Other Nations: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, January 9, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary texts cited are Psalm 29 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

Last summer I was browsing in a used bookstore, as I tend to do, and I came across a copy of The Outermost House, written in 1928 by the author and naturalist Henry Beston. It is considered a classic in the genre of nature writing, and although I’d never heard of it before, I was quickly drawn into the author’s vivid, poetic reflections that capture a year he spent alone in a small cottage on a lonely, windswept beach at the edge of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. 

His only companions are the fog-enshrouded beacon of a distant lighthouse, the layers of sound made by the undulation of the waves, and the wild wind of midwinter storms—and all of these he observes with a sense of reverent wonder. But more than anything, he notices and celebrates the wildlife along the shore, especially the birds who pause there in the midst of their migratory patterns, hunting for food, resting on the long journey north or south, attending to their own mysterious rhythms of existence. I am not an especially devoted birdwatcher, but even I was moved by his description of what he calls the “constellations” of shorebirds flying in perfect, intuitive unison above the sea:

He writes: “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…for the animal shall not be measured by man…they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

They are other nations. I love that line. In the magnificent otherness of the birds, Beston realizes that we cannot always interpret everything in the world as simply an extension of ourselves. Some things are foreign to us, unknowable, inhabiting their own truth, inaccessible, and yet still beautiful, still worthy in their own right.

I find a sense of restfulness in that observation. The restfulness of not needing to understand something or someone fully in order to love them. The restfulness of letting them be what they are without trying to control them or shape them into our own likeness.

How much more peaceful my own life might have been, at several junctures, if I had done this. If I had let others—friends, family, partners—be who or what they were, rather than trying to fashion them into what I expected or demanded them to be. And how peaceful it might have been to let myself be what I was, rather than conform to what others expected or demanded of me. How good it is to fully inhabit the mystery of our deepest selves, and to honor that mystery in others.

I was reminded of all this—of birds and freedom and flight and identity—as I reflected this week on the image of the Holy Spirit, who comes like a dove, descending upon Jesus at his baptism. 

This aspect of the scene is a bit enigmatic, when you think about it, but I suspect that when we hear this passage, we tend to focus more on the figure of Jesus in the water, or even on the reassuring voice of the Father from heaven, so much so that we might overlook the descent of the dove, who is, lest we forget, also God. 

Our gaze might easily sweep right past her; we might not stop to wonder where she has come from, this dove, where she is going, or what it means that she chooses to anoint this moment with her arrival, with a brush of her wings, carried on the breeze blowing down from the open gates of heaven. What is her part in this revelatory moment? A specific answer is not given to us. The dove who is God remains just beyond our grasp, just beyond our comprehension.

And if we don’t know quite what to do with the dove in this story, I would also say, too, that we often don’t know what to do with the Holy Spirit at all. The Spirit is unpredictable, elusive, wholly other—wing and wind and flame. Jesus, we can see, we can listen to, we can follow. And the Father we can imagine, at least to some degree, because we know what it is to have or to be a parent. 

But the descending dove—she is not like us. Her experiences, her senses, her scope of vision are beyond ours. She is the person of God that cannot be domesticated or contained. She is free. She is another nation, sovereign and unassailed. She arrives and departs and shapes events on her own inscrutable terms.

And while that can be a bit unsettling, I also love that about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches us not to be afraid of the things we don’t know, the things that we cannot know. She reminds us that sometimes we have to let go of controlling outcomes in our life—for we cannot harness the wind. She humbles us. 

So whether we are considering the baptism of our Lord, or our own baptism, or any other aspect of our faith, it is good to remember and celebrate this wild, strange, impregnable aspect of God’s activity in our midst. For as much as we long for intimacy with our Creator, and as much as we seek to know and be known by our Savior, I think we also desperately need to be surprised by God. 

We need a God, perhaps now more so than ever, who can do a new and unexpected thing in our lives. We need a God who is not bound by the limits of human imagination, who is not subject to the old, tired tyrannies, not governed by the mistakes of our past, a God who can, as the Psalmist says, split the flames of fire and shake the wilderness—in other words, a God who can dazzle us, wake us up, surpass the timid longings of the earth, and teach us how to fly. 

It is true that our salvation is found in a God who loves us enough to become as one of us, but our liberation requires a God who is not like us. A God who is another nation, who conquers us with grace.  Because only in the power of God’s strange and insistent newness can we dream of a newer world. Only under her wing can we be carried there.

Where is that wild Spirit of God calling you? Which expectations or disappointments must you lay down to let God’s freedom be your own? To what great mystery are you willing to entrust your heart as you navigate “the splendor and travail of the earth?”

For we must learn to trust in the things we do not fully understand. That is the essence of faith. And that is the essence of God’s love—a nation unto itself, but now descending, softly, on the wings of the dove, to anoint you with uncompromising authenticity. 

Stand on the shore, at the edge of comprehension, and marvel at her arrival, at all that she is, all that she brings, this bearer of God’s deep, inexpressible, freely given self. Let everything be possible again.

How much more peaceful it might be when we do.

Hands: A Christmas Eve Sermon

I preached this sermon on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2021, for Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN.

Just over a year ago, I had the privilege of sitting at the hospital bed with two of our beloved parishioners, Dick and Vera, just before the end of Dick’s life. He was not really conscious at the time, but it was such a blessing, given all of the complications of hospital visitation these days, that Vera was able to be there in person with him to say goodbye after many decades of marriage. 

And there is one image from that afternoon that I think I will never forget—how Vera reached out to hold Dick’s hand, just as she had always done, and how, even though he was deep into his passage away from this life, his hand squeezed back, and his thumb gently caressed her hand. A memory that was deeper than consciousness, a memory of love so deeply inscribed into him that nothing, not even the approach of death, could inhibit its expression. When Vera also left us earlier this year, I thought of the two of them holding hands again in the new life that is promised to us, and it made me smile.

I remember, too, several years ago, holding my infant godson, so afraid I would drop him, so in awe that my life had even a small connection to the beauty and the possibility of this new life. I remember how his little fingers, tiny and determined, would wrap around my finger, surprisingly strong, an instinctive urge to hold on, to connect. His grasp felt like an inquiry, simple and direct: will you be there? Will you care for me? Is it true that I am not alone in this big, strange world? Can I hold onto you?

