Dancing Alone: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 16, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 5:21-37, wherein Jesus speaks about the radical demands of the Law upon the heart.

In the California desert, along a lonely highway that cuts through the merciless expanse of Death Valley, there is a town. It’s hard to call it a town, really; it’s more of an outpost—a cluster of low buildings huddling together in the searing, shimmering vastness of the Mojave, the only sign of human habitation for miles and miles in any direction.

Death Valley Junction, it is called—built in the 1920s by a mining company that has long since disappeared. There is an abandoned gas station, and a cafe that never seems to be open, and an old hotel with an empty parking lot. Driving past, you would be forgiven for thinking that it is just a ghost town, a dessicated relic, like so many other ruins that dot the western landscape of the United States.

And in some ways it is. On most days in Death Valley Junction, the only sound you will hear is wind raking over the scrub brush, whistling through the empty buildings. But I urge you: if for some odd reason you are ever passing through this place, stop the car and get out. In fact, if you are ever near Death Valley at all, make your way to this forgotten corner of the desert. Because hidden among those decaying buildings is a miracle.  A strange, wonderful miracle.

It’s called the Amargosa Opera House. From the outside it is unremarkable, just a white stucco structure in a dusty lot with a simple wooden sign above the doors. You won’t find any big headliners performing here, nor throngs of eager patrons lining up outside. But the Amargosa Opera House contains something better, something far more precious, inside its walls. Because when you step into it, as your eyes adjust to the dim light, you will encounter a vision: a vision of truth, a vision of authenticity, a vision of what I think love really looks like. 

You see, in the early 1960’s, a successful ballet dancer and artist from New York City by the name of Marta Becket was traveling through Death Valley with her husband on a camping trip. They got a flat tire and had to stop in Death Valley Junction. Even then it was a largely empty place, and as she waited for the car to get fixed, Marta wandered among the decrepit buildings, pondering their history.  And then something happened.

As she peered into the windows of an abandoned community hall, with its peeled paint and its battered old stage, she had a revelation.  Marta knew, in a flash of insight, that somehow she belonged there. 

“My life split in two at this junction,” she later told a newspaper reporter. “I looked at the stage and knew it was my future. I knew I’d perform here the rest of my life.”

And that’s exactly what she did. Marta left New York and moved to Death Valley Junction with her husband and fixed up the old performance hall. She rechristened it the Amargosa Opera House. She started performing one-woman ballets of her own creation. As you can imagine, given the location, the audiences were not large.  A local rancher or two; some workers from a nearby brothel; the occasional traveler. Sometimes, quite often in fact, no one would show up for the performance, but Marta would dance anyway–for an empty house, in the empty desert. 

Later, Marta and her husband divorced. And despite the protestations of her friends back east, she remained there alone in the Opera House, in the middle of Death Valley, now the sole inhabitant of the town, restoring buildings, welcoming the occasional visitor, and dancing, always dancing, through the decades, for anyone or no one at all. 

At some point, she had another inspiration: if no audience would come to her, she would create her own. And so she painted the interior of the Opera House with murals filled with people—huge, vivid murals that make you feel like you are standing inside a grand European theater, with gilded balconies and elegantly dressed figures and a big blue sky overhead with billowy clouds and laughing cherubs. 

And so, with her painted audience cheering her on, Marta danced, night after night, on her desert stage, dedicated fully to that vision, to the calling she felt when she first peered through the dusty window: unashamed, unafraid, utterly devoted to her singular vision of creative expression.  Utterly in love with her unusual life. Utterly authentic. 

I met Marta just a couple years before she died at the age of 92. She had continued dancing until she was 87. And ever since I stumbled upon the Amargosa Opera House, and saw her murals and learned about her story, it has been something of a beacon for me in moments when I feel lost. Each of us, in our own way, comes face to face with the question: who am I? What am I supposed to do with this life I have been given? How can I live purposefully, courageously, authentically?

I tell you this because I am convinced that’s what God desires from each of us, my friends: to be authentic. That doesn’t mean moving to Death Valley, necessarily. That was Marta’s story, her particular calling.

But God does ask us to show up in the world as fully and deeply ourselves as possible; to share our gifts for the betterment of the world; and to trust that this alone is enough, that we are enough, even if nobody else understands us, even if we end up dancing onstage alone.

That is what it means to be the bearers of God’s image: to discover what is true, what is sacred—in ourselves and in each other—and to love it, tenaciously. 

And so when we hear Jesus teaching in today’s Gospel about the intense, seemingly impossible demands that the Law places on our hearts—when we learn from him that the kingdom of heaven looks something like those rare moments when our inner motives are in perfect alignment with our outward actions—I believe we are hearing his invitation to a brave, self-giving, authenticity. 

