The Cup: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Maundy Thursday, April 14, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The communion cup, which had been suspended in our parish during the COVID-19 pandemic, was restored at this service.

There isn’t a general confession in tonight’s liturgy, so allow me a bit of time for a very minor confession of my own. While I generally try to embrace material simplicity, there is one area in which I have grievously failed, and it is this: I have an embarrassingly large collection of cups and mugs in my kitchen at home. Far more than any one person should have. Perhaps you can relate to this. When I open up my cupboard, there they are, stacked on top of one another, balanced precariously, mismatched, the designs a bit faded in spots, but comforting—a jumble of memories. 

There is the juice glass I used to use every morning as kid visiting my grandma’s house. There is the coffee mug from a monastery I visited when discerning the priesthood. There is a cup that my mom and I picked up while driving Route 66. There is the 175th anniversary coffee mug from Trinity Fort Wayne. There is a wine glass I bought in Europe. There is yet ANOTHER coffee mug that I don’t especially love but that was given to me by someone whom I do love. You get the idea. 

In terms of problems to have, it’s a very silly one. But it reminds me that there is something very evocative about cups. For some strange reason we are drawn to them; they mean more to us, somehow, than just a receptacle to hold a beverage.They hold memories, too, they tell a story about where we come from, the things we have seen, and what our life has been about. When we bring them to our lips, we kiss the past and we hold a part of ourselves. The cups reveal, in some small way, who we are. 

Maybe that’s why it has been so disorienting, these past two pandemic-shaped years, to have no cup offered during the Eucharist. The Church decided, out of an abundance of caution, to suspend this aspect of Holy Communion, and while we’ve certainly been on solid theological ground receiving only the bread during this time, I admit I have still felt a bit lost at sea without that other component of the Eucharistic feast: the common cup shared among us, the sweetness on the lips, and those words that satisfy our deepest thirst: the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

It is fitting, deeply fitting, then, on this Maundy Thursday when we remember and celebrate Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, that the common cup is returning to our communion offering. This evening when you come forward to be nourished by Christ’s body in the form of bread, the chalice of his blood will be offered to you as well, and if you feel comfortable doing so, you are invited to drink, and remember what this particular cup reveals about where we come from, the things we have seen, and what our life together is about. 

But this cup that we drink from is special, it is singular, because unlike the mugs and the glasses stacked on our shelves, each holding our own private histories, this Eucharistic vessel also reveals something essential about about God’s history, about who God is and what God has done. In truth, the Eucharistic cup is God’s cup first and foremost, not our own. It bears the story of God’s journey alongside and among humankind.

In the Hebrew Scriptures the prophets and the Psalmist speak often of the cup: the cup of consolation, the cup of wrath, the cup of trembling, the cup of astonishment—a cup that holds the strange mix of grace and fury that is God’s complex and unfolding relationship with the world. And tonight we come to realize that it is this same cup that Jesus must reckon with in Gethsemane—Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Ultimately he does what God has always done: he accepts the cup as the price of loving his wayward creation, drinking in the sweetness and the bitterness of his solidarity with the children of the earth.

And so I imagine that if we were to go to heaven and rummage through the cupboards, we’d open them up and find, in quiet repose, this one cup, ancient, gleaming, heavy with significance, hallowed by its use, held aloft at a thousand feasts, emptied out upon a thousand battlefields, stained with the blood and the salt-tears of our Creator. The same cup that, in the mystery of Eucharistic grace, is handed to us on this night, that we might take hold of its heavy glory. No longer God’s cup alone, but also ours.

“I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,” Paul tells the church at Corinth, recounting the words of Jesus at the Last Supper—a meal, of course, at which he himself was not present, but which, we must conclude, he must have come to know as part of the all-encompassing, all-consuming revelation of Christ he experienced on the Damascus road. 

Paul understood, somehow, in the lifelong aftermath of his conversion, that this particular meal, this particular bread and cup, reveal the truth about God’s deepest self—and that as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are taking part in God’s own feast—the banquet prepared from the foundation of the world. In so doing, God’s story, God’s sustaining life becomes ours as well. 

And so, tonight, like the disciples who gathered in the lamplight of the Upper Room, we glimpse salvation upon this table, and we drink from this cup—the cup of memory, the cup of sorrow, the cup of laughter, the cup that holds the fermentation of finitude and eternity, the cup that holds ALL THINGS in the costly covenant of love—we drink from this cup tonight for Jesus’ sake because he drank from it for our sake. He drank it to the dregs, knowing what it meant to do so, knowing that living also means one must die, knowing that it was worth dying for us in order to live for us. 

