“And”: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 18, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 22:15-22:

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

“Tell us whose side you’re on,” the Pharisees and the Herodians are asking Jesus today. “Tell us who has the ultimate power: the God of Israel, or this Emperor to whom we owe our taxes?”

They are trying to trip Jesus up with this question, of course, because taking a side in this particular dispute will either undermine the Roman authorities (bad idea) or disappoint Jesus’ Judean followers. A perfect conundrum, his inquisitors assume. 

But do you remember that moment, early in his ministry, when the people of Nazareth get really angry at Jesus’s preaching and try to drive him off of a cliff, and then somehow, inexplicably, he simply “passed through the midst of them and went on his way”?

Yeah, he pretty much does the same thing here. Jesus is really good at transcending these no-win situations. His answer, as simple as it is, stuns the questioners—“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the Emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It’s the first century equivalent of a mic drop–and so they just sort of shut up and go away. 

But I don’t think our takeway is simply that Jesus is really good at giving clever answers or getting himself out of a bind. No, what we see here is that Jesus brings an entirely different mindset to the world than that of his challengers. Unlike them, he does not see things as a choice between binaries—this world OR the next one, insiders OR outsiders, attentiveness to the realm of God OR Caesar. 

Instead, Jesus is someone who almost always operates in terms of “both/and.” He demonstrates, time and again, that a meaningful response to the complexities of the human condition require us to live in the tension of opposites, making space for both THIS thing and THAT thing, THIS person, and THAT person. We don’t get to opt out of loving God or our neighbor just because things are complicated and nuanced.

I had a professor in seminary, Caroline McCall, who taught us to drop the word “but” from our vocabulary when we were engaging in dialogue with one another—ie. I like what you said, BUT, I think my idea is better.  That is important, BUT this is more important.

Instead, she encouraged us to say “AND.” That is important. AND, this is also important.

I came to understand from Caroline’s teaching that this wasn’t just a strategy for civil discussion; it was a social and theological lens that allows for the coexistence of diverse values and perspectives. It is a way of communicating that invites more ideas into the circle, even paradoxical ideas, even ideas we might not agree with, and in doing so our hearts and our minds become just a bit more open, charitable, Christlike. I might disagree with you AND I am still committed to loving you.

And this is, in effect, what Jesus does to answer the Pharisees and the Herodians today. He is saying: take seriously the demands of the present social order AND love God and your neighbor with all your heart and soul and mind. Engage as a participant in this world, as imperfect and broken as it might be, AND never forget that God is breaking in, forging a new world all around you.  Do both. Be both.

Those who are committed to binaries, to zero-sum games, to seeing the world as winners and losers, are likely to be challenged by this. Still, as followers of the way of Jesus, we need to embody non-binary thinking now more than ever.

When we are confronted in our own lives by people who always try to force us into picking sides, into seeing the world as nothing more than a never ending power struggle in which we must vanquish our perceived enemies, we need to pause, and take a breath, and pass through their midst. Not out of fear or apathy, but because the answer to every question lies on the other side of our enmity.

And I know how tempting it is in these polarized times to pick a team, to pick a side, to think of everyone as either an ally or an enemy, but I am telling you this: if the church doesn’t lead the way in opting out of this binary way of thinking and categorizing the world, if people of faith and good conscience don’t do it, then it will not happen, and we will continue to grow more suspicious of one another and farther and farther apart, long past any particular election season or pandemic. And if we are suspicious and apart, we will never flourish, not one of us.  

The change has to begin here, now, among us and within us, because first and foremost we are citizens of God’s Kingdom, and that is a place fundamentally shaped by the word “AND”: a place that is just AND compassionate, free AND interdependent, abundant AND equitable. Rooted in history AND looking towards the future.

And you know what is so fantastic, so beautiful? It is that we are already doing this; we are already living in this spirit right here at Trinity. We demonstrate this every week by coming together with people—people similar to us and people very different from us—to turn our hearts towards God and one another and by saying YES: yes, life is hard, yes, the world can be angry and cruel, yes, I am exhausted and scared and money is tight and my relationship is on the rocks and my dog is sick and I am so tired of political ads on TV–

AND…

AND life is a gift, and God’s blessings are everywhere, and Christ is in the face of the person next to me, and how amazing it is to be alive today, to breathe the crisp fall air, and how good it is to strive for justice and mercy in this land, and how perfectly imperfect is this very moment, here in the presence of Jesus who is passing, lovingly passing through our midst, passing through our fears, passing through our binaries, guiding us out into the True Answer to every question.

How gut-wrenching it is to love him, to follow him where he goes AND how necessary, how grace-filled, how complete.

We will only glimpse God’s fullness, brothers and sisters and sibilings, when “AND” becomes the vocabulary of our hearts. When we live as though there is space enough for everyone, and mercy enough for everyone, and peace enough for everyone, and food and shelter and justice enough for everyone. There can be. There will be. Because no matter how many blustering emperors come and go from this earth, we worship a God who is ultimately on everyone’s side–a God who will not rest until the day we are all resting together. 

That day feels a long way off sometimes. A long way off.

And:

We will get there.

I’ve Had Enough: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 11, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 22:1-14:

Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Several weeks ago, a number of us came together for an online retreat here at Trinity, focusing on the parables of Jesus. We spent a couple of days studying and praying with these enigmatic depictions of the Kingdom that Jesus uses to teach and form his followers, including us.

