One: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 4th, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is Philemon 1-21.

A few months ago I had one of those paradigm shifting moments that make you question something that had, before, always seemed so obvious. I was reading a book called The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, by Dan Egan, which chronicles both the history of the lakes and the challenges that they have faced through the years due to agricultural runoff and pollution and the threat of invasive species. As someone who has grown up with a deep love for the Great Lakes, it was both fascinating and sobering to take a deeper dive, if you will, into the singular natural wonder that is practically in our backyard. 

But back to the paradigm shift. Many of us can easily picture the Great Lakes on a map, and we know that there are five of them—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario. But early in the book, Egan writes, “they might be called the Great Lakes, but the five inland seas are essentially one giant slow-motion river flowing west to east, with each lake dumping like a bucket into the next until all the water is gathered in the St. Lawrence River and tumbles seaward.”

One giant river. 

That just blew my mind, even though when you actually look at a map, it makes perfect sense—all of the lakes are connected to one another by smaller rivers and straits and waterways, the most final and dramatic of which is Niagara falls, as the system that began in Lake Superior tumbles down into lake Ontario and on towards the ocean. One giant river. 

Egan’s point was that what happens in one lake, for better or worse, ultimately happens in all of the lakes, given enough time—and that even though we see them as massive and immovable entities, they are in fact a broad and delicate network of relationships, larger and more complex than the human eye can perceive, a single flow of interdependent life. 

It makes sense, though, that we would tend to see the lakes as separate bodies, ascribing to each its own personality and landscape. Separating everything out, giving things a name and a discernible boundary, is how we make sense of the vastness of the landscape around us. This is as true for people as it is for lakes. We make distinctions, we give each other names and we assess one another’s basic qualities because it helps us navigate a world that would otherwise feel overwhelming. And just as we can easily picture a map of the Great Lakes in our mind’s eye, each of us, somewhere within ourselves, carries a sort of emotional map upon which we locate the people and places we know—those that feel like home, and those that, perhaps, we’d rather not revisit. 

But here’s the thing—once the paradigm shifts, it’s hard to go backwards. Now, no matter how many times I see a map of the Great Lakes, I will know that they are actually just one giant river. And while I will always have a particular affection for this piece of the shoreline of Lake Superior or that little town along the shore of Lake Michigan, I cannot unsee their essential unity now that I have seen it. 

And as for all of the people located on that inner map I carry, especially the ones whose company I’d rather avoid, well, it’s the same thing. I cannot, as a follower of Jesus, forget the fact that we are, essentially, one body. 

This fundamental unity is something that is absolutely essential for understanding what St. Paul is up to in today’s epistle, the letter to Philemon. To summarize the letter: Paul is sending this letter to Philemon, a wealthy householder and church leader, asking him to receive back into his home a man named Onesimus, an enslaved person who at some point fled Philemon’s house and came to stay with Paul while he was under house arrest. Onesimus has come to faith in Christ, and so Paul requests that Philemon now receive Onesimus back no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother. It is a very pragmatic and human letter in many ways, one of the most personal that we have of Paul’s writings. It’s also a complex letter, given its ambiguity on the insitution of 1st century Roman slavery and whether Paul is condoning it or not. 

But the essential takeaway for us is not just that Paul was a nice guy trying to do a nice thing in an imperfect world. It is not just that Philemon, we hope, received Onesimus back with a more socially enlightened perspective. No, it is far more radical than that. 

The essential takeaway, the underlying argument that Paul is making about the nature of Christian life–the argument that is in fact woven throughout most of his writings–is that in Christ, we are fundamentally ONE. And that the categories that we use to distinguish ourselves from one another, to create order, to map out the world that we can see, are ultimately knit together in the Kingdom of God. And so when Paul says of Onesimus, “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you,” he is not speaking poetically, like a slogan on a Hallmark card. He is speaking quite literally, because in Christ we are one body. And when he says “welcome him as you would welcome me” he is not speaking metaphorically, but literally, because in Christ we are one body.

One giant body. All connected to each other. 