All of that significance, all of that history, all of that costliness, all of that promise, all held in a single sip. A sip he now asks us to take as well, so that at last, we might know him for who he is. 

I know all of this is true, I know it is real, but I cannot really comprehend it. And yet, like you, I will hold that cup in my hands, I will receive it with wonder and gratitude, trusting that even if I never really understand the mystery of death and life, even if I never understand the depth and breadth of God’s love, at least I will know what it tastes like. 

And that will be enough.

For as we will discover repeatedly throughout these holy days, words can only take us so far. Ultimately we must do a thing for it it be real. The feet must be washed. The bread must be broken. The cup must be poured out. 

These actions are both a question and their own sort of answer, because they are the pieces of God’s story that speak best for themselves, like a cupboard full of jumbled vessels, passed down, love-worn, inexplicably precious, infinitely capable of holding our own stories—the old stories, the ones we are living through today, and the story that God, with us, is only now beginning to tell.

Tonight is the night that story begins, again. 

Drink it in, beloved children of God. Drink it all in. 

No Regrets: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, March 6, 2022, the First Sunday in Lent. The lectionary text cited is Luke 4:1-13, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

We inhabit an unsettled moment. That statement is true on many different levels, but in this instance I am referring to something deeper and more elemental than the news headlines. I am thinking instead about the changing of the seasons that accompanies our entry into Lent in the northern hemisphere.  Amid the turbulent moods of early spring, when we are caught up in the vacillating space between ice and dewdrops, between dirt and blossom, between the cradle and the Cross, there is a keener sense perhaps, of the fertile mix of decay and growth that characterizes our lives on this earth. On Ash Wednesday, the cold mud of winter was imprinted on our brows, and eventually on Easter Day we will convulse with joy among the fields of lilies, but for now we are held in the tension of the time-being, suspended in the middle of frost and flower, mortality and miracle. 

Lent is the pungent season when life and death speak to one another. Too often we keep these two realities isolated in separate corners of our minds, so it is good for us to listen to their conversation over the next several weeks, to notice how life and death layer upon and fertilize the other, both in the Liturgy and in the world around us. Lent is when this life—the delicate, earthy existence we have been given—is brought into clarity and focus by accepting its brevity and, indeed, sometimes its cruelty and brokenness. But it is also a season for celebrating that life, for rediscovering the urgency of living deeply and well while we have the chance, before it is too late, and we go down to the dust once more. 

There was an article that became popular online several years ago, written by a hospice nurse. In it, she reflected on the conversations she’d had with the countless people she’d cared for in the final weeks and days of their lives, and she shared the top five regrets that people expressed as they prepared to die. They were as follows:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

And while these five regrets might not be true for every person in every time and place, I think they are striking, because they point to the heart of the things that matter when everything else falls away, when there are no illusions left to hide behind, when the wind blows cold across the bare fields and we remember the trace of that muddy cross on our brow. We might say they are the insights of a Lenten spirit, from the passage between life and death, the unadorned space between the seasons of the soul. 

And they reveal that when we die, the thing we might grieve the most is simply that we never allowed ourselves to truly live. That we didn’t connect with others. That we didn’t connect with our deepest selves. And that, having been tempted by other distractions, we might face the great mystery of eternity without having deeply savored the great mystery of now.

God knows this is our struggle. God has always known this. And that is why, I suspect, we see the same struggle woven through God’s own life among us in Jesus. Consider today’s gospel passage from Luke, when Jesus is compelled by the Holy Spirit to enter the wilderness and submit to the temptations that humanity has always faced—the temptation to control our own destiny rather than trust in God’s providence, to adorn ourselves with the false security of power and prestige and material comfort; to laud safety and strength rather than vulnerability and humility. 

These were the same temptations that Israel faced in the wilderness and again when they reached the Promised Land. They are the same temptations that each of us must contend with in our own particular way. And if and when we succumb to them, the result is the same—disconnection, distrust, inauthenticity, the cultivation of a brittle and strident spirit, and then, at the end, a litany of sorrows that might sound something like:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. I wish I’d expressed my feelings. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

But Lent is an opportunity to pull back from this trajectory in our own lives. And Jesus, in a Lenten moment of his own in this Gospel, shows us how to do so. He faces the temptations of the devil—those temptations to pattern his life in self-serving ways, to become something that he is not, and he chooses, instead, to be exactly who he is, exactly who his Father wills him to be. Which is to say, he chooses relationship, he chooses simplicity, he chooses depth, he chooses trust, he chooses love. And the words he speaks are a ray of light burning away the frost, a budding promise to us, even now, as we wait for the spring:

One does not live by bread alone.

Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.

Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

Simple, ancient words, drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures. True words. Words that are almost like a death, in that they remind us of the fleeting nature of most of the things we fixate upon and obsess over, and instead call us back to what is eternal. These are the words that allowed Jesus to stay focused on who he was, and they can do the same for us whatever our journey looks like. They are the words that invite us to a life—and a death—that is the opposite of regret.

How do we get there? How do we live as Jesus chose to live? How do we die as Jesus chose to die?

1. Have the courage to be yourself. Abide deeply in the love that is inside of you, the love that God gave you to share with others.

2. Don’t work so hard, at least not for the things we usually give away our lives for. Work for God’s kingdom, and rest in knowing that you don’t have to do it all by yourself. You were created for wonder and praise more than you were for achievement. 

3. Express your feelings. Jesus certainly did. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, to be wrong, to show your weaknesses, because they are part of what will save you. We worship a God who was crucified before he was glorified. 

4. Stay in touch with your friends, and with all of the important people in your life. They are the most likely place where you will experience the love of God firsthand, and are thus the true treasures of this world. 

5. Let yourself be happy. Let yourself love this imperfect world, whether it’s deep winter or glorious spring or the messy middle with all of its unanswered questions. Let yourself be dazzled by the mystery of existence, by the mystery of God’s love, embrace it while you live, and then you will regret nothing, because you will experience everything. 

This is the life Jesus chose in the wilderness. This is the life he invites to choose. And this is the strange, holy, in-between season where we must make our choice. This is Lent. 

And so here we stand, with a trace of mud on our brow, leaning into the light; children of the broken earth, children of God. Tempted, yes. Stumbling, sometimes. Seeking, always. 

But loved, always loved, in death and in life, in winter, and in spring, and in the glorious mystery that is beneath and beyond all seasons.

And with a love that powerful, that eternal, that true, there is nothing to regret. 

The Island: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 13, 2022 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mishawaka, IN. The lectionary text cited is 1 Corinthians 15:12-20.

I spent most of the summers of my childhood in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my dad’s side of the family lived for generations. Now here in Mishawaka, you all live relatively close to Lake Michigan, so you have a good sense of the beauty of the Great Lakes, and if you have ever gone way up north, you know how rugged and beautiful it is on the shoreline of Lake Superior—rock formations and dense forests colliding with the open expanse of the water in its many shades and moods. 

And although there are any number of places along the shore of Lake Superior where one might be struck by its wild beauty, there is one particular spot we would visit as a kid that always stayed with me—the type of place that impresses itself upon your psyche, such that you might recall it out of nowhere while absentmindedly washing the dishes or just before drifting off to sleep at night—a pleasurably haunting memory, a dream, a landscape pregnant with unspoken meaning. 

It is a rocky, forested point of land, stretching out into the lake, with a small sandy beach at its tip and then, across a churning channel of  water, an island—so close that you can see it clearly, and, when the waters are calm, even dare to wade across to its shore. I have a distinct memory of doing so, by myself, as a child—scrambling through the water and ending up on the other side, giddy with freedom—just a couple hundred feet from the mainland but a world apart.

The point of land, the channel of water, the island—the image of that place stayed with me through many long and parched seasons of my life—chronic illness, the uncertainties of young adulthood, the sudden death of my father and, then, later, my grandparents. And although I had not been back to visit Michigan for nearly a decade and hadn’t been back to the lake for even longer than that, when I moved to Indiana nearly three years ago to serve at Trinity Fort Wayne, one of the first things I did was make the long drive north through the landscape of my past, through the mining towns and the forests. Eventually I ended up at Lake Superior, and I found the point of land again, and I walked out to the edge of it.

What struck me, though, was how deep the waters were this time—choppy waves and wind blowing in off the lake, no rocks visible to scramble on, no chance of crossing over. All I could do was stand and stare at the island, that childhood dreamscape, so close, but just beyond my reach. 

As we grow up and grow older, we tend to experience life as a sort of expanding distance from the solidities of the past. Sometimes we are grateful for that increased distance, and other times we mourn it, but either way, I think that there comes a time in each of our lives when we stand at the edge of what we know and glimpse the islands of youth and memory as beloved, yet inaccessible kingdoms. And we might despair how death consumes what was once so present to us—the places, the faces and the voices of another time.  And perhaps we start to believe that this is simply our portion in a fragile and fleeting world.