One strategy that I shared during our retreat, which I personally find helpful when engaging with a parable that is especially strange or troubling, is to imagine who I might be in the story as I read it through, aligning my perspective with that character, seeing what insight arises for me. Then, I will pick another character, one I might not readily identify with, and put myself in that person’s shoes. I read the parable again from that perspective and see what new discoveries the Holy Spirit might offer. 

Reading the parables in this way helps me break free from the assumption that there is only one way to understand a story, only one way to understand what the Kingdom of God is all about. As a spiritual discipline, it helps me build empathy for perspectives other than my own, and opens me up to the new word that God always seems to be offering us if we are willing to listen for it.

How badly we need a new word right now, at this moment in our world when the characterizations used in our public discourse feel especially brittle and caustic, like spiteful caricatures of a once-robust story. 

How urgently we need a new paradigm, a new lens through which to perceive what citizenship in God’s Kingdom asks of us. How desperately we need to reconsider who we are in the unfolding narrative of our time. 

Our gospel lesson today is a perfect example of this need. The most common approach to this morning’s parable is to imagine God as the vengeful king; in fact, nearly every commentary I came across this past week started with the assumption that this is the correct way to interpret Jesus’ words here. And if God is the king in this story, then it follows that those who reject God’s invitation and those who fail to adequately prepare themselves for God’s expectations will suffer at God’s hand and will be cast out into the darkness.  The chosen few will enjoy the feast. End of story. Amen.

Many of us know this type of Christian narrative of election and condemnation from other seasons of our lives; many of us have felt its sting or have pushed up against its suffocating certainties. 

But with all due respect to those who promote this dominant narrative, I, for one, have had enough of a theology of angry kings and burning cities and exclusive guest lists. I have had enough of Christian communities that use parables like this to judge and exclude under the guise of truth-telling. I have had enough of purity tests and moral posturing and spiritual violence masquerading as love. I have had enough. 

That story is played out, and it doesn’t sound anything like the Jesus I know and love.

So, I would offer, it is time to stretch our imagination, time to recast this story.

What if God is not actually the king of this parable? What if God is not any of the people in this parable? 

Jesus never actually says who God is here—we have read that into the text ourselves, collectively, over generations. But one thing we do know, from the very shape of his own life and death and resurrection, is that Jesus has little interest in emulating earthly kings. He usually operates, in fact, as the antithesis of a typical king.

To cast God, then, as the petty tyrant of this parable might tell us more about our own understanding of power in this world than it does about the liberating power of God’s kingdom. 

So here’s my new cast list, for your consideration. 

Sometimes, we are the king in this story. We are this king every time we act out of our need for control, every time we manipulate others so that they will do what we want. We are this king when we start deciding who is and is not worthy of mercy, when we encouter people with whom we disagree and desire to annilhate them in our hearts, to cast them into the darkness beyond the limits of our compassion. 

And sometimes, we are also the guests. 

We can be those initial guests—the ones who don’t show up—whenver we decide that we have better things to do than giving our lives over to Christ. We are those guests when we become distracted, deceived by the illusion that we can create our own personal heaven rather than participating in the real heaven, the one that is only found in the mutuality between us and God and our neighbor.

And we can be those final guests, too—the hesitant, the unprepared, the speechless—and in them we see reflected our own moments of speechlessness, our own fear and confusion about what is expected of us, and we’re given a stark reminder that we need to get clear about who we are and why we are here; that this Christian life is not meant to be observed from the sidelines, but lived in fervent fullness.

And God. If not a king, then where is God in this recasting? That is quite simple:

God is the wedding feast itself. 

God is the abundant table. 

God is the bread and wine and the scent of roses. 

God is the water trembling in the crystal bowl,

the color of ripe fruit,

the candlelight reaching out to illuminate your face. 

God, always, forever, is the Eucharistic banquet, the promise of sustenance, available to anyone, to everyone—to the angry king and the frightened guest alike, to you and to me—if only we would lay down our arms and our anger and our apathy and gather together for the meal that has been prepared for us, the kingdom that has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world. 

God is the feast. The feast of life.

So, whoever you are this morning, whoever you have been before, come.  Let us sit down together, and rest, and eat. 

Let us tell a new story.

For Such a Time as This: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 20, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Philippians 1:21-30 and Matthew 20:1-16.

I know it might feel like a lifetime ago in this ever-frantic news cycle, but just the other week my social media feeds were full of eerie, dark images from friends in the San Francisco Bay Area: a thick mantle of smoke from the voracious, deadly wildfires on the west coast had literally blocked out the sunlight. Office towers were illuminated at midday, and cars crept through the haze with headlights on, like ghosts floating through the thick, amber-tinted gloom that many described as “apocalyptic.”

And while these images were striking in their severity, this rampage of flame and smoke is not a  novelty out west. In fact, as a seminary student in Berkeley a couple years ago, long before the coronavirus pandemic, I was already the owner of several N95 face masks, because the ash from the autumn wildfires would get so thick that our lungs would burn just walking a block or two to class. 

I remember my friend and classmate, Alison, collecting masks and handing them out to the folks living on the streets in our neighborhood, who had to sleep every night under that blanket of toxic air. I remember keeping a bag packed in my dorm room with essential documents and mementos, just in case those sparks of fire began devouring the hills looming outside my window.

As a native Californian, I can tell you that these fires, in recent years, are worse than they ever have been. Their intensity and destrutiveness, exacerbated by climate change and unchecked population growth in fire zones, threatens the life and livelihood of millions of people in our country.

