The Wait: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the first Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Isaiah 64:1-9.

Welcome to Advent.

Welcome to expectation, and wondering, and hoping and trusting that things will get better, that God will keep the promises made–even when we do not.

Welcome to the time when bits of light pierce the shadows, when small kind gestures might save a life, including your own. Welcome to the humble, lowly shape that true love takes when it is stripped of its finery.

Welcome to the pangs of yearning, the slivers of memory and song that come unbidden as you toss and turn at 3am. Welcome to the dull tick of the clock over the kitchen sink, and the peal of the bells, the thick silence of an empty house and the sound of children laughing in the snow.

Welcome to the collision of despair and joy that is, quite simply, what it is like to be here, to live and die here, in this time and place, looking for signs of heaven.

Welcome to the precious, lonely, lovely wait. 

I have always cherished Advent, this first liturgical season of the Church year, and I think a lot of Episcopalians feel the same way. We are drawn, for some reason, to its particular blend of sights, sounds, and silences, the quiet and unadorned sobriety, the crisp way that it cuts through thin sentimentality to the deep places within us where Christ gestates.

But for all our love of Advent, I have also wondered, at times, whether we fully understand what the season is and what it is asking of us. Because when we speak of it as a season of waiting and preparation, we do not mean that it is simply a means to an end, waiting and preparing for the Nativity, nor even is it solely about waiting and watching for Christ’s return at the end of history, as today’s gospel lesson reminds us to do. 

It is, of course, about both of these things, but alongside them, it is also about learning how to live, now, and forever, with the waiting itself, how to become a people that can bear the waiting, maybe even flourish in it—that ambiguous time that falls between what is promised and what is resolved, when we are just as liable to distraction and despair as we are to purposeful focus. This is the season that probes what the poet W.H. Auden called “the Time Being,” the days in which banality and transcendence both tug at us, making our lives a muddle of sorts, a mixture of angels and toothaches, of God’s face and grocery lists. 

The waiting and the wondering of Advent is, really, what most of the days of our lives will look like in any season, and it invites us to learn to be ok with that, to not let the wait dull our senses or harden our hearts. “The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all,” writes Auden, probably because there is so much of it, so much time spent waiting that we might forget what we are waiting for.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you” Isaiah cries out in today’s reading, because Israel has been waiting so long in exile that they have nearly forgotten who God is and what God can do. So he lifts his voice to heaven, desperately, urgently: “You are our father. We are the clay and you are our potter.” Do something, God, do something now, something decisive, something that will help us remember what it feels like to be happy again, to make the world make sense again. End our exile, God. End our desolation. End our waiting.

I think, perhaps, that many of us have prayed something similar this year. The pandemic, and all that it as wrought, has escalated our own sense of what it is to wait, what it is to feel estranged from the normal patterns of life. Like Isaiah, we, too, might find ourselves crying out for resolution and restoration. To hug our friends and family members again. To worship in the ways that we love again. To feel at home out in the world again. 

But as much as I, too, long for all of those things, and as much as I trust that we will make it through this challenging time, I also think we need to remember what this waiting feels like right now—the weariness and the frustration and the tenderness of our hearts. 

I think we need to really hold onto this memory of how vulnerable and exhausted this year has made us feel, how uncertain and tremulous the future can seem when the present is drained of security and comfort. 

Because this feeling, this deep mixture of grief and hope and determination? THIS is the real experience of Advent, this has ALWAYS been what Advent pointed to—not just a cozy wait by the fireside with tea and cookies, not a pop-psychololgy pause for self care in between bouts of frantic consumerism, but this type of waiting, the real kind, the grip the arms-of-your chair kind, the same kind that precedes medical test results, the kind that you feel when a loved one is serving in combat or as a first-responder, the collective waiting of the downtrodden and the poor throughout human history, the heaving cries for justice, for relief, for solace; the waiting for a letter than never comes; the wordless tears that stream down your face when you think nobody is looking. 

The waiting that can only be satisfied, can only be fulfilled by something other than our own feeble attempts at virtue or self-soothing or control. The waiting for God; the waiting for the holy, vivifying, sanctifying, tender terror of God, who will annihilate our forgetfulness, who will consummate our longing “as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.”

