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. 

Home: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on August 15, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Proverbs 9:1-6 and John 6:51-58.

This past Wednesday the parish gathered outside in the garden (or the garth, as we call it) for a party to celebrate the beginning of a new program year here at Trinity—and, I think, to simply revel in the joy of being together after a very long and challenging year and a half. 

I saw and heard so many beautiful things as I wandered around—friends visiting and reconnecting; some of our downtown neighbors who showed up and appreciated the opportunity to receive a hot meal from the food truck; the sound of music and laughter bouncing off of those old stone walls. It felt so good, like the love that we speak of and cultivate here in the nave of the church had spilled out into the streets. 

If you were there, I think you have a sense of what I am talking about. And if you couldn’t be there, please know that you were thought of, that you were in a sense still part of things, because no matter the day or the week or the year, this place belongs to all of us who have loved it, to all whose lives have crossed this threshold, to all whose hands have tended to its care, whose feet have trod the well-worn path to the altar rail. And so, as we begin another season of worship, study, and service at Trinity, I say again to you what will always be true, every time you come through these doors, whether for the first time or the last: welcome home. 

Now for some, the language of “church home” and a “church family” can come off as overly sentimental or disingenuous, an attempt to gloss over the broken parts of a complex institution, claiming a spirit of welcome and mutuality when what is actually expected is compliance and conformity. I know that many have been harmed in the past by those types of environments, and thus it is so very important here, in this place, that we mean what we say. That we come together in our diversity and difference and live as though there is space enough for everyone at this table, in this house of prayer, because God has told us that, indeed, there is. The door is open to every willing heart.

In today’s reading from Proverbs, the personification of Wisdom calls out to passersby, “you that are simple, turn in here! To those without sense…come eat of my bread.” In other words, no matter how foolish or stupid you are, you are welcome here!

And while I don’t know that that exact wording will show up on any of our parish event invitations, the point is this: we are all, in one way or another, lost, stumbling around, distracted and confused by both the complexity and the banality of our days, and we are all seeking the place that is home. The place where we don’t have to earn our sense of worth. The place where we are loved simply for being there, AND the place where we are invited to lay down our burdens and grow into the fullness of life. 

This is that place. This community, this altar, this moment where our life encounters God’s life is that place. Or at least, it can be, if we will let it be. If we will show up and receive what is offered.

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” Jesus tells us today, and as much as we sometimes like to equivocate and dance around the bold claims of Christian truth, there is, in these words, a stark choice. Take part in the life of Christ, feast at his table, follow where he leads, or do not. But know that if you do not, you may very well spend the rest of your life searching for home in the wrong places. 

Because your true home is not the house you live in. Your true home is not your political identity. Your true home is not your nationality. It is not found in the private realm made up of your hobbies and tastes and preferences. It is not even found within your “self” as we tend to use that word, the amalgam of your memories and thoughts and experiences.

All of those things are part of who you are, they all matter, but they are not your home. Your home is here, in the presence of the living, beating heart of God. Your home is beneath the loving, penetrating gaze of Jesus, who knows you better than you will ever know yourself. Your home is here, in the Sacraments and in the service of Christ’s body, the church—in the place where our individual stories are enmeshed with the stories of our forebears, the generations of those who came before us, who sat right where you are sitting, who knelt and stretched out their hands and received the bread on a thousand Sundays, just as you are about to do.

Here, among the great cloud of witnesses, at the Eucharistic center of creation, this is where you truly belong.  So yes, you that are simple, turn in here. You that are lost, turn in here. Come home, no matter what you have done, no matter how long it has been. Come home!

And I don’t say all of this merely as a sneaky way to convince you to attend Mass more often or to join in all of our fall programming, though I certainly hope that you will, because I continue to be amazed by the transformation of the heart that I witness among those who engage deeply with prayer and study and fellowship in this place.

I want you to hear and know that this is our true home because we are living through a time when so many people do indeed feel lost—a time when the very idea of home and belonging are unraveling concepts—when it is easy to feel disconnected and divided and estranged from any sense of community, any sense of being a part of something greater than ourselves. People are desperate to find somewhere that feels like home, but they don’t know where it is.