But, as with so many other urgent societal challenges of our time, the debate over what to do about this crisis has been overtaken by the fear and resentment that pervades our public discourse. The need to reckon with complex challenges devolves into false dichtomies and endless posturing. Meanwhile, the land continues to seethe and burn, and our brothers and sisters weep amid ashes both literal and figurative, in a season that indeed feels like an endlessly encroaching twilight.

So when they were talking about apocalyptic skies, my friends might have been engaging in a bit of anxious poeticism, but not by much—becasue we ARE living through an apocalypse, in the strictest sense of that word. Not necessarily the “end times” of popular imagination, but an apokalypsis—which in the Biblical Greek means a revelation, an uncovering of things not previously known. This period of crisis is revealing US, forcing us to face who we are and what we stand for.

Not who we THINK we are. Not who we assume OTHERS to be. But who we actually are, when the rubber meets the road, when times get tough, when we can no longer hide our fears and flaws behind the pleasantly numbing qualities of prosperity and power. When the type of love espoused by Jesus, in all of its raw urgency, is all we have to rely upon and guide us.

If we glean anything from the letter of St. Paul today, who realizes that for him the greater good is to stay and engage in the “fruitful labor” of this troubled world, we must come to understand that sitting this one out, that waiting for the ethereal promise of better days, is not part of our Christian vocation. This is the time for us to stop posturing, to put aside our resentments and regrets about what might have been or should have been, and start getting real about doing God’s work. The needs are great. The hour is coming and is now here.

In today’s gospel, we hear from Jesus that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner hiring workers for his vineyard. And while we often focus, rightly, on how this parable illustrates God’s almost-scandalous generosity, it also has something important to tell us about simply showing up and laboring in the first place. 

Consider those workers who are lingering in the marketplace near the end of the day. We don’t know why they waited so long without being hired. But to the landowner, it doesn’t really matter. He is willing to take them. Because however late the hour, the laborers did show up. They stepped out in the public square and presented themselves as willing hearts, willing contributors to the harvest, even with only an hour or two of daylight left. Even when it might seem that any chance to make a difference has passed them by.

I think of all the times that I have been late to show up for the truly important people and pursuits in my life. I surely had all kinds of reasons, some better than others. Sometimes because I thought I had better things to do, other times because I was distracted, or scared, or angry, or I just didn’t know where to begin. Maybe you’ve had those experiences too, where you feel like you’ve missed the boat, missed the call, missed the opportunity to do something meaningful.

But what we learn in this parable—something God really, really needs us to learn right now—is that it is NEVER too late to start doing the work we have been called to do. Whether we start in the dawn of our life, or at midday, or at dusk, God will always come find us, will always offer us a place in the vineyard, and most importantly, will always show us that even the smallest thing we do has value in the Divine economy.

So what is the labor that you can contribute, here and now? What is the work of your hands, the work of your heart, that you might offer in this perilous season? There is not one among us who cannot take part, no matter our age, health, or circumstances. 

Daily prayer for the needs of the world is a great place to start. Supporting the life and work of your parish, of course, is of vital importance for so many of us. Extending a hand of friendship and compassion out into the lives of our neighbors, especially those in need. Speaking truth to power in the great prophetic tradition of our faith. Caring for God’s imperiled creation. 

There are so many ways to labor fruitfully, and there is no one solution to all that we face, but neither is there any excuse to exempt ourselves from showing up some way, somehow. As the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” And so each of us has to take that step, whatever it is for us.

God is waiting for us to say yes, like our Blessed Mother Mary, to say yes to something bigger than ourselves, inviting us into the joyful, necessary labor for which we were made.  We cannot let our fear, or frustration, or bewilderment impede us from jumping in and offering what we can. Those who came before us, those who struggled valiantly to make this world a kinder, fairer place, deserve at least that much.

So I pray that the smoke will clear from the skies out west. I pray that the smoke will clear from this pandemic, and from this election season, and from any number of other challenges we are facing. But alongside God’s grace and providence, we have a crucial part to play in the healing of this age.  And we can’t wait til there are clear, sunny skies to jump in and get to work. We do not have the luxury of waiting. Our land continues to burn, and so our hearts must burn in response.

Brothers and sisters, there is no one else on earth that can do the thing you were created to do. There is no one else that can contribute what you were born to contribute.

No matter the hour of life in which you find yourself, this is the hour you are called. I know things feel hard, and scary, and exhausting, but remember: we were born, we were named as God’s beloved, we were baptized into Christ’s death and life for such a time as this. So, take a deep breath; give thanks for those who have labored before us; imagine those who will come after us; and then, here and now, let us go into the vineyard together.

Love’s Enclosure: A Sermon

This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 6th, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Romans 13:8-14.

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another,” Paul urges today in his letter to the Romans, and it sounds so simple doesn’t it? How liberating, how wonderful, that the only thing we have to worry about in this life is loving each other. No long lists of rules and regulations for us, thank you very much—just love, for all of the people, all of the time. 

But experience teaches us that choosing love is often far from easy or straightforward, and we might at times wish there WAS a clearly outlined set of rules and instructions from God about how to do this thing called life. For all its truth and wisdom, though, Scripture is less of a how-to manual and more of an illustration—a vivid image of love’s redemptive entanglement with frailty.

And so, we must stand alongside one another, scrutinzing the image, discerning, together, often messily, what love mandates, here and now, and somehow reproduce it in our own lives.

At times, especially in this hard, angry, suspicious age in which we find ourselves, it can feel nearly impossible to love everyone and everything we encounter. When faced with the brokenness and the meanness of the world, we are tempted to retreat, to run away in horror and frustration. In such moments the idea that we must always be governed by love, in all times and places, can feel like a cruel joke. For it is a certainty that no matter how kind we are, no matter how gracious, not everyone will love us back.

