Emptiness: A Sermon

“In the canyon, we perceive how negative space has its own power; we find that we are just as compelled by what is missing–what has been hollowed out–as we are by what remains.”

I preached this sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are John 1:6-8, 19-28 and Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11. It is a slightly edited version of the sermon I wrote for The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” collection for Advent & Christmas 2020.

I spent much of my 20s living in the desert, and whenever I was feeling stressed out or in need of some quiet time, I would drive out past the city limits to an overlook that took in views of Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon and a seemingly endless expanse of earth and sky.

Some people find the desert off-putting: all of that muted, windswept rock and dirt and shrub, where you cannot hide from the sun or from yourself; but others, like John the Baptist, are drawn to such places for precisely this reason—because there is no distraction, because it is a place of unobscured perception, of stark clarity, where one can see farther outward and further inward, if they are willing to brave the emptiness.

Indeed, if you have ever stood at the rim of a desert canyon, you know what it is to comprehend the immense majesty of such emptiness. These clefts in the earth, carved by the incessant flow of water over millenia, are rocky vessels holding a world unto themselves. 

Peer over the edge and look down into the sky held between the canyon walls—a highway for the howling wind and winged creatures of the air. 

Look down upon the stubborn shrubs clinging to the ledges, where tiny crawling things seek precarious shelter at the edge of the abyss. 

And then look down, down, down to the bottom, to the river—the improbable, sinuous source of this vast openness, branching out like a vein, still eroding and shaping the earth in its insistent passage towards a distant sea. 

In the canyon, we perceive how negative space has its own power; we find that we are just as compelled by what is missing–what has been hollowed out–as we are by what remains. There is a potentiality, a spaciousness in the open chasm that, in gazing upon it, we also begin to sense within ourselves, in the caverns of our soul, a certain thick luminousness, a sense of seeing deep into the heart of things that are usually hidden under the surface.

And so perhaps it is in just such a place, deep in a canyon in the Judean wildnerness, that we might imagine John the Baptist, his voice crying out, echoing off of the wizened rockface, mingling with dust and birdsong, proclaiming the Coming of Christ: an approach that will, like a river of Living Water, soon carve its own path through the petrification of the human heart. 

John heralds the advent of God’s own bone and breath and blood; the anointed flesh of the Messiah, which, in its birthing and breaking and Belovedness, will reveal the truth of how our own lives are sustained by the Divine ecology of Love.

But before we get there, we are here, in Advent country, in the desert. And just as emptiness defines the canyon, so it is, in this season, that discovering our identity in God is predicated, first, upon clearing away all that is not for us, in order to discern exactly how God might fill that open space.

“Who are you?” John is asked by those eager to label him and his peculiar mission. But he responds only with negations.

“I am not the Messiah,” he says. 

Are you Elijah? “I am not.” 

The prophet? “No.”

Relinquishment of these identity markers, alluring as they might be, is John’s act of humility, of refusing to be carried away the expectations or agendas of others. He is so grounded in God that he has become an open channel of grace and truth, letting the breath of the Spirit blow through the cracks in his soul, like a reed, like a wind-song. 

And, if we wish to let God shape the melody of our own lives, so must we be.

How often we secretly wish that we were solid rock; the savior of ourselves; the long-expected sovereign of our own small dominions, with the power to do it all, to be it all. How often we take on the titles offered to us, not because they are accurate, but because they’re there, because it sounded good at the time, and because an identity, a name, even one that doesn’t quite fit, makes us feel more real to ourselves, at least for a while. 

But just as the canyon only becomes itself in the void, so, too, with us: so it is ok, it is necessary, even, to not be all things to all people. It is ok to let go of the names and roles that never quite fit. It is ok to let your life take on some empty space, to let the wind rush through you. Because, like John, it is only in each of our own negations that we get closer to the spare, essential truth of our identity—the one that God has prepared particularly for us.

John shows us how brave and beautiful it is to simply be what we are, and to trust that, for God, this is sufficient.

But how difficult this can be. In this anxious time, faced with the multiplying needs of our families, our communities, and our planet, we are frequently tempted to take on far more than what we can actually do or be. Even as many of us attempt to slow down and be more attentive to what matters, the world continues to surround us and shout, “Who are you? Who are you?”

But, if we are ever to cultivate the space in ourselves for God to rush in, then, like John, we must respond with:

I am not the Messiah.

I am not.

No.

We must be willing to disappoint the onlookers. We must be willing to embrace the emptiness of what we were never meant to be.

And then, perhaps, we will find what was ours to claim all along.

