Former Glory: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, November 9th, 2019 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Haggai 1:15-2:9 and Luke 20:27-38.

Before the weather took a cold turn and we all started buttoning up a bit more, some of you might have noticed when the sleeves of my shirt were rolled up that I have tattoos on both of my forearms.

I got them at different times in my life and they each have a different personal story behind them, but as I was reflecting on the scripture this week, my eyes kept straying to the tattoo on my left arm. It is the very last line of the poem “Ulysses” by the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which has been a favorite of mine since I was young. That poem speaks in the voice of Ulysses (or Odysseus), the legendary explorer-king of Greek mythology, and it concludes with this reflection from him, speaking as an elderly man nearing the end of his life:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ 

We are not now that strength which in old days 

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 

One equal temper of heroic hearts, 

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

In Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses offers these words as encouragement to his beloved, now-aged companions as they recall their former glories and wonder how they might still live a purposeful life.

Something ere the end,” Ulysses urges a bit earlier, with fervent hope in his voice,

Something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done.

Come, my friends, tis’ not too late to seek a newer world.”

Poetic words from a mythical king, and yet, I can’t help but imagine something similar being uttered by the prophet Haggai as he called out to the people of Israel amid the rubble of King Solomon’s temple, encouraging them to rebuild the House of God. 

“Take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord. Work, for I am with you…according the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.” (Haggai 2:4-5)

We can actually date this particular prophetic statement with startling precision: according the to the information contained within the text, Haggai spoke these words on October 17th in the year 520 BCE, shortly after the return of the Judean exiles from Babylon. The original, grand temple of the Israelite monarchy had been destroyed by their conquerors over 60 years prior, and the primary focus of Haggai’s prophetic work was ensuring that the temple was rebuilt. 

But this was easier said than done. Those who had returned from Babylon, most of whom had been born in exile, were attempting to rebuild their society in a devastated land with few resources, and the initial attempts at temple construction proved less than inspiring.

Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?” Haggai asks, well aware that those who have lived long enough to remember the original temple are thus far underwhelmed by the progress on replacement. “Is it not in your sight as nothing?” he inquires, but the question is rhetorical. This new temple, built on a shoestring budget in the ruins of a fallen monarchy, pales in comparison to its predecessor.

Like Ulysses and his friends, the people of Judah have been “made weak by time and fate” and Haggai is aware that their nostalgia for the glory that once was threatens to undermine the necessity to do what can be done with the resources of the present moment.

And thus the prophet reminds them that even if the new temple is not yet as grand as the former, they must persist in their task anyway, because God remains with them. “My spirit abides among you. Do not fear. The latter splendor of this house will be greater than the former” (Haggai 2:5,9).

In other words: do what you can now, work with what you have now, and God will take the hollowed out crater of your disillusionment, the rubble of your broken dreams and will refashion them into something so glorious that you cannot yet imagine it. Do not forget this Divine Promise! For this is our God, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the Living God—the one who knows us. The one who has preserved us. The one who calls us His children. 

“That which we are, we are.”

Now, this tension between the lure of nostalgia and the urgency of the present is still with us in contemporary societies, in the Church, and perhaps for each of us in our private histories. There are days and seasons where it seems that everything good has been lost. Some will claim that the glory days are over, never to return. The wind has blown in from the north and the bleak midwinter beckons. The world looks like a threatening place. 

And in these moments, we might be tempted, like the Judeans, to be paralyzed by longing, to be consumed by a remembrance of past greatness (or at least by our imagined version of that past) and thus find the present moment intolerable. 

Now, when the pain of loss is especially great, whether personal or collective, this is an understandable impulse.  Lament and longing have their place in the language of our hearts. But we cannot succumb to them forever. Because God is always calling us forward into an unfolding story—God’s unfolding story. God has never left our side, and never will. So remember the past, yes, celebrate its joys, learn from its trials, but live now. Work now. Minister now, in the bleak pre-winter chill, in the rubble, in your brokenness. Let that brokenness open up your heart to the world’s present needs and present possibilities.

“Though much is taken, much abides.”

And just as Haggai proclaimed the Lord’s promise that the Temple would be rebuilt with an even greater splendor than they had known before, so it is that what is yet to come for us, for the Church, and for all of God’s people, is greater than we can possibly envision. 