I think it might be said that from the beginning of our days to the very end, there is no gesture more fundamental than to reach out to the ones we love, to feel their fingers intertwined with ours. Because, if you think about it, this is what we always do—when we’re happy, when we’re frightened, when we’re falling in love, when we’re waiting for important news, when we can’t quite walk on our own strength, and when we must say goodbye for the last time: in all those moments of life when words fail us, we reach out, and we just hold hands. 

I think it can also be said that our journey of faith is much the same—like that famous image from the Sistine Chapel of Adam and God extending their hands towards one another at the moment of creation, their fingertips separated by an infinitely small distance—underneath all of our striving and our doubting, our seeking and our praying, we are extending our hand out into the deep, into the vast mystery of life, reaching out for something certain, something true, something that endures, something (or Someone) to hold onto. When all is said and done, we yearn, quite simply for a God who will reach back and clasp our hand and say, I am with you. Hold onto me.

And that is exactly what we are given on this night. A God whom we can hold onto. A God who holds onto us. All of the music and the lights, all the activity and the excitement, all the exhaustion and ambiguity and yearning that characterize both the holidays and life in general—all of it finds its answer here, in the birth of a child in Bethlehem, in the terrified wonder of the shepherds in the field, in the song of the heavenly host, in the courageous heart of a young mother, and in the tiny hand of an infant that reaches out, surprisingly strong, towards your own hand. It is the hand of God, holding yours in the cool and pregnant darkness, and it is the answer to your own questions: I am here, now. I will care for you. You are not alone in this big, strange world. You can hold onto me.

How else would love come to find us if not like this: in the flesh, in the way we most instinctively understand? How else could God close that infinite distance between the fingertips? Only like this, only by letting us, at last, take his real, incarnate hand. Only by becoming as one of us, in order to say,

I have always loved you, I have always been for you, ever since the beginning, but now I am with you, too. And I promise I will always be here to hold your hand. 

Even when everything else slips away, even when everything you counted on seems to disappear, I am here.  When you laugh and dance for joy, I will take your hand and dance with you. And when you are weak and afraid, I will be there, too, for my fingers are intertwined with yours now, my life is intertwined with yours now. Just hold on.

I don’t know about you, but in the uncertain times in which we find ourselves, when the preciousness and the precariousness of the present moment are both felt so keenly, I need this good news of Christmas more than ever. I need to be reminded that even in a broken world, there is hope, and that God is still with us. 

In the birth of Jesus–the birth of God among us –our outstretched hands brush against the glory of heaven. In the birth of Jesus, we find that the whole world is full of sacramental possibility, especially in those simple actions of love that make up our lives—the wound mended, the bread broken, the injustice addressed, and yes, the hand held. All, now, instruments of grace, because God has taken them on as the work of God’s own hands.

What a gift to be given. And what a gift to pass on to others. Because, essentially, that is what we are trying to do here at Trinity, as followers of this holy child of Bethlehem, this Savior born for us—we are showing up for one another and for our neighbors and for our community, especially the most vulnerable in our midst, extending our hands in love. We are facing life together, we are celebrating and mourning together, studying and praising together, hands clasped in prayer, hands clasped in greeting, hands clasped in solidarity, hands clasped in trust. 

All because, on this beautiful, silent night, when even the loveliest words ultimately fail to express the fullness of our joy, a hand reaches out to us, a tiny hand from the manger, yes, but in truth a hand reaching out from across eternity, down through garlands of stars, down through the centuries of longing, down from the hidden source of our deepest wonder. And it gently caresses our own, a love so deeply inscribed into it that not even death will inhibit its expression, holding us, softly, but firmly,

as if to say, quite simply,

It’s going to be ok. I am here. Just hold on. 

Feast: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, November 21, 2021, Christ the King Sunday, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is John 18:33-37.

One of my happiest holiday memories is when I would wake up on Thanksgiving day to the smells of an already-busy kitchen: sage and onion and baking pies and brewing coffee. It was almost as delicious as the meal itself, that long moment of awakening, warm and half-dreaming in the morning light, knowing that there was a feast being prepared, that everyone I love would be gathered in one place, and that, even though the world outside was complicated and so were we, for this one day, at least, there was no need for anything else. There was enough, and we were enough, here, now, together. 

And while for some of us, perhaps, Thanksgiving was never quite so happy an occasion, I do think each of us understands the potency of the idea itself: a time of rest and reunion, a world in which no one goes hungry, where everyone is welcome at the table, where being known and seen and loved is a gift available to all.

As we grapple with some of the entrenched realities and the challenges facing our country and our world—racism, violence, economic inequality, and ecological crisis, to name but a few—I acknowledge that for many the observance of America’s Thanksgiving holiday is fraught with complexity, and I also acknowledge that its celebration can bring up feelings of ambivalence for those among us whose families are fractured or scattered or simply gone. 

But the principle of gratitude that underlies the day is something that must be reclaimed and reinvigorated anew by each generation, so that this is not just the passive reception of an unexamined history or a private lament over a broken family system, but a courageous choice to believe in what is still possible—to believe that there might yet remain much for which we can give thanks. Because even as we face what is ugly and messy about the human condition, we must also hold fast to what is beautiful and hopeful—those simple, good gifts that make life not just bitter, but sweet, that make the struggle worth it, the things that tell a story of hope, not just disillusionment. The things glimpsed around the bountiful table of the present moment—a feast of memory, but also of determination and of expectation of a better tomorrow. 

That’s why I love that after this service we will go upstairs and pack bags with food supplies and encouraging notes for our neighbors so that they, too, might enjoy a Thanksgiving meal. It’s our congregation’s own small gesture of gratitude for the blessings in our own lives, and a demonstration of our belief that the world can still be a hopeful place, a generous place, and that we can help make it so, even when fear and scarcity seem to dominate the narratives around us. 