“I am,” John admits at last, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

Not a king. Not a savior. A voice. Just a voice–an invisible resonance piercing the air, unbounded, free. Nothing more and nothing less than this. And exactly what God needs from him.

For John, the purpose of his own voice is clear: the announcement of God’s Incarnate Promise. And so he baptizes in the river, that ancient agent of transformative power, inviting others to let themselves be scoured by it—to let their layers of defensiveness and artifice be stripped away, to hollow out a space in their hearts in preparation for “the one who is coming after,” the Christ, the one who makes all things new.

And here, in another time and in another wilderness—the one that we struggle to navigate each day—John’s invitation remains open to us. It is as urgent as ever, because we are still learning who we are and who we are not. Like the canyon, we are still being shaped; still being laid bare to the wind and the light, still becoming as deep and open and vast as God imagines we can become. And, like John, it is only in the cultivation of our own holy emptiness that we will, at last, be the vessels of God’s inbreaking purpose:

to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God; 

to comfort all who mourn. (Isaiah 61)

In the Water: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on January 12, 2020, the Baptism of Our Lord, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Isaiah 42:1-9 and Matthew 3:13-17.

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

 

So there is John, fueled by God and by his diet of locusts and wild honey, baptizing in the River Jordan, calling people into repentance, into preparation, for the coming Messiah. Prepare the way, Make straight the paths! Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is ever nearer to to you!

We might imagine a group of his followers gathered there on the banks at dawn, sharing a simple meal as they wipe the sleep from their eyes, praying fervently, glancing over at the river, moody and turgid, the water both beckoning and menacing to them, just like John himself. To climb down into to those chilly depths, to be submerged in them by this eccentric prophet: will it change them? Are they ready to repent, to receive a new vision? Can someone ever be ready for a thing that is beyond comprehension?

And yet the river is flowing, and a raspy voice is crying out in the wilderness, and the bruised reeds at the waters edge are trembling, whispering amongst themselves, and they know that today, yes, surely today, is the day their lives will change forever.  Today they will slip into the water and be cleansed of their sin. Today they will prepare the way of the Lord, whatever that might mean. 

But there is one man in their midst, a stranger from Galilee, who isn’t so tentative. He keeps to himself, mostly, but he seems to know what he is doing there. He looks at the water with a sense of determination and acceptance, like the face of one who suddenly understands what must be done, and it is clear that whatever has drawn him here, he will not be deterred.

The group approaches the riverbank, and one by one they wade out alone into its chilly embrace where John awaits them, hurling enticements and warnings. Words thundering across the water, and then a submersion, and a gasp of breath and sunlight, and the reeds in the water are whispering, still whispering—he is coming.

He is almost here. 

Prepare the way.

Prepare the way. 

The man from Galilee steps forward.

Did Jesus know what was about to happen as he approached the river? Did he fully understand what it meant to be plunged deep down into the water, that same water that he, the Eternal Word, breathed over at the beginning of time? Did he realize, as he crested the surface, that his life was now what it was always meant to be? That the time of preparation was over?

We have some idea that he did. “Let it be so now,” he tells the Baptizer. “For it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” 

In other words, this is God’s will, John: 

You and I, the one before, and the one after, and the one who encircles all things. Let us go down into the deep together, baptize me with your cleansing water and I will baptize you with the fire of God’s  descending Spirit, and you will see—we will see together—how the two are inextricable from each other. 

Washed and illuminated and transformed and yet fundamentally ourselves. This is what will fulfill the emergence of God’s righteous purpose.

For this is precisely what the Baptism of Our Lord signifies: emergence. Rising up from the water, we behold the emergence of Jesus, the humble man of Nazareth, into his public revelation as the Son of God; the one who arrives like the Servant heralded in Isaiah:

My chosen, in whom my soul delights

I have put my spirit upon him

He will bring forth justice to the nations. (42:1)

In his baptism, Jesus is revealed as an embodiment of this servant, the one who will be in total obedience to the will of his heavenly Father, and who, through his self-giving service, will inaugurate a kingdom characterized by peace, redemption, and healing. A new world is revealed that morning in the River Jordan—a world with the Triune God at its center, and with Christ as its servant king.

And so when the voice from above says, “this is my Son, whom I love” and when the Spirit descends like a dove upon him, it is not that Jesus becomes something he wasn’t already. It’s that now he is seen more fully for who he always was. He is God,  who has come to us in our frailty, to live as we live, and who calls us into a path of service, so that we might live as God lives.

 What a thing to have witnessed on that day beside the river. 

And what a thing we are witnessing today, in this place, as we baptize two people into the very same experience of God’s enveloping love and concern. 

