Real: A Sermon for All Saints’ Day

I preached this sermon on November 6, 2022, All Saints Sunday, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 6:20-31.

One of my favorite books when I was little was The Velveteen Rabbit, and I will admit that even now, many years later, it still brings a tear to my eye when I read it. If you’re not familiar with the book, by Margery Williams, it tells the story of a toy rabbit who is given to a young boy as a Christmas present. The toys talk to each other when people aren’t around, and the little rabbit befriends a threadbare old hobby horse, learning from him the secrets of what is called “nursery magic,” including the mysterious concept of becoming “real.”

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day. ”Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. …Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

And thus begins the Velveteen Rabbit’s own journey toward becoming “real,” which, as you might imagine, is not just about becoming more realistic, like the other rabbits who can jump and run and play, but about becoming more true: it’s about discovering the luminousness that radiates from within a person when they have given themselves over to a life of deep and faithful love.

For the little toy rabbit, this process of becoming real proves surprising, and costly, and beautiful, and I will leave it to you to revisit the story to find out exactly what happens to him. You can find the full text of the story online

I was moved to do so myself this past week because the Velveteen Rabbit’s journey feels especially appropriate for the feast we are observing today. In the world of nursery magic it might be called becoming “real,” but in the Christian tradition we have another, very particular name for following the long and twisting road towards love: we call it sainthood. 

Sainthood, to be honest, has an unhelpful reputation. We too often associate it with the opposite of “real”: plaster statues of seemingly perfect people, with their halos and their dreamlike gaze directed towards heaven. We might feel inspired by such figures, but we might also struggle to see how their seemingly exemplary lives bear any resemblance to our own imperfect ones. 

But if you have ever felt that way, I have good news for you: the saints, even the most famous and revered ones, are far messier and more real than you might expect. If you have never done so, find a biography about one of them and read it. They struggled with doubts, with despair, with health conditions, with war and economic instability. They fought with their colleagues. They ended up in prison and in exile. Some of them were beloved in their own time, many were not. And really, in the end, the only thing that is consistently true about them is that they were somehow dedicated to the vision of blessedness that Jesus elucidates in the Beatitudes from today’s Gospel: that God stands on the side of those who are vulnerable and trampled upon, that God enlivens those who give their lives away for love’s sake, that God does not forget those who pay the cost of caring deeply in a callous world. 

God’s mission in Christ is to make these things real, to make them tangible, indeed, to make them inescapably present even as the forces of death and despair surround us—this is what we mean when we talk about the kingdom of God. And sainthood, far from being a sort of self-satsified, holier-than-thou lifestyle choice, is simply what it looks like to participate as best we can in that kingdom, in the redemptive work of love in our lives, for as long as we can, until most of our hair has been loved off, and our eyes drop out and we get loose in the joints and very shabby, until our carefully cultivated defensiveness and artifice have been worn down so thin that we burn, burn, burn brightly with the fearlessness, with the joy, with the reality of love. That is what a saint looks like. And, however imperfect our lives and our circumstances, that is what we have been invited into, from the day of our baptism until this very moment.

This morning, baby Natalie will be baptized into the Body of Christ, taking her own place within the Church’s long journey toward becoming real, becoming saints, becoming all that God made each of us and all of us to be. We will bathe her in water and in prayers, passing on that which we have been given in our own baptisms: a glimpse of what is real, and the One who is real, and the wondrous hope that we will come to know that reality in our very flesh…that over the course of our lives, we will become as part of it. Natalie’s share of this story is just beginning, and we rejoice for her and her family. 

And yet, as it is said, “in the midst of life we are in death,” and so this morning, on All Saints, we also summon the memory of those whose stories have ended—those whom we love and see no longer and yet who are no less real simply because they are absent. In fact, we might say that that they are even more real now, blessed and at peace in the nearer presence of the Living God. 

Our beloved dead are so real, now, that our limited senses cannot quite perceive them, except in our hearts, in those moments when we still feel the weight of our love for them, how it endures beyond death, how it cannot be destroyed, how we are bound together for all time, beyond all time. We say their names out loud, each one a life now infused with eternity, and in the silences between, we listen for the music of heaven.

And so here we find ourselves, beloved ones, saints-in-progress, weary hearts still daring to believe in nursery magic—here we are, suspended on this November morning between life and death, between warmth and winter, between the promise of the future and the tenderness of the past. Here we are, asking what is true and what is real and what is worth living and dying for, and knowing, in the end that the answer can only be love, that it can only be the name of love, which is Jesus. 

Here we are, rich and poor, hungry and full, laughing and weeping, longing for him, for the Savior who will gather up our worn out bodies and call us blessed, who will make us whole, who will make us truly alive. Not perfect, plaster saints, but real ones: threadbare, wise, and full of grace. 

Just Finish: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 23, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is 2 Timothy 4:6-18, 16-18.

When I was probably about 10 or 11 years old, my mom took up a new hobby — rollerblading. It was the 90s, so rollerblades were all the rage. And for those of you who know my mom, who is quite the adventurous person, you can imagine that she took on this new pastime with great enthusiasm. So much so that before long, she had signed up to compete in a local rollerblade race where you go in laps around an empty office park on a Saturday afternoon—yes, this was actually a thing back in the day (at least out in California in the 90s.)

Now, I will admit that I had little to no interest in rollerblades. I had a pair, and I would sort of wobble along in them around the neighborhood after school, but I was not then–nor am I now–the most athletic or graceful person. I wasn’t fast or agile or daring. Most weekends I would’ve rather been reading a book or singing along to the soundtracks of my favorite Broadway musicals. You know, we just are who we are. 

But my mom was so excited about this rollerblade race that she was bound and determined that I would also sign up and be in the kid’s competition, making it a sort of family activity. And for some reason I will never understand, I agreed to do so. 

We showed up that morning and I was in my little skates with my baggy jeans and knobby knees and thick glasses and a helmet askew on my head, and the other kids…I mean, they looked like they’d been training their whole short lives for this race. They were in lycra shorts and fancy rollerblades and they skated more gracefully than I could even walk. It was one of those moments when you realize you’ve made a very bad decision, but now it’s too late and you just have to roll with it. Literally, in this case.