Choosing to believe in the redemptive possibility of this world—in its goodness, in its capacity fpr renewal—this is part of what we mean when we speak of the Kingdom of God—not just a place up in the heavens that we escape to when we die, but the emergent, lived reality of God’s love here and now—the power of that love, the triumph of that love, the sovereignty of that love. The ultimate gift for which we give thanks.

And so while it is somewhat a fluke of the calendar, it is fitting, perhaps, that Thanksgiving and Christ the King Sunday fall in proximity to one another, because each observance, at its best, calls us toward a vision of beloved community. Thanksgiving  calls us back to what is essentially good and true in our own lives, and as we conclude the calendar of the church year and prepare for the cycle to start anew with Advent next week, we pause to ask ourselves: who is this Christ, this King whom we worship and follow? What is the essential goodness and truth that he brings? And how do we take part in it?

I will admit that answering these questions and then living into the answers can be harder than we care to admit. We want to believe that love wins, that hope endures, but sometimes we look at the world around us and we look up at Jesus above the altar, on the cross, and we can feel as incredulous and bitter as Pontius Pilate, and we ask: Are you the King? Are you? Because you are nothing like any king I have ever seen. You are not the sort of king who fixes all of the problems around us. And even if you are, what is truth when no one is honest anymore? And what is love when everyone is just out for themselves? And what is justice when blood flows in the streets and children go hungry, just as it has always been? And what is hope when it’s just the same bitter pill to swallow, time after time?

Are you the King? 

And Jesus simply looks back at us, infinitely tender, and says: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world: to testify to the truth.” 

 Because the truth is that Jesus’ power, Jesus’ kingdom, is still not the type we expect it to be. And he comes into our midst, still, not to rule like other kings. Not to control. Not to gather power and wealth at the expense of others, and not to tell us to do so in his name. Jesus comes to testify to a truth that is deeper and more powerful than kingship, even if it is less obvious. A truth that God has been trying to convey from the very beginning, although we continue to ignore it, time and again. 

A truth that rises up, growing like a seed sown in a field A truth that rises up like yeast in bread. A truth that rises up like a spring of living water. A truth that rises up and refuses to be killed or silenced, even in our most desolate, hungry moments: the truth that love persists through death. The truth that mercy persists through brokenness. That there is, indeed, enough for everyone, if we will let it be so. That we are, indeed enough. That we belong to this earth and to one another. That we are known and seen by God in our weakness, in our hunger, and we are forgiven. 

The truth that we have to stop being afraid, stop hiding from God and one another, and step out towards each other with hope and gratitude and say, yes, here I am. And yes, I believe in your goodness, Lord. And yes, I believe that it is love—not fear, not the power of kings—that is the strongest force in the universe. And so I will take a chance on this Kingdom, I  will reach out my hands to the world, to my neighbor, to give and to receive, to bless and to be blessed, to join in the feast, to gather round the table where there are always enough seats, always enough to satisfy even the hungriest of hearts.

Because that’s the thing to remember about Christ as a king, as a ruler. What did he actually rule over? In his earthly life, Jesus never led an army into a battlefield, nor did he oversee a court of law, nor did he celebrate a Temple rite. 

Instead, he presided over…a meal. Many meals, in fact, culminating in the Eucharistic banquet in which we still take part. A meal to nourish the world. A meal in which his own life, his own love is the substance. He is the Lord of the feast, the King of the abundant table, and more than anything we are his grateful guests, called to celebrate with him, called to invite others to take their place alongside us. 

That is the Kingdom of God, my friends. That is what will transform the world. That is what will transform us. Bigger hearts and bigger tables. More time spent breaking bread, listening to one another’s stories and creating a new story together. A story that tells of peace, of justice, of the deep joy that is the birthright of all people. A story that can yet be true. 

May we live like this, on Christ the King Sunday, on Thanksgiving Day, and on every other day, for the rest of our lives. And then, by God’s grace, may we one day, after a long and deep and restful sleep, wake up in the morning light of a new life, a new earth, warm and half-dreaming, to the smell of brewing coffee and baking pies, and may we know that we are home, that we are all home together at last, and that there will always be enough, and that we will alway be welcome, in that beautiful Kingdom, at that glorious table, forever.

Bones: A Sermon for All Hallows’ Eve

I preached this sermon on October 31, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Mark 12:28-34.

I confess that I am delighted how All Hallow’s Eve, Halloween, falls on a Sunday this year. A little later this morning we’ll gather together outside and celebrate this ancient festival with costumes and treats and a pumpkin hunt. 

I know Halloween itself has a rather fraught relationship with certain corners of Christian culture in our contemporary times, but we would do well to remember that All Hallow’s Eve, which simply marks the day before the Feast of All Saints (or All Hallows) is part of a Christian tradition that traces back to the earliest centuries of the church, when our forebears wanted feast days to honor the martyrs, the saints, and their own beloved dead. 

Furthermore, much of the imagery we associate with this holiday is itself quite old, much of it sprung from the religious art, the popular devotions and the folk practices of countless generations of Christians.

Take, for example, the skeleton. The grinning, dancing skeleton is a Halloween staple, and it is an image that comes to us directly from Medieval Europe, when that continent was overrun by the Bubonic Plague, a deadly pandemic that reduced the population by at least a third, and imposed inescapable daily reminders of the imminence of death and the fleeting nature of our mortal concerns. 

Murals and drawings started popping up around this time, in churches and elsewhere, featuring a motif that is now referred to as the Danse Macabre, which depicts a group of skeletons dancing wildly in rows or circles, either by themselves or with living people. And the slightly silly, slightly sinister skeletons of the Danse Macabre are still with us—think of the skeletons in kid’s cartoons, or those that feature heavily in Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and the United States. 

Clearly there is something about them that has stuck with us over the centuries, and, given the events of the past year or two, especially this pandemic that continues to swirl around us, I think that we might be well positioned to understand the magnetism of such artwork. I think, in this new era of plague, we grasp the strange blend of somberness and wry humor that characterizes any honest look at the truth, the truth we feel in our bones, that all things are passing away. 

