Ghost Town: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God says,

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

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

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

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

As Isaiah proclaimed, 

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

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

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

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

And on that day the ruins will be rebuilt. 

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

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

Pause: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We wait…and wonder…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So pause

And don’t be afraid.

And now, sing. 

Wounds: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on April 24, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is John 20:19-31, when the risen Jesus appears to his disciples and shows them his wounds.

I was 18 years old when my body betrayed me. 

At least, that is how it felt at the time. It was the spring of my first year of college, and I was full of expectations and grand plans about what my life was going to be like. I was going to travel the world, or maybe join the Peace Corps, or maybe write a book, or maybe be an actor on the stage—who knows, anything felt possible, and at that juncture in life you have more hope than clarity. 

But as the blossoms came out on the trees that spring, I felt my body wilting—I lost a ton of weight, I was weak and listless, insatiably thirsty, unable to concentrate on anything. And a visit to the campus health clinic completely upended my life: the nurse listened to my symptoms, took a quick blood sample, and then said to me, with devastating simplicity: Phil, it looks like you have Type I diabetes. 

I didn’t even know what that meant, at first, but I would soon learn. I would learn how to give myself insulin shots, how to count carbohydrates, how to triage a blood sugar crash. But throughout the management of my new, incurable disease, the one thing I struggled with the most was a feeling of resentment against my body. Suddenly, without any warning or obvious cause, it just stopped working, and all of my youthful daydreams about far-flung adventures were replaced by a grim pragmatism—health insurance, co-pays, the spectre of long-term complications. Everything I had hoped for seemed impossible, lost, pointless, all because my body was now broken. 

Each of us must, at some point, contend with the frailty of our mortal flesh. Some of us face it very early in life, others much later, but eventually, at one time or another, our bodies stop cooperating fully with us.  And whether it is sudden and tragic or more of a slow onset of accumulating challenges, the loss of health can be devastating, infuritating, or simply exhausting, such that we would rather just hide away in a locked room, foregoing the demands of being out in the world.  

We might, at some point, quite understandbly, direct our frustration to God: God, why would you give me so many dreams and desires and then give me a body that can’t live them out? Why did you make us so vulnerable, so susceptible to fracture? What is the good of these wounds and scars and broken parts? 

I certainly asked such questions when I was diagnosed with diabetes, and there are rough days when I still ask it. But of course, God tends not to answer such queries directly. He just shows up in the midst of them. 

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. 

I was struck, in reading this passage again this week, that Jesus does not save the display of his wounds for Thomas alone—they are, in fact, the first thing he shows the initial group of disciples when he appears among them. It is as though his greeting of peace and the revelation of his pierced flesh are two inseparable parts of the same message. It is the wounds, the marks that bear the story of his suffering, that give the peacefulness he offers both authenticity and authority. 

His injuries demonstrate that he is indeed who he said he is. There was no fake-out on the cross, no magic trick in the tomb, no secret plot to bypass the suffering that was bestowed upon him. There is only this strange new body, still very much like ours in its capacity for injury, but that now drips sweet peace from its wounds, like sap running out of the hole in a tree during the winter thaw. He is risen, yes, but still bleeding; the Resurrection has not erased his injuries, but has instead transfigured them, made them part of the wholeness of the cosmos, a part of the emerging Kingdom of God in which nothing, not even our gravest injury, is unreconcilable. 

I need that reminder, to be honest, when I rail against my own physical limitations or when I grieve the illnesses and challenges of the people I care about. I need to remember that Jesus held onto his wounds, incorporated them into his peace, that he appeared on the other side of death with scars, as one changed by life, as one marked by life’s indifferent cruelty, and that it did not keep him from being, in the end, exactly what he needed to be. It gives me hope that there might yet be peace for us, too, who tend to our own wounds, who struggle with feeling betrayed by life’s fragility. 

Because if we’re honest, we are all, in one way or another, just like Thomas and the other disciples. We know what it is to suffer and so we doubt—not because we are obstinate but because we are heartbroken. We doubt because we know the sting of disappointment and grief, we doubt because hope, at times, feels like the purview of the young, the strong, and the unmarred. 

But Jesus shows up and shows us his hands and his side because he needs us to know that this, is, in fact, what hope actually looks like: not an unblemished daydream, but a body that both bleeds and loves profusely, because in the end, real life requires us to do both. 

Do not doubt, but believe, he says to us–to encourage us. 

Do not doubt that there is peace and promise on the other side of brokenness. Do not doubt that your own wounds and hurting parts are as precious to God as any other piece of you. Do not doubt that, even though some days you might feel like you are falling apart or that you are useless, you are, in truth, growing ever closer to God, ever more precious to God, ever more caught up in the healing mystery of grace. Even in your fragmented condition, you are loved wholly, as one who is complete.

Our journey is to trust that this is true about ourselves, and to tell others that it is true about them, too, no matter what they are going through, no matter what they have lost.

This month will be exactly 20 years since I was diagnosed with diabetes. I no longer feel betrayed by my body—I have found some measure of acceptance about it all—but I can’t stand here and tell you that it was a blessing or that I wouldn’t change it if I could. I would. It can be hard some days. But I think it’s ok to be honest about the hard stuff we face.

What I can tell you, though, is that Jesus’ wounds mean more to me now than they might have when I was perfectly healthy. I can see now how they are their own kind of answer to all of our questions about suffering and loss. Not an explanation, but still an answer. One that says:

I am here. You are not alone. This brokenness is part of you, but it is not all of you. And there is life to be found, even now, just as you are. Touch these wounds and see how well God understands your own. Touch these wounds and see that peace is still possible.

And in that moment, I get it. In that moment, I no longer doubt. I believe.

How God Sees Us: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on October 12, 2019, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 17:11-19.