What is yet to come is the resurrected life of which Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel: a new Jerusalem, a renewed creation, a radiant and unending Life that is so deep and true and free that even our greatest human conceptions of love and union are a mere glimpse, a prelude, to the Love awaits us when we fall to our knees before the throne of the Triune God. 

This promise of new Life, unfolding and enduring, is the context of our missional life together. We are knit together by the Holy Spirit with all who have come before us, and all who will follow us, rebuilding the ruined temples of our age–perhaps with tearstained faces and cracking voices–but doing so in hope, in trust, and in joy. Striving, seeking, finding, and never yielding because God will never yield in His love for us. 

He has proven that this is so through His Son, and we are here in this place and in this time and in this very moment to say YES; to say, Lord, we are ready;  to say together that we are indeed “one equal temper of heroic hearts” and we will walk together, cherishing our past but moving forward into the future that God has prepared for us, toward the Holy Temple, toward the Holy Dwelling Place that can never be destroyed.

“Take courage, says the Lord; work; for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts.”

May we believe it to be true, and live accordingly. 

On Saying Goodbye: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on September 8, 2019, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, Indiana. The lectionary texts cited are Luke 14:25-33 and Philemon 1-21.

In late August of 2001, I stood by a fountain on a crowded brick-lined plaza, hugging my dad goodbye. We had just driven from Upper Michigan to northern Virginia, to the small college where I was about to begin my freshman year, and after unpacking my meager belongings into a dorm room, it was time for him to get back on the road.

We embraced, and I let go of him, and he smiled in his gentle way and disappeared into the crowd. And although I knew I would see him again at Christmas time, this goodbye was different, deeper, more definitive than those I had known before. It left me feeling hollow and full all at once, like a balloon untethered, drifting into the summer sky, into an unknown future.

I think that this particular goodbye felt so significant because I knew, intuitively, that I would not be the same person in a few months; that life at college would intervene in unexpected ways, and that when my father and I saw each other again in December, we would behold each other with new eyes. Our relationship would be changed.

Such is the nature of leaving home: it’s never quite the same when you go back.

Little did he and I know, on that late summer afternoon 18 years ago, how dramatically life would indeed intervene—for us, and for everyone in this country, just a couple of weeks later on the morning of September 11th, 2001, when many of us were forced to say a “goodbye” of a different sort: a goodbye to the illusion of our country’s impenetrability, a goodbye to the confident expectation that there might be peace in our time, and a goodbye to the clarity and innocence  of a world that had seemed relatively less complicated, at least for some of us, on September 10th.

It became clear to me, that first semester of college—and to many of us, I think, in that twilight of the year 2001—that we could take very little for granted. The precariousness of our previous assumptions about safety and security demonstrated that any moment—any moment at all—might turn into the unanticipated goodbye, the half-appreciated embrace, the unresolved question of our incomplete entanglements–cut short by time, or violence, or misfortune. 

We were then, and perhaps to some extent still are, a people collectively holding our breath, waiting under the specter of another imminent loss. 

But I also believe that, in that season of uncertainty, when the world shifted beneath us, each of us realized, at least for a little while, how important it is to live as if we are always about to lose each other—that is, always savoring the magnificent gift we discover in one another, the vibrancy of loving that which is changeable, and the transfiguration of the human heart that is revealed in those moments before we say goodbye, before we go our separate ways at the fountain on a summer day, before the smoke and dust envelop us, before we become dust ourselves. That urgent, insistent, keenly felt connection with the friend, with the stranger, and with our own fragile lives, was a gift revealed in the shadowlands of September 2001.

But it’s easy to forget this hard, valuable lesson, especially once life resumes its typical patterns. We get accustomed to new realities, and they become normal, and we settle into them as best we can. We assemble some sense of security and perhaps convince ourselves that this time we are safe, this time letting go won’t be necessary, at least not for a while…until, of course, the next time that life intervenes, as it always does, and a new goodbye is thrust upon us, shocking us back into life, catching in our throat like a pill we aren’t quite able to swallow.

So, why all this talk of goodbyes?

It’s because I think that by considering what it means to say “goodbye,” which is really a condensed form of the phrase “God be with you,” we might find a new way to approach this week’s Gospel passage, where Jesus offers us some challenging words about hating our families and even life itself in order to be a disciple, along with bearing our cross and giving up our possessions. 