The dancing skeletons of medieval Europe were a way for people to cope with the underlying fact that we all know but would usually rather forget—that all of us, rich or poor, popular or lonely, beautiful or plain, will one day be a pile of dust and bone ourselves. We are united, moreso than anything, by our mortality; we are a bunch of frail bodies knit together in the Danse Macabre, weaving in an out of the valley of shadows, and so we must do our best, while we walk this earth, to hold on to one another, to live fully, with joy and gratitude for what is given. We must seek hope and purpose even in the face of death.  We must go deep, down close to the bone, stripping away illusions, seeking life’s hard, gleaming essentiality.

And, in his own way, that is what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel. He has just finished answering a series of antagonistic questions from scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees in Jerusalem. His own passion and crucifixion, his own trip to Golgotha, the place of the skull, is imminent. Death is close, and there is little time left for parables and puzzles and debates. There is only this teaching, the simple truth at the core of everything he is and does:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 

There is no other commandment greater than these.

We usually refer to this as Jesus’ “Summary of the Law” and so it is. But today we might also imagine it as the skeletal structure that underlies the Law—the structure that holds together all of creation. 

All the ethical decisions, all the customs, all the traditions and codes of conduct—both those of Israel and those we continue to discern and live into as Christians—all of it is undergirded by these two commandments: Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s it. 

Without these two truths, these two practices, we have nothing solid upon which to stand. Without these two things, the whole body collapses. The Law of Love is the bone under the flesh, the essential and unavoidable truth that we sometimes forget when we are distracted by temporary appearances. 

And, to be honest, in the same way we resist looking at death, so too we resist facing and living into the implications of Jesus’ teaching about the supremacy of love. The history of the church—and the history of humanity in general—has been haunted by a fear of love, by a fear of giving ourselves over to its power, a fear of the connection and mutuality and humility that it requires of us.

We hear Jesus’ words, but it makes our bones shake, because to love that deeply and broadly is its own sort of death—the death of our narrow agenda, of our self-centeredness, of our instinct to judge, of our compulsion to win. 

Love, the type that Jesus is speaking of here, dispenses with all of that—it burns away the protective coverings and leaves just the ancient, unyielding truth of our existence: the moment when, just as when Adam saw his companion Eve, we look at one another, with wonder, and say: you are bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. My life and your life belong to one another. Take my hand. Feel these bones cradling your own, tenderly. Hold on to me, for we are caught up in the same dance. 

But there’s one thing we cannot forget: this dance, the one that we learn from following Jesus, is not just the Danse Macabre. It does not end in death. It is not the dance of futile pleasures. It is the dance of enduring life. And in his resurrection, Jesus has shown us that loving God and loving one another is the part of us that cannot die—it is the part of us that will endure, that will live to dance again, even after everything else has been stripped away. 

So just as we might do well to reckon with our mortality on this All Hallow’s Eve, to look the skeleton in the face and accept that it is, essentially, us—so too we must look at love in the face and accept that it is, essentially, us—it is the supreme law of life. The beginning and the end of the story. We will never escape love’s demands, but neither will we ever be forsaken by its goodness. Nothing, not even the grave itself, will ever change that. Make no bones about it.

Obituaries: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 26, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Mark 9:38-50.

I have always been moved by obituaries. I come across some of them in my role as a clergy person, of course, but even before then, they were of great interest to me—the way that the complexities of a human life are distilled down to a few essential details—the summary of a life’s work, the naming of a few enduring and precious relationships, and maybe a brief phrase or two that attempts to capture the lovely particularity of the person who has died. And whether they are long and eloquent or brief and matter-of-fact, obituaries all seem to convey the same basic message: this person mattered. They were loved. Someone, somewhere, remembers them fondly, with grateful tears.

And while it might sound strange to say so, what is also striking to me in the obituary is all the stuff that is not written down. We don’t generally find a long list of the person’s failings or their frustrating personality quirks.  And furthermore, there is never a rebuttal of the obituary: no pointed letter to the editor in the next day’s paper that says, actually, that guy was a real piece of work. And, for the most part, nobody is standing up at the funeral saying waving around the newspaper clipping, saying, we really need to set the record straight on all the mistakes she made during her life. 

Even though we know that people are complicated and sometimes infuriating, even though we often hurt one another in this life, we don’t do any of that. In the end, we let it be. We lay down our swords. 

Isn’t that remarkable, when you think about it? Especially when you consider all of the energy that can be expended over a lifetime of feuding and arguing and taking offense, only to realize that eventually, at the end, we will just put it to rest. We will, in most cases, release the frustrations and the enmity and try to forgive. 

I sometimes wonder what it would be like if I could muster the strength within myself to lay down my sword a little sooner, to accept the truth that, when all is said and done, my so-called enemies are not so different from me. I wonder how the relationship wounds I bear would change if I could skip ahead to that obituary state-of-mind, where judgment is tempered by the wisdom of letting go. 

But in the heat of the present moment, we are so quick to make distinctions and dividing lines, aren’t we? Especially when the world feels big and confusing and scary—we immediately jump to delineating various categories of “us” and “them.” And the suspicion and the rage we feel towards “them” whoever they are, it soothes us, in a pitiful sort of way, because it convinces us that we alone understand how the world ought to work, when in reality, we’re all just trying to figure it out together, and, in truth, both “us” and “them” are going home each night and kissing our loved ones, and washing the dishes, and catching our tired reflection in the mirror, and praying that tomorrow will be a little bit better than today.  We can forget that on some level we are all still children, a little bit afraid of the dark, searching for the light.

The disciples start to fall into this trap of forgetfulness in today’s Gospel passage—they hear about this exorcist who they have determined is apparently not “one of them” but who is casing out demons in the name of Jesus. And so the battle lines are drawn: How dare he! He’s clearly just out to make a name for himself, to grab the spotlight, to hog all the glory—someone should definitely write a letter to the editor and set the record straight. Can you imagine the nerve of this guy?

This is ironic, of course, because just a few passages earlier, these very same disciples were squabbling amongst themselves about which one of them was the greatest one acting in the name of Jesus. They are doing what comes all too easily to us: comparing, competing, refashioning the boundary lines to our greatest advantage.