But there is another choice. There is another way to see this. 

“How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” Paul asks the church at Corinth. “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”

Apparently there were some among the Corinthians who accepted that Christ indeed had risen from the dead, and that this was a miraculous act of God, but they could not accept the idea that all of the rest of us were destined for the same undying life. In a world where it is self-evident that everything and everyone dies and decays, perhaps it felt foolish to them, naive, even, to claim such a possibility.  They were content, it seems, for Jesus to be the inaccessible island, beautiful to behold but not part of their actual lived reality—not a place they themselves could ever dare to venture. 

But Paul will have none of this. For he understands that we are not just people who have beheld the resurrection of someone else, of Jesus, but we are, ourselves, resurrection people. Where Jesus goes, we go too. And if the chasm between where we stand and where he has risen seems impassable, that is because we have still bought into the lie that death wins. It does not. Not any more. With Jesus, death is not the last word of any story. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied,” because then we have missed the actual endpoint, the actual telos of following Jesus. Follow me, he says, not just through this world but onward, onward, “further up and further in” as C.S. Lewis wrote, to the undying life of God that makes everything possible.

I think sometimes as good, reasonable Episcopalians, we are hesitant to really lean into this paradigm of resurrection, of life eternal. We don’t want to think so much about heaven that we discount the beauty and the urgent need of this world. But the danger is that we go too far the other way—that we become so focused on our present reality that we forget that we are inheritors of the resurrection—that another world is not only possible, it is promised, and it is already making itself known in our midst. 

And when we see that, it changes EVERYTHING, because death is no longer the precipice over which our love inevitably vanishes. Death is no longer an impassable, stormy channel separating us from God’s life. For God’s Son has calmed the waters, he has made it passable. And so the island beckons once more; its golden shores are a place we were meant to stand; the kingdom beyond death where Jesus stands, welcoming us back into life.

What does this mean for us, here and now, to be Resurrection people? It means that we can be people of joyful courage. We don’t have to stand wistfully on the shore, mourning what once was. Because to believe in Resurrection is to believe that nothing is truly lost; that every good thing is still possible. Even when we are poor, hungry, grieving, or lonely, even when the world is changing, even when the church is changing—every good thing is possible. This is our proclamation and our practice.

And here at St. Paul’s, and down at Trinity Fort Wayne, and in every parish and faith community that comes together in the name of Jesus, we have an opportunity to practice at this together—to practice being Resurrection people. Everything we do in our faith communities—serving, donating, tending to one another, worshipping, studying, feeding, mending, advocating—all of it is a way of saying yes to God’s aliveness, it is a step out into the water, confident that we can reach the other side, that that Divine life awaits us, as long as we hold onto each other and keep our eyes on Jesus.

I know it has been a long hard couple of years, but don’t turn back. Don’t give up. We can get there.

I haven’t been back up to to Lake Superior since that day, and I don’t know if or when I will make it there again. But I think that the island will remain in my mind’s eye forever—a reminder that I have a choice—that life can be viewed either as a wistfully inaccessible, passing dream or it can be viewed as a promise that lies on the other side of death. Every day, with God’s help, I mean to choose the latter. I mean to choose the promise. 

And perhaps, one distant day, when the waters have been stilled forever, I will cross that channel and stand on the other side once more, and life will feel new, and nothing will be lost, ever again. Perhaps that’s where we’re all headed in time. I pray that we are.

And on that day, Resurrection will be not just a promise glimpsed far off, but the ground upon which we stand. 

Where Waters Meet: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 17th at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Mark 10:35-45.

This past week, during a few days of retreat and quiet time, I visited the place where the St. Joseph River merges with Lake Michigan. In case you haven’t been up that way, I’ll describe it to you. The river ends in a broad channel, deep enough for large ships to enter, and the chop and swell on a blustery day, as it was when I visited, makes it hard to distinguish where the river water ends and the great expanse of lake begins. There is a pair of lighthouses marking the spot, though, the St. Joseph North Pier Lights.

Though the weather wasn’t great, I somewhat foolishly decided to walk out along the breakwall to get as close as I could to the lighthouses. The swells were so high that day that they crashed against the wall as I walked along it, the water rushing under my feet on the slick, wet stone, the wind howling. I was the only person out there. And it was clear, the farther I ventured out, that I had crossed a sort of threshold, and this was no gentle river now, but the wild, wide open waves, the swirling, undulating freedom of the great, grey lake.

