School of the Spirit: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Pentecost, May 23, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 15:26-27

How do you usually feel when you come into church on a Sunday morning (or, in more recent times, when you happen to tune in from home?) How do you feel right now?

Excited? Encouraged? Or perhaps a bit tired? Burdened by the events of the week? Maybe on some especially challenging days you feel a little like those Israelites mentioned today in Ezekiel, the ones only recently brought back to life whose bones are dried up, gasping for the breath of life. (When my alarm clock goes off at 6, I usually feel exactly like that, but I never was an early morning person.)

What I find remarkable, and beautiful, and inspiring about you, however, is that you nonetheless come here each week, whenever you are able. You step through these doors and let your body and your heart and your mind get caught up in the words and the patterns of the liturgy. Despite all of the other things vying for your attention and your energy, you are here, in this place, doing this thing that nobody really requires you to do. Why is that? What is it that draws you here, to this particular church, whether for the first time or for so many times that you’ve lost count?

When asked that question some of us might say: the people; the beauty of our traditions; the music; the opportunity to rest and pray and reflect on our lives. At least some of those things are important for most of us here, but I would also offer that there is something even deeper at work, something we don’t tend to talk about very much in the Episcopal Church, but something that we ought to name and claim, especially today, on Pentecost:

You are here because of the Holy Spirit. We are participating in this liturgy, right this very moment, because the Holy Spirit has drawn us here. You are here because God’s Spirit is within you, and that Spirit is like a moth to flame, like a river returning to its source—this Spirit longs for communion with the Father and the Son, and has placed that same longing in you–a longing to know and be known, to hold and to be held.

‘Deep calls to deep,’ the Psalmist says, ‘at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.’

And we are here, deep under the waves of liturgy, treading among the shafts light in these baptismal waters because we somehow know, under the ebb and flow of the prayers and the silences, that there is TRUTH here, a truth that is deeper than our institutional stumbles, a truth deeper than our human failings. A pattern of living, revealed in the ancient pattern of the liturgy: a pattern that contains a truth you will not find anywhere else, nowhere else in the world except within the enactment of this living Word. In the liturgy, unbroken in its offering since the time of the apostles, are the tools that teach us how to live out our daily life as God meant it to be lived. 

This is Spirit-driven, Spirit-led work.

“Jesus said to his disciples, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.”

This promise is fulfilled in the Pentecost account recorded in the Book of Acts, when the disciples were transformed by wind and flame from somewhat hapless followers of a beloved teacher into the undaunted, fervent agents of Christ’s mission on earth. And it was not just the Son of God, but the ongoing work of the Spirit of God that drew them into the lives THEY were intended to live—it was the Spirit that animated their mortal bones and caused them to prophesy and to see visions and to dream dreams. It was the Spirit that sustained their dedication far beyond the typically fickle, faltering enthusiasm we tend to give even the most worthy causes of this world.

And that same Spirit of truth, that same Spirit that swept over the waters at creation, that same Spirit that descended at Jesus’ baptism and at your own, that same Spirit is still calling out to you, still guiding you, still animating THIS community and THIS liturgy, still saying YES: God desires for you to be close, God desires for you to take your proper place in creation, God desires you to live in fullness, God desires you.

You. 

God desires you so much, in fact, that God has made a home within you; God has fed you with his own flesh; God’s holy breath is on your breath as you offer up these ancient and eternal prayers week after week.

In short, we are here, friends, not because liturgy is just a nice ritual to enact on a Sunday morning, but because liturgy at its must fundamental is the very pattern of the Holy Spirit’s movement through creation, and we are being carried aloft on the Spirit’s wings, learning, day by day, how to fly heavenward. 

I share all of this with you because I sometimes observe that, if we talk about the Holy Spirit at all in our church, we don’t tend to talk about the Spirit in connection to our experience of liturgy. Maybe it’s because we are so often focused on the Father and the Son, or maybe it’s because we think that too much talk about the Spirit might open the door to a level of exuberance to which we Episcopalians are not generally accustomed. 

But be assured that the Spirit IS here, in candlelight and in quiet gesture and in the swelling note of song, the Spirit is here in the silence of your prayers and in the outstretching of your hand towards Christ’s body, and we should be encouraged, emboldened even, to name God’s dynamic presence in our liturgy, and to say to the world, to our neighbors and our friends and those who have fallen away from faith: COME, see what is TRUE. COME, see what the shape of love is. COME, see how God teaches us to embody, in this liturgical gathering—in this school of the Holy Spirit—the essential vision of a sanctified life: gratitude, praise, confession, lamentation, reconciliation, offering, receiving, communion, contemplation, joy. COME, and see, and live.