We all gathered in a cluster at the starting line and they blew the horn and we took off, and the crowd was cheering, and….you can probably imagine exactly what happened next. Those other kids took off  on their skates like they were sprinting, and they went so fast around the course that they lapped me at least once, if not more, and meanwhile I was stumbling along on my skates, breathing heavily, trying to stay upright, telling myself “you just have to finish. Just finish.”

And I did. It wasn’t pretty, but I made it.

Eventually, long after the other kids were done, here I came, stumbling across the finish line by myself. 

But you know what? It was ok. Now, would I ever do it again? Not a chance. But it was ok. Because when I got to that finish line, some of the people were still there, my mom included, waiting to cheer for me. I was so relieved to be done that it felt like arriving in heaven, and people gave me hugs, and the sound of their encouragement was, in that moment, like the sound of angels rejoicing. 

I think of that rollerblade race once in a while, because it reminds me that on the other side of embarrassment, on the other side of disappointment, there is a strange sort of grace that you sometimes find in simply finishing what you set out to do. Especially when the road is long and challenging, just finishing can be its own sort of victory.

I think many of us spend our lives feeling like we need to jockey for a place at the front of the pack of whatever we’re doing—to win the contest, to be the best at whatever it is, or at least to feel like we’re not the worst. We’re afraid of falling behind, of stumbling and skinning our knees—of becoming an object of derision or pity as the race of life wears on. 

And it’s all too easy to approach our faith like this, too, somehow imagining Jesus as the leader at the front of the race, the one who runs fastest and hardest, the one we’re chasing, just out of the reach of us mere mortals with our aching joints and our eyes burning with sweat and tears. We know we can’t overtake him, but somehow we think we’re supposed to try. 

I wonder, sometimes, if this is how Paul first understood Jesus after his conversion on the Damascus Road. Paul, after all, was a Roman citizen who was well acquainted with the competitive spirit of the Empire and who loved using athletic metaphors in his writing. In his early letter to the Galatians, he expresses anxiety about his mission to the Gentiles, wanting “to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.” He uses similar language in his letter to the Philippians, and, though its authorship is uncertain, there is that famous line in the letter to the Hebrews which encourages believers to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

So one can imagine a younger Paul, bursting with energy and determination, ready to win the race for the sake of the gospel—to be the best, to go the farthest, to conquer his opponents, to be right up in front, ahead of all the other apostles, trailing just behind Christ.

But then in today’s reading we meet Paul at the end of his life: an old and infirm man, sitting in prison, awaiting execution, writing to his companion Timothy, trying to make peace with the way his life has actually turned out:

“I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness.”

Not, “I have won the race,” but simply “I have finished.” Not “the crown of victory”–the laurel wreath of the athletic champion–but “the crown of righteousness,” the crown of blessedness, the crown worn by those who finish last in this world—the crown worn by his savior, and ours. The crown of thorns.

Paul came to understand, as each of us must when we are inevitably humbled by life–when we finally see things as they are, not as we expected them to be–that winning was never the point. Coming in first was never God’s expectation for us. And Jesus, whom we try so hard to follow, to be like, to catch up to, was never, in truth, at the front of the pack, showing off his divine athleticism and daring us to match it. 

On the contrary, Jesus was (and remains) at the back of the pack, watching over those of us who are moving slowly, those of us who are just struggling to keep up. He’s back alongside the ones who were never graceful or impressive or strong. And he’ll stay there, bringing up the rear of the race until every last one of us has made it over the finish line, aching joints and skinned knees and all. 

And when we do, I imagine that he will say to us,

“It is enough that you finished. It is enough that you fought the good fight and kept the faith. It is enough. You were enough, just as you were, even if it took you a long time to get here. Even if you were in last place, I loved you from the first.”

And perhaps this is what Paul wanted to remind us at the end of his own race, in his final message to Timothy and to those of us who would one day come along, stumbling on our skates, breathing heavily, trying to stay upright.  Maybe he just wanted us to know:

You might not end up in first place. You might look like a total failure at times. It doesn’t matter. If you have stayed the course with gentleness in your heart, if you have cared for your neighbor along the way, if you have loved this broken world as you have travailed across it, you have already won.

So just finish the race. Just finish.

And when you do, when you stumble across that finish line, there will be arms outstretched to welcome you, and the angels will rejoice.

Small Things: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 9, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15 and Luke 17:11-19.

I don’t know why, exactly, but fall is a season when I start to reflect on the past — something about the approach of holiday traditions and the winding down of the year and the brilliance of the autumn leaves lends itself to the sharpening of particular memories. These recollections waft on the air like woodsmoke, sweet and sharp, occasionally stinging the eyes. 

And it’s interesting—I don’t know if this is true for you, but I have noticed that when I am looking back on life and remembering things and people and places that are long gone, long past, my most vivid memories are of very small things, very particular little details, rather than one big grand narrative playing out in my mind. 

I might suddenly recall the sound of my dad’s laughter one afternoon in late September when I was 15, or the particular way my grandmother carved a chicken on Sunday afternoons, or the scent of the gardenias my mom used to buy on the way home from work when I was a little boy. 

All ordinary things, unremarkable, perhaps, to an outside observer, but nonetheless these are the little things that stick, that signify meaning, long after the worries and speculations and fantasies of the past have faded away. I don’t remember most of the conflicts and longings and unsatisfied desires that seemed so important when I was 12 or 22, but I can recall with crystalline specificity the small moments of beauty and kindness and care that have been strewn along the path of my life.

This suggests to me that it is, in the end, these small things that imbue our lives with significance, with holiness, with hope. And it is these small things that are vessels of God’s grace, far more than the big concerns and bold plans that so often preoccupy our imaginations.

We may have great expectations, but it is the small things that sustain us. It is the small things that save us. 

But this isn’t always easy to see. Naaman, the mighty general seeking a cure for his leprosy in today’s reading from 2 Kings, doesn’t quite understand the value of small, ordinary things, or perhaps he has simply forgotten it in all of his conquering and striving to be important. He is a man burdened by disease, but he is also burdened by the sense of his own significance, and so he presumes that any healing he might receive from the prophet Elisha will come at great cost and will arrive with great dramatic impact. No humble, commonplace treatments for this man. And so he loads up his treasures and his servants and his other accumulated defenses and brings them to Elisha’s door, ready for anything. 

For anything, that is, except for the rather anticlimatic thing that actually happens. Elisha, in his wisdom, doesn’t even come outside, and instead simply sends out a message Naaman: go take a bath in the river. 