And yet, that is indeed what is depicted, time and again, in Scripture. We are told that love is the through-line of every commandment Moses grapsed on stormy Mt. Sinai. We are told that choosing to love, despite all evidence to the contrary, builds the type of life that bears the imprint of eternity. “Love,” Paul says, “is the fulfilling of the Law.” In other words, Love is the fulfilling of God’s plan for creation.

You already know the stakes of this if you have ever cared for someone deeply—a partner, a parent, a child, a friend. Love’s requirements, when taken seriously, are all-encompassing. It demands everything we have to give. Love, as a rule of life, encloses us. It limits the scope of our freedom to some degree, as we commit to the care and nurture of this person, this place, this time. Sure, we could choose to run away, but love keeps us grounded, and in doing so, it helps us become what God intended.

I think our society needs a reminder of this, especially now, when it seems as though the pursuit of the common good has gone out of fashion. Without the grounding of a generous love, we risk becoming lost in the maze of our own private desires and impulses, wandering, like prodigal sons and daughters, into the “quarreling and jealousy” Paul warns us against, believing ourselves liberated, but in truth, enslaved by our own selfishness.

That is not how God designed the world to work. So we must constantly return to that image we have been given—the image of Love—and let our hearts be mended by it.

Speaking of images, the one included in your service bulletin (or viewable here) is one panel of the famous Unicorn tapestries, which can be found at The Cloisters museum in Manhattan.

These particular tapestries date from the late middle ages/early Renaissance, sometime around 1500, and they are massive, covering the walls of the large room in which they reside. They are also something of a mystery—nobody knows exactly who made them or where they came from, and art historians have spent a lot of time speculating as to what they mean. 

In various scenes, as you move around the gallery, the unicorn is discovered in a forest, then hunted, then killed, and then brought back to a castle by a large crowd of lords and ladies. Then, finally, quite strangely, there is the image that you see before you: the unicorn alive again, resting peacefully in a fenced enclosure, as the ripe fruits of a pomegranate tree drip their blood-red nectar onto its white coat.

We do know that the unicorn loomed large in the imagination of medieval European culture; it was a remnant of the writings of antiquity, a pagan symbol that combined equal measures of ferocity and gentleness, and as such became associated with the figure of Christ. The original King James Bible even translated the Hebrew word for wild oxen, re’em, as unicorn.

But what intrigues me most for our purposes today is the fence that surrounds the unicorn in this tapestry. Notice how low it is, how easy it would be for the creature to jump over it and escape. It begs the question, why does the unicorn stay there, when it could so easily leave? Why does it have such a tranquil expression, after having been hunted and confined within this absurdly small space? 

Imagining the Unicorn as an image of Jesus, the Scottish clergyman Harry Galbraith Miller, in a meditation he wrote many years ago on this very same tapestry, gives this answer:

“we come to sense that [the unicorn] is only held there because that is what it itself wishes. It is its own love that holds it, and in all its beauty, restrained power quivering in every limb, it rests there captive. The captive of love…love draws it in self-sacrificing gentleness.”

The captive of love—yes, this is indeed our Lord and our God. And as followers of Jesus, we, too, are invited to be love’s captives. We, too, are asked to lay down amid the fruits of this bloodstained paradise, and to let the bonds of charity hold us fast to this heartbroken earth, even when we would rather run away.

The majesty of the unicorn here is that it chooses to remain within our grasp, we who can grasp so little. It chooses to stay so that we might gaze upon it and be changed by it, we who did nothing to deserve its startling beauty, who will never fully comprehend it.

The unicorn, as the image of God, invites us into love’s enclosure, invites us to lay down our swords, invites to live for something other than ourselves.

For you and I, right now, that might mean wearing a mask to protect our neighbors. It might advocating for justice and reconciliation. It might mean offering forgiveness to one who has wronged us, or making amends if we have wronged someone else.

Every time we do these things, every time we accept the responsibilities of love, we are, as Paul says, putting on the armor of light—the dazzling garment of the gentle warrior, a figure not unlike the unicorn itself, proud and strong and free, yet choosing to stay, choosing to fight for love, despite the odds.

We might not always get it right. We will probably make plenty of mistakes. But how good it is try. How good it is to lay down within this enclosure, where the fruits of the Spirit drip nectar onto our skin, where the Law of Love grows up around us like wildflowers.

That is where we are meant to be. That is who we are meant to be.

Love Made Strange: A Sermon

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Marketplace: A Sermon

This sermon was preached online for Sunday, July 5, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’  (Matthew 11:16-17)

Outdoor markets are vibrant, wonderful places. If you have ever had the chance to visit one, especially a market in another country, I am sure you know what I mean. Whether you are wandering the mountain-town markets of Guatemala or the urban night markets of Hong Kong, or even spending a Saturday morning at the Fort Wayne Farmer’s Market, to visit one is to be surrounded by the smell of ripe fruit and spices and grilled meat; the sounds of haggling customers and music; a profusion of colors and textures spilling out into your field of vision, each stall offering an invitation to trail your fingers along the contours of the earth’s abundance and of human creativity. 

And, at the very same time, marketplaces are confusing, intimdating places, as well. The rules of negotiation are sometimes cryptic, the languages spoken might not be your own, the crowds can close in, and there is always the chance that you might take a wrong turn and end up lost amid a maze of counterfeit goods and beckoning strangers.