Those latter two conditions we hear elsewhere in Scripture and are somewhat more familiar to us, but hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters? This is a hard teaching to understand or accept for a way of life that is supposed to be rooted in love.

Now, commentators often claim that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole to drive home a certain point—that we need to make him and his Way the priority in our lives, the One who comes before all other allegiances, the One who lays full claim upon our selves, souls, and bodies.  

And that is quite true, but we are still left to wonder, as our children play in the nursery and our spouses and parents sit next to us in the pews: how can loving our families—our birth families, our chosen families, our church families—how on earth can this love be considered a stumbling block to following Christ? Are we supposed to conclude that we should leave them all behind and become itinerant preachers in the wilds of Indiana so that we might be called disciples?

I don’t think so.

No, Jesus, in this jarring talk about hating those whom we love, is, I think, trying to wake us up, and teach us an important lesson about being able to say goodbye, about letting go of the people and things we love the most, precisely because he knows that letting go is the price of loving as deeply and as selflessly as he calls us to do, especially when life intervenes in unexpected ways: a move across country; an illness; a breakup; a national tragedy. 

To love in the way that Jesus does, without clinging to safety, without controlling, without turning inward: this is the mark of a disciple. 

A disciple is one who arrives into every moment, every interaction, with the clarity and gratitude of someone who is already prepared to say goodbye. One for whom every joyful greeting is already shaped by the sweet, appreciative sorrow of departure.

Because it is only in those moments when we are compelled to say goodbye to the people and places we love the most, when our eyes are blurred with tears—at the airport curb, at the schoolhouse door, at the graveside—it is only then that our hearts finally see clearly: that these people and these experiences are a fleeting gift to us, not an entitlement—a blessing from God, not a fixed commodity. 

Our families, our possessions, even our own lives—as Christians, we are given the grace to perceive that these treasures all belong to the Triune God Who sent them, not to us, and we must release them, daily, into the care of the Holy One, saying, with reverence, in every moment: Goodbye. God be with you. Because I cannot hold onto you forever.

Thus, being a disciple who is able to say goodbye is about freedomthe type of freedom that allows life to be what it is, with its encounters and departures, its quiet predicability and its shocking upheavals—and to still seek God in the middle of all of it, to be servants of the God who endures despite all change, and to know ourselves as God’s beloved, above all else.

It is a strange freedom, this, one that upends everything we think we know about the world. It shapes Paul’s request to Philemon in today’s epistle, in which a severed relationship is restored under new terms. 

No longer, says Paul, are Philemon and Onesimus to be understood as master and slave, as they once were, but as two brothers, two disciples, united in the love of Christ. Philemon, like us, must learn to “hate” the old way of being—he must say goodbye to the old understandings of himself and others in exchange for something new, something entirely unexpected— something Jesus requires of him, and of us. 

And when he and his former servant are reunited, perhaps by a fountain on a brick-lined plaza, life having intervened in unpredictable ways, they, too, will behold one another with new eyes.

After all, such is the nature of leaving home: it’s never quite the same when you go back.

What is it that each of us must say goodbye to in this season? What must you and I release into the care of God, not because we love it any less, but because we love it so very much? Who or what can each of us set free, so that we can be free, so that we can be disciples, as Jesus invites us to be? 

Whatever it is, I pray that you will taste that magnificent, slightly disorienting freedom. In letting go, I pray that we will be surprised by an exquisite, grateful, and enduring love. In goodbye, may God be with you. May God be with all of us.

The Eternal Moment: A Sermon on Baptism

I preached this sermon on August 18th, 2019, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN, where I now have the privilege of serving as Curate. We celebrated the baptism of two infants during the liturgy, and the Gospel text cited is Luke 12:49-56.

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.” (Luke 12:49-52)

I wonder if you have ever stood at the edge of a lake on a quiet evening, watching the sun bleed into the sky with a beauty so intense that you can barely speak?

I wonder if you have ever walked down a city street and perceived how the beating heart of each passer-by is deeply connected to yours, even if you will never see one other again?