But Jesus will have none of it. Do not stop this exorcist, he says, quite pragmatically. Whoever is not against us is for us. In other words: whatever this exorcist’s motivations are, in whatever manner you disciples have decided that he is outside the clique, the only truly important thing is that he, like you, has been caught up in the work of the Kingdom. And it is you, wayward disciples, it is you—so quick to determine who is in and who is out, so ready to draw battle lines between yourself and others—it is you who are distracting yourselves from the actual point of all this. It is you who have placed yourselves outside of God’s purposes.

Because the moment we decide who our enemies are and prepare for battle with them, we have already lost. And when we fight—and God knows how long and hard we have fought across the tired, staggering, bloody ages—is it not almost always true that, eventually, we end up standing at the gravestones of our supposed enemies, looking at the stony names inscribed therein—names once whispered on a mother’s smiling lips—and we say, with a sudden shock of grief or humility: oh, I see. This person was not my enemy. 

They mattered. They were loved. Someone remembers them fondly, with grateful tears.

Love does not divide the world into “us” and “them.” Love has no true enemy except for the practice of enmity itself, the lie of the great deceiver, and Jesus has already conquered that. What will it take for us to accept this, to live like this is true? What will it take to see one another as siblings and partners, and not as threats?

It will take letting go of fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of people we do not understand. Fear of our own failures. Fear of our vulnerability in an uncertain world.

Letting go of that fear, though, requires us to face it. We must face the ways we have cultivated enmity within ourselves and within our world, and then choose a better way. And that is hard to do, especially when the world around us seems to thrive on division and mistrust. 

But again, that’s why I have a peculiar love for obituaries. Because they give us a sneak preview of what is going to happen with all of the division and posturing and the obsession with being right—none of it is going to matter. 

The only questions left, in the end, will be: how much did you love? How did you contribute to the flourishing of the world? How did you protect the vulnerable entrusted to your care? What was the unique radiance that sparkled behind your eyes? What small, meaningful things did you do in the name of Jesus?

And then, someday, when every obituary has been recorded; and when life is revealed, at last, for what it truly is; when all is made new; when “enemy” is no longer a word in the language of the human heart, on that day we will simply behold one another face to face and we  say: 

You matter. You are loved. And you, my sister, my brother, my friend, will be remembered, fondly, forever. And there will be no more tears.

Unforgotten: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on August 29, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9.

Last week a group of us here at the church began our Sunday afternoon program for Confirmation, Reception, and Reaffirmation of Baptismal vows, and as I’ve been preparing the content for that, a couple folks have mentioned something that perhaps you have noticed, too: there are so many funny, obscure-sounding words that we use in the church and in the liturgy—hang around an Episcopal Church long enough, especially in the sacristy (itself one of those funny words) and you are liable to pick up a second language of sorts. In seminary my friends and I spent a lot of time making puns using liturgical vocabulary and I realized: Phil, you really need to get out a bit more, go see a movie, get a hobby or something. 

All that is to say, here is your liturgical vocab word of the day: anamnesis.

Anamnesis. Technically, this is that little portion of the prayer at the altar during the Eucharist where we say (or chant) together something like: Christ has died/Christ is risen/Christ will come again. This is the anamnesis—a word that could be translated as “a remembrance, an act of remembering”— because in that moment we are saying, together, what has happened in the story of our faith and what we trust will happen in the future. We are remembering and restating that past, that present, and that future promise together, with one voice, as one body.

But a more literal and perhaps more evocative translation of the word anamnesis, as a professor once told me, is found by splitting up its parts—amnesis (which means “to forget”—like the word amnesia) and the prefix an-, which means no or not.  So literally, Anamnesis is to not forget

Not simply happening to remember a nice, pleasant thing once in a while when we’re feeling nostalgic, but to firmly, resolutely choose to “not forget” to never forget what Christ has done and continues to do for us and in us and through us. 

The practice of anamnesis is to guard against forgetfulness—our own and the world’s—to lay claim upon the knowledge and the experience of something or someone—for us, Jesus— that is precious enough to reiterate, over and over and over again. In the anamnesis, we proclaim what is true and what is fundamental, in a world that is all too ready to forsake these things for the expediency of the moment. Sunday after Sunday…Mass after Mass…like a sustained note across the chaotic centuries: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Now more than ever, perhaps, it is easy to be forgetful. Bombarded by the news of the world; dizzied by rapidity with which one crisis follows another; caught up in the cacophany of competing claims upon our attention. We are so overstimulated that it is hard to keep it all straight, to sift through all the data, all the opinions, and to not lose sight of what is deep and persistent and real. 

I have joked more than once in recent weeks that on some days I don’t recall my name or what it is that I am supposed to be doing in any given moment, but there is some truth there in the joke, because at times I do think we forget our real identities in the mad scramble to keep up, to stay on top of things—we forget, in our fearful haste, what our true name is.

It is: Beloved; Child of God; Redeemed one; Liberated one; Peacemaker; Mercy-bearer; Branch upon the vine of Christ. 

If we’re not careful, if we don’t keep telling the story, we forget this.

“Take care and watch yourselves closely,” Moses tells Israel in today’s reading, “so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.” He knows, just as we do, that not forgetting is hard, but he also knows that it is essential if Israel is to bear the fruit of God’s promises. So he is saying, to them and to us:

Hold on to the memory of the God who called you out and delivered you from your despair. Hold on to the memory of the God who would not give you up, who fed you, who made a way for you where there was no way, who guided you into your true identity to be a sign of justice and peace to the nations. Hold on to this, beloved ones, because it is so easy to forget, it is so easy to cut yourself off from the truth of who you really are, who God has ordained that you will be. You have to keep telling the story, and you have to keep embodying the story, so that you will not forget. And in your not forgetting, in your anamnesis, even when you suffer—for you will suffer—you will yet remember that life is more than suffering. You will still sing the freedom songs of Zion, even in a foreign land.  You will not lose hope, because even through a thousand starless nights you will still remembver, still dream of what is possible. And you will not lose your way, not forever, because the unforgotten story will show you the way home. 

This is still our task, still our calling: to not forget the story. And to pass it on. To ensure that what God has done and continues to do remains unforgotten. If we do nothing else with our lives than that, we will have done something very good. 