Because maybe at times, you have felt that way, too, wondering: is there a place for me in the world? Does anything I do actually matter? In the face of so much uncertainty and loss and suffering, is there any sense to be made of this life? After all of my wandering, when will I arrive? When will I know that I am truly known?

These are hard questions to answer with mere words. There is no simple phrase or formula that makes everything in this life easy or clear. But there is this place, where we wrestle with the questions and we strive to live into the enfleshed, incarnate answer that we find in Jesus. 

Because I guarantee you, if you stood where I stood on Wednesday and watched the little ones laughing and running in circles, like fish swirling through a pond; if you stood there and saw friends and families of every age and circumstance sitting together sharing a meal on the grass; if you sensed the solid and reassuring presence of this church building huddled there in the twilight, inviting you to rest against its warm stones; and if you can perceive the life that radiates outward, every moment of every day from the Body of God resting in this tabernacle, the Body that will soon be placed in your hands…if you have experienced these things, or if you can simply see how important they are, then you have already glimpsed the answer. The answer to everything. It is here. It has always been here, where God offers himself to you freely. 

“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed,”  says Wisdom.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” says Jesus.

In other words, God is saying to you: Come, take all I have, take my very life, so that you can truly live.

Come, and eat, and know that you will never be a stranger here. Just come. 

Welcome home. 

Recipes: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, August 1, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Exodus 16:2-4,9-15; Psalm 78; and John 6:24-35.

You and I will probably never get to taste the manna that God sent down to feed the Israelites in the wilderness, but if I had to imagine what it was like to eat that “bread of angels,” as the Psalmist calls it, I would guess it’s something like my grandmother’s homemade pie crust—a divine mystery of its own, tender and flaky and golden brown, cradling piles of summer fruits or bearing the velvety smoothness of harvest pumpkin.

Inconceivably simple, the way her hands would knead and roll and stretch the flour and shortening and water in a manner both precise and casual, fingers guided by memory to create something greater than the sum of its parts. A recipe saved on a worn old index card, yes, but also an artwork, a small miracle on the plate—a gift that could not be explained, only received and consumed gratefully at the cool altar of the kitchen table. 

I wonder if you have a recipe like that in your life—one that was given to you, one that you have made and passed along, one that sustains you and those whom you love in ways far beyond the nutritional content. If you close your eyes, can you taste it, can you see it? Can you call to mind the loving hands that first made it for you, the way they put something of themselves in between the layers of salt and sweet and bitter?

Every time we receive a recipe or make it for someone else, we are taking part in a story. A story of survival, of the ways in which we have managed to find and prepare our daily bread. And a story of love—of the wordless ways that care and memory descend through the generations, linking us forever to those who came before, those who savored the same sweetness we now taste. As a record of what must be done to produce a certain result, a recipe is a guideline. And as a record of love’s timeless and eternal feast, a recipe is also a miracle. 

A guideline, and a miracle. An ethic, and a gift. It is necessary for us to understand how something can be both of these things at the same time. And so, in today’s story of the Israelites receiving the manna from heaven, we witness both dynamics, gift and ethic, present in God’s offering. 

First, the gift. “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you,” the Lord says to Moses. Having delivered Israel from the Egyptians, God has heard, again, the cries of the people, and God is determined that they not forget who He is and how deeply He desires to sustain them both physically and spiritually. And in the gift of manna in the wilderness, God is saying to Israel: SEE, you do not have to settle for the bread of tyrants. You do not have to choose between your survival and your freedom. I offer you BOTH. You get to have both. This is my gift to you, if you will only trust me and take it. 

And then, the ethic. The Lord continues saying to Moses, “each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day” and no more than that. In other words, this manna, this miracle of loving providence, must be received and used in the spirit it was offered. It must not be commodified and hoarded, it must not be used to wield power over others. Because those are the old ways, the ways of Pharaoh, those are the ways of scarcity and fear, and those ways have no place in the life that God is offering. So yes, receive this gift, but receive it with an ethic rooted in the common good, receive it within a set of rules given to guard yourselves against forgetfulness. In so doing, you have what amounts to a recipe: a set of guidelines enclosing a miracle. Specific instructions to preserve and pass on the beauty of the gift.