I wonder if you have ever sat beside a person whom you love as they breathe deeply in their sleep, and you realize, with quiet amazement, what a gift it is to be able to love them, for however long or short a time you are given?

I wonder, in other words, if you have felt that strange sweet shock of being fully immersed in this collection of moments we call life.

And then, I wonder if, in those moments, you ever think of your baptism?

I don’t necessarily mean the day you were baptized—many of us who received this sacrament as young children have no memory of the actual occasion, save for a faded photograph, a christening gown, or a candle in a dusty box. 

But do you, in your moments of deepest joy or longing, remember that you are indeed baptized? That your life was permanently changed by that moment of contact with water and oil and the Holy Spirit?

Do you feel, in those depths, that your baptism is an ongoing reality which suffuses the unfolding narrative of the person whom you are still becoming? Do you understand that your baptism has drawn you into a story so grand–and yet so intimate–that the God who is both Parent and incarnate Son has become the author of your days and the abiding Spirit who dwells within your heart?

I hope that you might. And, if you are not yet baptized, I hope that you hear these words as an invitation to contemplate the rich possibilities of such a life.

Today we celebrate the initiation of two beautiful little ones into the Body of Christ, and in so doing, we are also given the opportunity to recall our own incorporation into that Body— the opportunity to consider what it means to belong to Christ and to one another. To reexamine how baptism shapes the contours of a life—your life—and how the holy water streaming from the font, even now, seeps into the cracks of a soul— your soul—to drench you with the fullness of God’s love.

Because it’s easy to forget—or perhaps to never fully comprehend— how that water, that immersive torrent of life-giving water, continues to infuse you with its mystery long after the day it was poured onto your head. It is your lifelong companion, that baptismal water: flowing through your veins and leaking out of the corners of your eyes and freezing in the vapors of your breath on a winter morning like incense rising up to God. 

As our Prayer Book states, you are “marked as Christ’s own forever” in baptism and thus its sacramental reality and its transformative power are always with you, always shaping the ways in which you are alive to this world, and pointing you towards the ultimate significance of the seemingly random, beautiful, sorrowful, mundane, holy events of your life.

The sunsets, and the city streets, and the bedside vigils: Christ is beside you in each of them, tending to you in each of them, because you are His, now, forever. And so each time you give yourself over to the hope and promise and heartbreak of life, you do so as one enveloped in His holy embrace, washed by His tears.

Jesus was deeply aware of this unfolding, enduring nature of baptism, and he tells us so in today’s gospel with words that hit forcefully, like a wave off the sea. He speaks of fire and division on this earth, frightening at first, but we might also perceive a note of distress and longing in his voice as he does so. Jesus is not angry and vengeful so much as he is frustrated—frustrated by his realization that the peace of God, the peace which passes all understanding, the peace which flows smoothly and swiftly like a river, is so often dashed upon the rocks of human frailty—the frailty of we who have a desperate need to take sides, to draw lines in the sand, to stand two against three and three against two. 

The splendor, the majesty of God’s peace is sometimes too much for us to bear, and so we crucify it amongst ourselves—even in our most intimate, cherished relationships. He knows that we do this, and he knows how that division will impact his own journey.

“I have a baptism with which to be baptized,” Jesus proclaims. “What stress I am under until it is completed.” His is a baptism which must pass through the inevitable heartbreak of being alive, and loving, and losing—even losing his life. For Jesus, the anointed one who emerges from the chilly waters of the Jordan, that original moment of water and Spirit is not a victory or a resolution, but the inauguration of something as yet unfinished—the water still doing its work upon him, his body still caught in its current, carrying him towards Jerusalem, and Calvary, and the tomb, and beyond, into the fullness of his Father’s glory.

And so it is for us who share in his Body. Baptism, Jesus tells us today, is not a magical solution to life’s woes; it is not a ritual action that makes everything serene and safe. We who are baptized know all too well that the waters of faith remain turbulent throughout our lives. To be marked by these waters in baptism was and is, for each of us, the first, irreversible step of a new journey—Christ’s journey, and now, by the work of the Holy Spirit, our own, too—which we wade through together as fellow travelers.

Such a journey is never easy. It is not without discord and confusion. It will likely require sacrifices, some of them large, to be sure, but mostly a thousand small daily gestures of love outpoured, as we give ourselves away to each other in the same way that Christ gives himself away to us, on the Cross and on this holy table. That self-giving is the consummation of his baptism, and we must follow where he leads us.