We ought not be timid or bashful about this. Because one thing I know is that there are countless people—some of whom you probably know quite well—who are desperately longing for the type of life we seek and strive for here. A Spirit-driven, Christ-shaped, liturgically-enriched life. There is no greater gift that we can give than to invite others into the practice of their truest, most beautiful humanity. 

So when you think about why you come here, week after week, and what it is about the liturgy that draws you in, what it is that inspires you to give your heart over to Jesus, day after day, remember, it is , in part, because you are doing something essential here, something more than engaging in a pastime, something more than exercising personal taste. We are seeking and claiming LIFE. True life. Eternal life. Love-infused life. 

The tongue of flame, and the wind, and the dove, and the water, and the bread, and the blood, and the unbroken song, and the unbroken prayer and the unbreakable bond: in the liturgy these things are present, they are given.

In the liturgy, the Spirit guides us into all truth.

In the liturgy, these tired bones–yours and mine–can live. 

Fruitfulness: A Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Palm Sunday People: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Palm Sunday, March 28, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is the Passion narrative in Mark 14:1-15:47. The image at the top of this post is Triumphal Entry (1969), by Zambian artist Emmanuel Nsama.

We have just heard a story that is, for most of us, deeply familiar. We gather, year after year, during this holiest of weeks to hear it again, to immerse ourselves in the narrative—one that begins today clutching our palm fronds with an exultant crowd at the city’s edge and has just ended at the lonely tomb where only a few brave women dare to visit. 

But rather than pick apart this story, rather than analyze and intellectualize its themes and symbols from a comfortable emotional distance, I wonder whether we ought to simply let it speak for itself. I wonder whether it is a story best received and held with humble, pregnant silence, as all truly important stories ought to be received. 

For the one thing that we do know about this story, this passion narrative, is that it is of deep importance—that it reaches out to speak into the most hidden parts of ourselves. It is a story that observes us, that comments upon us, rather than the other way around. This story knows us and names us in ways we might not want to be known—our hopes, our fears, our terrifying capacity for callousness— and reminds us why we so desperately need God’s saving love in the first place.

So at the outset of this Holy Week, as we summon up the courage to sit with this narrative that is both familiar and shocking, I simply ask you to ponder this question: what if this passage, this passion narrative that we just heard today, was the end of the story? What if that was it?

What if Jesus, the Son of God, the miracle worker and prophet and teacher of peace and radical inclusiveness, who rode into Jerusalem as a new sort of king, was simply put to death and laid to rest and then…nothing. What if the story ended here—as it does for most of us in this life—with the stone sealing the tomb?

I ask this for two reasons. First, because in order to let Holy Week do its work upon our hearts, we must try take it as it comes and not skip ahead. We have to suspend, for a bit, our knowledge of what will come next Sunday and simply be present to what is happening in the moment of each liturgy. 

So today, hear what Palm Sunday has to say to you. Don’t move on too quickly. We need to stand awhile in this crowd that cheers one moment and calls for blood the next, if only to recognize that we are not so very different from them. And in each of the days to come, as we take part in the Masses and read our daily reflections, let the story unfold, living it as the disciples did, as they followed Jesus into the city. Like the disciples, allow the events to disarray your certainties and upend your expectations of what success and significance mean. We will learn so much more from this week if we can somehow live it.

The second reason I ask what it would mean if the story ended here, at the tomb—is because for many people, Palm Sunday IS the whole, representative story of human life. 

Without the eyes of faith, without the Divine inbreaking, Palm Sunday IS how the world tends to work—a place where the strong dominate the vulnerable, and the pursuit of peace is viewed as a farce, and mercy is called weakness and battle lines must aways be drawn and redrawn, age after age. 

We live in a world that has been, for too many people and for too many generations, one long and unending Palm Sunday—and so it is easy to believe that this indeed is where the story ends, and that our longing for something else, something kinder, is a delusion. 

That is the story that the world continues to try to proclaim to us and form within us. And if we’re not careful, we might buy into it, talking pleasantly enough about resurrection but living fearfully, meagerly, as if Jesus is still dead and buried in that tomb.

So on this Palm Sunday, and perhaps every day for the rest of our lives, we have a choice to make: is this the story that we are actually telling and living by our actions and words; are these the values that we are embodying? Are we, in fact, a “Palm Sunday” people?

Or do we dare to live as another type of people, people who have their hearts fixed on God’s promises, on God’s version of triumph–people who persist beyond today’s heartbreak?

Are we willing to tell a different story, a story that says there is something more to this life than trampled palm fronds and jeering crowds and the desolate silence of the grave? 

That is the choice given to us, and this is the week when we must decide anew how deep into this story we are willing to journey.