This is what we are doing in Advent—this is what we are reckoning with, what we are learning to name and to carry, because it is real life, without ornamentation, and it is something that every person must face. And we thank God that we have been given—and will discover again in a few weeks’ time, what all this waiting is for.

So today, for the “Time Being,” may our waiting be compassionate, rather than apathetic; and if it cannot be joyful, may it at least be honest. May our waiting carve out a space within us, big enough to hold the pain and the promise that is ours to bear for one another. Big enough to contain the dreams of all that a new year, a new world might be. Big enough to be filled by God’s once and future coming, as child, as fire, as Lord. 

Welcome to Advent. Welcome to your life. 

Dying: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the Feast of All Saints, Sunday, November 1, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 5:1-12, wherein Jesus teaches the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”).

This is a sermon about dying, but it is not about death. 

Dying is all around us, especially now, in the late fall, when the night lengthens and the trees lose their color and the landscape quiets itself for a deep slumber. There is a sense of relinquishment at this time, a pang of letting go, deep in our bones, as the year, in equal measure of grace and resignation, gives itself over to an inevitable ending. 

And so it is not surprising that, in this hinge-point between abundance and absence, people turn their thoughts to the dead—the saintly dead, our beloved dead, as well as the more ambiguous spectres of our haunted imaginations. 

Allhallowtide, as this brief cluster of observances is known on the liturgical calendar—All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day, All Souls Day—is rooted in a consciousness older than the church, as old as the seasons itself, but it is also a particular opportunity for us, as Christians, to gather in the fading light of the year and to reckon with dying—how it shapes us, how we ought to live with it, what it can teach those of us who believe in a God who is willing to die for humanity. 

Other than perhaps the mournfulness of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Allhallowtide is one of the few instances in the church year when dying is brought to the forefront of our liturgical attention. We might attend a funeral, of course, but those services, at their core, are actually focused more on life—the earthly life of the one who has left us, and the resurrected life promised to each of us in the risen Christ. 

And so it is really just here, for these few days in the fall, that we as a Church consider what it means to die—and to die well—as a Christian. In a culture that tends to deny the reality of death altogether, this is actually rather courageous: the willingness to acknowledge, without succumbing to existential terror, that each of us must eventually die. 

And the saints, in their glory, help us with this. In remembering the saints of God on this feast day, we affirm that they are in Communion with the life of the Trinity, and one another, and with us, in a manner surpassing the mystery of death.

But at the same time we begin to understand that, more than anything, this blessed, living Communion is in fact largely characterized by a certain capacity for dying.

Again, dying, not just the state of death itself. The death of the body is an inescapable biological fact, one that is, of course, shared by all living things, the trembling king and the trembling autumn leaf alike. So it is not death per se that informs our connection to the Christian Saints, but dying as a verb, as a practice of faith, as a definitive pattern of release, of selflessness, of loving surrender, one that is and always has been intrinsic to the Christ-shaped response to life. 

As Paul describes in his letter to the Romans, we have been baptized into Christ’s death as well as his life, and thus we cannot separate the two; we cannot experience the Living of Jesus without also taking on the Dying of Jesus. Indeed, it is this dynamic tension between living and dying, of affirming and negating, that characterizes so much of Jesus’ teaching about what is real and true—and it’s everywhere once you look for it, including, I would argue, in our gospel passage for today, the Beatitudes.

At first glance, this passage doesn’t seem to have much to do with dying and everything to do with how to live. And so we might assume that we are given the Beatitudes on this feast day as a sort of instruction book for how to be “saintly,” as if we might just follow a few simple steps to achieve the holiness of the ones who have gone before us.

But on closer reading this interpretation starts to break down, because the Beatitudes don’t actually tell us what to do, in all times and all places. How precisely does one act poor in spirit? How do I most efficaciously practice meekness? How do we measure whether we have mourned successfully, or hungered and thirsted most efficiently for righteousness? How do we quantify adequate peacemaking and maximize our purity of heart? What sort of persecution should we aim for, exactly?