That mutual giving, dear friends, is why we are here, generation after generation, in the Church. That is why our life together in this parish is sacred. That is why we rejoice at these two children joining the family of the baptized today. Our lives, and now theirs, have been swept up into the water of God’s reign, and we return again and again to this community to teach one another how to swim in it, and to carry one another when we get tired.

It won’t be safe or predictable. We are promised very little that is certain or secure in this life. And those moments like the ones I described earlier, in which we keenly perceive the fullness of love, the fullness of life—they are rare and fleeting. 

But our baptism can never be taken from us. The abiding presence of Christ can never, ever be taken from us. And today, for these two children, and for us as well, this is the moment–the eternal, unfolding moment–when that is made abundantly clear. We will never be forsaken. We are Christ’s own forever. 

We will continue swimming within the current of God’s love. We will continue navigating the rapids of our brokenness until the baptism with which we are to be baptized is completed. Until we stumble, laughing and crying and dripping wet, onto the shores of peace, where He is waiting for us.

Come to the water, little ones. Come to the water, brothers and sisters. It is your moment now, your journey now, and ours, and Christ’s, together, always. Let us remember how to swim and let us show you how. The water is deep and mysterious, but there is life here.

Step in.

On Julian, God, and Gender: A Sermon

I preached this sermon today, the feast day of the English mystic Julian of Norwich, at All Saints Chapel, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, CA. The Gospel text cited is John 4:23-26.

When my mom was pregnant with me, she and my dad went about the usual business of considering baby names and preparing a nursery (mine was full-on Beatrix Potter characters). And in the early 1980’s, ultrasound predictions of an infant’s sex were not as common as they are today, so it was, for them, a matter of speculation whether I would be a boy or a girl. My mom was convinced that I was going to be a girl, and my name was going to be Ashley.

My parents had an artist friend around this same time who gave them an oil painting as a baby shower gift. It features a pastoral landscape with small human figures here and there: my dad carrying a fishing pole, and my mom standing by a bassinet with a little blond baby under a pink blanket.

After my birth (surprise! It’s a boy!) their friend changed the painting—brown hair, blue blanket. Now, in retrospect,could they could have kept it pink, and I’d have been perfectly happy with that! But I love that when I look closely at the painting now—it’s hanging in my room—you can still see little traces of the blond and the pink peeking through, the shadow of a different existence–a different, unrealized identity.

And I wonder about that other child who is not me—the Ashley who never arrived—and what her life would have been like, shaped by the expectations that are assigned to certain types of bodies. I am sure it would have been very, very different, and perhaps much harder in ways that I’ll never fully understand as a man.

And yet, in a way that I can’t fully explain, I still feel like I a carry a piece of Ashley inside of me; the part of my identity that doesn’t conform to some of the gender expectations that came along with that last-minute painting revision. Who we are is never quite as simple as appearances might indicate.

I tell you this story because it reminds me of the constructed nature of our identities, and especially of the ways in which our bodies and our genders and our  culturally-mediated self-understandings are always engaged in a process of becoming, from the moment we take our first breath, all the way up to our very last. Whatever labels have been assigned to us, rightly or wrongly,  and whatever identities we claim for ourselves, their meanings and significance can and will develop, both by the unfurling of our interior self-knowledge and by the changeable nature of our changing contexts. Who we are as social beings is always contingent, always being revealed ever more in its fullness. It is the journey of a lifetime, one that is never finished.

And that, I think, is as it must be, because the fullness of ourselves, the maximum horizon of our complex, nuanced personhood, is located in the heart of the God who draws us across time and space to a place as yet only partially revealed to us, as we are now, sitting here this morning. Today we might understand ourselves primarily as a seminary student, as a gay man, as a person of color, as a professor or a priest or spouse or child, or, in the case of our Gospel passage, as a Samaritan woman kneeling beside a well. And in our present contingency we know that we are also other things, other identities… some that we want to forget, and some that we yearn to become.  