In their jumbled offering of both the delightful and the dangerous, markets are a microcosm of our common life—their sights and sounds represent the enticement of the ideas and experiences people exchange with one other, but they also signify the inherent risk of venturing beyond home, the vulnerability of relying on the trustworthiness of strangers, the calculated risk of enmeshing ourselves into a deep system of interdependence–one that extends far beyond simply finding a fair price for honey and housewares. 

In the commerce and connections we foster in the marketplace, we belong to one another; we take our place in the unpredictability and fluidity of life, and who we are and how we are in that space conveys–and ultimately shapes–the kind of world we wish to see prosper. Are we people of curiousity and fairness? Or of suspicion and exploitative self-interest? Do we engage in just and sustainable practices, or is the cheap bargain more alluring to us?

The marketplace reveals every option and allows us the freedom to choose. We might also say it places upon us the responsibilty of choosing, because our conduct in the public square is never just about ourselves; it has broad impact. 

And so we hear Jesus, this morning, comparing his generation to children, “sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,” children who say “we played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn.”

These children in Jesus’ analogy are disappointed because their companions have not engaged in the interplay of mutuality that a vibrant communal life requires; the signals of both celebration and grief, of flute and funeral dirge, have gone unheeded by those too busy, too distracted, or perhaps too self-conscious to respond to the opportunities that beckon in the public square. Their chiding reminds us that it is not enough to simply be present in the world—we must also choose how we are going to respond to it. Will we be attentive to the signs around us and shape our actions accordingly, or will we scurry through the market with our heads down, lost in our own impulses and hesitations?

In its immediate context, Jesus is using his market imagery to critique the crowd’s inability (or unwillingness) to discern the prophetic and proclamatory missions of John the Baptist and himself—like unresponsive children, Jesus sees them as a people who refuse to hear or respond to the signals given that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and that they should therefore listen and follow him, adopting the radically compassionate values of the new, Divine economy which he teaches and embodies.

But I would also say that Jesus’ critique continues to resonate for us today. Right now, in an historical moment when the marketplaces we inhabit are both physical and digital, we must continue to ask ourselves how we are showing up in those spaces—in every space wherein we take part in our expressions of common life. Our social media feeds. Our grocery stores and other businesses. Our political forums. Our parishes and our civic organizations. Although our physical presence has been limited in some of these places lately, we might take this as an opportunity to ponder the values which we will carry with us as we return.

And principal among those values, according to today’s Gospel? A willingness to listen, and look, and learn, and respond. We are asked to be brave, responsive participants in the marketplaces of the world—people who dance with the joyous and grieve with the injured. People who look for the signs of the Kingdom and take action to support its emergence. We are asked, in short, to be people who are all in for the world, who are so attuned to the colors and the sounds and the smells surrounding them that their love for God’s creation is, ultimately, the currency by which they trade. 

We just celebrated Independence Day in the United States, and given the strained fabric of our national life, you might feel a poignant mixture of gratitude and discomfort this year. In the current environment, celebration is tinged with grief and concern. Many of us in this country have been blessed with abundance and freedom, and others among us have been prevented from receiving their share of that same vision.

But imperfect as our union might be, this is nonetheless the marketplace in which we find ourselves. This is the world that requires our loving response. This is the moment we are given, both to dance and to mourn. Let us do both, and tomorrow, and the day after that, let us begin again.

Dancing Alone: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 16, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 5:21-37, wherein Jesus speaks about the radical demands of the Law upon the heart.

In the California desert, along a lonely highway that cuts through the merciless expanse of Death Valley, there is a town. It’s hard to call it a town, really; it’s more of an outpost—a cluster of low buildings huddling together in the searing, shimmering vastness of the Mojave, the only sign of human habitation for miles and miles in any direction.

Death Valley Junction, it is called—built in the 1920s by a mining company that has long since disappeared. There is an abandoned gas station, and a cafe that never seems to be open, and an old hotel with an empty parking lot. Driving past, you would be forgiven for thinking that it is just a ghost town, a dessicated relic, like so many other ruins that dot the western landscape of the United States.

And in some ways it is. On most days in Death Valley Junction, the only sound you will hear is wind raking over the scrub brush, whistling through the empty buildings. But I urge you: if for some odd reason you are ever passing through this place, stop the car and get out. In fact, if you are ever near Death Valley at all, make your way to this forgotten corner of the desert. Because hidden among those decaying buildings is a miracle.  A strange, wonderful miracle.

It’s called the Amargosa Opera House. From the outside it is unremarkable, just a white stucco structure in a dusty lot with a simple wooden sign above the doors. You won’t find any big headliners performing here, nor throngs of eager patrons lining up outside. But the Amargosa Opera House contains something better, something far more precious, inside its walls. Because when you step into it, as your eyes adjust to the dim light, you will encounter a vision: a vision of truth, a vision of authenticity, a vision of what I think love really looks like. 

You see, in the early 1960’s, a successful ballet dancer and artist from New York City by the name of Marta Becket was traveling through Death Valley with her husband on a camping trip. They got a flat tire and had to stop in Death Valley Junction. Even then it was a largely empty place, and as she waited for the car to get fixed, Marta wandered among the decrepit buildings, pondering their history.  And then something happened.

As she peered into the windows of an abandoned community hall, with its peeled paint and its battered old stage, she had a revelation.  Marta knew, in a flash of insight, that somehow she belonged there. 

“My life split in two at this junction,” she later told a newspaper reporter. “I looked at the stage and knew it was my future. I knew I’d perform here the rest of my life.”