This can be easier said than done, though. 

I once tried to make my grandma’s pie crust—I had a copy of the recipe card, I had all of the ingredients, I followed the steps, but my hands were not adept at sensing the proper textures, at intuiting the ways to moisten and stretch the pastry without overdoing it. My first attempt was tough and unremarkable, a pale imitation of that golden crust of my childhood dreams. 

In any recipe, as in any life, we live in the tension between the guidelines and the gift—between knowing the rules given for us to follow and discovering the hidden, mysterious ways that wisdom conditions us to do so lovingly and well. 

Israel certainly struggles with this when they are given the manna. Some of them ignore the guidelines—they gather more manna than they need, only to find it rotten and useless the next morning. Or they go out to gather it on the Sabbath, only to find that there is none to be found. It is only when they can receive the gift as it is given—as something precious, as something sufficient, as something that they cannot wield to their personal advantage—that the sweet miracle can actually work. When the guidelines and the gift converge and, at last, they can live as they were meant to live. 

We are still learning this, as people, and as a church, still making our way through the wilderness, still learning how to bear the gift of God’s providence, to trust it, to live it. And in Jesus, we are confronted with that challenge and that invitation directly, personally. No longer simply manna from heaven, but now God’s own life, God’s own body given as nourishment for the world, the living bread, offered simultaneously as pure miracle and as ethical mandate. A foretaste of God’s peaceful kingdom. The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.

Can you accept this gift? Can you also live the type of life that it signifies?

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life,” Jesus tells us today, not because the bread that feeds our mouths is unnecessary, but because it is not sufficient by itself to satisfy the deeper hunger in our hearts. In order to satisfy that, we must trust him AND we must follow him; we must receive the gift AND live into the guidelines; a life lived without one or the other will never be whole. The recipe will be missing something.

And so just as the Lord did for Israel, Jesus is inviting us, again and again and again, every time we come forward to the altar to receive this bread, to be people who carry within ourselves the capacity to receive the miraculous and embody the ethical—those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who cry out for justice AND who marvel at the immeasurable sweetness of Divine love, who know that without God we can do nothing—people who will pass down both the guidelines and the testimony of pure grace to those who come after us, that our own lives might become like a creased and well-worn recipe card, a record of what can be taught, and an invitation into what can only be lived.

Some time later, I told my grandma how miserably I had failed at her pie crust, how I figured I would never quite get it right. And she looked at me, and she didn’t say very much, but just took me into the kitchen and got out the flour and the measuring cups and the old wooden rolling pin. And standing over my shoulder, she showed me again how to do it, instructing, guiding, sometimes intervening to patch up the broken parts of the crust. And in the end, there was a pie cooling in the evening light. Not perfect, but very good—sort of like life itself.

A recipe passed down. A lesson learned.

And a miracle. 

The Hard Stuff: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on July 11, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Amos 7:7-15 and Mark 6:14-29, the execution of John the Baptist.

Have you ever brought someone to church, maybe someone who maybe isn’t a regular church-goer, hoping to show them how beautiful and life-giving it can be to worship here, to take part in the liturgy? And maybe it’s going really well at first: a beautiful, inspiring opening hymn; the lovely vestments and the stained glass windows; and then you get to the readings and you’re hoping for a real crowd pleaser, John 3:16 or Moses parting the Red Sea. But instead…you get something like this week’s texts. The grim and heavy stuff. Thanks very much, lectionary editors. You’re not making it an easy sell here. 

These are hard texts, but we don’t get to skip over them. We don’t get to focus only on the passages of Scripture that comfort us or reinforce our worldview.

And as much as we might like to evade the thorny images and themes that come up in the lectionary, sometimes that is just not possible, because part of our gathering together is facing the hard things that need to be heard, that need to be pondered. So it is this week.

First there is the prophet Amos, a guy from the country, no professional slick talking seer, just a simple man consumed by a message, refusing to back down or be silent as he calls out the king and the ruling classes of Israel for their decadence and their empty piety.