But Jesus tells each of us today that the hour is coming, and is now here, when the “true worshippers” will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. In other words, the hour is coming and is now here when we will understand that God loves the fullness of who we are —this is God’s truth; AND the hour is coming and is now here when we will understand that God’s loves the fullness of every other identity too, especially those that the world has called suspect or worthless—this is the work of the Spirit. And in this confluence of truth and Spirt, we will know perhaps for the very first time how SPACIOUS God truly is. How FREE God truly is. How the love of God includes all of us, as we are now, and as we are becoming.

Julian of Norwich, the deep lover of Christ, the medieval mystic, the earliest known woman author in the English language, the person whom the Church honors today, was intimately acquainted with the spaciousness of God’s identity. Her text, Revelations of Divine Love, which describes her ecstatic visions of Jesus’ passion and the Holy Trinity’s deep yearning for the salvation of all creation, is one of the most beautiful accounts of Christian wisdom ever recorded. It is also a text, written in the late 14th century, whose treatment of God’s gender and identity is so fluid and liberating that it challenges any notion that the language of patriarchy is the only appropriate way of speaking about God. She writes:

“So Jesus Christ…is our real Mother. We owe our being to him—and this is the essence of motherhood! God is as really our Mother as he is our Father. He showed this throughout, and particularly when he said that sweet word, ‘It is I.’ In other words, ‘It is I who am the strength and goodness of Fatherhood; I who am the wisdom of Motherhood; I who am light and grace and blessed love; I who am Trinity; I who am Unity; I who am the sovereign goodness of every single thing; I who enable you to love; I who enable you to long. It is I, the eternal satisfaction of every genuine desire.” (Revelations of Divine Love, 167).

I say take some of that and put it in the Book of Common Prayer revision.

What Julian saw, and what she blessed us with in recording her visions for posterity, was the capacity of God to take on multiple identities, each in its precious specificity, and in so doing, to show us that all such identities—every last one—are holy in themselves.

And so, no matter how we continue to grow in self-understanding through our lives and relationships—whether we end up claiming for ourselves a pink blanket or a blue blanket or perhaps we decide we don’t want to be confined by any color blanket at all, thank you very much—whatever our becoming looks like, God holds it. God loves it. God IS it.

God is our Mother and our Father and our Spouse and our Sibling. And God is Spirit and Truth, and God flows through our fluid identities, bolstering their unfolding current with Christ’s life-giving waters, as we travel together with Jesus towards something beautiful and vast and mysterious, something in which all of who we are, all of the ways we name ourselves, ALL OF IT is revealed in its magnificence—in a place where we will indeed and at last be “true worshippers” in the fullness of our hard-won, fully embodied truth.

I pray for that day. I long for it. I hope I’m courageous enough when I leave seminary in a few weeks to keep working towards it alongside each of you.

Julian is perhaps most famous for one particular quote from her text: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It’s a lovely sentiment, but there’s an important clarification that must be made: these are not Julian’s own words. It is not a speculation on her part, or a vague, facile hope for the future. No, these are the words that Jesus speaks TO Julian in her vision, to assure her about the destiny of all creation.

And so Jesus says, to her and to us: All shall be well. ALL shall be well. All manner of thing—every person, every searching heart, every identity we name and encounter, every single thing—shall be well, in the fullness of what it is because it is OF GOD. It is OF SPIRIT AND TRUTH. That is our shared identity, commingled with all of those others we are carrying and discovering and painting in new layers over the landscapes of our lives.  Pink, blue, something else—it doesn’t matter. God is in all the colors. God is in every possibility.

All shall be well.

Only Questions: A Good Friday Sermon

This sermon was preached on Good Friday, April 19, 2019, at Christ Episcopal Church in Alameda, CA. 

Shortly before condemning Jesus to death, Pilate asks him–and thus unknowingly asks God–a bitter, heartbreaking , fundamental question, one that humanity has likely been asking from the very beginning: “what is truth?”

He receives no answer.

There is no answer to give that could be encapsulated into words. Truth, the very embodiment of Truth, is a bruised and battered face staring back into his own face, and it is beyond articulation.

Like Pilate and everyone else who participates in the crucifixion of God Incarnate, we are deep in a mystery now, a place where words are largely inadequate, where answers are few, where only questions prevail. We must tread carefully, for this is terrifying holy ground we stand upon today, Good Friday, and we should not profane it with endless speculation.