Because yes, for today, we end here at the tomb. But come back tomorrow, and the next day, and on throughout all of Holy Week, and see what God can do with this broken body. See what God can do with your broken heart. Let this journey reveal its mysteries to you one day at a time, until the real ending comes—the ending that will be for us, in truth, only the beginning.

After the Light: A Sermon

Today is the last Sunday in the season of the Epiphany—a season that began in January with the Magi encountering the Christ child under the dim light of a secret star, and which now concludes this week as Peter, James, and John encounter the transfigured Christ in searing light atop a wild mountain. 

We actually come upon the Gospels’ transfiguration accounts twice in the Christian year—today, and again in August, on the official Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s worth the double-mention, too, because although we tend to spend a lot more time contemplating Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, it is in the Transfiguration that we find something essential about all those intervening years, when Jesus was the God who lived among us—it gives us an image of just what it looks like for fragile human flesh to be melded with heaven, burning with God’s incandescent glory. Through the eyes of the stunned disciples, we are given a momentary glimpse of the end of all things—time circled back upon itself in eternal communion; our reunion with the wise ancestors and beloved dead who have come before us; all of creation radiating the light of a thousand suns. 

But it is only a glimpse, only a taste, and a good thing, too, because it seems that Peter and James and John cannot bear much more than that. They are stupefied, trembling, stammering, and God quickly, mercifully, bathes them in the protective cover of unseeing, unknowing cloud. Truth is a beautiful, powerful thing, but it is also overwhelming. Then, as now, God deigns to give it to us in small bursts—in those rare, jewel-like moments we call epiphanies—and it is our task, in the cool, quiet interims to string them together, to fashion our epiphanies into whatever sense we can make of them. 

Such moments are so sharp and precious and enduring because much of our life can feel a bit confusing, a bit murky. Rather than receiving a series of brilliant insights, knowing exactly what we must do next, most days we’re just muddling our way through, half-guessing, half-hoping, praying to God that we’ve got it right. 

And on those sorts of days, at least for me, my relationship with Jesus is an unseeing one, untransfigured, a series of hesitant steps through the cloud and fog; in such times I am not quite sure who I am, or who he is, or what he wants of me, only that he is there, that he beckons, and that he is present, not because I see him, but because he has promised that he will be. 

As the monk, author and contemplative Thomas Merton once wrote in prayer, 

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end, nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.”

So it is. For anyone—the monk, the mystic, the everyday seeker of God—epiphanies of God’s unambiguous intentions for us are rare. 

And that is why, if I am perfectly honest, I possess some ambivalence about fixating on dramatic epiphanies in this season, as important as they might be. Because for the most part we cannot spend our days chasing them; we have to construct our lives out of humbler things, everyday things. 

So I am resistant when, in reflecting upon the Transfiguration, commentators sometimes focus primarily on Jesus’ hidden glory, his dazzling brilliance, as the main event, the main point of interest in this passage, as if it is just sort of “sneak peek” into heavenly reality where the “true” Jesus is revealed.

Emphasizing a distinction between this transfigured, shiny Jesus and the “regular” old desert-wandering Jesus doesn’t help us much, because it suggests that this mountaintop version is the “real” one, and that seeing and knowing him fully is the stuff of private revelations and mystical visions, reserved for the few and the chosen, far removed from the dirty, hungry, conflict-ridden valleys where most people live and die. 

An exclusive focus on the Jesus of the transfiguration would have us always scrambling up our own proverbial mountaintops in search of ecstatic epiphanies, leaving behind the prosaic, humdrum prayerfulness of daily bread and messy relationships. This will not do.

Because as fashionable as it is these days to talk about and pursue mystical experiences of one kind or another, to strive for the extraordinary, the fact remains that most of our lives are quite ordinary. They are not spent in the blazing light of epiphany. There are dishes to wash. Bills to pay. Zoom meetings to get onto. Kids to get to school. Bodies that grow older, softer, more vulnerable. More questions to fill our days than answers.

As Merton says, we cannot see the road ahead of us, and we cannot know for certain where it will end.

And that is why there is something else that I choose to focus on in the Transfiguration. Something that does give me hope: that this momentary glimpse of the glorious, transfigured, impossibly radiant Jesus is in fact, in all the ways that matter, the exact same Jesus who remains after the vision is over, after the impressive lights and sounds are gone–after there is nothing left on the mountaintop but cold wind and damp rock. When “suddenly…they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” 

Only Jesus. Only the Jesus they already knew, the man, the one in plain, dusty peasant clothes, the one with a face like any other human face, the one who heals and feeds, not with beams of light, but with mud, and breath, and bread and blood and tears…only Jesus, yes, but for all his commoness, not one bit less the eternal Son of God. Not one bit less the Holy Incarnation of light inaccessible.