And so Paul doesn’t need Philemon to just “do the right thing” legally or ethically by choosing to welcome Onesimus as a brother. He needs him to understand the stakes of his choice. It is not just whether Philemon, too, will choose to be a nice guy doing a charitable thing. The question is whether Philemon actually believes that the Body of Christ is a real and living thing, and whether he actually plans to live as though it is—whether he plans to reorder his understanding of other people, whether he is willing to dissolve the boundaries between his interests and theirs, to live as though they are indeed the limbs and the organs of his own body. Is he willing? 

Are we willing?

When you look into the face of a person, especially one whom you struggle to love, struggle to live alongside, can you look into their face and see a glimpse of your own looking back? Can you choose, in that moment—even in the hurt and in the confusion and resentment—to remember that the same blood and breath and water flows through each of us—that we are not separate bodies encased within rocky shorelines, but one flowing stream, one giant river, tumbling forward together?

Paul hopes that we do. He hopes that we remember Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one—that we open our eyes and see that we already are one, that we always were. 

Nobody knows for sure what Philemon decided to do—whether he welcomed Onesimus as a beloved brother. Though I like to think that the fact that the letter survived through the centuries suggests that he did—that the letter was, perhaps, the precursor to a moment of sheer grace.

I imagine a treasured family story lovingly passed down in the household of Philemon about the day when two men, so very different, separated by time and station and circumstance, saw one another as if for the first time, and fell into one another’s arms and wept tears of joy and regret and forgiveness. Tears welling up from some hidden place their souls. Tears that mingled and fell onto the earth, pooling together, indistinguishable from one another, as if they flowed from the same body. 

Flowed, like one giant river. 

On Saying Goodbye: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on September 8, 2019, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, Indiana. The lectionary texts cited are Luke 14:25-33 and Philemon 1-21.

In late August of 2001, I stood by a fountain on a crowded brick-lined plaza, hugging my dad goodbye. We had just driven from Upper Michigan to northern Virginia, to the small college where I was about to begin my freshman year, and after unpacking my meager belongings into a dorm room, it was time for him to get back on the road.

We embraced, and I let go of him, and he smiled in his gentle way and disappeared into the crowd. And although I knew I would see him again at Christmas time, this goodbye was different, deeper, more definitive than those I had known before. It left me feeling hollow and full all at once, like a balloon untethered, drifting into the summer sky, into an unknown future.

I think that this particular goodbye felt so significant because I knew, intuitively, that I would not be the same person in a few months; that life at college would intervene in unexpected ways, and that when my father and I saw each other again in December, we would behold each other with new eyes. Our relationship would be changed.

Such is the nature of leaving home: it’s never quite the same when you go back.

Little did he and I know, on that late summer afternoon 18 years ago, how dramatically life would indeed intervene—for us, and for everyone in this country, just a couple of weeks later on the morning of September 11th, 2001, when many of us were forced to say a “goodbye” of a different sort: a goodbye to the illusion of our country’s impenetrability, a goodbye to the confident expectation that there might be peace in our time, and a goodbye to the clarity and innocence  of a world that had seemed relatively less complicated, at least for some of us, on September 10th.

It became clear to me, that first semester of college—and to many of us, I think, in that twilight of the year 2001—that we could take very little for granted. The precariousness of our previous assumptions about safety and security demonstrated that any moment—any moment at all—might turn into the unanticipated goodbye, the half-appreciated embrace, the unresolved question of our incomplete entanglements–cut short by time, or violence, or misfortune. 

We were then, and perhaps to some extent still are, a people collectively holding our breath, waiting under the specter of another imminent loss. 

But I also believe that, in that season of uncertainty, when the world shifted beneath us, each of us realized, at least for a little while, how important it is to live as if we are always about to lose each other—that is, always savoring the magnificent gift we discover in one another, the vibrancy of loving that which is changeable, and the transfiguration of the human heart that is revealed in those moments before we say goodbye, before we go our separate ways at the fountain on a summer day, before the smoke and dust envelop us, before we become dust ourselves. That urgent, insistent, keenly felt connection with the friend, with the stranger, and with our own fragile lives, was a gift revealed in the shadowlands of September 2001.

