Jesus sees them as a people who refuse to hear or respond to the signals given that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and that they should therefore listen and follow him, adopting the radically compassionate values of the new, Divine economy which he teaches and embodies.

But I would also say that Jesus’ critique continues to resonate for us today. Right now, in an historical moment when the marketplaces we inhabit are both physical and digital, we must continue to ask ourselves how we are showing up in those spaces—in every space wherein we take part in our expressions of common life. Our social media feeds. Our grocery stores and other businesses. Our political forums. Our parishes and our civic organizations. Although our physical presence has been limited in some of these places lately, we might take this as an opportunity to ponder the values which we will carry with us as we return.

And principal among those values, according to today’s Gospel? A willingness to listen, and look, and learn, and respond. We are asked to be brave, responsive participants in the marketplaces of the world—people who dance with the joyous and grieve with the injured. People who look for the signs of the Kingdom and take action to support its emergence. We are asked, in short, to be people who are all in for the world, who are so attuned to the colors and the sounds and the smells surrounding them that their love for God’s creation is, ultimately, the currency by which they trade. 

We just celebrated Independence Day in the United States, and given the strained fabric of our national life, you might feel a poignant mixture of gratitude and discomfort this year. In the current environment, celebration is tinged with grief and concern. Many of us in this country have been blessed with abundance and freedom, and others among us have been prevented from receiving their share of that same vision.

But imperfect as our union might be, this is nonetheless the marketplace in which we find ourselves. This is the world that requires our loving response. This is the moment we are given, both to dance and to mourn. Let us do both, and tomorrow, and the day after that, let us begin again.

Jesus, the Incarnate Lamentation of God

I offered this address as a video teaching on June 21, 2020, as part of a parish retreat, “The Transformative Power of Lament.” That video can be viewed here.

This weekend we have spent a great deal of time considering how and why we lament. We have talked about God’s ability to hear and hold our lament; about how God wants us to express our sorrow as one part of the deep fullness of what it means to be human. 

But what about God? Is God simply an impassive sort of figure, up there, who calmly, magnanimously receives our cries of grief and frustration with a cosmic pat on the head? Or does lamentation itself somehow bear the image of Divine Life? Can we say that God, that perfect Trinity of Love, is also a figure of lamentation?

Yes, I think we can. And as followers of Jesus, I would say that we must. Because in Jesus, in both his earthly life and in his passion and crucifixion, we see and hear God’s enfleshed lament. God’s anguish. God’s piteous tears.

The idea that God might have a lamentation to offer back to creation was intuited long before the Incarnation, of course. The tradition of the Hebrew prophets already bears the imprint of God’s sorrow over Israel’s brokenness

From the prophet Amos:

Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:

Fallen, no more to rise,

is maiden Israel;

forsaken on her land,

with no one to raise her up.

For thus says the Lord God:

The city that marched out a thousand

shall have a hundred left,

and that which marched out a hundred

shall have ten left.

For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel:

Seek me and live. (Amos 5:1-4)

And then in Jesus, we hear something so very similar, uttered on the human lips of that very same God, who has come to be as one with creation, and thus issues a cry in his own voice: 

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:42-44)

That is, of course, the pathos of God from the very beginning of our story, from Eden, through the Exodus, to Calvary and beyond —an inability to be fully recognized by creation in those moments of visitation. The Father weeps, in a sense, over our inability to see his face clearly through the tears of our finitude; the Son weeps over the hardness of our hearts, ossified by fear and apathy; the Holy Spirit weeps over our inability to hear her crying out across the the desert, across the void of infinite closeness between us.

Thinking about God as a figure of lamentation changes a few things. First, it recasts a lot of the ideas about God’s “wrathfulness” in a new light. What would be like if you imagined all of those “angry” proclamations from God in Scripture as being, instead, expressions of deep grief, said through tears and sighs? Would that affect how you imagine God’s realationship with the world?

This should not be especially surprising, if we think about it, because as Christians, Jesus reveals precisely what God has to say to the world about its brokenness, unmediated through the prophets, and far from being an expression of vengeful anger or rage, it is an expression of lament. Somehow God knows, in Holy Wisdom, that lament is the necessary message. 

Why is this? 

The theologian and scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that it is grief and lament, rather than rage, which God offers to us in Jesus because God understands that lament is the fundamental act which penetrates the numbing self-interest of systems of domination and death; it is God’s solidarity wtih us, God’s joining in our anguish and asking us to learn from anguish rather than acting out of denial. It is in taking up our cross that we encounter the narrow but certain path to wisdom and redemption. The way, the truth, and the life.  Thus it is Only lamentation—that which we express and that which we listen to from others—which can build compassion within us, soften our hearts, and open us up to the mystery of transformative love.  

As Brueggemann writes, “Newness comes precisely from expressed pain. Suffering made audible and visible produces hope, articulated grief is the gate of newness, and the history of Jesus is the history of entering into the pain and giving it voice” (The Prophetic Imagination, 91).

And so when we look at Jesus on the cross, the ultimate expression of God’s lamentation, we are looking at that gateway into newness. We are looking at the articulation of God’s grief over a broken creation, and of God’s deep longing to be so close to us that he is willing to be broken himself. And then, in the resurrection, the definitive evidence that lament, for all its power, is a prelude to something even more powerful: healing, liberation, and enduring life. 

But in Jesus we learn that it is a necessary prelude. There is no shortcut around Golgotha, no avoiding an intentional engagement with grief. This, in some ways, is one of Christianity’s unique contributions to the faith traditions of the world—that suffering is itself a wisdom path, a holy road, one that Divinity itself has trod.

It is not a road for the fainthearted, but it is also not one that we walk alone. God walks with us, and we walk it with each other, to encourage, to listen, to grieve, and to celebrate as one body.

So, as we conclude our retreat, the question is: are we willing to go down that road? Are we willing to go through the gate of newness that is the cross? Are we willing to articulate our grief, and respond to the grief of others? Are we willing to weep with Jesus at the edge of the city, to bear that same fierce love he does, for people, including ourselves, who have not recongized the things that make for peace?

If we are willing, then lamentation is where we begin. 

God bless you on the journey. I will see you out there.

Lamentations of the People

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

Lamentations of the People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.