Imagine having come all that way, with so much build-up, with your whole entourage looking on expectantly, and then being asked to take a dip in an unremarkable, muddy body of water. Naaman, who expects so much more of himself and of the world, is offended by the simplicity of it all. Surely that can’t be it? Surely this God of Israel, if he is so powerful, would reveal his works in a more impressive way? Surely healing requires something more than this? Surely, after I have suffered so much and traveled so far, salvation cannot come from such a small thing?

We might laugh a bit at Naaman’s pride and his self-importance, but I also have to say I relate to his disappointment a little bit. I look back at my life, and I look around at the problems facing our world today, and I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of longing for a big and decisive answer. I know what it feels like to want a dramatic solution, to yearn for God to appear in glory and make it all better, make it all clear, to lift us up from the mud and the misery. 

So maybe I, too, would be frustrated by the instructions to go bathe down in that mud instead. Maybe I, too, would just want to pack it in and go home. Because I confess that some days I get tired of meager solutions to big problems. I get tired of relying on small things when the grief of the world is so big. 

Maybe somedays you get tired, too. Naaman would certainly understand if you do. 

But then, at the moment when all hope seems to be lost, another small thing: this time it is the voice of one of Naaman’s servants, the voice of practical wisdom—

“if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, `Wash, and be clean’?

In other words, yes, the journey has been long, and the outcome may be uncertain. But it can’t hurt to do the small thing that is asked of you in this moment. And, in fact, it may be that finding hope in such small things, believing in the power of small things, is more reflective of God’s purposes than any dramatic solution. Why that might be, I cannot say for sure. I only know that I remember my father’s laughter, and my grandmother’s hands, and the scent of my mother’s gardenias in the cool of the evening, and that these things matter more than I can say. 

They matter in the same way that it matters that God offers us himself in the frail body of a man, and in a morsel of bread and in a sip of wine. It seems that he longs for us to love the small things, to submit ourselves to their humble grace. He asks us, like Naaman, and like the grateful Samaritan healed by Jesus, to remember that when we encounter love and beauty, no matter how simple or small, we are seeing God. 

He is in the muddy waters and in mended bodies. He is in the gifts we share with one another. He is in the moments when we remember to say thank you.  He is in everything, every small thing, holding the universe together with love. 

Naaman does, of course, eventually take Elisha’s advice. He strips off his many layers of armor and submerges himself in that muddy water and emerges, the text tells us, with flesh appearing as it did long ago, skin gleaming like when he was a young boy. When he himself was a small thing: bright, laughing, free.

And perhaps that is the mystery of love: not only that it flourishes in small things, but that it distills us back down to smallness ourselves, like children, sloughing off our grief and our delusions of grandeur, leaving only our essence, our innoncence, our intense and enduring joy. 

Can you remember what that felt like, back when you were small, too? Can you remember that version of yourself, back through the turning of the seasons? Can you remember when you believed in simple things, when love was not a memory, but an ever-present gift, as numerous as the autumn leaves? 

God, help us to remember.

Ghost Town: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on August 21, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Isaiah 58:9-14 and Luke 13:10-17.

Out in the western part of the United States, one thing that you will often come across is a ghost town, tucked into some forgotten valley or huddled along a lonely highway. If you have ever traveled out there, perhaps you have heard of or even visited one—Bodie, California, famous for its gold mines and its lawless inhabitants; Rhyolite, Nevada, which boomed and went bust over the course of just five years; or, one of my particular favorites, Glenrio, Texas, an abandoned town on Route 66, bypassed by the interstate, in which you can wander down the middle of the abandoned highway, where the only remnants are a crumbling gas station, a shuttered diner, and an empty motel in which the only guests are the occasional wild animal and the desert wind blowing through the cracked windows. 

What is it about ghost towns that captivate our attention, maybe even send a chill up our spine? Most of them, as far as I know, don’t have a ton of actual ghost stories associated with them—they are less haunted place than they are haunting places—haunting us with their faded memories of something that was once vibrant but is now only a shadow of itself. A place that, for one reason or another, has outlived its usefulness. 

I think ghost towns compel us and scare us a bit because, we, too, live with the prospect of loss, of dereliction, the fear of what it might feel like to watch the years go by as one forgotten, to wait for visitors that no longer come. They remind us of the fragility of things, of ourselves, even, and they teach us that communities are not inevitable—they must be built and tended and invested in, lest we all find ourselves cut off from one another, living with ghosts. 

The Scriptures are full of people who are themselves cut off from the living, from any sense of community. Think of the Gerasene demoniac we heard about several weeks back, the man who was plagued by demons and who lived among the tombs, an outcast in a literal city of the dead. 

Or the woman in today’s Gospel lesson, who has been afflicted with an unnamed illness for 18 years, bent over, unable to stand up straight, in a time and culture in which disease and disability isolated one socially as much as it did physically (not that much has changed in that regard). She herself, like so many who are burdened by physical limitations, is treated as a ghost within her community, practically invisible, unheard, disregarded and forgotten, perhaps even thought of as someone who has outlived her usefulness, such that her healing by Jesus is received more as an affront to religious order than as a miracle of restoration. 

Because this is the accepted way of things, isn’t it? Whether its with towns decaying along the side of the road or people decaying along the side of the road—there is a certain measure of acceptance that this is just the way it is, that perhaps that place or that person just couldn’t keep up with the pace of society, perhaps it’s just the sad state of affairs in a competitive and changing world that some communities must die, and that some people must be left behind. It’s tough out there. Can’t save ‘em all. 

And so we visit ghost towns with their broken buildings and we see the haunted faces of our broken neighbors and we shudder at the brokenness but we accept it. We accept it all as part of the landscape, because, what else can we do? Ruined cities and ruined people, always there, always just beyond the edge of where we dare to look. 

But God looks. God sees them, the fallen cities, the stooped over women and men. God sees them. And God does not accept it. God says: no, another life, another world is possible.

God says,

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Where we see a ghost town, where we see a lost soul, a regrettable curiosity, God sees and speaks of possibility, of healing, of hope. 

This is why the healing power of Jesus, and the perspective of God that it signifies, is so radical, so shocking, so powerful, because it flies in the face of all our expectations, all of our resignation to the decline and decay of people, of places, of ourselves. 

“Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” Jesus says, and he speaks the same word to all who will hear him. Rise up, daughter of Abraham. Rise up and reclaim your place among the living. Stand tall again and know that you were not meant to be forgotten, that you cannot outlive your usefulness, because to God you are infinitely precious, and there is never an expiration date on your belovedness nor on your promise.

As Isaiah proclaimed, 

The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places,  and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

So rise up again, you who have accepted your home among the ghosts. Rise up and be who you always were, inhabit your life fully once more, for in the reign of God you are not collateral damage to progress, you are not lost to time, you are part of a life, a community, a story that will never die. All you have to do is accept that this is possible, despite what the world seems to suggest, despite the ruins all around us. That is faith. Have faith that life—your life, our life together, the life of this earth—will find a way.  With God’s help, it can. It will. We were never destined for dereliction. We were never meant to be ghosts. 

In one of the places I mentioned earlier, Rhyolite, Nevada, there are actually some sculptures in the desert just beyond town. An artist put them there decades ago in a sort of open air museum. And one of them is called the Last Supper—its a platform of life-size figures in a tableau, all draped in white shrouds, like ghostly disciples waiting for the meal to begin in the middle of the wilderness. 

It is a haunting piece of art, but when I look at it, it is also strangely encouraging. For it seems to say that there is nowhere—not even in the most remote, most forgotten place, not in the most remote, most forgotten life—nowhere that God will fail to show up and prepare a feast. There is nowhere, n one that God will pass by. God will find us. God will not forget. God will lift us up.

And on that day the ruins will be rebuilt. 

And on that day we will stand tall, and we will live. 

The Last Supper, 1984, Charles Albert Szukalski, Goldwell Open Air Museum, Nevada

Kindness: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on July 10, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 10:25-37, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.

As we speak, a deputation from our Diocese is in Baltimore at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. It is a major gathering that happens every three years for the discussion of important issues facing the church and the broader society and for addressing all the business of legislation and governance that pertain to our denomination. Some conventions are witness to monumental changes in the life of the Episcopal Church, and some are relatively less eventful. We will see how this one turns out, especially given the pandemic-related delays and cuts made to the agenda. 

But I think it is safe to say that at every General Convention there is one question, often unspoken, that pervades all of the conversations and debates. It is a question that hovers like a ghost at the back of the meeting halls, and asserts itself implicitly in every resolution that is passed or defeated. It is the big, lingering question underneath all of the urgent questions of the day, in the Church as a whole and here at Trinity. And it is simply this:

In an era that feels so uncertain, so perilous, what must we do?

What must we, the Church, do to meet the moment? What must we do to survive, or even to flourish, when the challenges before us are so many? What must we do, right now, to be who and what God would have us be? What must we do to inherit and embody the fullness of God’s undying love? 

Now, because we are an institution, we tend to think in institutional terms and so we might wonder, is it a new formation program that will save us? A new structure? A better marketing platform? A stronger response to the issues of the day? Undoubtedly all of these things will be discussed in Baltimore, and I commend those who gather there for their sincere and earnest investment in debating such things. The process is part of our shared call to build a more just and life-giving Church body.

But I must confess that none of those things feel like the whole answer. Because if we Episcopalians were redeemed and renewed by systems and programs and public statements alone, then we’d have reached the promised land a long time ago. 

So maybe we’re a little bit like the lawyer who questions Jesus in today’s Gospel passage. He might be trying to ‘test’ Jesus, true, but maybe he is also looking at the world around him—perilous, turbulent, angry—and truly wondering: what must I do to inherit eternal life? What must I do to feel like things are actually going to be ok? What must we do to feel and know, deep in our souls, that God has not forsaken us? 

What must we do? 

Well, as our Lord has so effectively modeled for us today with the parable of the Good Samaritan, I will respond to this question not with a tidy answer, but with a story of my own.

About 17 years ago, when I had just graduated from college, I took off for Mexico with almost no savings and with a very flimsy plan. I had decided to get a certificate to teach English as a foreign language, and so I went to the Yucatan Peninsula and spent a month taking the necessary courses, interspersed with a lot of time on the beach and nights out with my classmates. I was not quite the prodigal son, lost in dissolute living, but I definitely had more optimism than good sense. 

After the course I took a bus to a large city in central Mexico, Queretaro, where I knew no one and nothing. I had heard that it was a good place to find a job teaching English but I had no solid leads. I just showed up and stayed in a cheap motel near the center of town, unsure of how to actually find a job, still a bit rusty in my Spanish. As the days went by and I made little progress, and my funds started getting lower and lower, my sense of dread began to escalate. And it came to pass that one evening I found myself sitting on a park bench in the main plaza of the city with absolutely no money to pay for another night in a hotel and no easy way for me to reach my family for help. The shadows gathered around me, the night was quickly encroaching, and I felt a sense of panic. I had never been in such a precarious situation. In my naivety, it just hadn’t occurred to me that I would actually end up without any options. I wasn’t attacked by robbers or lying naked in a ditch on the side of the road, like the man in Jesus’ parable, but I was lost in a sort of wilderness, and the passersby did not know me, and did not stop, and I was alone. 

And then, quite suddenly, a young man came walking past me, probably about my age at the time, dressed in a work suit. Why he stopped and approached me I will never really know. But he did, and he had a kind, gentle smile, and he asked (in Spanish—he spoke almost no English) “are you ok? Do you need anything?” And I greeted him in my broken Spanish, and we had a conversation. 

Long story short, his name was Julio, and he was a law student from that city, and when I described to him both my reason for being there and my continued search to find a job, he said, without any hesitation: my family has an empty house on the outskirts of the city. It’s not very nice, but you can stay there if you want until you find what you need. 

Now, mind you, I had not even told him about my financial straits. He just knew, somehow, that that was what I needed. And I accepted, with profuse gratitude, and I moved into that little dusty house and I lived there for almost two weeks until I was able to find a job teaching English and eventually get into a small rented place of my own. 

I saw Julio once before I moved back to the United States and I asked him, why did you help me that night in the plaza? And he said, simply, “you looked like you needed a friend.”

My friends, I have traveled many places, I have seen many beautiful things both near and far, but I will tell you that few moments in my life were more miraculous, more mysterious, more salvific, than that moment when a man stopped what he was doing to help a lost stranger who had run out of options. 