He is prophesying at a time of relative wealth and strength for the kingdom, but he is telling them the things they don’t want to know about themselves, the grime hiding under the gold leaf, warning them, as all true prophets must, saying something like:

Don’t be too satisfied with yourselves, you who imagine yourselves powerful, you who have taken much and given back all too little to the land and the common people who have sustained you—you might be living lavishly now, but a time is coming soon when you will have to pay the price for the inequality and the injustice necessitated by your indulgence. You imagine yourselves just, but you cannot claim a just society when you feast while others starve. You cannot claim pureness of heart when that heart is bloated with its own desires. Empty yourself of your selfishness, drain the festering wound of your pride and greed. Lose your current way of life in order to save the life that God desires for you. 

Not surprisingly, the powers that be weren’t too keen on listening to what Amos had to say. It’s a hard thing to hear. 

Then, if that wasn’t enough for us to wrestle with, there is the gospel reading from Mark, this vivid carnival of horrors in King Herod’s court, the palace intrigue, the dancing girl, and the shocking twist that leads to John the Baptist’s execution, his severed head served up on a royal platter, which is both a foreshadowing of and an antithesis to the Eucharistic body that Christ would later offer his disciples in the Last Supper. But as disturbing as that image is, it is really just a more graphic version of what Amos was already condemning: a corrupt class of ruling elites ravenously consuming the hope of the poor, consuming the land, consuming whatever and whomever satisfies their personal agendas, convincing themselves that it is their right to do so. 

These are hard texts because they are ugly reminders of the things we’d rather forget, reminders that the world can be brutal and capricious and unforgiving. And if we’re honest with ourselves, these are hard texts because they are still true, because they still speak to the conditions experienced by too many people around the world. 

I probably don’t need to recount to you all the ways in which we still see these forces of violent consumption and exploitation at work today, but if we are brave enough to look and listen to what’s going on around us, and especially to the voices of the poor and the vulnerable, we will see that the powers that Amos and John challenged are still operative in society.

And if we are really brave, we will also look within ourselves to examine how these forces have taken root in our own lives. How we, like Herodias’ daughter, have been swept up in that hypnotic dance of death that has been winding down through the ages. How easily we learn its steps without realizing whom we are trampling, hypnotized by the desire for things for which we do not understand the true cost until it is far too late. 

It takes courage to face texts like this, to take them seriously and not just as macabre bits of liturgical entertainment—to examine these enduring impulses that operate around us and inside of us. It is hard work. 

And that is one really good argument for the necessity of Christian community, of coming together week after week here, to be both supported and chastened by what we discover in Scripture and the liturgy. It’s not something that we can do alone, because alone we are awfully good at only hearing what we want to hear. We need Jesus and we need one another to stay accountable to the totality of the narrative, to bear the sorrow and then to imagine a different way of being.

We need each other to practice living in community as though there is another, better way, a more loving way, because we trust that there is, and because we are tired of opening the news headlines to find a world still saturated by violent self-interest.

Because we are tired of a world that still proclaims that only the strong and the beautiful and the mighty deserve to flourish.

Because we are tired of a world that silences the truth-tellers, that kills the bearers of good news, that refuses the living bread of God and feasts instead on the corpse of curtailed hope. 

And maybe it’s the long hot summer, maybe it’s the long hard year, but I am feeling especially tired of the old brutalities. Tired of heads on platters, tired of angry words, tired of cynicism masquerading as wisdom, tired of how easy it is to get caught up in the malice and the fear and become the very thing I hate.

And so I come here, and we come here, to look in the direction that Amos and John were both, in their own way, pointing towards. Towards the truth. We look to Jesus, the One who knows how hard it is, how exhausting it is, but who refuses to play by the same worn-out, bitter old rules of the game. The One who reminds us every day that we don’t have to play by them either. 

We come here to be reminded, that, as hard as it can be out there, or in here, in ourselves, that the God-given truth about life is always the same. 

That we can make a thousand mistakes every day, but we can’t change the fact that God still loves us and wants to redeem us.