This is the good news of the transfiguration: that the brilliant, blazing Jesus, and the everyday Jesus—they are one and the same. He is so imbued with Divine love that He carries its power within himself, without spectacle or impressiveness, right back down off that mountaintop, back down into the villages, back down into the landscape of our discontent, back down to you and to me and to every average, confused, hoping, wondering heart. Back to where he is most needed. Back to where he most desires us to follow.

So yes, the Transfiguration is beautiful. Yes, epiphanies are special and ought to be treasured. But let us not obsess too much over hidden brilliance, lest we spend our entire lives chasing after the wrong type of wisdom, missing the obvious, simple beauty right in front of us. Jesus is here, now, consoling us in the middle of our fear and our loneliness and our sickness, and tenderly blessing our best, imperfect attempts to be kind, to be brave, to be true. 

He is satisfied to love you and to teach you here how to build the kingdom of God with the same earthy, everyday tools that he once used to begin it: your hands, your heart, your hope. 

That’s true whether we see clearly or whether we do not. Whether we are impressive or just ourselves. It is only us that Jesus requires. Only you and me, trying our best, in the world we have been given. 

This, in the end, is the only epiphany that we need. 

In These Waters: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on January 10, 2021, the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. The lectionary text cited is Mark 1:4-11, wherein Jesus is baptized in the river Jordan.

Shortly before his death, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, come to him and make a request: “Grant us to sit,” they say, “one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” They sense, perhaps, that the time to enter Jerusalem is drawing near, that Jesus is about to take on the authorities, and they want to be in on the action, whatever it turns out to be. 

But Jesus doubts that they understand what is actually about to happen. “You do not know what you are asking,” he replies.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

His question has been rattling around in my head the past few days as we drew closer to this feast day, and as I watch the news, full of the evidence of how rage and mistrust and fear continue to assert themselves in the affairs of humankind. Just like James and John, the world is still spoiling for a fight, still angling for a certain type of power, and still Jesus is asking: are you able to drink the bittersweet cup of humility, instead? Are you able enter into my baptism, instead–a baptism that mandates mercy rather than militancy?

I find it striking that Jesus points to his baptism so soon before his crucifixion—a reminder, for us, that the beauty revealed to him in the waters of the River Jordan—the voice from heaven, the descending dove, the love of the Father—is the very thing that propels him, ulitimately, toward a reckoning with the forces of sin and death. It suggests to us that one cannot behold the transcendent beauty of God and then simply accept the brutality of the world as it is. And once we’ve been called beloved, we begin to realize that everyone else is, too. 

The direct line from baptism to the cross also suggests that Jesus’ belovedness as God’s Son, rather than being a protection from suffering, in fact propels him straight into the heart of the world’s pain, to engage with it, to be affected by it in order that he might transform it, not by the power of the sword, but by the force of mercy. 

And so, as we think about our own baptism, we must contend with a mixture of exuberance and trepidation and trust, for it is no small thing to be claimed by the liberating, reconciling, transformative power of God, to be drawn up into its mysterious movement through the world, and to relinquish the still-prevailing assumption that might makes right.

Are we able to do this, as he does? Do we know what we are asking for? 

I pray that we do, and that we can continue to ask for it together, to rely upon one another to pursue it, because if I have learned anything in recent days it is that our faith continues to be misinterpreted, it continues to be co-opted by people with agendas that have nothing to do with the love of God embodied in Jesus. 

And it is up to us, imperfect as we ourselves might be, to bear witness to what God is actually doing in the world and how we ought to live into that. It Is up to us to proclaim, as those baptized into the undying love of God’s Son, that hate, and violence, and racism, and exploitation, and greed, and every other instrument of evil have no place in God’s dream for creation, no place in God’s emerging kingdom, no place in the lives of people who claim that Christ is Lord. 

This is not about partisan politics, nor even exclusively about American society, though our values ought to impact our presence in both. But this is fundamentally a human issue. We affirm that to be baptized as Christ is baptized, to live as Christ lived, is to be human in the way God intended for us to be: connected, trusting, persistent instruments of peace. This is what we open ourselves to when the water washes over us, and when we recall that we are bathed in it still: we put down our guard, put down our pain and our past mistakes, and let the Spirit do the Spirit’s work in us.

And that work is always evolving, always responding to the present moment. That is why it is incumbent upon each of us as individuals, and as a church community, to discern how to live out our baptism. We have to ask ourselves: How can we be agents of peace, of justice, of reconciliation, here and now, in 2021, in Fort Wayne, in the U.S.? What does this time in history require of you and me?

I said in a sermon a couple weeks ago that “relationship” was going to be a key word for us this year, and that is more true than ever. Because one thing that this moment requires of us is that we resist the temptation to be spectators and instead become participants in the world around us.