So while I am no expert in church governance or budgets or fancy programs for this initiative or that one, when I wonder “what must we do” as a Church, as followers of Jesus, to meet the uncertainties of this or any age, I keep coming back to that encounter. 

And I think the answer, in the end, is as profound and as simple as it has been since the very beginning: we will be saved by kindness. We will be saved by the kindness that God has shown to us in Christ, and in this life we will experience God’s salvation in the daily, ordinary acts of kindness that we show to one another.

Not the flashiest answer, I know. It probably won’t make any headlines. It doesn’t even have a program budget attached to it. But still, I would guess that, at the end of our long journey through this life, it is those moments of kindness—the ones given, and the ones received—that will be the true measure of all things. And it will be the kind people, like Julio, who will linger in our memories long after more impressive figures have faltered and faded away. 

So, what must we do to inherit eternal life? More than anything, we must simply be kind. 

Because, when you think about it, the whole arc of Scritpure, the impenetrable mystery of grace and salvation might be summed up just like this:

That we were sitting on a park bench as the evening shadows stretched around us, and the night was encroaching, and we were out of options and didn’t know what to do. And suddenly a stranger with a gentle smile approached us, and sat with us, and gave us shelter, and when we could not understand how or why, he simply said, with infinite kindness, “you looked like you needed a friend.”

Maps: A Trinity Sunday Sermon

I preached this sermon on Trinity Sunday, June 12, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is John 16:12-15.

Ever since I was a little kid, I have loved looking at maps. Our family went on lots of road trips, and there was a sort of weighty, sacred significance in the big printed road atlas that was usually kept somewhere in the car. Even if we weren’t going anywhere in particular, we would get it out and we would look at it together, and I would trace my finger along the blue and red and green roads and highways crisscrossing the printed page like ribbons, or rivers, or veins, each one an invitation, a daydream, a path leading somewhere, towards a place just over the horizon of the present moment. A place that, to my young mind, was mysterious. A place that was beautiful. 

To this day I still love looking at maps and pondering places to explore, both near and far. And so it happened that this weekend I was scrolling on my phone across the map of this area and I noticed the place, about an hour from here, where the state lines of Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan converge. As best I could tell, it was just a spot along a country road pretty far from anything, with a little stone marker.  Worth driving an hour each way? I’ll let you be the judge of that, but the map was calling out to me, and so I hopped in my car on an impulse and headed north. 

After getting off of the interstate, I ended up on one of those beautiful two-lane country roads that we have in abundance around here. The land rose and fell gently, like the belly of a sleeping giant. The clouds were big and voluptuous, the trees an insistent shade of green, the red barns and the farmhouses nestled among the fields. And still I kept driving, and driving some more, far past any town, out to where the roads arent quite yet dirt, but where they’re starting to think about becoming dirt. 

And suddenly, there it was. Just off the road, with a little place to pull off: a stone marker perched on a small rise, which indicated that 130 feet to the south, the three states meet in one spot. And so I parked the car and walked a little ways, and there it was—not much to see, I’ll admit—just a little metal plaque embedded into the middle of the road with the letter “M.” So I’m guessing Michigan got to put it there.

And as you do when you drive over an hour to see a letter in the middle of the road…I stood on it. And then I took a couple of pictures of my feet standing on it. And I looked around at the loveliness of that quiet road, accompanied only by the birds and the breeze rustling the flowers and the wild grass, and I thought about how strange and yet oddly thrilling it was to be standing upon the precise intersection of three places, each with their own unique character, each with their own people and histories and hopes, and yet here, together, gently resting up against one another, hidden away in the middle of nowhere, or, depending on how you look at it, in the middle of everywhere. 

And while it was not quite as glamorous as some of the places on the map I’d daydreamed about as a kid, it was mysterious. And it was beautiful.

Now, given that today is Trinity Sunday, that day in the Church year when we preachers try, however imperfectly, to ponder and speak about the God revealed to us in Scripture who is both three and one, you might already see where my imagination is going with this. And although I admit any attempt to reduce the Trinity to a tidy analogy or image is destined to be insufficient, I couldn’t help but think about it as I stood on that spot in the road, trying to imagine where exactly on that little plaque one state ended and the other started, searching for the infinite vanishing point between uniqueness and unity. 

Uniqueness and unity. We could say something similar about the Triune God, a theological mystery which is itself perhaps marked with an M, somewhere out beyond the cosmos, in the backroads of heaven, among the fields of wheat and the wildflowers and the swooping doves. Theologians and preachers and all kinds of other people have written a lot of words trying to map the Trinity, to describe its contours and characteristics and the best way for us mere mortals to approach it. We all want to “get it” or get close to it. And yet as close as we might get, we can never quite reach the center of what or where or how the Trinity is. It is hidden from us, just out of reach, that infinite vanishing point where Father, Son and Spirit touch and intertwine, beyond the limited scope of our perception. It is nowhere, and it is everywhere. It is mysterious. And it is beautiful.

How thrilling and humbling it is, when you really think about it, that as Christians we give our lives, our whole selves, over to something—to Someone—whom we can’t quite understand. But that’s what love is, in the end, isn’t it? A headlong leap into mystery. 

And so today, on Trinity Sunday, we honor that mystery of God’s love, not trying to solve it like a riddle or simplify it into a diagram, but instead to celebrate the journey that we make together in its general direction, like travelers with a map in our hands—longing for the promise that lies beyond the horizon of the present moment, searching for that place at the end of the long road, the place where all of our unique stories, all of our hopes and our homelands meet, gently resting up against one another— a place we know is real because Jesus has revealed its possibility to us, even if we can’t quite describe it or see it yet.

But that’s the whole point—we haven’t fully arrived. We haven’t plotted the precise coordinates of the Kingdom—no, not a single one of us. And we as the Church are at our best when we acknowledge that our journey toward understanding God is still a work in progress. The depth of the Trinity, that is to say the depth of God’s grace-filled self, is still being revealed to us. And admitting this prevents us from all manner of ills: legalism and self-satisfaction and complacency and hardened certainties. It keeps us tender, open to being surprised, open to admitting that perhaps God is even more wondrous, more loving, more liberating than we—or anyone—has ever dared to hope. 

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel passage. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…he will declare to you the things that are to come.” 