Because we must remember: our baptism draws us into the reality that Jesus experienced at his own baptism. Just as he emerged from the water to hear himself named as the Beloved, the Servant, the One called to embody his Father’s will, so do we. 

Whether in the river or at the font, the water and the Spirit do their work on us—they name us as God’s children, they incorporate us into God’s household, and they propel us forward into lives that are patterned after Jesus’ own life. Lives of service, and justice, and peace, and self-giving.

For those who will be baptized today, as for each of us who have been marked by the sacrament of baptism, this is the moment when the wait is over. The way has been prepared. A new life in Christ begins now. And they are ready; as ready as anyone can be for something that is beyond comprehension.

So rejoice, this day, my friends, for the Savior has come to the river. He has waded down into the water with us; he is standing in solidarity with us as we cry out for healing, for cleansing, for consolation. He is treading gently amidst the bruised reeds and he is guiding them back upright. 

And when we plunge into the depths and feel what it’s like to die, he will be there; 

and when we emerge into the morning light and breathe in the fulness of life, he will be there; 

there, in the water, calling us Beloved,

calling us onward,

calling us home.

To the Edge: An Advent Reflection

I delivered the following reflection at an Advent retreat I facilitated on Saturday, December 7th, 2019 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN.

In western Scotland, there is an archipelago known as the Inner Hebrides—a collection of wild, sparsely populated islands that hug the coastline like an outcropping of jewels, ensconced in the swirling gray-green tides of the north Atlantic ocean. On a map, they appear easily accessible to the mainland, but to visit them is to enter a world apart.

The Inner Hebrides are home to wild birds—puffins, and rock doves, and golden eagles— and hardy, weather-beaten plants—heather, and thistle, and a host of insistent wildflowers. They contain small fishing villages and hillsides covered in roaming sheep, whiskey distilleries and ruined monasteries.  Some of the islands are vast and mountainous, a series of craggy cliffs and broad, low plains; others are barely a speck of gray rock, grazed by the wings of passing seabirds–namelessly residing amid the roiling waves. 

But for all their remoteness, streams of travelers make their way to this cluster of islands, over 100,000 people each year. They come for a variety of reasons: for hiking, or fishing, or whiskey tasting, or perhaps for a bit of windswept solitude; but they come especially to visit one place in particular: the tiny island of Iona, perched at the outermost edge of the Inner Hebrides, accessible only by boat. 

Iona is humble in size—only a mile wide and a few miles long, with a population of just 120 people—but it looms large in the imagination of many, for it was here that St. Columba arrived from Ireland in 563 CE and established a monastery that would become the center of what we now call Celtic Christianity—an ancient form of the faith, nourished in the misty hills and valleys of what is now Ireland and Scotland, and shaped by the cultures of their early people—a form of Christianity that long predates the establishment of a church in this region with any direct tie to the authorities in Rome. 

It was here, on little Iona, at the rocky edge of the known world, that for centuries monks and scholars and warrior-kings traveled for an encounter with the living God, the One who came to be among us as Jesus, the Christ. It was here, at the edge of the sea, where they dwelt and prayed and studied and died, seeking some whisper of God’s voice in the wind and in the silence. 

And so it is that, still, pilgrims go there, to visit the tiny village, and the crumbling ruins, and the reconstructed Abbey, and the ancient stone Celtic crosses with their inscrutable symbols. They travel by train, and then by boat, and then by bus, and then by boat again, to reach this holy place, this thin space, this island of craggy, rock-strewn grace because…because for some reason they must. 

Because for some reason, each of us is drawn in some way to these places that lie at the edge of knowing, these places where the land and the sea merge, these places where what we know is overwhelmed by that which we will never fully understand. We go to these places to be silent, to listen, to watch, and then to return home, perhaps a bit more awake, a bit more alive than we were before. 

Iona has that effect on people. 

Advent also has that effect on people. 

Advent, as you might know, is derived from the Latin word adventus—it means “to come”—and so this liturgical season is the one in which we focus our attention on a very particular coming—that of Christ, whose birth is proclaimed on Christmas and whose return is promised at the end of the age. 

It is a season of hope and expectation, but also of some severity—for we know that in these comings, our lives will never be the same. The world will never be the same. Arrivals of this magnitude require reflection. Preparation.

And for the same reasons that some make the journey across the moors and the shores to seek out a tiny abbey church on a Scottish isle, to seek the presence of God in a wild land, so each of us ventured here, today, to seek out the importance of this season and what it means to “prepare the way” for the coming presence of Christ.