That’s why we keep coming back, that’s why we keep learning all these funny church words and sitting through sermons and singing these same songs, and praying these same prayers over and over again—this is why we keep proclaiming, through every season, that Christ has died/Christ is risen/Christ will come again—because we need to remember that this is what is true. That in a world full of illusions and shadows, this is Truth itself.

And even if, someday, we forget everything else—our name, our accomplishments, the faces of our loved ones, the day or the month or the year, I pray to God that we will never forget the words of this place, the prayers ingrained upon our lips, the words of a story that tells how Love formed the stars, how Love Incarnate could not be killed, how Love’s Spirit has never left us. And I pray that even when we are dust, that the dust remembers the story still, that the earth trembles with the memory of this love that refuses to be forgotten. 

That is why we are here. Because Love refuses to be forgotten. Love is its own type of anamnesis. 

Remember that, when things in the world start to feel especially scary, as they can, and when things in your own life start to seem uncertain, remember that throughout all the ages, throughout all the rise and fall of history, throughout all the confusion and the mistakes and the distortions of the human heart—remember that Love refuses to be forgotten. It is the one thing that has never faded, never given up, never been vanquished. Love endures all things.

And that is the story we can’t forget.

Or, perhaps, better yet, that is the story that refuses to forget us.

Home: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on August 15, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Proverbs 9:1-6 and John 6:51-58.

This past Wednesday the parish gathered outside in the garden (or the garth, as we call it) for a party to celebrate the beginning of a new program year here at Trinity—and, I think, to simply revel in the joy of being together after a very long and challenging year and a half. 

I saw and heard so many beautiful things as I wandered around—friends visiting and reconnecting; some of our downtown neighbors who showed up and appreciated the opportunity to receive a hot meal from the food truck; the sound of music and laughter bouncing off of those old stone walls. It felt so good, like the love that we speak of and cultivate here in the nave of the church had spilled out into the streets. 

If you were there, I think you have a sense of what I am talking about. And if you couldn’t be there, please know that you were thought of, that you were in a sense still part of things, because no matter the day or the week or the year, this place belongs to all of us who have loved it, to all whose lives have crossed this threshold, to all whose hands have tended to its care, whose feet have trod the well-worn path to the altar rail. And so, as we begin another season of worship, study, and service at Trinity, I say again to you what will always be true, every time you come through these doors, whether for the first time or the last: welcome home. 

Now for some, the language of “church home” and a “church family” can come off as overly sentimental or disingenuous, an attempt to gloss over the broken parts of a complex institution, claiming a spirit of welcome and mutuality when what is actually expected is compliance and conformity. I know that many have been harmed in the past by those types of environments, and thus it is so very important here, in this place, that we mean what we say. That we come together in our diversity and difference and live as though there is space enough for everyone at this table, in this house of prayer, because God has told us that, indeed, there is. The door is open to every willing heart.

In today’s reading from Proverbs, the personification of Wisdom calls out to passersby, “you that are simple, turn in here! To those without sense…come eat of my bread.” In other words, no matter how foolish or stupid you are, you are welcome here!

And while I don’t know that that exact wording will show up on any of our parish event invitations, the point is this: we are all, in one way or another, lost, stumbling around, distracted and confused by both the complexity and the banality of our days, and we are all seeking the place that is home. The place where we don’t have to earn our sense of worth. The place where we are loved simply for being there, AND the place where we are invited to lay down our burdens and grow into the fullness of life. 

This is that place. This community, this altar, this moment where our life encounters God’s life is that place. Or at least, it can be, if we will let it be. If we will show up and receive what is offered.

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” Jesus tells us today, and as much as we sometimes like to equivocate and dance around the bold claims of Christian truth, there is, in these words, a stark choice. Take part in the life of Christ, feast at his table, follow where he leads, or do not. But know that if you do not, you may very well spend the rest of your life searching for home in the wrong places. 

Because your true home is not the house you live in. Your true home is not your political identity. Your true home is not your nationality. It is not found in the private realm made up of your hobbies and tastes and preferences. It is not even found within your “self” as we tend to use that word, the amalgam of your memories and thoughts and experiences.

All of those things are part of who you are, they all matter, but they are not your home. Your home is here, in the presence of the living, beating heart of God. Your home is beneath the loving, penetrating gaze of Jesus, who knows you better than you will ever know yourself. Your home is here, in the Sacraments and in the service of Christ’s body, the church—in the place where our individual stories are enmeshed with the stories of our forebears, the generations of those who came before us, who sat right where you are sitting, who knelt and stretched out their hands and received the bread on a thousand Sundays, just as you are about to do.

Here, among the great cloud of witnesses, at the Eucharistic center of creation, this is where you truly belong.  So yes, you that are simple, turn in here. You that are lost, turn in here. Come home, no matter what you have done, no matter how long it has been. Come home!

And I don’t say all of this merely as a sneaky way to convince you to attend Mass more often or to join in all of our fall programming, though I certainly hope that you will, because I continue to be amazed by the transformation of the heart that I witness among those who engage deeply with prayer and study and fellowship in this place.

I want you to hear and know that this is our true home because we are living through a time when so many people do indeed feel lost—a time when the very idea of home and belonging are unraveling concepts—when it is easy to feel disconnected and divided and estranged from any sense of community, any sense of being a part of something greater than ourselves. People are desperate to find somewhere that feels like home, but they don’t know where it is.

Because maybe at times, you have felt that way, too, wondering: is there a place for me in the world? Does anything I do actually matter? In the face of so much uncertainty and loss and suffering, is there any sense to be made of this life? After all of my wandering, when will I arrive? When will I know that I am truly known?

These are hard questions to answer with mere words. There is no simple phrase or formula that makes everything in this life easy or clear. But there is this place, where we wrestle with the questions and we strive to live into the enfleshed, incarnate answer that we find in Jesus. 