That the world can try to kill the messengers of peace, but they can’t kill the message itself. That they can murder the prophet and put his head on a platter, but the eternal voice is still crying out in the wilderness, saying prepare the way of the Lord. Prepare the way. God is coming. God is here. Start living like you believe it.

We come here and look to each other, to live like we believe it together, to show the world that church is a verb, not a noun, a body, not just a building, and that following Jesus is not about going through the motions, but about living with transformed hearts. It’s about taking a stand for the people who need us the most. About refusing to accept that the world as it is is good enough. About opting out of the dance of death. 

These are hard texts, because this can be a hard world. And changing must begin with looking at it.

But it continues with looking to him, to Christ. And then looking to the people around you. This is all that we have to bear the world’s brutality and then to challenge it with our love. We have Jesus, and we have each other. Nothing more. But it is all that we need. 

We come here because the story might be hard, but it isn’t over yet, not by a long shot. And here, together, we are living our way into a different ending. 

Ghost Stories: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on June 27th, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24 and Mark 5:21-43, wherein Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter and heals the woman with the hemorrhage.

I’ve used a bit of vacation time this month, and as it happens, both of the trips I took were to the mountains of Appalachia—first on a road trip through West Virginia and then down to the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. If you’ve been down that way, you know that the land there takes hold of a person’s imagination in a potent way—down in those mountains, it can feel like the land retains its secrets, that the narrow valleys keep their own counsel, and while you may visit and you may explore the region, you will not ever completely see it or understand it.

I think that this mysteriousness and inaccessibility is probably part of the reason why Appalachia is famous for its ghost stories and its folklore—the storytelling tradition, nurtured in those relatively isolated mountain communities, is strong there, and it has been for centuries.

Now, one thing you might not know about me: I love a good ghost story, especially around the campfire on a summer’s night. My cousins and I used to frighten ourselves silly telling and retelling old family stories about apparitions and mysterious sights up in the north woods of Michigan. So when I was down south, I couldn’t help picking up a small collection of books about Appalachian folklore, just for fun, to see what sorts of tales are held within the folds of those evocative mountains. 

I even thought about sharing one with you this morning, but I figured it’s a little early in the day for that, so maybe we can plan a parish campfire sometime soon and swap stories then. 

Now, no matter what you think about ghosts, I think it’s safe to say that one reason people tell ghost stories—and have done so in nearly every human culture— is because we want to understand death. Death, of course, is all around us, it has touched and afflicted each of us deeply in various ways. 

And as those who must go on living in death’s midst, while the ones whom we love are lost to the valley of shadows, we often find ourselves living as a people haunted—haunted by memories, by regrets, by the words said or left unsaid, the deeds done or left undone. Our grief prowls in the night, whispering rumors of  our own annihilation. 

So in the face of death, we give death a face (or many faces, really) in the stories we tell, because we are desperate to understand, desperate to know if there is something beyond the finality that we perceive.

We tell ghost stories, in effect, to say to one another, “there is more to this world than what we can see. There is more than what we can understand.” And in the speaking of the mystery, we grope for meaning, for an assurance that the grave cannot contain the sum total of who we are and what we did in this life.

But although I love them and find them endlessly fascinating, here’s the trouble with ghost stories: as compelling as they can be, they are, ultimately, always about death. Death always wins, death always controls the narrative. And as such, ghost stories are about endings—about unfinished business or revenge or longing—and the ghosts we encounter are almost always conditioned permanently by the circumstances of their former life. 

These ghosts are stuck in one place, or focused on delivering a single message, or mired in grief over how they died. Their reference point is always looking backwards, towards who they once were, towards what used to be, because they are dead, and live no longer. So ghost stories can be thrilling, but they are not consoling. They possess little in the way of hope.

Which brings me to the point I want to make to you this morning: the gospel is not a ghost story. 

The gospel is not a ghost story. 

You might say ok, that’s a bit of a strange point to make. Sure, yeah, of course they’re not the same thing. But I invite you to think about this a bit more, about WHY the two are so very different from one another. 