As I stood out on the breakwall and looked back toward the place where the river gave itself to the expanse beyond, I thought of how far that water had traveled to get there, across hundreds of miles of watershed, accumulating strength and depth as it traveled, along with some broken branches and the fallen petals of summer flowers and autumn leaves, all of it pulled towards this moment, its broad unfolding destiny, no longer a brook or a stream swelling against its own banks, but released, transformed, encountering the greatness of something bigger than itself, shedding its old, narrow boundaries, becoming what it must become, contributing itself into a greater whole: perfect freedom, perfect consummation. 

And I wondered, can a river ever quite comprehend the mystery of the open waters that wait for it? When it is eagerly bursting forth from its headwaters, can it grasp how deep, how wide is the measure of its destiny? Probably not. None of us, when we first set out on a journey, can truly predict what it will be like when we finish, or who we will have become in the meantime.

And in all of this I was reminded of James and John in today’s Gospel, a coupe of exuberant upstarts, babbling like a brook to Jesus, asking for a share of his glory when they don’t fully understand yet what God’s glory even is. They say that they want to sit at his right hand and his left in the coming Kingdom, not realizing that the ones to Jesus’ right and left will be the criminals crucified alongside him on Calvary—for it is there, in the place of the skull, the place where ambition dies, that the coronation of their King will take place, not in a throne room or a temple court. Hence Jesus’ reply to them, perhaps with equal measures of love, incredulity, and pity: “you do not know what you are asking.” Young, eager, thundering river, you are not yet ready for the depths of which I speak. 

Do any of us really know what we are asking for when we set out to follow Jesus? Can we, confined to the landscape of our present understanding, envision both the cost and the promise of where he leads a willing heart? Probably not. The river knows its own banks quite well, but it cannot picture the sea. 

So as easy as it is to laugh a bit at James and John for completely missing the point, for focusing on their own glory rather than God’s, we can’t be too harsh on them lest we condemn ourselves at the same time. For each of us, following Christ, are on a similar course that we don’t fully understand, angling for something better, when what we are actually promised is something deeper—striving for something higher when what we are actually given is something broader, a love as expansive as the open waves, a love that cannot be harnessed to suit our cravings for power or control. 

This all might sound a bit vague and overwhelming, but that’s sort of the point. James and John, too, are overwhelmed, because Jesus has been leading them towards Jerusalem, repeatedly predicting his own torture and death and resurrection, and they are probably feeling scared, disappointed, maybe even a little frustrated. 

Give us something we can rely upon, they seem to be demanding in this moment—give us something to hope for, something to hold onto, something material and reassuring, something that will make all of this make sense. That’s what we all want when things feel uncertain—we want the obvious solution. A cure, a windfall, a sudden change of heart, a surprise advantage. 

We cannot see beyond the next bend, and we are afraid. We cry out, in desperation, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And of course, we ask for the solutions we are capable of imagining—vanquishing our enemies, winning the struggle, securing our position. For James and John, like us, these are the things that seem within the boundaries of possibility. A river dreams of becoming mightier; it doesn’t know how to dream of becoming an entirely new body. 

And Jesus knows this. And like the rich young man from last week’s Gospel, he sees us in this condition, and he loves us. And yet…

Jesus is not limited by our fear-induced dreams; he is the incarnation of God’s dream. And so even when we are certain that we know what we want, what we need, he often tends to say, as he does to his disciples here:

No, my dear ones, you are missing the bigger picture. I have other purposes for you, things beyond your frantic visions of human glory, things wilder and unpredictable and yet even more true, things more beautiful, more satisfying, than you ever dreamt of along the grassy banks of younger days. Take courage, and follow, follow where the river flows, past where you can see, and yes, drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: a baptism that began, yes, right here, in the river and yet does not end here, for it is moving, moving, surging inexorably towards true glory, God’s glory, towards the cresting wave of heaven, a chorus of wind and light, thundering on a distant shore. 

That’s what James and John are part of. That is what we are part of. Something big. Big and wondrous and all-encompassing.

This is good news, my friends. For James and John and for you and me. Because it means that no matter how many times we get it wrong, no matter how many times we misunderstand Jesus or ourselves, no matter how many times we let our fear and our striving get the best of us, as long as we keeping following our Lord faithfully, we are borne on a current towards that encounter with wonder, a place we cannot yet even imagine in full. 