In the winter of 1990, the NASA space probe Voyager 1 had traveled to the outer reaches of our solar system, collecting data and images of neighboring planets since its launch in 1977. As it hurtled ever farther outward into the vastness of space, the probe’s capacity to take photographs was nearing its end. But before its camera was shut off, engineers turned the probe around to capture a final image facing back in the direction whence it had come, back toward earth.

Perhaps you have seen or heard of this now-famous photo, popularly nicknamed the “pale blue dot.” If not, I encourage you to look it up. At first glance, it appears to just be a picture of a broad, shadowy emptiness, pierced by a few pale bands of light resulting from the reflection of the sun in the camera lens. 

But if you look closely, very closely, you notice in the middle of one of those bands of light a tiny speck: soft blue, unremarkable, and yet shockingly singular, reposing in solitude amid the immense darkness. 

That speck is us—it is planet earth, viewed from 4 billion miles away.

This tiny dot in a photograph, so small you might miss it, reveals the humble totality of the world we know, suspended in the midst of something so large we cannot comprehend it. As the astronomer Carl Sagan wrote of the image a few years after it was captured, the pale blue dot contains:

“every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species…on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Faced with such an image, we are offered a bracing new perspective on the sum total of our struggles and strivings. They tend to appear a bit less momentous at this distance. 

In the same way that we might go to a mountain top or to an ocean vista in order to gain a sense of our place within the larger landscape of creation, discovering our smallness on the pale blue dot offers both clarity and mystery. 

Clarity, because we suddenly comprehend both the fragility and the preciousness of this home we have been given. Mystery, because the created order and the God who bestowed it are revealed as so truly vast that, to paraphrase the Psalmist, “it is too wonderful for us…we cannot attain unto it.” 

Seeing ourselves from this vantage point invites us into a sense of gratitude and awe that we might miss in the inevitable, persistent anxieties of life viewed at ground level, when it sometimes feels like our lives will be defined by the jumbled detritus of our daily concerns: a stack of receipts, a beeping alarm clock, an unanswered email. 

But within this tension of competing perspectives—the mundane and the magnificent—in which we often struggle to see the forest for the trees: it is here that Jesus steps into our path. He, the Incarnate Son of God, brings together, within his very self, the inscrutable mystery of the cosmos AND the simple dignity of our daily endeavors to get by as best we can. 

He sees us from both vantage points. He loves us from both vantage points. And he invites us to share in his dual vision, to see the world as God sees it—with a gaze that is both attentive to the immediate moment AND understanding of its place in a broader story of creation, redemption, and reunion. 

This dual vision, I think, is what the tenth leper demonstrates for us in today’s Gospel. His turning back and praising God illustrates an additional layer of perception more than anything else. A capacity for recognizing what is really going on.

So we don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of energy pointing fingers at the nine other lepers for failing to demonstrate sufficient gratitude, as if Jesus were chiding them like a 1st century version of Miss Manners demanding a thank you note. Those nine have been through a lot. We will send them on their way without judgment.

ALL of the lepers recognize Jesus as Master, and all call out to him, and all are healed. The nine who go directly to the priests, as Jesus instructs, receive no less of a blessing; they will present themselves in their places of worship and, we imagine, they will be restored into the communities from which, as lepers, they have been estranged as social outcasts. 

But the tenth leper, the Samaritan, offers us an additional gift. He understands that what has just happened is far more significant than the provision of his own immediate relief, his own private healing. Perhaps because he is a despised Samaritan as well as a leper—and is thus one who inhabits the periphery of the periphery—he has a broader, more insightful perspective. People at the margins often do. 

This tenth leper realizes that what Jesus has done for him is indicative of what God is doing more generally—that his healing in fact reveals the abundantly loving, restoring, life-giving nature of the God who desires to heal all people and all things. This is why he is compelled to come back and prostrate himself in gratitude. 

In Jesus he has beheld not just a holy man, a miracle worker, but the fullness of God’s mercy in human form, the vastness of God’s concern contained in the voice of a single man. 

Thus the healed leper understands that his individual story has been caught up in something so big, so wonderful, so mystifying, that he must fall down and cling to the earth and cry out in thanksgiving. It is, we might say, his glimpse of the pale blue dot reflected in the eyes of Christ: both the immensity and the intimacy of God’s love in a single flash of understanding.

And so Jesus says to him, “your faith has made you well.” It is the deep wellness of knowing God for who God is.

And friends, is that not why we are here, too, kneeling before our Lord, to give thanks for the goodness that we have seen in Him? To be made well in the knowledge and love of God?

We are always in need of that dual perspective—to understand, like the healed leper, that God sees us and loves us in our particularity, and to also know that each of us is part of something so much greater, so much more beautiful, than we can possibly imagine. 

This is why we unite our hearts and our voices in liturgy—to assert our brief but nonetheless essential role in the eternal praise of God that echoes out into the deep. 

To step back and see ourselves as part of that pale blue dot, a beloved jewel nestled in the velvety darkness of a universe that God has made and called good. 

And then, as a people healed and made new in Christ, to step forward into our lives, to examine the beautiful, earthy blessedness of our days, and to sing out in gratitude that even in our smallness, we are known and loved and forgiven. To be bearers of the holy vision that gazes tenderly on all that has ever been and all that will ever be.

By the way: that space probe, Voyager 1, is still traveling farther out into space. It is predicted that in 300 years it will enter the outermost edges of our solar system, and in 30,000 years, it will reach interstellar space. Beyond that, who knows? 

But what I find especially remarkable, what I find truly “too wonderful for us” to imagine or attain, is that no matter how far that Voyager goes, no matter how long it wanders in the silent darkness, it will never, ever reach a point that is beyond the scope of God’s presence. It will never, ever truly be lost. 

The same, I think, can be said for us.