Take today’s passage from Mark, filled with miraculous healings and a young girl brought back from the dead with only a touch and the words “Talitha, cum”–it is as fantastical as any Appalachian folktale, but here, Jesus does not show up and conjure a spirit or reveal a disembodied message from beyond the grave. On the contrary, he restores people to their actual life. He brings them back into the fullness of that life, to walk and talk and eat in broad daylight, to grow up, to know and be known by all those who love them. 

If this were a ghost story, there would be a note of finality, a sense of loss: the dead girl might appear and disappear, detached from her body, detached from her actual life, frozen forever in the haunted imagination of her family. Death would still maintain its hypnotic power over the narrative.

But that’s not what the gospel is about, because it’s not what God is about. “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

In fact, we might say that the entire narrative of the New Testament is revolutionary in that it relegates death to a bit part, to the periphery, not as as an adversary coequal with God, but simply one final obstacle to be overcome by love’s ferocious power. As the author of Wisdom says:

God did not make death

And he does not delight in the death of the living

For he created all things so that they might exist.

The gospel is not a ghost story because a ghost story is conditioned by the parameters of death, and the gospel, in contrast, is defined by existence, by life’s eternal victory over the forces that seek to diminish or nullify it. 

And although the gospel does indeed contain wondrous and mysterious occurrences, it is a declaration of what is fundamentally real, of what God has done about death’s hold over us.

So if every ghost story ever told is really just a question about what it means to die, then the gospel is the answer: that in God, it means nothing, for death itself has died. 

Thus we are the inheritors of a new story, the one in which God is not interested in death, but in life—in the life of Jairus’ daughter, and that of the bleeding woman, and all the other lives that the world tends to marginalize or ignore. God is interested in your life and in mine, and in our life together. In the life of everyone who has ever lived. And God wants those lives to endure, to flourish, not to evaporate into the shadows.

So I have to remind myself, as much as I love those old ghost stories, not to live my life as if it is one. Not to be consumed by the past. Not to be conditioned by regret. Not to wander the earth like a lonely spirit, repeating the same old tired patterns. Not to entomb myself in the deadening effects of rage, apathy, and selfishness.

I have to remind myself that God, in Christ, came and lived like me so that I can live in God, forever. I have to remind myself that the gospel, not my personal ghosts or demons, but the GOSPEL, will shape the story of who I am, who I am becoming, and it will, by God’s grace, help me continue to thrive and grow within the One whose “righteousness is immortal.” The one who conquers death.

So no, the gospel is not a ghost story. And neither is your life, not now, not ever. You and I are alive; the ones whom we love and see no longer will be alive again; and God’s eternal life is welling up within us whenever we give ourselves over to it. It is as strong and true and mysterious and deep as the mountains.

Is that a story that you can tell, that you can live by? Are you able to lay down that which has haunted you, that which has held you back, that which has died, so that the One who lives might resurrect it?

I ask myself that question all the time, and I pray for the strength to say: yes. To let my story be his story, the one that ends with a beginning.

The story that ends with a voice saying, “Talitha, cum.” 

Get up, little child. 

Die no more, but live.

This is not a ghost story. 

Where are you?: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on June 6, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The primary text cited is Genesis 3:8-15.

I remember once when I was a little boy, I got into an argument with my dad. I don’t really recall what it was about, probably something unimportant. I just remember that in the middle of the argument, I ran out the back door into the yard and hid in some bushes. I guess I just wanted a quiet place to sulk and cry a little bit by myself.

But then my dad came out, looking for me, and the thing that I recall most clearly as I hid under the leaves, a little ball of fury, was the catch in his voice, a note of sadness and worry, as he called out my name, trying to find me. So I got over myself and crawled out, covered in dirt, and said, “here I am,” and he just looked at me, relieved, and said, “come inside.” And I did.

What a blessing it is, in our lives, to experience the kind of love that seeks us out and doesn’t abandon us to ourselves; the kind of love that sees past the fears and the frustrations of our petty, wounded hearts, the kind of love that looks at us unflinchingly and simply says, “it’s been a long day; come back inside.” 

