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 Island: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Peaceful Body: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on April 18, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 24:36-48.

Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.

I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies this week—about how inseparable our bodies are from our own particular identity and story. I’ve been thinking about bodies that grow and move through the world, gathering experience and wisdom, and other bodies that are broken, bruised and scarred. Bodies that connect, and bodies that retreat from companionship. Bodies that stand tall and hopeful, and bodies that lie low upon the earth, down where the blood cries out from the ground. Bodies that live. And bodies that die and are laid to rest.

And I’ve been thinking about one body in particular, the body of Jesus, who, in today’s Gospel passage, appears in his body and stands in our midst in the strange light of Eastertide saying, “peace be with you.” 

A risen body. An offering of peace. Somehow, it seems, these are connected—two notes of the same song. 

The disciples’ bodies trembled, though, when he appeared to them and gave them this greeting; they were “startled and terrified” and “disbelieving.” I can’t say I blame them, for how can our limited imaginations possibly begin to picture deathless life? And what do we know of true, embodied peace? How could we begin to recognize it or comprehend it if it appeared in front of us?

Because the peace of God is a beautiful thought, yes, but I will admit that this week, like too many before it, I’ve been distracted and dismayed and far from peaceful, thinking about those bodies that know no peace, bodies to whom no peace is offered—black and brown bodies beaten and gunned down in the streets. Bodies ravaged and silenced by COVID, by cancer, by injury or addiction. The bodies that sleep under bridges and the ones that go to bed hungry.

And all of them are so present, their suffering so urgent and persistent, that I sometimes do not know what to do with this invitation to peacefulness, which can ring a bit hollow when I hear it, as if ‘peace’ is just a polite way of saying that those broken bodies are someone else’s problem, that the world’s violence ought not disturb the tranquility of our spiritual endeavors. 

But no, this can’t be what Jesus means when he says “peace be with you,” although, if we are honest, it is what we are used to—a world that seems to foment only our capacity for rage or apathy.

And so perhaps it is not so shocking that the disciples, in encountering the risen, peace-bearing Christ, are confused, even in their joy. Because they, like us, could not quite understand what it is that he proclaims or represents. Because they, like us, were accustomed to the expendability of fragile bodies caught up in imperial systems; they, like us, were intimately acquainted with the prevalence of death, whether from disease, disaster, or violence. They, like us, were conditioned to accept the machinations of a society that favors the powerful, that privileges forcefulness, and that mischaracterizes “peace” as acquiescence, passivity or disengagement. 

And so against all of that, what could this moment–this resurrection encounter–possibly mean, strange not only because their Lord has reclaimed life after a cruel and senseless death, but also because he does so as one proclaiming peace, rather than retribution? 

What is the significance of this resurrected body of his, which has conquered death and yet still bears the marks of torture? This body challenges us, for how can any of us look upon the violence and the degradation imprinted upon his flesh—upon all flesh—and yet proclaim, with hope and without irony, “peace be with you?”

I think we still struggle to resolve these questions. And yet it is fundamentally important that we try to do so, because without joining the disciples and facing the uncomfortable paradox of Jesus’ wounded, resurrected body, we will not ever truly know him, nor the type of peace that he offers; a peace that is unlike anything the world can give us.

“Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself,” Jesus tells the group, and much like Thomas in last week’s Gospel passage, we observe that it is in examining the marks upon his body, in touching the scars and the bruised places, that the Lord invites the disciples to recognize him, to know him for who he is. And it is only once they have done so that they can even begin to imagine the possibility of what he represents—not just their Lord and teacher returned to them, but a new life, a new type of peacefulness, the kind that does not come about by vanquishing enemies but by loving so fiercely, so fully, that the idea of enmity itself is nullified. A peace that is deep enough, and true enough, to stand in solidarity with the woundedness of the world, rather than evade it.

Because that is what Jesus is doing in this wounded, resurrected body of his—he is standing in solidarity with the disciples, and with you and me and everyone who has ever been wounded or broken or beaten down, and he is saying: 

I see you, I understand you, and whatever it is that you have faced, and whatever new horror the world tries to inflict upon the vulnerable among you, it will not prevail, not truly. Because I have taken these wounds and grafted them onto my own, undying, Spirit-infused, eternal body. And it is THIS frail and magnificent body, so much like your own, still bearing the marks of human sorrow, it is THIS body which is ascending to the Father—wounds and scars and bruises and all. I am taking this pain—your pain and my own and all the pain of the world—and I am going up, up to glory, up to the right hand of God—and I am binding the world to myself, I am binding you to myself, so that nothing can separate us ever again. 

This is good news, to say the least, because it means that our sanctity and our salvation have nothing to do with pretending we are whole or perfect or pure. We do not have to be unblemished, unwounded to be beloved, to enter the Kingdom of God, because the Wounded Holy One has already gone there to prepare a place for us. 

Jesus shows us that the Christian life–the life of true and lasting peace–is not about glossing over or refusing to acknowledge the painful parts of life, or bravely pretending for one another that everything is fine. It is about truth. It is about facing and naming the things that are hard and ugly even as we celebrate the things that are beautiful.

It is about cultivating reverence for the wounded, resurrected body of our Lord upon this altar so that we might carry that same reverence into our encounters with our neighbors, that we might tend to their bodies and their wounds with the same care that we offer his.

His risen body shows us that the life he offers is about entering into the fray, into the heaving heart of the world and saying: Peace be with you.

True and courageous peace be with you.

The peace of the wounded, resurrected Jesus be with you.

The peace of love’s tender and deathless power be with you.

The peace that is the inheritance and the destiny of every beloved, broken body be with you. 

God’s peace be with you. 

Alleluia.