This story—this revelation of the divine life of the Trinity—is not over yet. The Spirit is still working within us and within the present moment; the Son is still journeying with us, even to the end of the age; and the Father stills waits to greet us, his prodigal children, at the end of our travels, running across the field, arms open wide, a feast heavy upon the table. The Trinity is all of this, and more. It is mysterious, and it is beautiful.

Our only task is to keep going. Keep going, even when we stumble. Keep going, even when it feels like we’ve lost the path. Keep going, even when nobody else seems to want to come with us. Keep going, even when the map is stained with our tears and the lines bleed together. Keep going.

Because if nothing else, to speak of the Trinity, the way it moves and holds and calls us, is to speak of God’s ongoing invitation to keep going. It is the proclamation that God was, and God is, and God will be with us as we do so, and that wherever we are going, we will meet him in the end. We will converge, somewhere on that hidden road, into that infinite vanishing point of uniqueness and unity, of God and of creation, of flesh and blood and bread and wine and breath and wind and flame. We will stand right there at the intersection of eternity, and finally, we will know. Finally, we will be known.

I still keep an atlas in my car, by the way. Every once in a while I’ll take it out and trace the roads on the map with my finger, dreaming of what more there is to see. There’s always more to see. The only difference is that now, I have come to know that you don’t have to travel very far to see wondrous things. The infinite mysteries of the universe—of love, of life, of God—are close to you, closer than you can imagine. 

Sometimes, if you know how and where to look, they’re just under your feet. 

Standing on the spot where Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan converge.

The Language of Our Hearts: A Pentecost Sermon

I preached this sermon on Pentecost, June 5, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Acts 2:1-21, the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the Apostles.

A few weeks ago I traveled up to South Bend to attend a conference for all of the Episcopal Churches in Province V, which is a region that roughly encompasses the midwestern United States. It was a wonderful time, both for the workshops and other sessions offered, and also, just as importantly, for the chance to connect with new people and reconnect with some familiar ones—friends and colleagues that I hadn’t seen since well before the pandemic started. As we know from gathering together here at Trinity each Sunday, there is something heartening and healing about being together in person, seeing each other’s faces, hearing each other’s voices.  

When we celebrated the Eucharist at the conference, we were invited to do something that perhaps you’ve experienced before if you’ve attended a large Episcopal gathering or convention, especially one with a diversity of attendees: at that moment in the liturgy when we all join together to say the Lord’s Prayer, we were asked to pray it in “the language of our heart.” The language of our heart. I love that phrase.

And so, after a brief pause, a cacophony of voices rose up in prayer—some praying in the traditional English language version that is so dear and familiar to us here; some in the more contemporary English translation; but also in Spanish, and in other languages—a seminary friend of mine who was there offered prayers in Lakota. The cumulative effect was messy, but beautiful—a collision of hearts and tongues naming God, praising God, asking God for protection and provision. 

Maybe it was because I hadn’t heard the Lord’s Prayer offered that way in a little while, but it touched me deeply, it gave me a different sense of the vastness of that prayer, the billions of times it is offered up each day, in grand churches and in homeless shelters, on mountaintops and on commuter trains, by people we will never meet, people so different from us and yet so fundamentally connected to us, each crying out in the language of their deepest heart. Our Father, who art in heaven. Padre nuestro. Ate unyanpi. (That last one is in Lakota, if you’re curious). 

One of the great tragedies of Christian history has been the idea that being one in Christ means being exactly the same as one another. The idea that being part of the universal Church is more about fitting in than it is about becoming the fullness of who God made each of us to be. That pressure to conform, to get in line, to deny the parts of yourself deemed different or unacceptable—that is a particular cultural force at work, not the Gospel itself. That urge to suppress diversity is the work of tyrants and empires, not the work of God’s Kingdom. Because the Spirit of God speaks in every language, shows up in every type of person and place and circumstance, the Spirit radiates out of every color of the rainbow. 

And, to put it more bluntly for those of us here in the United States: God does not only speak in or understand English. God does not only work through people similar to us. And I thank God that we are part of a church that recognizes the joy and the strength of diversity of every type—social, economic, political, theological, racial, linguistic, and every other sort, too. We are messy, but we are beautiful, this collision of hearts and tongues that we call The Episcopal Church. 

By not simply tolerating our differences but striving to cherish them and learn from them, we live into the reality of the Church that was born on that first Pentecost, when the Apostles were caught up in the whirlwind of the Spirit and were able to proclaim the gospel in the native tongues of the immigrants to whom they spoke. 

There is a nuance here that is essential for us not to miss: the miraculous gift of the Spirit was not that these immigrants could suddenly understand the Apostles speaking in one universal language—which would likely have been Greek or Latin, the dominant languages of the Roman Empire. It was that the gospel was carried to their ears in the language of their hearts—the language of their blood, the language of their native soil, the language their parents sang to them in lullabies, the language by which they learned to count the stars and name the creatures of the earth. 

On this day the gospel–the fiery incandescence of God’s love–was transformed on the lips of the Galilean preachers and rendered into the particular poetry of the hearers’ innermost self. This is the day God called out to each of them not in the language of empire, of conquest, of sameness, but in a voice that was as familiar as their own.

There is a crucial lesson in that, a fundamental Christian truth, especially as we grapple with our own challenges of living in a diverse society where some would still have us give up our God-given uniqueness, would have us mute our stories, our perspectives, our voices, in favor of a monolithic, lifeless consensus masquerading as peace.

That is not what we were made for. That is not what Jesus died for. That is not the type of peace he leaves with us. And that is not what the Spirit came for at Pentecost. The Spirit came to fill each of us with life abundant, to winnow away with fire all the lies we tell ourselves, leaving the clarity and the particularity of our divinely-made selfhood, and the Spirit came to catch us up into a bond of fellowship that honors our differences while uniting us in common practice, in common mission. 

Authenticity and courage and truth, that is our peace. And that is not just who we can be or hope to be, that is who we are when we surrender our fear and our bitterness and our prejudice to the expansiveness of God’s Spirit. A people reborn, a people who are unafraid to speak in the languages of our hearts and yet somehow still understand one another in the wordlessness of grace, the ultimately unspeakable mystery of life and of love. 

Let that Spirit of love be yours today. Let it shape all of your days. Let it shape the work that we do together in this community, in this nation, on this planet. None of the challenges that we collectively face can be met without this Spirit—a Spirit that honors difference, and yet demands from us the discipline of remaining together IN that difference. No retreating into corners; no demonizing one another; no insistence that God only speaks in ways that we alone understand. 