And that’s exactly what she did. Marta left New York and moved to Death Valley Junction with her husband and fixed up the old performance hall. She rechristened it the Amargosa Opera House. She started performing one-woman ballets of her own creation. As you can imagine, given the location, the audiences were not large.  A local rancher or two; some workers from a nearby brothel; the occasional traveler. Sometimes, quite often in fact, no one would show up for the performance, but Marta would dance anyway–for an empty house, in the empty desert. 

Later, Marta and her husband divorced. And despite the protestations of her friends back east, she remained there alone in the Opera House, in the middle of Death Valley, now the sole inhabitant of the town, restoring buildings, welcoming the occasional visitor, and dancing, always dancing, through the decades, for anyone or no one at all. 

At some point, she had another inspiration: if no audience would come to her, she would create her own. And so she painted the interior of the Opera House with murals filled with people—huge, vivid murals that make you feel like you are standing inside a grand European theater, with gilded balconies and elegantly dressed figures and a big blue sky overhead with billowy clouds and laughing cherubs. 

And so, with her painted audience cheering her on, Marta danced, night after night, on her desert stage, dedicated fully to that vision, to the calling she felt when she first peered through the dusty window: unashamed, unafraid, utterly devoted to her singular vision of creative expression.  Utterly in love with her unusual life. Utterly authentic. 

I met Marta just a couple years before she died at the age of 92. She had continued dancing until she was 87. And ever since I stumbled upon the Amargosa Opera House, and saw her murals and learned about her story, it has been something of a beacon for me in moments when I feel lost. Each of us, in our own way, comes face to face with the question: who am I? What am I supposed to do with this life I have been given? How can I live purposefully, courageously, authentically?

I tell you this because I am convinced that’s what God desires from each of us, my friends: to be authentic. That doesn’t mean moving to Death Valley, necessarily. That was Marta’s story, her particular calling.

But God does ask us to show up in the world as fully and deeply ourselves as possible; to share our gifts for the betterment of the world; and to trust that this alone is enough, that we are enough, even if nobody else understands us, even if we end up dancing onstage alone.

That is what it means to be the bearers of God’s image: to discover what is true, what is sacred—in ourselves and in each other—and to love it, tenaciously. 

And so when we hear Jesus teaching in today’s Gospel about the intense, seemingly impossible demands that the Law places on our hearts—when we learn from him that the kingdom of heaven looks something like those rare moments when our inner motives are in perfect alignment with our outward actions—I believe we are hearing his invitation to a brave, self-giving, authenticity. 

It is not enough, Jesus tells us, to go through the motions of virtue if you are harboring fear and anger and covetousness deep within you. It is not enough to proclaim peace with your lips if there is war in your heart.  It is not enough to fulfill the legal and ceremonial obligations of your culture if you are not also attentive to the injustices that your culture perpetuates.

Because in that gap between the person God intends for us to be and the person we might have allowed ourselves to become—that is the void where sin and despair creep in. The Law, which Christ fulfills, beckons us beyond despair, into the glory of God, and, as St. Irenaeus writes, “the glory of God is the human person, fully alive.” Fully oneself.

True life, true blessedness, Jesus tells us, will only come when there is an integration between humanity’s heart and its hands; when we need not swear by any power beyond ourselves–by heaven or by earth— because we are so fully, authentically present to each other and to the world that Yes truly does mean Yes, and No truly does mean No.   To know ourselves, and to be ourselves, unvarnished, unapologetic, humble, rooted—this is what it means to know peace, and this is what it means to be a peacemaker.  This is what we are offered when we follow Christ.

But make no mistake; this much easier said than done. The embrace of authenticity always has a price in this broken world of ours. Sometimes a very steep one. The world is not always kind to the vulnerable, the meek, the open-hearted.

And each of us, looking back at our lives, can probably recognize a juncture when embracing the true and necessary thing might have cost us a great deal. Our sense of security. Or our livelihood. Or maybe friends and loved ones who have rejected us.

The road that leads deep into the heart of life can be lonely.

Like Jesus, and like Marta, it might lead us far out into the desert, where the evil one whispers in the Valley of Death that we are lost, that we are living with ghosts, forgotten, and that our fragile dreams are not worth tending, that nobody cares enough to come join us in the dance that we were born to do. 

But I have stood in the Amargosa Opera House, my friends. I have seen its vivid colors swirling and laughing defiantly in the heart of emptiness, and I can tell you that God shows up when we inhabit the places we fear the most. There is abundant life, abundant truth, when we allow God’s grace to form us into ourselves.

Because somewhere out there, in the vastness, in the kingdom of heaven, at the center of our deepest longings, Marta is still dancing, shrouded in lamplight and smiling mysteriously, knowingly, like a saint who has glimpsed the secret.

She is silent; silent as the desert. But her art, her life, her story speaks for itself. 

May the same be said for each of us, whoever we are called to be. 

Courage: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the feeding of a hungry mouth,

the wiping of a tear,

the holding of a trembling hand,

the speaking of truth to power. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This–simply this–is enough.

This–simply this–is everything there is. 

Former Glory: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, November 9th, 2019 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Haggai 1:15-2:9 and Luke 20:27-38.

Before the weather took a cold turn and we all started buttoning up a bit more, some of you might have noticed when the sleeves of my shirt were rolled up that I have tattoos on both of my forearms.