And so even on the days when the water is muddy and brackish, when the branches close in and the horizon is lost, when it feels like we’re stuck, or going backwards, if we follow Jesus’ call, then we aren’t really, because we are living in his wake, and it is guiding us, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes quickly, toward the boundless expanse of that holy dream, towards the place where the river and the waves tumble into one another’s embrace, where, as the Psalmist says, “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, where righteousness and peace will kiss”——the place where our sometimes lonely sojourns merge into the currents of the one single story—the one that has been unfolding since the beginning of time, guiding us on, guiding us home, beyond the uttermost parts of the sea.

Needless to say, I didn’t get washed off of the breakwall that afternoon and I made it back to the shore, back up the river, back into the enclosure of my days, with all of their twists and turns and unresolved questions, where the horizon is a bit harder to spot.

But that image of the colliding waters remains as a gift in my minds’ eye—an image to draw upon, perhaps, when life feels stifling or disappointing—a reminder that even when I don’t realize it, I am being carried forward by God through this endless stream of days, and that there will come a moment, brave and wonderful and strange, when each of us will finally encounter the fulness of truth, and we will feel the breath of God making waves across the deep, and we will see the Lord standing astride the place where the waters meet, like a lighthouse, arms sweeping wide across the horizon, welcoming us to himself, welcoming us home. 

And on that day, what was once narrowly conceived as the lonely journey, the journey that felt like it was mine and mine alone to bear, will suddenly tumble, with joy and trembling and release, into the breadth and length and height and depth of what was never only mine, never only yours, but ours–always ours, with God, in the limitless love of Christ, forever. 

Ghost Stories: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gospel is not a ghost story. 

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

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

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

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

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

God did not make death

And he does not delight in the death of the living

For he created all things so that they might exist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get up, little child. 

Die no more, but live.

This is not a ghost story. 

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. 

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.

Love Made Strange: A Sermon

This sermon was preached on August 9, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 14:22-33, wherein Jesus walks upon the sea. 

 

One of the most frightening things in life is when the familiar, the comforting, becomes strange to us. 

10 years ago, I remember the horrific shock of seeing my father intubated in a hospital bed after his first major heart attack. Here was a person I knew better than almost anyone else—the man who had held my hand on the sidewalk as a child, the man whose voice was the very sound of warmth and safety—here he was draped in shadow and blinking lights, in dreamless slumber, his skin slick with sweat, his features empty. 

He was not yet gone, but he was far from me, and seeing him there as a figure unreachable, uncomprehensible, was a formative moment of terror—the last gasp of my childhood, the unraveling of certainties, the perilous thinness of the boundary between what is given and what is taken away. 

If in our gospel passage we are speaking of voyages across stormy seas, then in that moment for me there was no shoreline in sight—only the roiling waves, the wind, the deep, and the realization that as much as I loved him and as much as I needed him, my father’s fragile life did not belong to me and never had; he did not exist solely to provide me with security—his soul had its own wild freedom, and I could only stand there and behold it, suspended in the wind, at the outset of its own new journey.

We all have to reckon with this realization at some point in our lives—that the things we cherish are always slightly beyond our grasp, like a sunset we cannot make stay. 

Perhaps you, too, have felt that same mixture of suprise and fear at some point, when you realize that the person or the thing you love most is not entirely your own—standing beside a hospital bed, as I did, or waving goodbye as the car pulls out of the driveway, or in the evasive eyes of a lover whose love has left, or even in the daily news headlines that suggest the world is far more complex, unpredictable, and frightening than you thought it was. 

These are the destabilizing revelations, the mini-apocalypses of our lives—the inbreaking of awareness that everything we thought we knew, everything that felt within our grasp, was never actually within the parameters of our control. 

And this is what terrifies the disciples on the boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee—not the storm itself, but the vision of Jesus approaching them through the storm, his feet suspended above the raging depths, an enigma and an impossibility. 

How beyond understanding he has become, their humble teacher: the one they love and trust and rely upon, the one they thought they knew. How very strange he seems now, a ghostly image striding across the waters, no longer the benevolent offerer of bread and fish and a healing touch, but the embodied and eternal voice speakign out of the whirlwind, the untamed majesty of the transcendent I AM who parted the Red Sea and called from the flaming bush, as free as the wind and as inscrutable as the depth of night. 