It is very easy for me, especially when I feel tired and overwhelmed, to sit back at look at the world’s problems, at the fear and the despair and the anger that seems so pervasive, and to just hope that someone else will figure out what to do about it. That someone else will surely be better equipped to handle it than I am.

There isn’t someone else. There is only you, and me. There is only us.

And if we are living in Christ and Christ is living in us, we need to care. We need to stop observing from the sidelines and show up. 

You see, the baptism that Jesus received from John—a ritual cleansing from sin—was something that he didn’t actually need. But he showed up and received it anyway because in order to embody love, he knew that he needed to stand in solidarity with those whom he loved,  he needed to meet us at the place of our need—and now we must do the same for each other.

God expects each of us, just as we are, with our talents and our quirks and our histories and our hesitaitons, to engage in the struggle. To be part of the solution, even just a small part. Becasue every little act of mercy, every small turn towards peacemaking, every bond strengthened in our frayed social fabric is part of the cure for what ails the world—it is another drop of your baptismal water, offered back into the font of creation. 

Later this morning, in our own font, we will baptize two more people, welcoming them into this community, and, more fundamentally into this holy, transformative, life-giving, life-demanding calling. And they, too, will embark on the same journey as the rest of us, the one that Christ inaugurated for us when he stepped into the river to give away everything, to receive everything. They are ready to accept for themselves what we have also been given: God’s love, flowing through us like water, like wind, like fire. 

And it’s ok, in the end, if we don’t fully understand it, if we don’t know exactly what we are asking for, as long as we are willing to discover and live into what we are given: the answer that emerges from this moment, from this font, which will continue to roll down like mighty waters, to take shape, to run its course through the rest of our lives. 

No matter how scary or uncertain the world seems to be, no matter how hopeless things might seem in the moment, we can do this. We can face it, we can sustain, because…we are His. He’s got us. 

And in these waters, we come to see that He always will. 

“Darkness and Light to You are Both Alike”: An Epiphany Reflection

I originally wrote this piece for The Episcopal Church’s Sermons that Work series in honor of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2021.

The metaphors of light and darkness are pervasive throughout Holy Scripture and Church tradition, but such imagery reaches its apogee now, on the Feast of the Epiphany. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, this is the day, in the lean light of January, when we often speak of Christ as brightness, as radiance, as the child bathed in starlight—attempting to articulate how an Incarnate God is not simply present among us, but revealed to us, just as the day is revealed by its dawning.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,” declares Isaiah; it is an invitation to wake from sleep, to gather in the holy places, to pay homage to the one true Gift: God’s desire to know and be known by us. “We observed his star at its rising,” the wise men say, and it is a reminder that even the light of inconceivably distant galaxies has been caught up in the narrative of Divine Love made manifest, reaching across the vastness of space to find itself reflected in the eyes of an infant Lord.

For all the beauty of this imagery, however, and despite its centrality to our faith tradition, as people of this time and place we must contend in new ways with the ideas of darkness and light. We must be mindful of how this dichotomy has been used not only to depict the landscapes of spiritual consciousness but has also been misapplied to the physicality of people themselves, as if the color of our skin were an indicator of our soul’s worth.

This is especially true for those of us who live and worship in the United States; we cannot casually equate “light” with God and “darkness” with evil or ignorance in our preaching and our prayers without realizing how these very terms have been corrupted in recent centuries by our own sinfulness and that of our forebears—by this nation’s history of equating skin color with moral and spiritual capacities. All of us, no matter our background or good intentions, are inheritors of this bitter reality, and as Christians attentive to justice and reconciliation and breaking down that which disfigures beloved community, part of our own emerging Epiphany is a frank assessment of how language can harm just as powerfully as it can heal.

This is not about erasing the use of traditional imagery, nor is it about excising portions of Scripture. It is about taking these resources even more seriously than we have before: sitting with them, wrestling with them, plumbing the depths of Christian writing and hymnody to incorporate the full scope of ways we might speak about God—the One whom John calls “the true light… coming into the world,” but also the One of whom the psalmist says, “darkness and light to you are both alike.” The God whom Isaiah promises will be our “everlasting light” and the One whom the mystical theologian Pseudo-Dionysius calls “the ray of divine darkness.”

Rich and varied use of such metaphorical language preserves us from two extremes: first, from assuming that this imagery has no intrinsic power of its own to shape our social consciousness (it does); and second, from idolizing such imagery as if it were itself God (it isn’t). It is in the tension of opposites, then, and the playful spectrum between them, that we find our language’s best attempt at expressing the inexpressible, the experience of which we celebrate today.