For if the Spirit of God is like fire, like wind, then it is elemental, and limitless, and free—it is available to everyone, kindled in hearths unknown to us, blowing across landscapes we will never see, speaking in languages we will never understand. Today we honor that vast freedom of the Spirit, we put our hope in it, because it means that we, too, might yet be free. We, too, might yet be liberated from the language of empire and speak, instead, the living language of our hearts.

Come, Holy Spirit. Only speak the word, and we shall live. Speak the word, and we shall be healed. 

Names: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, May 8 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is Acts 9:36-43, in which Peter raises a woman from death.

How many names do you have?

The immediate answer to that question might seem obvious—many of us have a first, a middle, and a last, with maybe one or two more thrown in for good measure by our parents. But it’s not always that straightforward—some of us also have old nicknames, the recollection of which might make us squirm with delight or embarrassment; affectionate names given by friends and romantic partners; and names that we have claimed for ourselves later in life as we have better understood who we are and how we wish to be known to the world. There might be other names, too, that we’d rather not hear—the hurtful, insulting ones that were hurled at us at one point or another, the ones that still rattle around in our memory like heavy stones. 

There is great power in the names we carry; power to heal and to harm; to remember who we are and to be reborn. It should not be surprising, then, that much of Scripture is taken up with the giving and the changing and the remembering of names, including the ones we have applied, with the limitations of human language, to the unspeakable name of God. 

We might say that, in some way, the entire story of God’s people thoroughout the Bible is the search for a name—a name by which to know ourselves, a name by which to address the ineffability of divine truth, a name to call out into the silent infinitude of the stars—a name that is sufficient to say what life is, a name that can capture in full something that is ultimately beyond words.

I got to thinking about names because of today’s passage from Acts, where Peter restores to life a woman in the city of Joppa, a woman who bears two names, Tabitha and Dorcas. As the writer of Acts informs us, Dorcas is the Greek translation of the Aramaic name Tabitha, which means “gazelle.” Now, it would be easy to pass right over this detail as we read about her miraculous resurrection, but I think we would miss something important if we did so. 

Commentators note that Tabitha/Dorcas, in addition to being a woman of some financial means who was able to support the widows in her community, was also a woman that straddled two worlds. Joppa is a port city, and given her two names, it is likely that this disciple of Jesus was a Greek-speaking Jewish woman who occupied a liminal space between her Israelite identity and her ties to the Hellenized world of the Roman empire. Her two names suggest that she had learned to traverse the ambiguous territory between colonized and colonizer, between membership in an oppressed nation and the society of the imperial oppressor.

We do not know how she managed this interplay of names and identities, but we do know that in the midst of them, this woman who was both Tabitha and Dorcas dedicated her life to service in the name of Jesus. And perhaps, for her, the name of disciple–follower of the Way, sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd–was the thread that bound her disparate roles in a fractured world. 

But then note what happens in the passage. Peter (himself another bearer of two names) comes to see the body of the woman, and in raising her back to life, he says, “Tabitha, get up.” Not Dorcas, but Tabitha. Her first name, the name that was with her from the beginning, the name spoken in her people’s original language: this is the name by which she is called back to herself, this is the name that inaugurates her resurrected existence. It is Tabitha, tzvia in ancient Hebrew, the same word that names the gazelle leaping on the mountainside in the Song of Solomon, that is the name of life for her. That is the name by which God, through Peter, breathes life back into her body. And while the Scriptures do not tell us anything about her life after this miracle, I can’t help but imagine that, for the rest of her days, she remembered the sacred power of being brought back to life by the sound of her original name. Tabitha, get up. 

What is the name by which God would call you? What is the name that encapsulates your deepest self, the name that is life to you? And, conversely, what names have been put upon you that no longer work, that no longer tell the whole story of who you are called to be?

I speak not only of given names and surnames, but also of the roles and identities by which we are known and named, which, while important, are too often over-simplified, objectified, and used to label and limit our complexity—old, young, healthy, sick, parent, child. Priest, layperson, spiritual wanderer. Gay, straight, trans*, Black, Brown. American. Foreigner. Pro-Life. Pro-choice. Democrat. Republican. Do these names actually tell you who you are, or who your neighbor is?

Or is there a deeper name, an original name, by which you must identify yourself and those whom you encounter if we will ever hope to actually know one another? Is there a name for ourselves that will bring the dying parts of this world back to life?

There is, in fact.

And it turns out that the woman known as Dorcas heard that it day as she awoke from the sleep of death. Because a funny thing about the name Tabitha—tzvia. That word, in its original language, doesn’t only mean gazelle, but also, simply this: beautiful. Her name was beauty. 

Beautiful one, get up. 

This is the name by which God knows each of us. This is the name that God has called us from the moment the world began. And this is the name by which God, in Christ, desires us to know one another—the name underneath our names, the name beyond every label and slur and stereotype. The name that will bring anyone back to life. 

Beautiful one, get up.

And this is the only name that can heal us, that can see us through the divisions and the suspicions that have plagued not only our recent history but the entirety of the human story. It is only when we know ourselves as beautiful, as beloved, and when we see that same thing in the face of our neighbors, in the face of our enemies, as Jesus taught us to, that we will begin to move back from the brink.

It is only when we see and name the inherent beauty and dignity of all creation and develop a reverence for what God has made and called good that we will move closer toward the kingdom wherein we were meant to dwell. It is only when we stop name-calling and start naming each other as beautiful, when we start noticing the beauty we see, even in the places and people where it’s not first apparent—it is only then that we will finally speak our own true names, and it is only then our mortal tongues will begin to utter something that approaches the one true name of God. 

The God who woke Tabitha from the dead.

The God who woke Jesus from the dead.

The God who will wake each of us, on the last day, saying, quite simply:

Beautiful one, get up. 

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. 

The Church is Crumbling: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, April 3rd, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is John 12:1-8, when Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus with precious nard.

Now, I don’t want to alarm anyone inordinately on a Sunday morning, but I have to tell you that the church is crumbling.

I’m actually not making a dire prediction about the future of the institutional church (plenty of others are doing that these days). I mean, quite literally, there are bits of Trinity’s building that are crumbling on the outside that will need a little maintenance. Fr. T.J. and I were walking back from lunch the other week when he noted a spot on the exterior of the nave that needs some repair to the mortar work. Such things are to be expected in a building nearly 160 years old, and don’t worry, the members of the Vestry are keenly aware of the ongoing project list to care for these old stone walls. It is part of our collective labor of love as stewards of this community for future generations. 