This is the very same Jesus, yes, but it is an overflowing manifestation of his fullness that defies the disciples’ comfortable assumptions, despite the miracles they have already witnessed. And he has a lesson for them, and for us.

One of the greatest temptations we will ever face is to feel threatened by that which we cannot understand. When we are afraid, we can reject the unfamiliar becasue it undermines our sense of an ordered and safe world. And in this singular impulse we can trace a myriad of tragedies throughout human history—the othering of minorities, the persecution of the innocent, the viciousness of groups, both religious and cultural, who insist upon the purity of their own moral vision. The institutional church is not exempt from this, as we are all painfully aware. 

In ways large and small, each of us has likely participated in this tendency, every time we try to fashion another person into our image, every time we assume that our own social location, our own priorities, are the universal standard of judgment. In our fearfulness, you might say that we are all in the same boat, and, scared of what we glimpse in the tempest, we close our eyes, rowing desperately toward the familiar shoreline of our understanding. 

But Jesus would not have us look away from him so easily. He is not simply the God of the comfortable shoreline, but also the one who emerges de profundis, from the deep places of our lives, who beckons with an authority that calls us, like Peter clambering out of the boat, to move toward that which frightens us. He shows up as God In the Storm, reaching to us across the waves, so that we will know he is there, so that we will not hide from the storms in our own lives. 

Jesus is the one who asks us to let go of our fear, not because the world is a paticularly safe place—it isn’t— or because our lives will always be comfortable—they won’t—but because he is the one who sustains us despite our fear; he is, as 1 John describes, the perfect Love who casts out our fear. He is the silent stillness beneath the waves, the ground of certainty who persists in his pursuit of us, in all conditions. 

We need a God who startles us a bit, if only to remember that we don’t have God all figured out. We need to let Jesus surprise us from time to time; we need to let him be just a bit more than we are comfortable with him being, so that we can learn to trust in a goodness that transcends mere pleasantness. 

He remains the familiar, gentle Savior who calms the winds, yes, but he is also the wild Holy One who dances upon the storm and invites us to dance with him. When we allow Jesus to be all of this, to be both friend and stranger, both familar and new, then we begin to perceive how everything and everyone we love is also both of these things—forever ours…and forever free. 

Because that was the thing about seeing my father that day in the hospital—beyond the shock, beyond the fear, beyond the strangeness, there was still love. Changed, perhaps, nuanced by grief and impending loss, but love nonetheless, spacious enough and strong enough to withstand circumstances beyond my understanding.

A love enduring, unkillable, and true. A love all-encompassing, as deep as the raging sea.

Holy Week at Home #3: Holy Tuesday

Our entire life can be spent waiting for something to happen. Waiting for *that* thing to happen, the one we can’t quite name: the consummation of an unarticulated desire; the answer to a half-posed question, caught in our throat like a crumb of daily bread.

It is all-too-easy, though, to let this waiting be sufficient. To exist in a state of vague expectancy, neither starved nor nourished, having grown accustomed to glancing at life–at ourselves and one another–indirectly, furtively, never head-on.

But today we must let that go. We must risk an encounter with the emerging fullness of God’s purpose for us.

In Tuesday’s Scripture, Jesus does this. He accepts his own, pivotal role in that mysterious purpose: to be lifted up and poured out, revealing an unending effusion of mercy sourced in the headwaters of creation.

It is not the answer he wanted. Not the path he might have chosen. But we come to understand, in time, that our lives, lived most deeply, are not completely our own. And when the hour comes and the wait is over–when that existential answer arrives–it will inevitably lead us out, beyond the familiar and deadening malaise, beyond safety, to the place where our heart will be pierced and our eyes will be opened. The place of pure, unmediated Life.

Courage: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on December 22, 2019, the fourth Sunday of Advent, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25.

I have discovered in recent months that one of the great privileges of a life in ordained ministry is the invitation to be present with people in those deep, delicate moments when life’s urgent mysteries present themselves:

In the act of placing our Lord’s body, hidden in bread, into an outstretched hand;

In the silence between a question asked and an answer given during a vulnerable conversation;

In the prayers offered beside hospital beds or when gathered around tables for meetings and meals;

In the tears and the jokes, the handshakes and the hugs.

There is, for me, no greater joy than to see the infinite iterations of love that flow in and through this parish—in and through each of us who gather here. 

And throughout this Advent, as I reflect on the many ways that love shows up here at Trinity, the word that keeps coming up in my mind is courage.  