These questions are slightly absurd, of course, because blessedness is not a one-size fits all garment, and the Beatitudes are not just a code of conduct, a checklist of tasks for each of us to complete and compare against the progress of others. They are, instead, a cumulative illustration of what life looks like, what is true and enduring, once we have let every distraction and impediment to sanctity—to pure, holy being— die and fall away. The Beatitudes depict the spare essentials of God’s movement through creation—what is truly important once our delusions and denials have been stripped from us, by choice or circumstance. 

And so, more than being explicitly prescriptive, Jesus offers the Beatitudes to help us to discern how to practice dying while we still live—how to discern what to let go of so that there is more space for Christ within us. 

Whatever it is in ourselves and in our society that distorts this vision of blessedness, that is the thing which must be relinquished, cleared away, so that God’s mission of healing and mercy might assume its proper place in our lives. And then, as time passes and circumstances change, we must be willing to repeat the process, like the turning wheel of the seasons, letting something else pass away in order to welcome the urgent promise of new life.

This is what the saints have done, each of them in their own particular way: they have let die, lovingly, whatever it is within them that obstructs their pathway into the heart of God, and they have named and challenged those same obstructions in the world around them, clearing the way for the poor, the hungry, and the merciful. 

The saints are simply those Christians who have taken the gospel in full seriousness and have understood it in full joy: that dying opens the gate to new life—and that this is something as true in our small daily acts of dying to sin and selfishness as it is in the ultimate mystery of death and Resurrection. They are the practitioners of this Way of Love, this Way of Dying and Living, and they invite us to be strengthened and encouraged by their example, even if our own time, our own story, seems very different from theirs.

Because ultimately, there is just one story: the story of a falling leaf that nourishes the earth for the coming spring. The story of a grain of wheat which falls into the ground and dies but bears much fruit. The story of a God who taught us how to lay down our lives for love so that we might live in love eternally. It is the story of beatitude. It is the story of sainthood. It is God’s story, and your story, and mine, and ours. This day, and forever. 

I’ve Had Enough: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 11, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 22:1-14:

Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Several weeks ago, a number of us came together for an online retreat here at Trinity, focusing on the parables of Jesus. We spent a couple of days studying and praying with these enigmatic depictions of the Kingdom that Jesus uses to teach and form his followers, including us.

One strategy that I shared during our retreat, which I personally find helpful when engaging with a parable that is especially strange or troubling, is to imagine who I might be in the story as I read it through, aligning my perspective with that character, seeing what insight arises for me. Then, I will pick another character, one I might not readily identify with, and put myself in that person’s shoes. I read the parable again from that perspective and see what new discoveries the Holy Spirit might offer. 

Reading the parables in this way helps me break free from the assumption that there is only one way to understand a story, only one way to understand what the Kingdom of God is all about. As a spiritual discipline, it helps me build empathy for perspectives other than my own, and opens me up to the new word that God always seems to be offering us if we are willing to listen for it.

How badly we need a new word right now, at this moment in our world when the characterizations used in our public discourse feel especially brittle and caustic, like spiteful caricatures of a once-robust story. 

How urgently we need a new paradigm, a new lens through which to perceive what citizenship in God’s Kingdom asks of us. How desperately we need to reconsider who we are in the unfolding narrative of our time. 

Our gospel lesson today is a perfect example of this need. The most common approach to this morning’s parable is to imagine God as the vengeful king; in fact, nearly every commentary I came across this past week started with the assumption that this is the correct way to interpret Jesus’ words here. And if God is the king in this story, then it follows that those who reject God’s invitation and those who fail to adequately prepare themselves for God’s expectations will suffer at God’s hand and will be cast out into the darkness.  The chosen few will enjoy the feast. End of story. Amen.

Many of us know this type of Christian narrative of election and condemnation from other seasons of our lives; many of us have felt its sting or have pushed up against its suffocating certainties. 

But with all due respect to those who promote this dominant narrative, I, for one, have had enough of a theology of angry kings and burning cities and exclusive guest lists. I have had enough of Christian communities that use parables like this to judge and exclude under the guise of truth-telling. I have had enough of purity tests and moral posturing and spiritual violence masquerading as love. I have had enough. 

That story is played out, and it doesn’t sound anything like the Jesus I know and love.

So, I would offer, it is time to stretch our imagination, time to recast this story.