I hope and pray that you have known and continue to know that kind of love in your life, whether from a parent, another family member, a partner, or a friend. I hope and I pray that that’s the sort of persistent, active, reconciling love we are practicing in our common life here at Trinity.

And I also hope that this is the sort of love that informs our understanding of today’s reading from Genesis 3, that pivotal moment when Adam and Eve are, themselves, hiding in the bushes after that fateful, perilous bite of ripened fruit.

“They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

Where are you? In those three words, I think we can learn everything we need to know about God’s disposition towards us, from that moment in Eden until this very day, wandering the solitary paths of paradise, searching for his children’s faces. 

Where are you? We have been formed in many different understandings of the nature of God’s love, but I hope, when you hear that question, you can hear, not the threatening yell of a vengeful authority figure, but that of a loving parent, that note of sadness and worry, the voice of one who knows that, yes, something has gone terribly wrong but is nonetheless fervently seeking you out, seeking a way to save you, looking for you in every shadowy corner, under every weeping branch where you might be cowering, seeking you and refusing to abandon you to the despair of your hiding place. 

Where are you? It is the question God has been asking every day since that breezy evening in Eden, since that point in time, for reasons we may never fully understand, when it became possible for us to estrange ourselves from God’s loving embrace. It is the question that underlies the record all of God’s fierce and wild emotions in the Old Testament—

God’s grief and rage over Israel’s waywardness—where are you?

God’s sense of betrayal over humanity’s failure to embody justice, mercy, and peace—where are you?

God’s heartbreak as bow down before the work of our own hands instead of Divine majesty, trembling under the weight of our own fears, all while our One True Love continues to call out—where are you? Where are you? Where are you? 

It is also the question that Jesus came to ask us, face to face: little children, my mother, my sisters, my brothers, I see you now with my own eyes, and you see me, but where are you, in your deepest heart? Do you even know? Do you remember where you belong?

And still, God is asking us that question. Still, God is waiting for us to reveal ourselves, to step forward and to offer the response that Adam and Eve never quite could, the response that a true relationship requires. The word for that response, in Biblical Hebrew is hineini

Hineini. Here I am. 

So much depends on us responding to this love that seeks us out, this love that calls to us in the cool evening breeze even as we keep hiding, even as the evening shadows fall down around us. 

Everything that can be good and true in this fractured world depends upon us saying, as Abraham and Moses and Mary all did: Here I am

Here I am, God.  Covered with dirt and leaves and tears, my best intentions gone awry, my understanding limited, my heart a little bit broken, but here I am, God. I can’t promise to be perfect, but here I am. I am afraid, God, sometimes too afraid to speak, but here I am.

I wonder what it would look like if we could each step out from our hiding places, the ones we’ve run to, the ones we’ve built up around ourselves, and step a little bit closer to one another, a little bit closer to that place where God stretches a hand out to us in the twilight, and I wonder if we might let that question and that answer, that call and response, guide the shape our lives. 

What if we said each day, Where are you? 

Where are you present in my life, God? And where is my neighbor, where is the stranger I forgot to welcome, where is the enemy whom I was taught to fear? Where is the deep, tender heart of the blessed earth, where is the hidden paradise, the love hidden in plain sight? How do I press my soul down into its embrace? Where are you?

And what if we also said each day, Here I am. Here I am, Lord. Here is my face, seeking your face. Here is my voice, speaking your unutterable name on my breath. Here is my body, and here is my mind, and here is my heart; may your Spirit mold them into vessels of your love. You don’t have to search or grieve for me any longer. Hineini. Here I am.

Where are you?

Here I am.

Perhaps this small conversation is the one God has been waiting to have with us for our entire life. Perhaps all God ever wanted was to find us, to bring us home, not back to the beginning, not back to Eden, for we know too much now, we are grown now, but back to our true home, which is within God’s very own heart.

You don’t have to hide from God anymore. We never truly did.

God is calling to you, and there isn’t anything to be afraid of now.

So get up. 

And say, “Here I am.”

And come inside. 

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.

This Peaceful Body: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True and courageous peace be with you.

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

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

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

God’s peace be with you. 