Because I guarantee you, if you stood where I stood on Wednesday and watched the little ones laughing and running in circles, like fish swirling through a pond; if you stood there and saw friends and families of every age and circumstance sitting together sharing a meal on the grass; if you sensed the solid and reassuring presence of this church building huddled there in the twilight, inviting you to rest against its warm stones; and if you can perceive the life that radiates outward, every moment of every day from the Body of God resting in this tabernacle, the Body that will soon be placed in your hands…if you have experienced these things, or if you can simply see how important they are, then you have already glimpsed the answer. The answer to everything. It is here. It has always been here, where God offers himself to you freely. 

“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed,”  says Wisdom.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” says Jesus.

In other words, God is saying to you: Come, take all I have, take my very life, so that you can truly live.

Come, and eat, and know that you will never be a stranger here. Just come. 

Welcome home. 

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. 

Where are you?: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on June 6, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The primary text cited is Genesis 3:8-15.

I remember once when I was a little boy, I got into an argument with my dad. I don’t really recall what it was about, probably something unimportant. I just remember that in the middle of the argument, I ran out the back door into the yard and hid in some bushes. I guess I just wanted a quiet place to sulk and cry a little bit by myself.

But then my dad came out, looking for me, and the thing that I recall most clearly as I hid under the leaves, a little ball of fury, was the catch in his voice, a note of sadness and worry, as he called out my name, trying to find me. So I got over myself and crawled out, covered in dirt, and said, “here I am,” and he just looked at me, relieved, and said, “come inside.” And I did.

What a blessing it is, in our lives, to experience the kind of love that seeks us out and doesn’t abandon us to ourselves; the kind of love that sees past the fears and the frustrations of our petty, wounded hearts, the kind of love that looks at us unflinchingly and simply says, “it’s been a long day; come back inside.” 

I hope and pray that you have known and continue to know that kind of love in your life, whether from a parent, another family member, a partner, or a friend. I hope and I pray that that’s the sort of persistent, active, reconciling love we are practicing in our common life here at Trinity.

And I also hope that this is the sort of love that informs our understanding of today’s reading from Genesis 3, that pivotal moment when Adam and Eve are, themselves, hiding in the bushes after that fateful, perilous bite of ripened fruit.

“They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

Where are you? In those three words, I think we can learn everything we need to know about God’s disposition towards us, from that moment in Eden until this very day, wandering the solitary paths of paradise, searching for his children’s faces. 

Where are you? We have been formed in many different understandings of the nature of God’s love, but I hope, when you hear that question, you can hear, not the threatening yell of a vengeful authority figure, but that of a loving parent, that note of sadness and worry, the voice of one who knows that, yes, something has gone terribly wrong but is nonetheless fervently seeking you out, seeking a way to save you, looking for you in every shadowy corner, under every weeping branch where you might be cowering, seeking you and refusing to abandon you to the despair of your hiding place. 

Where are you? It is the question God has been asking every day since that breezy evening in Eden, since that point in time, for reasons we may never fully understand, when it became possible for us to estrange ourselves from God’s loving embrace. It is the question that underlies the record all of God’s fierce and wild emotions in the Old Testament—

God’s grief and rage over Israel’s waywardness—where are you?

God’s sense of betrayal over humanity’s failure to embody justice, mercy, and peace—where are you?

God’s heartbreak as bow down before the work of our own hands instead of Divine majesty, trembling under the weight of our own fears, all while our One True Love continues to call out—where are you? Where are you? Where are you? 

It is also the question that Jesus came to ask us, face to face: little children, my mother, my sisters, my brothers, I see you now with my own eyes, and you see me, but where are you, in your deepest heart? Do you even know? Do you remember where you belong?

And still, God is asking us that question. Still, God is waiting for us to reveal ourselves, to step forward and to offer the response that Adam and Eve never quite could, the response that a true relationship requires. The word for that response, in Biblical Hebrew is hineini

Hineini. Here I am. 

So much depends on us responding to this love that seeks us out, this love that calls to us in the cool evening breeze even as we keep hiding, even as the evening shadows fall down around us. 

Everything that can be good and true in this fractured world depends upon us saying, as Abraham and Moses and Mary all did: Here I am

Here I am, God.  Covered with dirt and leaves and tears, my best intentions gone awry, my understanding limited, my heart a little bit broken, but here I am, God. I can’t promise to be perfect, but here I am. I am afraid, God, sometimes too afraid to speak, but here I am.

I wonder what it would look like if we could each step out from our hiding places, the ones we’ve run to, the ones we’ve built up around ourselves, and step a little bit closer to one another, a little bit closer to that place where God stretches a hand out to us in the twilight, and I wonder if we might let that question and that answer, that call and response, guide the shape our lives. 

What if we said each day, Where are you? 

Where are you present in my life, God? And where is my neighbor, where is the stranger I forgot to welcome, where is the enemy whom I was taught to fear? Where is the deep, tender heart of the blessed earth, where is the hidden paradise, the love hidden in plain sight? How do I press my soul down into its embrace? Where are you?

And what if we also said each day, Here I am. Here I am, Lord. Here is my face, seeking your face. Here is my voice, speaking your unutterable name on my breath. Here is my body, and here is my mind, and here is my heart; may your Spirit mold them into vessels of your love. You don’t have to search or grieve for me any longer. Hineini. Here I am.

Where are you?

Here I am.

Perhaps this small conversation is the one God has been waiting to have with us for our entire life. Perhaps all God ever wanted was to find us, to bring us home, not back to the beginning, not back to Eden, for we know too much now, we are grown now, but back to our true home, which is within God’s very own heart.

You don’t have to hide from God anymore. We never truly did.

God is calling to you, and there isn’t anything to be afraid of now.

So get up. 

And say, “Here I am.”

And come inside. 

Fruitfulness: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on May 2nd, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are 1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8.

Jesus said to his disciples, ”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

When I was about 10 or so, I was given a role in a community theater musical version of Rumpelstiltskin. I loved doing theater in school as a kid, and I was so excited that I got to be on stage with adults and live musicians—I felt like I had hit the big time!