Now, courage is perhaps not a word that we might typically associate with the quiet, expectant season of Advent, but courage is something that I see demonstrated in the lives of every person seated here today. As we learn one another’s stories and better understand each others lives, we often find out how much courage is contained in the people around us, in ways we couldn’t have begun to imagine beforehand. 

Courage is something of a misunderstood word. We tend to equate it with showy displays of bravery or strength, as if it is a quality reserved for the fearless and the bold. But the ancient root of the word courage, “cor” simply means “heart”—and so to be courageous is to be full of heart; to let whatever resides in our heart to overflow into our lives and into the world around us. 

And that is what you and I do in our lives as disciples of Jesus—we seek the heart of Christ and cultivate our own hearts to mirror his. We engage in a thousand small, daily acts of courage—of heart-centered action. Most of these acts the world will never notice, but they are, in fact, the very things upon which the flourishing of the world depends. The quiet gestures of attentiveness that sustain our common life.

So if you do not tend to think of yourself as courageous, I have news for you: you are. By getting up each morning and doing the thing that you must do—to offer the care that you must offer, to send up the prayer that you must send, to grieve what you must grieve—you are full of heart. You are full of courage. And, as our texts this morning reveal, God is with you in all of it. 

God with us. Emmanuel. This is the name we hear in Isaiah and in Matthew; and it is not just a name, it is a promise.

It is, in fact, the definitive promise of the entire Biblical narrative: that God is with God’s people, through everything. Through creation, through estrangement, through exile and restoration, through waiting, through weeping, through victory and vanquishment, through the thrill of love and the void of loneliness—God is with us. God is the one who gives us the courage—the hopeful, faithful heart— to face all of it, and God is the one who makes meaning out of all of it. 

For King Ahaz, who was ruling over the kingdom of Judah in a time of political instability, the name and the promise of Emmanuel was the sign he didn’t ask for. For whatever reason, he refused the prophet Isaiah’s offer of an assurance from God.  But God offered the sign anyway, in the form of a baby about to be born whose name-Emmanuel–literally bore the promise of God’s presence. And for the time being, anyway, the people of Judah were safe. God was with them.

Centuries later, as Matthew recorded the story of Christ’s birth, the moment that God appeared to us in human flesh, he drew on this ancient narrative of a baby carrying God’s eternal promise—God’s eternal “en-couragement,” if you will—and connected the name Emmanuel with the name of Jesus.  So it is a name we sing out to this day, especially at this time of year, with fervent hope and gratitude, offering it as the answer to every question that this troubled word might offer.

O come, O Come, Emmanuel. O, Come, O Come, God, to be with us.

This is the heart of our faith: that even when it seems otherwise, we believe that God is with us. That God will always be with us. The prophecy of Isaiah has been and continues to be fulfilled, especially and ultimately through Christ.

God’s name and God’s promise of presence is written on our hearts, and that name and that promise gives us the strength to do what we must do, those everyday acts of courage. Those small, unglamorous, but vital offerings:

the feeding of a hungry mouth,

the wiping of a tear,

the holding of a trembling hand,

the speaking of truth to power. 

In each of these, we find the presence of God.  In their accumulation, we find the significance of our entire lives. 

So yes, in Advent, we are reminded of the big, beautiful things: of God’s promises to us, and how the coming of Jesus Christ fulfills those promises for all time; how the birth of a child who we call Emmanuel will make the mountains sing and the stars dance in the night sky.

But we are also reminded, in Advent, of the humble things, the earthy things, the tender, powerful things that comprise our lives, that fill our periods of longing and waiting, and we are assured that these things are courageous enough, beautiful enough, just as they are. As the offerings of our hearts to God, as the demonstration of our courage, they tell the same story, they bear the same name: Emmanuel.

Because the God who will be with us as an infant in a bed of straw is also the God who is with us as we wait beside the hospital bed; 

the God who is with us as a thundering voice from on high is also the God who is with us when we cry silent tears into our pillow at night; 

the God who is with us as the sovereign of all creation is also with us as we stand in the lamplight of a familiar doorway, being welcomed home. 

So no matter where you find yourself in this season, and in the seasons to come, take courage. God is with you, and within you, working through you. In your waiting, in your wondering. In your pain and in your joy. In every act of love that you give or receive. 

In each of your names, I hear a whisper of his name, Emmanuel. In each of your faces, I see the face of Christ. What a gift we are given, to find God in one another. To be courageous for one another. To love one another. 

This–simply this–is enough.

This–simply this–is everything there is.