For many of us, these considerations might feel like uncharted terrain. As such, the wise men in Matthew’s Gospel are ideal guides for our journey—strangers from another land, led through the night by wonder and hope, following the path to Christ fixed in the stars (which, of course, can only be seen in the dark). The Magi are not bound by the political machinations of Herod; they are not beholden to the present order of domination and exploitation. Instead, they are guided by dreams and visions, by the wisdom of hidden roads, by attentiveness to the signs around them. And in their journey—one that is itself the union of brightness and shadow—they are led to the place of our collective longing: to gaze upon the hidden face of God and to know that it is indeed God gazing back, beyond metaphor, beyond language itself, as pure, Incarnate presence.

How might we, too, encounter God again, if we are courageous enough to think deeply about the language we use to approach Divine Mystery? How might we, too, be guided to travel “by another road,” a road upon which we acknowledge the limits and the lamentable uses of “light” and “dark” in our recent past and then push beyond them? What new ways might we dream of to depict and express the epiphany that God is, and always has been, reaching out from across eternity to abide with us, to heal us, to bring us back to ourselves?

For us, as Episcopalians, this is an instance where our liturgy, our theological process, and God’s mission converge to do a brave new thing. As with any worthwhile journey, this is not one that can be finished quickly, nor can it be done alone. We must listen to one another, and to the voices of others whose lives are quite different from our own. We must be willing to hold ourselves accountable for speaking eternal truth in new and varied ways, knowing that even our most beautiful language is but a foretaste of the beauty that will one day be revealed in its fullness. But until then, it is what we have to offer.

“They all gather together, they come to you,” Isaiah promises the Holy City of God, and still we are coming, traversing the ages, stumbling, lost, hopeful, guided by stars and secret longings, to the place that is neither dark nor light, but deep and dazzling nonetheless—the place of love’s Epiphany: distant, hidden, home.

Called Out: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on January 3, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23, the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.

“Out of Egypt I have called my son.” This line of scripture, quoted in Matthew’s gospel, is originally found in Hosea Chapter 11: 

When Israel was a child, I loved him,

and out of Egypt I called my son.

The more I called them,

the more they went from me.

There is deep pathos here, a bit of God’s own lament: why do you run from me, beloved children, why do you run towards your own pain when I have called you out of it? 

I have called you out of bondage. Out of fear. Out of hopelessness. Out of mortal danger. Out of disillusionment. Out of Egypt, God says, I have called you, and though you turn away, I will keep doing so, I will keep calling. I will make a way for you, a way back, a way back to the life that I promised you from the very beginning, a way that that cannot be hindered by anyone or anything, including yourself, because my Word is eternal and my purposes, my plans for you are sound. 

Out of Egypt I have called my child, my beloved—and out of that place I will continue to call you, again, and again and again. Will you not follow where I call?

The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is an unusual story in many ways, leaving us with all sorts of unanswered questions. Why, for example, does only Matthew write about it? What happened to Mary and Joseph and the Christ child during their exile there? And why Egypt, of all places? 

Some of these things we will never know for certain; but to this final question—why Egypt?—we might look closely at that quote from Hosea and begin to imagine an answer. 

To do so, we must remember the significance of the land of Egypt in the theological imagination of the ancient Israelites: it was there that their ancestors lived in slavery under Pharaoh, and from there that they were delivered by God in the Exodus account, through the Red Sea, towards the promised land—a seminal event in Israel’s self-understanding as God’s chosen people. 

Thus the God who once liberated them from Egypt, from the despair of their subjugation, was the same God who could be counted upon to deliver them from later calamities and desolations. This abiding trust is, in many ways, the through-line of the Hebrew scriptures.

And so when Matthew quotes the prophet Hosea here, saying “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” he is referring to the calling, the liberation of Israel as a whole, as a people, not just a son in the singular sense. 

The infant Jesus, in his journey to Egypt and back again, is not just an individual on a chance adventure, but is, in this dangerous sojourn, recapitulating his people’s original Exodus—into exile and back—demonstrating, yet again, in fullness, that the God of Israel is a God of ongoing deliverance, a God of promises made and kept. 

The difference this time, however, is that God is now traversing this wilderness path not by pillar of cloud and fire as before, but as a refugee himself, a victim of circumstance and history. He is, in a sense, experiencing what it feels like to also be the one delivered from danger, not just the deliverer, as if his love could not be complete without immersing himself in the precariousness of our condition.

How remarkable that God would so desire to be in solidarity with us, with our own forms of captivity, our own dangers and trials, our own wandering through this life, that he would take part in it, that he would subit to this most vulnerable pilgrimage of all—into our mortality, into our longing, into a literal and proverbial Egypt, that place which, in the language of Scripture, symbolizes the sum of all fears. And then, crucially, back again, back out of Egypt, back home, back to the land and the life that holds all promise. 