And I remember on the first day that the director told me that I was going to be the page boy, one of the king’s servants, and I thought, yup, this is my big shot—next stop Broadway, surely—and there was this big opening number where all the villagers were presenting gifts to the king—one person presented a ham, and another one brought some lemons, and another one brought a big basket of limes, and then the director said, “Phillip, this is where you come in,” and I thought, wow, do I get to sing a solo here, or give a dramatic monologue? And then the director said, “you don’t actually have any lines in this play; we just need you to pick up the basket of limes and carry them off the stage. Then you’re done.”

Yup, that’s it. That was literally the entirety of my part in Rumpelstiltskin. So, I carried that basket of limes offstage. Needless to say, no Tony award was forthcoming. 

But honestly, I still loved it. And probably because it was the only scene I was in, I have never forgotten that particular musical number, where the characters were presenting the lemons and the lime–the fruits of their labors–hoping to one up each other, to impress the king, to win his favor and maybe to earn some bragging rights among their neighbors. 

Maybe we can all relate to that impulse a little bit. Because on some level, in whatever context we might find ourselves, I think we all hope that we’re going to make a good impression. We hope that our fruitfulness, whatever that means for us—maybe our work or our pastimes or other manifestations of our personal fulfillment—is really going to WOW whoever it is that we think is assessing us. Our family. Our neighbors. Our friends at church. The people on Facebook. Maybe even God. 

That sense of needing to be impressively fruitful can shape how we think about our faith, our relationship with Jesus, and it can affect how we interpret certain passages.

So, for example, in today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus talking about being the vine and his Father being the vinegrower, and we are the branches who are expected to bear fruit, to bear MUCH fruit, in fact, so that we can glorify God…or else we’ll be burned up and thrown away into the fire. And if we’re accustomed to always thinking that somehow we need to be impressive to be of value, that sounds a little intimidating. like an ultimatum—be fruitful or else!

And so then in our anxiety we might start to act like those villagers in the play, eager to prove our worth:

God, look at these fruits, I mean, these are really impressive fruits, amazing fruits, I am so darn FRUITFUL, Lord, you just wouldn’t believe it. And no offense, no judgment, but mine are a little nicer than his fruits over there. I mean, look at these LIMES. Just look at ‘em. The Holy Spirit was really doing something amazing right here. So…I win, right? I’m the best one, right? 

Now of course, we naturally want to celebrate the fruitful ways in which God is at work in the world—the blessings we receive, the ways in which we share abundant life with others. 

But I want us to think carefully about whether our personal anxiety about being fruitful enough—which we might interpret at times as being saintly enough, as busy enough, as able enough, as successful enough—obscures what Jesus is really getting at here in this parable of the vine and branches. Because, I would offer, this is not so much a parable about God’s assessment or judgment of individual achievement as it is a parable about connection, about the divinely-perfected integration of heaven and earth.

“God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us,” the first letter of John says, and we need to take that quite seriously as we receive this image of the vine and branch. In Jesus, in the Incarnate mystery of the risen and eternal God, which we enter by our baptism, there is an inseparability between our life and God’s life.  Just as the vine transfers nutrients and water and life force into the branch, so God lives in us. God’s life, God’s love—God’s very essence—is sustaining everything that we do, big or small, shaping our hearts, giving breath to our words, bending the limbs of our body as we move in the world. 

“I am the true vine…abide in me as I abide in you…apart from me you can do nothing.” This is not a threat—it is an assurance. Christ is saying there is nothing you can do that is not already part of me, because we are one in love. I have given my life to you. We are connected. You are never alone. In me, no one is ever alone.

And this is a radical shift, even from the Old Testament imagery of Israel as the vine and God as the gardener, because now God has integrated God’s own life into the plant itself, so that it will never have to survive by itself.

Christ as the vine, as the one who sustains us directly, replaces the idea of fruitfulness as our offering TO God and replaces it with the idea of fruitfulness as God’s offering to US. 

Abide in me, God says, let me offer myself to you, let me give you the fruits of MY spirit, so that you never need be estranged from me again. This is my love for you—to give you myself! Too long you have tended your own vines and trembled and wept at the insufficiency of your own meager harvest, but I tell you now that my life is your life, my harvest is your harvest. Rest and live in that knowledge. Rest and live in me.

This fulfills what the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed,  “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” and “their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.”

In our life in Christ, this is what is true about the universe: that we are one—one organism, one cycle of life and love. There is no need for anxiety, nor for competition. There is no falling short before the king’s throne. In Christ, you are already part of everything. You are already enough.

I confess, though, that even knowing this is true, there are days, especially after the exhaustion and despair of this past year, that I still worry, because, if anything, I feel a lot more like that withered branch in the parable, the one that is all dried up and gnarled, with seemingly no fruit at all. 

In those times, forget the basket of limes; I don’t even feel like I have a single blossom. My prayers feel dry and my heart is heavy. And I wonder, sometimes, in that feeling of deadness and dryness—am I apart from God? Am I just a useless appendage to be cast away, as the passage says, “gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned”?

Because if we’re honest, there’s no shortage of dead branches in any of our lives and in our world at large—our failures, our squandered opportunities to love and care for one another, the burdens of our grief and the fear that our lives don’t amount to much.

But today, I want you hear those seemingly dire words anew, remembering, again, that God is love and nothing can separate you from the workings of that love. Nothing. You are part of love’s eternal cycle. And God is redeeming even those fruitless branches in our lives, those dead ends in our heart. 

So yes, God is gathering dead branches and putting them into the fire, but God is tenderly gathering them, tenderly gathering up our grief and our brokenness. God is putting them into the flames, yes, but they are the flames of his transformative mercy, reducing that which has died to ashes, not to annihilate, but so that it might go back into the earth to fertilize the growth of new life. To God, nothing is dead forever. And nothing is ever wasted.

This is the truth of which you are a part. This is the Life that imbues your own life. 

That will always be so, whether you are feeling abundant and confident, or whether you aren’t. Whether you are center stage, or whether you’re just standing in the wings with a basket of limes, wondering what the heck you’re doing.

What sweetness, what relief, and what possibilities for joy when we realize that fruitfulness is something given to us, not something proven by us. And when we realize that we are already known. Already acceptable. Already abiding on the vine, in God’s own life, forever. 

10-year old me as the Page Boy in Rumpelstiltskin. Not sure where the limes went.