But it’s easy to forget this hard, valuable lesson, especially once life resumes its typical patterns. We get accustomed to new realities, and they become normal, and we settle into them as best we can. We assemble some sense of security and perhaps convince ourselves that this time we are safe, this time letting go won’t be necessary, at least not for a while…until, of course, the next time that life intervenes, as it always does, and a new goodbye is thrust upon us, shocking us back into life, catching in our throat like a pill we aren’t quite able to swallow.

So, why all this talk of goodbyes?

It’s because I think that by considering what it means to say “goodbye,” which is really a condensed form of the phrase “God be with you,” we might find a new way to approach this week’s Gospel passage, where Jesus offers us some challenging words about hating our families and even life itself in order to be a disciple, along with bearing our cross and giving up our possessions. 

Those latter two conditions we hear elsewhere in Scripture and are somewhat more familiar to us, but hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters? This is a hard teaching to understand or accept for a way of life that is supposed to be rooted in love.

Now, commentators often claim that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole to drive home a certain point—that we need to make him and his Way the priority in our lives, the One who comes before all other allegiances, the One who lays full claim upon our selves, souls, and bodies.  

And that is quite true, but we are still left to wonder, as our children play in the nursery and our spouses and parents sit next to us in the pews: how can loving our families—our birth families, our chosen families, our church families—how on earth can this love be considered a stumbling block to following Christ? Are we supposed to conclude that we should leave them all behind and become itinerant preachers in the wilds of Indiana so that we might be called disciples?

I don’t think so.

No, Jesus, in this jarring talk about hating those whom we love, is, I think, trying to wake us up, and teach us an important lesson about being able to say goodbye, about letting go of the people and things we love the most, precisely because he knows that letting go is the price of loving as deeply and as selflessly as he calls us to do, especially when life intervenes in unexpected ways: a move across country; an illness; a breakup; a national tragedy. 

To love in the way that Jesus does, without clinging to safety, without controlling, without turning inward: this is the mark of a disciple. 

A disciple is one who arrives into every moment, every interaction, with the clarity and gratitude of someone who is already prepared to say goodbye. One for whom every joyful greeting is already shaped by the sweet, appreciative sorrow of departure.

Because it is only in those moments when we are compelled to say goodbye to the people and places we love the most, when our eyes are blurred with tears—at the airport curb, at the schoolhouse door, at the graveside—it is only then that our hearts finally see clearly: that these people and these experiences are a fleeting gift to us, not an entitlement—a blessing from God, not a fixed commodity. 

Our families, our possessions, even our own lives—as Christians, we are given the grace to perceive that these treasures all belong to the Triune God Who sent them, not to us, and we must release them, daily, into the care of the Holy One, saying, with reverence, in every moment: Goodbye. God be with you. Because I cannot hold onto you forever.

Thus, being a disciple who is able to say goodbye is about freedomthe type of freedom that allows life to be what it is, with its encounters and departures, its quiet predicability and its shocking upheavals—and to still seek God in the middle of all of it, to be servants of the God who endures despite all change, and to know ourselves as God’s beloved, above all else.

It is a strange freedom, this, one that upends everything we think we know about the world. It shapes Paul’s request to Philemon in today’s epistle, in which a severed relationship is restored under new terms. 

No longer, says Paul, are Philemon and Onesimus to be understood as master and slave, as they once were, but as two brothers, two disciples, united in the love of Christ. Philemon, like us, must learn to “hate” the old way of being—he must say goodbye to the old understandings of himself and others in exchange for something new, something entirely unexpected— something Jesus requires of him, and of us. 

And when he and his former servant are reunited, perhaps by a fountain on a brick-lined plaza, life having intervened in unpredictable ways, they, too, will behold one another with new eyes.

After all, such is the nature of leaving home: it’s never quite the same when you go back.

What is it that each of us must say goodbye to in this season? What must you and I release into the care of God, not because we love it any less, but because we love it so very much? Who or what can each of us set free, so that we can be free, so that we can be disciples, as Jesus invites us to be? 

Whatever it is, I pray that you will taste that magnificent, slightly disorienting freedom. In letting go, I pray that we will be surprised by an exquisite, grateful, and enduring love. In goodbye, may God be with you. May God be with all of us.