It is not enough, Jesus tells us, to go through the motions of virtue if you are harboring fear and anger and covetousness deep within you. It is not enough to proclaim peace with your lips if there is war in your heart.  It is not enough to fulfill the legal and ceremonial obligations of your culture if you are not also attentive to the injustices that your culture perpetuates.

Because in that gap between the person God intends for us to be and the person we might have allowed ourselves to become—that is the void where sin and despair creep in. The Law, which Christ fulfills, beckons us beyond despair, into the glory of God, and, as St. Irenaeus writes, “the glory of God is the human person, fully alive.” Fully oneself.

True life, true blessedness, Jesus tells us, will only come when there is an integration between humanity’s heart and its hands; when we need not swear by any power beyond ourselves–by heaven or by earth— because we are so fully, authentically present to each other and to the world that Yes truly does mean Yes, and No truly does mean No.   To know ourselves, and to be ourselves, unvarnished, unapologetic, humble, rooted—this is what it means to know peace, and this is what it means to be a peacemaker.  This is what we are offered when we follow Christ.

But make no mistake; this much easier said than done. The embrace of authenticity always has a price in this broken world of ours. Sometimes a very steep one. The world is not always kind to the vulnerable, the meek, the open-hearted.

And each of us, looking back at our lives, can probably recognize a juncture when embracing the true and necessary thing might have cost us a great deal. Our sense of security. Or our livelihood. Or maybe friends and loved ones who have rejected us.

The road that leads deep into the heart of life can be lonely.

Like Jesus, and like Marta, it might lead us far out into the desert, where the evil one whispers in the Valley of Death that we are lost, that we are living with ghosts, forgotten, and that our fragile dreams are not worth tending, that nobody cares enough to come join us in the dance that we were born to do. 

But I have stood in the Amargosa Opera House, my friends. I have seen its vivid colors swirling and laughing defiantly in the heart of emptiness, and I can tell you that God shows up when we inhabit the places we fear the most. There is abundant life, abundant truth, when we allow God’s grace to form us into ourselves.

Because somewhere out there, in the vastness, in the kingdom of heaven, at the center of our deepest longings, Marta is still dancing, shrouded in lamplight and smiling mysteriously, knowingly, like a saint who has glimpsed the secret.

She is silent; silent as the desert. But her art, her life, her story speaks for itself. 

May the same be said for each of us, whoever we are called to be. 

The Dust Matters: A Sermon

 I preached this sermon today, Ash Wednesday 2019, at Christ Church, Alameda, CA. The lectionary texts are Isaiah 58:1-12, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 and Matthew 6:1-6,16-21.

It’s been almost seven years since my father died, quite unexpectedly, and one of the clearest things that I remember about flying home for his funeral was the shock of seeing the little black box that held his ashes, and looking in at them, and realizing that, physically speaking, this was all that was left of a man who had been so full of life and humor and compassion. And how surreal it was that the man who cradled me in his arms when I was a baby, I was now cradling in my arms as a box of dust. It defies my comprehension, even to this day.

And I was, then (and often still am), tempted to say—as I think we often do when someone dies—no, he’s not in there. This box of ashes is not actually him. This little box can’t contain the man whom I loved and admired, a person who lived so deeply, so fully, and so well. I am tempted to say these ashes are nothing but a shell, that they have nothing to do with that person. And yet…I took those ashes home with me, and for the longest time I would take them out and look at them, and I couldn’t let them go.

Why is that?

I ponder the same thing when I walk by columbariums like the one here in Christ Church, which holds a lifetime’s worth of love and memories in each quiet chamber, with a name engraved on the front. We stand before these rows of names and ashes, and we ask, “where are you? are you here in these chambers? Are you in my heart? Are you in a place beyond this place, somewhere I can’t even begin to imagine?”

The dust of our loved ones gives no answer to these questions. They rest, silently, like those ancient ruins mentioned in Isaiah, the foundations of many generations, placed lovingly in columbariums and cemeteries, scattered across land and sea. But while the dust does not answer us, it does bears witness, both to our own impermanent bodies and to our enduring bewilderment about what becomes of us, when we are no longer *this*. The Psalmist says, “God remembers that we are but dust,” and on days like today we try to remember that too, even as it remains inconceivable that all of our vitality and memory and longing could be so shockingly reducible, so small and earthbound.

But as inconceivable as it might be, we can’t seem to escape the dust. As much as we might like to, we can’t shake it off. We are drawn back to it, over and over again, because we know, intuitively, that whatever happens after death, this dust that was once our flesh somehow still matters. It is not easily forgotten or discarded.

I bring up this meditation on flesh and dust so that we might deeply consider the meaning of these ashes we are about to receive, and the fullness of what they symbolize. Too often in our tradition they are treated only as a sign of death or penitence, and we wash them off later in the day and move on until next year. If we leave it at that, I think we miss something beautiful. And this is especially important because our scripture readings warn us against practices of empty, unexamined piety.