This is a pattern that will be repeated throughout Jesus’ life, this venturing into and out of the hard, lonely places—into the desert to be tempted, and back again; into the despair of Gethsemane, and back again; and, of course, the journey to the tomb, and back again. 

Each one, though ascending in intensity and clarity, is part of the same pattern, just like this flight of the Holy Family: it is a refrain in the song that God is singing, has always been singing to creation—that even when you are brought down, deep down into the places where you do not want to go, you will be called back—you will be guided back, because out of Egypt have I called my child and I am the God who never stops calling, not til every last one of you has been delivered from your despair, til every last one has been brought home.

And as we look at the patterns of our lives, we will likely have our own stories of exile and return. You might even feel like you’re in the middle of one right now.

So it bears asking yourself: where, or what, is “Egypt” for you, now? Where is it in your own life that you fear to go? What is the landscape of your deepest regret? 

If we have learned anything this past year, it is that sometimes we are forced to journey through these hard places, much as we would prefer otherwise—life has a way of leading us onto the wilderness road, one way or another, both as individuals, as communities, and as nations. 

As Jesus says shortly before his death, “you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” The Cross will become his final journey “into Egypt,” but it is also a journey that waits for those of us who follow him.

But here is the part we must not forget: whatever it is that we are facing, alone or together, whatever our own cross—our own Egypt—consists of, we have to remember that the story doesn’t end there—it never has, and it never will, because it is “OUT of Egypt have I called my son.” Not in. OUT. 

The brokenness of our lives and of the world around us sends us into Egypt. But God, God is calling us back—back through our struggles, back out of whatever frightens us, back to joy, back to hope, back to the place where we are known and loved. God is, and always has been, the presence, the power, the Person who will guide us out of death and into abundant, true life. 

That’s what we must hold onto in this story, and in our own story: Egypt is not our home. Death and despair are not our inheritance. We are the sons and daughters and children of God and we are called OUT of the lie that life is merey hopeless and cruel. We have been given news about the ultimate truth, the final composition of all things, and it is GOOD news. No matter how rocky the path, no matter how long the journey, you and I are destined for home.

Out of Egypt have I called my son. Out of Egypt have I called you.

Will you not come?

The Life Before: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on December 27, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is John 1 (“In the beginning was the Word…”).

Pop quiz: What is the first story of the Bible? 

Most of us, if asked, would probably say it’s the story of creation, in Genesis 1: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…”

That’s where it all started, right? 

But then we have today’s reading, that poetic, eternally lovely opening of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him.

That’s the first story, right there. Right in the middle of the Bible, or more accurately, in the 43rd of the 66 books that make up the Bible, we are given a glimpse, not just of how THINGS started–things like the earth and the sky and the animals and the elements and you and me–but back, waaay back before any of that, back in what we might call the “prequel” to creation, when there was Simply God. John’s gospel isn’t special only because it is beautiful language, but because it reveals to us WHO GOD IS and what God was up to before any thing, before every thing

And who exactly was God before there was even a creation to utter the word “God”? 

Again: “He was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, [the Word] was in the beginning WITH GOD.” This is the hidden life, the hidden love, the hidden dynamic relationality at the core, the source, of everything that would follow.

It’s a bit mind-blowing when you think about it…and humbling, really, to acknowledge that God had (and still has) an entire life and reality apart from a relationship with us. Because I think we tend to place ourselves at the center of God’s narrative, as if we are the only object and culmination of God’s total concern, but it is something altogether different to recognize that it is the other way around– God is at the center of our narrative. God is everything to us, but we are just one part of him.

It’s sort of like that moment when you find a snapshot in an old shoebox of one of your parents, taken back when they were young, long before you were born—an image of them laughing on a beach at a joke you will never hear, or holding hands with someone, an old friend or partner who you will never know—and suddenly you realize, in a flash, with a shock—that your parent was a REAL PERSON. That they had a whole life, a whole complex reality that came before you. And even once you came along, they retained that rich inner life, all those layers of memory and identity and connection, even when it was hidden to you, even when they seemed to exist for you alone, as Mother, as Father. 

So here, in John, we get a dim, yet deeply evocative snapshot of God, in the beginning before our beginning: before the angels, before the stars, before the wind swept over the face of the waters. It’s good to sit with this image for a bit, to think about the Divine Life before, long before we were even a twinkle in God’s eye, to see whether it has anything to teach us about our own lives.

And, of course it does. 

Looking back at the text of John 1, (acknowledging that our human language is stretched to its limits here) if God somehow was the Word and was with the Word and was also alive as the Word within God’s own self, the one thing we can be sure of from all this is that God was always intrinsically relational. We might even say that God is RELATIONSHIP itself. And this is not some new concept, because we affirm this every time we talk about God as Trinity—three Persons, one Divinity, a dynamic, integrated community of love. 