What if God is not actually the king of this parable? What if God is not any of the people in this parable? 

Jesus never actually says who God is here—we have read that into the text ourselves, collectively, over generations. But one thing we do know, from the very shape of his own life and death and resurrection, is that Jesus has little interest in emulating earthly kings. He usually operates, in fact, as the antithesis of a typical king.

To cast God, then, as the petty tyrant of this parable might tell us more about our own understanding of power in this world than it does about the liberating power of God’s kingdom. 

So here’s my new cast list, for your consideration. 

Sometimes, we are the king in this story. We are this king every time we act out of our need for control, every time we manipulate others so that they will do what we want. We are this king when we start deciding who is and is not worthy of mercy, when we encouter people with whom we disagree and desire to annilhate them in our hearts, to cast them into the darkness beyond the limits of our compassion. 

And sometimes, we are also the guests. 

We can be those initial guests—the ones who don’t show up—whenver we decide that we have better things to do than giving our lives over to Christ. We are those guests when we become distracted, deceived by the illusion that we can create our own personal heaven rather than participating in the real heaven, the one that is only found in the mutuality between us and God and our neighbor.

And we can be those final guests, too—the hesitant, the unprepared, the speechless—and in them we see reflected our own moments of speechlessness, our own fear and confusion about what is expected of us, and we’re given a stark reminder that we need to get clear about who we are and why we are here; that this Christian life is not meant to be observed from the sidelines, but lived in fervent fullness.

And God. If not a king, then where is God in this recasting? That is quite simple:

God is the wedding feast itself. 

God is the abundant table. 

God is the bread and wine and the scent of roses. 

God is the water trembling in the crystal bowl,

the color of ripe fruit,

the candlelight reaching out to illuminate your face. 

God, always, forever, is the Eucharistic banquet, the promise of sustenance, available to anyone, to everyone—to the angry king and the frightened guest alike, to you and to me—if only we would lay down our arms and our anger and our apathy and gather together for the meal that has been prepared for us, the kingdom that has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world. 

God is the feast. The feast of life.

So, whoever you are this morning, whoever you have been before, come.  Let us sit down together, and rest, and eat. 

Let us tell a new story.

Holy Week at Home #1: Palm Sunday

With liturgies suspended for this (most unusual) Holy Week, I wrote some brief daily meditations/reflections/poems on social media as a way to navigate the passage from Palm Sunday to Easter without the usual guideposts of communal worship. 

The process of daily writing and posting was a reminder for me that our praise of God is just as much about what we offer–the oblation of our hearts–as it is what we receive. So even now, when we are separated by circumstance and the usual blessings of the liturgy feel distant, we can still present our humble gifts with gratitude. With this in mind, here are the posts I shared last week.

PALM SUNDAY: 

You know that anxious feeling of entry into something unfamiliar and inevitable, like the first day of school or that difficult conversation you simply can’t put off? The dry mouth and the churning gut? The sweat on the back of your neck?

Such is Palm Sunday. Bright, dizzying, crystallized, expectant, palm leaves that scratch your own palms, cries of praise that leave you hoarse. The big event that doesn’t quite satisfy.

Palm Sunday has a feverish quality, like infatuation that has convinced itself that it’s love. It is desire without generosity. Longing without trust.

As we stand at the roadside, or peer from our windows, at the man who enters our midst on a donkey, let us be mindful of all that we still project onto him, all the ways we demand him to solve the heartbreaks and hatreds of our own creation. He comes to illuminate suffering, but not to erase it. He comes to show us life, but we must still traverse through the narrow gate that leads there. When we cry Hosanna, when we wave the branch, we are greeting a very different sort of salvation than the one we privately hoped for. If we truly understood it, its magnitude and its cost, we would likely fall silent as he passed by.

Palm Sunday is                                                                                                                                   the irony of ripping branches                                                                                              zealously;                                                                                                                                                to kill the tender green                                                                                                    prematurely–                                                                                                                                         a misguided homage to the One
Who would not break a bruised reed.
In our plundering jubilation we are convicted–
but soon
he will gather the trampled fronds and
mend the broken branches back
onto the Tree of Life.

 

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.