Isaiah, for example, tells the people that true humility and repentance is found in loving each other, not just putting on sackcloth and ashes. And in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that fasting and praying should be about an intimate connection with God, not a big gesture to show off to our neighbors. These texts starkly reject showy displays of piety…on the very day that we receive big dark smudged crosses on our foreheads and wear them out into the world.

So we must reckon with the significance of what we are doing here today, Ash Wednesday, to articulate why these ashes–and those ashes in the columbarium–matter, and what all this talk of ash and dust conveys, not just about the tradition of the church, but about our lives.

Our faith, as we often say, is Incarnational. That word, incarnate, literally means “into the flesh”. We affirm that God came into the flesh, human flesh, and lived among us as Jesus of Nazareth, himself a mortal man of dust, and somehow in our union with Jesus, God seeps into our dusty flesh, too. Through Jesus, the love of God has not just redeemed a “spirit” or “soul” within us, but has permeated our very bodies; we are like that watered garden of which Isaiah speaks, drenched in God, nourished by the spring whose waters never fail.

And this incarnational movement of God into our unremarkable flesh reveals something crucial about the language and symbol of Ash Wednesday: that this dust of which we are made—it MATTERS to God. The dusty remains of our loved ones, which seem so far removed from who they once were—they MATTER to God, too. Our bodies, mortal as they are, all matter to God, because they are caught up in the divine story of God, the divine story that is revealed and enacted  in our bodies, in relationship with one another.

We might be made of dust, but it is beloved, holy dust.

This dust makes up the fingers that we use to caress the face of our beloved;

This dust makes up the eyes that behold our children and grandchildren for the very first time;

This dust makes up the ears that we use to listen deeply to one another.

These small perishable parts of us MATTER to God, they are part of God’s indwelling in the substance of creation, and they tell a story of the goodness of being alive, of being human, of being part of one another.

From this perspective, the ashes we wear today are certainly not an empty act of piety, and they are far more, even, than a mark of penitence. They are a reminder–an affirmation–of what it means to be that which we are: a body that is at once dying and yet imbued with eternity, at once broken and yet redeemed by love. A body, as Paul says, which appears as having nothing, and yet possesses everything.

When I receive the mark on my forehead today, I will remember my father, whose ashes I finally let go and scattered into the ocean about a year ago, so that the dusty remnants of his kind eyes and his quiet smile might be carried on the waves, to dwell with God in the uttermost parts of the sea. With this smudge of ash, I am anointing myself with the dust of his memory, and with the conviction that his mortal life, his mortal body—and mine, and yours, and all the people who have come before us—will always matter to God. We are beloved, we are not forgotten, even when we become the silent dust, even as we wait, in hope, through the quiet season to come.

Poems on the Road

I’m on a night train heading through the Oregon wilderness, and I decided to share a couple poems I jotted down recently. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the spirituality of love and desire this past year, and these are small, imaginative windows into that journey, one from the perspective of Mary Magdalene, and the other from Judas Iscariot. Hope they resonate for you in some way. Peace, friends.

Magdalene

I needed you so much that
I whispered my deepest longings into a jar
And poured its dark sweetness upon your feet
Not that you would grant them, but
That you would absorb them into your self
My desire like sweat on your skin

I wept tears of love so pure and burning
that they felt like grief
Salt water sonnets
Braided through my hair like jewels or
Serpents

And just now
In the garden of re-encounter
Which never looks like the old days
When love was initial:
I saw
Briefly, ever so
The glimmer of my longing, and my tears
Transfigured into something selfless and whole
In you

Do not hold on
You said
Not because I shouldn’t love you
(Impossible)
But because my love
Reached its home in
Your heart
The sweetness and the salt are yours now
Ours now
The world’s now
Now, always
Anointing
Washing
Outpouring
Shameless
Free

 

Judas

You offered me the cup, said it was your blood.
Oh how I hated you, and loved you
For your generosity
When all I wanted was to bite your flesh and make you bleed from my desire.
You called me by name once
And I thought I loved you
Purely, selflessly
But now I know I wanted what i thought you were
What I needed you to be
Most beautiful of men
And when I realized that your inner light was as perfect as your shining face
I hated you, because I could not possess you for myself
Apple, flesh, my joy and sweet poison
They killed you and I thought I’d find relief
From your perfection
But there is no rest apart from you.
My tears are silver discs
And I weep, not for you, Who is peace itself
But for myself, because I realize
We could never have been united
Until I let you be Yourself. And I couldn’t.
My desire was misplaced.
I long for you still.
I will join you.
Beyond death, somehow, find me.