Alleluia.

Parting Words: A Sermon for Good Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, it is finished.

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

Palm Sunday People: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Palm Sunday, March 28, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is the Passion narrative in Mark 14:1-15:47. The image at the top of this post is Triumphal Entry (1969), by Zambian artist Emmanuel Nsama.

We have just heard a story that is, for most of us, deeply familiar. We gather, year after year, during this holiest of weeks to hear it again, to immerse ourselves in the narrative—one that begins today clutching our palm fronds with an exultant crowd at the city’s edge and has just ended at the lonely tomb where only a few brave women dare to visit. 

But rather than pick apart this story, rather than analyze and intellectualize its themes and symbols from a comfortable emotional distance, I wonder whether we ought to simply let it speak for itself. I wonder whether it is a story best received and held with humble, pregnant silence, as all truly important stories ought to be received. 

For the one thing that we do know about this story, this passion narrative, is that it is of deep importance—that it reaches out to speak into the most hidden parts of ourselves. It is a story that observes us, that comments upon us, rather than the other way around. This story knows us and names us in ways we might not want to be known—our hopes, our fears, our terrifying capacity for callousness— and reminds us why we so desperately need God’s saving love in the first place.

So at the outset of this Holy Week, as we summon up the courage to sit with this narrative that is both familiar and shocking, I simply ask you to ponder this question: what if this passage, this passion narrative that we just heard today, was the end of the story? What if that was it?

What if Jesus, the Son of God, the miracle worker and prophet and teacher of peace and radical inclusiveness, who rode into Jerusalem as a new sort of king, was simply put to death and laid to rest and then…nothing. What if the story ended here—as it does for most of us in this life—with the stone sealing the tomb?

I ask this for two reasons. First, because in order to let Holy Week do its work upon our hearts, we must try take it as it comes and not skip ahead. We have to suspend, for a bit, our knowledge of what will come next Sunday and simply be present to what is happening in the moment of each liturgy. 

So today, hear what Palm Sunday has to say to you. Don’t move on too quickly. We need to stand awhile in this crowd that cheers one moment and calls for blood the next, if only to recognize that we are not so very different from them. And in each of the days to come, as we take part in the Masses and read our daily reflections, let the story unfold, living it as the disciples did, as they followed Jesus into the city. Like the disciples, allow the events to disarray your certainties and upend your expectations of what success and significance mean. We will learn so much more from this week if we can somehow live it.

The second reason I ask what it would mean if the story ended here, at the tomb—is because for many people, Palm Sunday IS the whole, representative story of human life. 

Without the eyes of faith, without the Divine inbreaking, Palm Sunday IS how the world tends to work—a place where the strong dominate the vulnerable, and the pursuit of peace is viewed as a farce, and mercy is called weakness and battle lines must aways be drawn and redrawn, age after age. 

We live in a world that has been, for too many people and for too many generations, one long and unending Palm Sunday—and so it is easy to believe that this indeed is where the story ends, and that our longing for something else, something kinder, is a delusion. 

That is the story that the world continues to try to proclaim to us and form within us. And if we’re not careful, we might buy into it, talking pleasantly enough about resurrection but living fearfully, meagerly, as if Jesus is still dead and buried in that tomb.

So on this Palm Sunday, and perhaps every day for the rest of our lives, we have a choice to make: is this the story that we are actually telling and living by our actions and words; are these the values that we are embodying? Are we, in fact, a “Palm Sunday” people?

Or do we dare to live as another type of people, people who have their hearts fixed on God’s promises, on God’s version of triumph–people who persist beyond today’s heartbreak?

Are we willing to tell a different story, a story that says there is something more to this life than trampled palm fronds and jeering crowds and the desolate silence of the grave? 

That is the choice given to us, and this is the week when we must decide anew how deep into this story we are willing to journey.

Because yes, for today, we end here at the tomb. But come back tomorrow, and the next day, and on throughout all of Holy Week, and see what God can do with this broken body. See what God can do with your broken heart. Let this journey reveal its mysteries to you one day at a time, until the real ending comes—the ending that will be for us, in truth, only the beginning.