That phrase, “prepare the way,” the theme of our retreat today, is taken from tomorrow’s Gospel lesson from the third chapter of St. Matthew:

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, 

make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

It is worth noting that John the Baptist, in his mission to proclaim the coming Messiah, does so in the wilderness, not in the city—he is wandering across the uninhabited landscapes of Judea, crying out his message of repentance and preparation.

Matthew tells us that it is the people of Jerusalem and all Judea who come to him, leaving behind the security of their homes to seek something of God in an unguarded landscape, to be baptized by a wild man in a wild river, to embrace a salvation that is spoken of as a cleansing, a burning, a harvesting—an elemental experience, undomesticated and savagely beautiful. 

And like those Judeans, so we, too, venture beyond the familiar in Advent. We come here, not into a physical wilderness, but into the expansive, mysterious, silent heart of this season, a season whose core purpose is to instill in us a sense of Christ’s imminence, his urgent imminence—both in the form of a child, born unto us in a manger, and also in the form of a king, descending again one day in glory to judge and redeem creation at the end of all things. 

We enter this season by stepping beyond what is safe and predictable, into a liminal space—a space between knowing and unknowing, a space between the stories told and the stories yet to be told. 

We are drawn, like the Iona pilgrims, to stumble to the outer edge of the human heart, to gaze into the cloud-draped horizon and to be quiet, to listen, to watch for the One who is coming, like a wave, like a storm, like a still small voice speaking out of the whirlwind, surging over the coastline of our longings and carving them into his likeness, reshaping our hearts like stones polished by the sea. THY kingdom come, THY will be done.

Advent, it must be said, is not a season for the indifferent or the timid. If we go out to meet it, to answer its call, it will change us. 

But what does all of this talk of wilderness and pilgrimage and change have to do with our gentle program today, focused on silence and prayer? Quite a bit, actually. 

Because, you see, we spend our lives surrounded by noise; this is especially evident at this time of year, when the onslaught of saccharine commercialism joins forces with the pervasive noise of toxic online discourse, idle gossip, and media chatter to create a din that is, ultimately, numbing to the soul. 

We careen from one task to another, often with very good intentions, and yet we are often left, at the end of the holiday season, with a sense of depletion and disorientation. 

If Christ has indeed come into our midst through all of this, we run the risk of losing track of him, and thus we might end up cozy, perhaps well-fed and entertained, but unchanged. Untransformed. Untouched by the wonder of God, who gazes back at us through the eyes of an infant, who takes on our innocence and our frailty and imbues it with Divine Love, to show us how special, how good this life can be. 

So in order to break free, in order to find him, in order to find ourselves, we must venture elsewhere, as pilgrims tend to do.

We need not travel to an island. Silence and prayer and Scripture are our pathway on this journey. They invite us into the presence of God and shape our lives as God’s people. They require us to notice everything, both inside of ourselves and in the world around us—the good and the bad—so that we can discern God’s abiding presence in all of it. 

Because God is, indeed, present. God has come to us in the birth of Christ—the first Advent. God comes to us sacramentally in the Eucharistic life of the Church—the continuing Advent. And God will come again at the last day to redeem our turbulent history—the final Advent.  

Our prayer and study, then, remind us not simply that “Jesus is the reason for the season” while blithely going about our frantic business as usual. Our prayer and study instead suggest that the season of Christ’s coming actually asks something of us—no, demands something of us—something that has nothing to do with consuming or producing, nothing to do with the further commodification of our love. 

Advent requires, with its voice crying out in the wilderness, that we make space, that we clear out the noise and the haste, that we “prepare the way” in our hearts and in our societies for the cold, vivifying gust of salvation that will soon be borne on the wind, on the waves, on the breath of the One who approaches, toppling old injustices and healing old wounds.

The One whom John the Baptist proclaims. The One who, even now, hovers at the edge of our perception, like an island shrouded in mist, so close we can touch it, though we cannot quite see it, yet. The One who will make us, and our winter hearts, and our flagging, tired dreams, new again. The One who will bring us to life. 

Today you are making a journey of your own—a journey to the edge—into the realm of Advent, where nothing is resolved and yet everything is possible. You do not have to achieve anything today. You are simply invited to make the trip, to pray, to listen to the silence and to yourself, and to one another. 

Simply to do this is an act of courage, an act of pilgrimage. Simply to do this will help prepare the way for Jesus to enter your life more deeply. And when he comes—and he will come, as sure as the ebb and flow of the tide, a sure as the beating of your own heart—you will know that there is, ultimately, no wilderness in which you are alone. There is no distant shore where he cannot reach you. In Advent, he comes to us. In Advent, you will find that he is already here. 

Maker:S,Date:2017-11-9,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-YFrom my own pilgrimage to Iona in April, 2018.