I got them at different times in my life and they each have a different personal story behind them, but as I was reflecting on the scripture this week, my eyes kept straying to the tattoo on my left arm. It is the very last line of the poem “Ulysses” by the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which has been a favorite of mine since I was young. That poem speaks in the voice of Ulysses (or Odysseus), the legendary explorer-king of Greek mythology, and it concludes with this reflection from him, speaking as an elderly man nearing the end of his life:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ 

We are not now that strength which in old days 

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 

One equal temper of heroic hearts, 

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

In Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses offers these words as encouragement to his beloved, now-aged companions as they recall their former glories and wonder how they might still live a purposeful life.

Something ere the end,” Ulysses urges a bit earlier, with fervent hope in his voice,

Something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done.

Come, my friends, tis’ not too late to seek a newer world.”

Poetic words from a mythical king, and yet, I can’t help but imagine something similar being uttered by the prophet Haggai as he called out to the people of Israel amid the rubble of King Solomon’s temple, encouraging them to rebuild the House of God. 

“Take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord. Work, for I am with you…according the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.” (Haggai 2:4-5)

We can actually date this particular prophetic statement with startling precision: according the to the information contained within the text, Haggai spoke these words on October 17th in the year 520 BCE, shortly after the return of the Judean exiles from Babylon. The original, grand temple of the Israelite monarchy had been destroyed by their conquerors over 60 years prior, and the primary focus of Haggai’s prophetic work was ensuring that the temple was rebuilt. 

But this was easier said than done. Those who had returned from Babylon, most of whom had been born in exile, were attempting to rebuild their society in a devastated land with few resources, and the initial attempts at temple construction proved less than inspiring.

Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?” Haggai asks, well aware that those who have lived long enough to remember the original temple are thus far underwhelmed by the progress on replacement. “Is it not in your sight as nothing?” he inquires, but the question is rhetorical. This new temple, built on a shoestring budget in the ruins of a fallen monarchy, pales in comparison to its predecessor.

Like Ulysses and his friends, the people of Judah have been “made weak by time and fate” and Haggai is aware that their nostalgia for the glory that once was threatens to undermine the necessity to do what can be done with the resources of the present moment.

And thus the prophet reminds them that even if the new temple is not yet as grand as the former, they must persist in their task anyway, because God remains with them. “My spirit abides among you. Do not fear. The latter splendor of this house will be greater than the former” (Haggai 2:5,9).

In other words: do what you can now, work with what you have now, and God will take the hollowed out crater of your disillusionment, the rubble of your broken dreams and will refashion them into something so glorious that you cannot yet imagine it. Do not forget this Divine Promise! For this is our God, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the Living God—the one who knows us. The one who has preserved us. The one who calls us His children. 

“That which we are, we are.”

Now, this tension between the lure of nostalgia and the urgency of the present is still with us in contemporary societies, in the Church, and perhaps for each of us in our private histories. There are days and seasons where it seems that everything good has been lost. Some will claim that the glory days are over, never to return. The wind has blown in from the north and the bleak midwinter beckons. The world looks like a threatening place. 

And in these moments, we might be tempted, like the Judeans, to be paralyzed by longing, to be consumed by a remembrance of past greatness (or at least by our imagined version of that past) and thus find the present moment intolerable. 

Now, when the pain of loss is especially great, whether personal or collective, this is an understandable impulse.  Lament and longing have their place in the language of our hearts. But we cannot succumb to them forever. Because God is always calling us forward into an unfolding story—God’s unfolding story. God has never left our side, and never will. So remember the past, yes, celebrate its joys, learn from its trials, but live now. Work now. Minister now, in the bleak pre-winter chill, in the rubble, in your brokenness. Let that brokenness open up your heart to the world’s present needs and present possibilities.

“Though much is taken, much abides.”

And just as Haggai proclaimed the Lord’s promise that the Temple would be rebuilt with an even greater splendor than they had known before, so it is that what is yet to come for us, for the Church, and for all of God’s people, is greater than we can possibly envision. 

What is yet to come is the resurrected life of which Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel: a new Jerusalem, a renewed creation, a radiant and unending Life that is so deep and true and free that even our greatest human conceptions of love and union are a mere glimpse, a prelude, to the Love awaits us when we fall to our knees before the throne of the Triune God. 

This promise of new Life, unfolding and enduring, is the context of our missional life together. We are knit together by the Holy Spirit with all who have come before us, and all who will follow us, rebuilding the ruined temples of our age–perhaps with tearstained faces and cracking voices–but doing so in hope, in trust, and in joy. Striving, seeking, finding, and never yielding because God will never yield in His love for us. 

He has proven that this is so through His Son, and we are here in this place and in this time and in this very moment to say YES; to say, Lord, we are ready;  to say together that we are indeed “one equal temper of heroic hearts” and we will walk together, cherishing our past but moving forward into the future that God has prepared for us, toward the Holy Temple, toward the Holy Dwelling Place that can never be destroyed.

“Take courage, says the Lord; work; for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts.”

May we believe it to be true, and live accordingly. 

On Failure and Faithfulness: A Sermon

I preached this sermon March 13, 2019, the commemoration of Bishop James Theodore Holly, at All Saints Chapel, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, CA. The lectionary text cited is John 4:31-38.

As we settle into the reflective season of Lent, and as I look beyond graduation to whatever lies ahead, there is one thing that I am acutely aware of: despite all of my personal formation at seminary, I am still deeply afraid of failure.

And that can show up in a lot of ways: failing to do well in classes, failing to find the right church position, failing to maintain my integrity in difficult conversations, failing to find a life partner, failing to deliver an effective sermon…and the list goes on. Despite the wisdom that our tradition offers about the value of humility and the holy foolishness of the Cross and the preeminence of love over success, I still find myself operating in a system that categorizes life and its activities in terms of success, failure, and the spectrum of perceived merit that lies in between those two poles.