We are at the foot of the Cross, gazing up at Jesus, who in turn gazes back at us, blood and tears streaming down his face—and in this place, tidy, insightful observations about the nature of God and clever turns of phrase about sin and forgiveness and sacrifice all dry up like chaff and blow away in the wind.

The Cross rejects every attempt to understand it fully. It is not a place for self-assured theologizing or domesticated spiritualizing. It is a raw, awful, unspeakable place in which we find ourselves.

Last night, on Maundy Thursday, Jesus told us to love one another, and we did so. We washed one another’s feet and broke bread together with the best of intentions. We perceived that this was the proper way to live, to care, to be present in God’s kingdom. And on Easter we will no doubt come back together as a people renewed and forgiven for all the times we have failed to love, returning to our senses after this day of desperation and horror, and we will recommit ourselves to the fullness of life that God offers freely in the light of resurrection.

But today we are no-place. Today we have murdered the very best of our intentions to love. We have traveled to the Place of the Skull, the place where confidence is shattered like bone. Today we stand at the farthest point from comfort, the place where Jesus, God-With-Us, He who was the smiling babe in the manger, the youth in the temple, the wise teacher on the mountain, the Holy One, cries out to the Father for some sign of presence and receives…nothing. No answer. No words.

And in that silence we know what it is to forsake and to be forsaken.

Yes, we are deep in a mystery, one so strange and terrible that any attempt to sort it out, to prod at its depths, to explain it, results in cheap, brittle platitudes.

Think about of all the things that you should never, ever say when someone has experienced a great loss in their life: things like

“It’s all part of God’s plan.”

“Everythinghappens for a reason.”

“When one door closes, another one opens.”

These are things we say to each other that are usually more about soothing our own sense of confusion and fear rather than simply being present, deeply present, to the pain of another.

And yet these trite, hollow, inadvertently callous attempts at comfort are exactly what we so often apply to our encounter with Jesus on the Cross. We want to justify this awful thing, to make sense of it, to assure ourselves that God knew what God was doing the whole time. We approach Golgotha and see the crucified Christ writhing in agony and fear, and we say, to Him, as we do to others: “everything happens for a reason! Your suffering is part of God’s plan!”

And these words are like yet more nails, hammered and stammered into the endless void of His suffering.

The Church has done this since the beginning, in various ways. It’s only human, perhaps. We don’t like sitting with questions, and we rely too much on explanations.

Some of us want to reason the Cross away as God’s clever, elegant, brutal plan to atone for our sins, to make proper restitution for our brokenness, as if the cosmos were constructed like an accounting system or a court of law.

Or, equally tempting for some of us and yet equally limiting: we confine the Cross to the realm of  human political drama, as if Jesus was nothing more than an enlightened social justice prophet murdered by “conservative” religious authorities and imperial forces—those bad, unenlightened others that of course look nothing like us. As if the Cross was merely an unfortunate byproduct of a backwards political system rather than what it actually is: the fundamental, unanswerable question at the core of all the pain which we experience and inflict upon each other.

Every time we try to reconstruct the Cross in a way that suits us, in a way that provides easy answers, in a way that excuses us from the narrative, we are simply building another instrument of torture to re-crucify that which we cannot understand.

No more of this, I ask you. No more. Lay down your easy theories of atonement that taste of sour wine; stop casting lots for your competing theologies of the Cross. For one day, let us stop trying to figure it out. Look into the face of Christ crucified and let Him be all that He is, uncertain and frightening and heart-rending, the face of Truth.

And let that wordless recognition of Truth, terrible as it may be, let it be enough today, because it is all we are given. Just as with Pilate, Jesus has no further answers for us.

It is called Good Friday because it is God’s Friday—the day in which God presents us with a mystery, a deep mystery, a Man who is on a cross for reasons so strange and intimate that they are as distant as an all-consuming black hole, and yet as close as our own breath.

And yes, we know in our hearts that there is more to the story, and that perhaps soon, very soon, we will fumble our way toward the answer of the empty tomb and the radiant joy of something entirely new. But not now. Not yet.

What is truth, we ask? Look at the Cross. It is staring us in the face, wordless and unutterable. Approach it cautiously, without certainty. Touch it if you dare; look into the void and see God staring back at you. Today, this is all we have.