In every age, as the ones entrusted with the care of the present moment, it is our task to keep an eye out for the cracks in the world around us: the broken bits of buildings and of hearts, the accumulating dust of neglect, the water streaming down in rivulets from leaking roofs and from tear-filled eyes. All of us, both building and people, get a bit tired and careworn eventually. All of us need tending. And so we patch each other up, we put mortar into each others’ broken spots, we carry one another and we carry on. This is our shared responsibility in life, as it always has been.

The tendency towards decay and disorder, whether in church walls or in other human endeavors, has a name derived from science. It is called entropy. The word was coined in the 19th century by the German physicist Rudolf Clausius, who was a leader in the study of thermodynamics. Clausius observed that the energy in heat-powered systems, like steam engines, was not all harnessed; some of it was lost and dispersed, no matter how efficient the system. This unavoidable tendency towards loss and disintegration of energy, he concluded, was the default mode of the material universe.  In other words, entropy suggests that when left to their own devices, things tend to fall apart.

The idea of entropy has since been applied to many aspects of human life, not just physics. And intuitively, I think it makes a lot of sense, even in non-scientific terms. Ideological, cultural, and political movements change and decline over time. Relationships, when we don’t invest in them, drift apart. All the seemingly solid markers of fame, prestige, and strength that we might accumulate in our life eventually diminish. And, eventually, each of us will die and, as we were reminded at the outset of this Lenten season, to dust we shall return, to mix with the crumbling stones and the memories of a thousand generations. 

Holy Scripture is full of the idea of entropy, even if it doesn’t name it as such—think of the Book of Ecclesiastes: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” Or the Psalmist, who says “those of high degree are but a fleeting breath, even those of low estate cannot be trusted. On the scales they are lighter than a breath, all of them together.”

The question is, what do we do with this knowledge? If everything in the universe has a tendency towards disintegration, towards chaos, towards loss, then why bother? Why not let the walls come tumbling down?

This is, essentially, the question that this Gospel passage from John asks us. It is the question that Judas and Mary of Bethany are both faced with in those final days leading up to Jesus’ passion and death, and their diverging responses are instructive for us. 

First, there is Judas, who is outraged and offended by Mary’s display of deep devotion—the anointing of Jesus’ feet with precious nard, the intimacy of her hair wound around him in tendrils like branches clinging to the vine. Whether it is out of pure greed or, as I suspect, a whole host of more complicated emotions and motivations, Judas thinks all of this is shameful, wasteful. 

I wonder, though, if this is not so much a matter of Judas misunderstanding what’s going on, but in fact understanding all too well what is about to transpire in Jerusalem. Perhaps Judas has taken Jesus’ prediction of his own death seriously. Perhaps Judas has already given up on him. Perhaps he has seen the cracks in the mortar, if you will, and is ready to walk away from the whole thing.

“Why was this perfume not sold…and the money given to the poor?” he asks, but there is bitterness underneath his words, not generosity. They are the words of a man who has given up on dreams, on love, on friendship, because the entropy of the world and the looming failure of Jesus’s mission has caused Judas to retreat into himself, into his own protective self-righteousness, into his own understanding of how things ought to be.

How hard our hearts become when we try to keep them from breaking. And so Judas decides to break Jesus, instead. He decides to tear down the walls rather than wait for them to fall. 

If we are honest with ourselves, that same tendency is in each of us. Afraid of loss, we run away. Afraid of vulnerability, we slam the door shut. Afraid of being a fool, we become a cynic, with entropy the only news we have to proclaim to the world.

But then there is Mary of Bethany, who is sometimes conflated with Mary Magdalene, but in this moment we will let her be herself. Mary is not naive in her gift-giving. She, too, knows what is coming. She knows that Jesus is approaching an ending. She knows that the nard is costly, and that anointing her Lord will not prevent the pain or loss that is to come. But she does it anyway. She does it because it is what she can do. She does it because she loves him. She does it because she knows, in a way that Judas does not, that in loving someone, nothing is ever wasted. 

Mary, and all of us who would follow in her footsteps, do not deny that death and decay are real. We are not ignoring the fact that things tend to fall apart, that chaos is always at the doorstep. We know that it is. We see the crumbling stones, and we witness the crumbling hopes of too many in every generation. But we show up anyway. We try to mend the cracks anyway, even if we are taken as fools, even if it never seems to amount to very much, because it is what we can do. It is what love requires of us. 

What Mary knew–and what Jesus reveals–is that while entropy might be the most pervasive force in the universe, the most powerful force is love. It is only love that will dare to bind up what is broken. It is only love that can gather in what is lost. It is only love that refuses to give up even when things keep going wrong. And no matter how things disintegrate and scatter, no matter how our own lives fall apart, no matter if these walls do keep crumbling down, no matter if the entire universe breaks apart, God will always be bigger than our brokenness. God holds us. God refuses to give up on us. 

And so we must do the same. What God has said to us, and what Mary says back to God, we must also say:

I will hold what is broken. I will bless it with my deepest tenderness. I will spend all of my love on the things that are doomed to decay, which is, in fact, everything. And though I may weep, though my heart might break at the seeming futility of love, I know in a way beyond knowing that it will all make sense some day. That it will have been worth it.

It is worth it. That’s the good news.

So if you get a chance this week, take a walk around the church building. You might spot the broken bits I mentioned or the places where the garden needs tending after a long winter. You might notice a crack in the plaster here and there. Our work continues, always. But notice, too, the patches, the repairs, and the additions of those who came before us—the small acts of care by generations of people, some of whom we will never know, but who did what they could even as the walls crumbled in their own time. 

And perhaps, like me, you might offer a prayer of thanksgiving for those people–those with the heart of Mary of Bethany–for the sweetness of their offerings, the memory of which still lingers like perfume in the air.  Perhaps, like me, you might marvel at the fact that because of them, and because of us still trying our best, despite the entropy of the world, we are still standing, and these stones are still standing, held together by love as much as by mortar. 

And perhaps, like me, you will find strength in knowing this: that even if everything else turns to dust, this love will remain. It is the one thing that cannot break. It is the one thing that will never go away.