This is certainly true in seminary, where we are constantly graded and assessed, and I suspect most of us will continue to encounter something similar in the institutional church or wherever we do our work. My fear of failure, in its many permutations, will likely be a demon I wrestle with for a very long time. Maybe I am not the only one who struggles with this.

Hold onto that thought for a minute. I’d like to offer you a story:

On March 13th, 1911, James Theodore Holly died in his sleep at a church rectory in Port au Prince, Haiti. He was the founding missionary of the Episcopal Church in that country, and had been ordained as the missionary bishop of the church in Haiti in 1874, the first African American in the Episcopal Church to enter into that order of ministry. If you read the official commemorative materials about Holly, that’s mostly what you’re going to learn about him. But, as with every life, the story is far more complex.

At the time of his death, Holly’s ministry was, in the eyes of many, a story of continuous disappointment and unrealized dreams:

  • The main church in Port au Prince had burned down a couple of years prior, in 1908, and there was essentially no support from the American church to help rebuild it. His attempts to raise money for a church endowment through speaking tours across the U.S. were similarly unfruitful.
  • A combination of ongoing political unrest and natural disasters in Haiti had proved immensely detrimental to the growth of the mission, beginning almost immediately upon its initiation in 1861.
  • The Bishops and other church leaders in the United States, because of the Civil War; because of their own personal preoccupations; and, let’s be honest, because of deep seated cultural and institutional racism, had been lukewarm at best in providing any resources to an autonomous black church in an autonomous black nation state.
  • Furthermore, Holly’s initial dream—the dream that launched the whole mission in the first place—to inspire a mass emigration of black Americans to Haiti through the building up of a strong, national church, was largely rejected by black persons who, in the years before and after the Civil War, preferred to stay in the US, their homeland, and fight for equality there.

Holly arrived in Haiti 1861 with 101 people as part of his church mission; 80% of them died or left within a year; his own wife and young children were among the dead. 50 years later, when he died, the church severely lacked resources and had not yet reached 2,000 communicants. One publication, in announcing his death, assessed his life and ministry curtly by observing that the church in Haiti “has not prospered so greatly as was at one time hoped.”

Some eulogy.

In the US, at the time of his death, he was largely dismissed or forgotten. The only officially recorded acknowledgment of his death by The Episcopal Church was a note in the board minutes to strike his salary from the budget for the remainder of 1911.

And so I ask you: was James Theodore Holly’s ministry a failure?

I would say, firmly, no, but we could debate that question for a long time. And if we did, we’d have to account for many things:

  • The racism and oppression that impeded his work from the very start.
  • The political and historical and theological contexts that shaped his decisions and those of the people he encountered.
  • The relative meanings of failure and success as measured over time and the criteria used to do so.
  • The fact that the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti is, today, both the largest diocese in our Church in terms of membership and yet is one still beset with a number of challenges.

Yes, I am sure we could ponder the question of whether Bishop Holly failed or not for a very long time indeed.

But it’s the wrong question to ask.

It is the wrong question that we keep askingabout our spiritual forebears and about ourselves. Failure and success are the wrong modes of assessment. They are, through the metaphor of today’s Gospel passage, the wrong type of food with which we keep filling our plates, over and over again.

 “’He said to them, I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, surely no one has brought him something to eat? Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.'”

The demand of Christ on our lives is not a demand to be successful.

I am coming to see, more and more, that the demand of Christ on my life is to forget the language of success and failure, and to let myself instead be governed and judged by faithfulness. Faithfulness to the will of the One Who has called me; faithfulness to the vision of the kingdom that God is revealing in our midst.

This simple, daily faithfulness, made up of the longing in our hearts for God and the steadfast trust and devotion which we lay at the feet of Jesus in all that we do: this is the sole criteria of our discipleship.

Not the degrees we earn or the income we gather.

Not the churches we help grow.

Not the titles we acquire or the vestments we are allowed to put on.

Because if we use those things as the ultimate measure, as ends in themselves, then we get mired in the landscape of success and failure, and we might start to believe the toxic lie that our shifting fortunes serve as indicators of God’s favor upon us.

“Do you not say, four months more, then comes the harvest?” Jesus chides his disciples. But what if the crop fails? What if life is not what you expected it to be? What if the church burns down and the money stops coming in and you die, disregarded and poor, in your bed? How can the language of success and failure ever get to the heart of what you have faced, what you have learned, whom and what you have loved?

It can’t. We have to toss that language out. Our lives are sown and reaped not in power and influence and success, but in faithfulness—in fidelity and love, which gives us new vision, a new mode of assessment. It is by our faithfulness which we reveal the extent to which we have embedded our lives in God.

“But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.”

Whatever else can be said of James Theodore Holly, whatever the ups and downs of his life and ministry, he saw the ripe fields of God’s kingdom, and he was faithful to that vision. His fervent advocacy for the liberty and self-determination of black Americans; his unflagging belief in the potential of the nation of Haiti and in the church’s role there; and fundamentally, his unfailing trust in the liberating, life-giving God he found in Jesus Christ—these are the marks of a faithful disciple. These are the reasons we commemorate him today. He inspires me to let go of my fear of failure and my hunger for success, and challenges me to dwell in faithfulness, no matter what happens next.

Because if his life is a failure, then may God grant each of us the grace so to live, and so to fail.

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