God is this for us, yes, but God was always this, even before us. And thus, if we are made in God’s image, then we, too, are created primarily for relationship. We are relational beings. And futhermore, all of creation—the earth and all living creatures—are made for the same purpose. To connect. To support. To interdepend.

We are good at talking about this conceptually—one human family, love thy neighbor—but you and I know it is mightily difficult to live out. Greed, competition, mistrust, lies, fear—all of the manifestations of broken relationship that we call “sin”—are a stumbling block to our true vocation, the one that Jesus embodied, which is to be as deeply intertwined, as intimate with God and with one another as God is within Godself, a dynamic described again by Jesus later when he says, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

We are meant to abide with one another and within one another. With and within. Why else do we kiss and hug and hold close those whom we love if not to act upon our most basic impulse to exchange part of ourselves with them? To be with and within them; to sanctify our flesh with holy, unmediated relationship?

This is what Jesus teaches us, and shows us: every time we take even the smallest step towards relationship, towards community, towards love, we move an inch or two closer to God. Sometimes we take great leaps. Somtimes we shuffle along. Sometimes we run the other way, directly into our deepest isolation.

But God is still there, still reaching out, never losing interest in a relationship with us, because God is relationship. And the old snapshot of him is still true: God is laughing on the beach, but the smile is meant also for you, and God is reaching out to hold someone’s hand, but it is also your hand, and no matter how the years go by, no matter how many other layers of memory and mystery are added, God is no stranger to you or to me. God will always be that person, the one in the beginning before our beginning, the one who was and was with and was in, weaving through time and through our lives like a thread, like a song, like undiminished light.

So as we consider the year that is nearly ended and the new one that is about to begin, I invite each of us to consider this word, RELATIONSHIP, maybe even write it down and stick it in our wallet or our bag and look at it from time to time and ask ourselves:

Am I moving toward relationship?  Am I moving toward life-giving relationship?

Am I moving toward life-giving relationship with my family members, with my friends, my fellow parishioners?

Am I moving toward life-giving relationship with the strangers that I meet, with my neighbors in need?

Amy I moving toward life-giving relationship with myself, all the tender parts of myself that need love and nurturing and honesty?

Am I moving toward life giving relationship with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, with the God is who my parent and my creator, my friend and my Lord?

Am I spending time investing in these relationships with conversation and prayer and presence, or are they on auto-pilot? And, am I assessing those relationships that are broken or toxic and determining whether they can (or should) be mended? 

Am I–are you–are we– living into our essential, God-given identity as ones who were made to be connected to others, to take our place as an integral part of things, as part of God’s abundant, interconnected creation, foreshadowed and sustained by God’s own inner, secret, relational joy? Am I taking part in that unfolding, eternal relationship?

We can ask no more fundamental question than this.

Because in the beginning—the very beginning of the story—that is all there was. And, I suspect, I hope, I trust, that at the very last, that is precisely what will remain. 

Ordinary: A Christmas Sermon

I preached this sermon on Christmas Day, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 2:8-20.

Not quite as planned. A bit haphazard. Maybe somewhat underwhelming, even, after so much hope and expectation and hardship. Confusing and, for some, tinged with fear. And yet, somehow, in its startling ordinariness, still happening, still a quiet miracle, still infused with unspeakable grace. 

Am I describing how many of us have experienced the holiday season this year? Or am I speaking about the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago? 

Yes.

On this Christmas, perhaps more than any in recent memory, we perceive the hidden, frank domesticity of the Nativity, for we, too, like the Holy Family, have been gathered in, with few options, seeking shelter above all else. 

But despite our recent immersion in the spare, the low-key, and the unadorned, it must be acknowledged that, even with all that we have learned and lost this year, with all the comforts foreclosed, we might still struggle to wrap our heads around the Savior of the world coming exactly in the way that he did—as an infant, born to an average family in a humble town, in a common peasant home, with the guest rooms past their capacity and animals crowded in for the night. Few expected, then or now, for the Messiah, the promised Holy One of God, to be, by all appearances, so very ordinary.

But so he was. A baby as fragile as any other, born with no particular privileges or advantages apparent, at a precarious moment in his people’s history. 

I know that I say to myself every year that I understand this, that I love how God came to us in suprising humility, but then I wonder, when I look at the habits of my life and when I look at what I am tempted by in the world around me: do I understand, really? Do I love him, just as he is, this child in the straw, who offers love, but not safety?

Because even now, even though we know better, even though we’ve told the story a thousand times and more, we still keep looking for Jesus to enter the world elsewhere—in a palace, in a capital city, among splendor and power and success.  We still admire and imitate the people who live and work in those places, and in our dominant western culture we tend to shape our values around their opinions and agendas. We long for the child of Bethlehem, but we keep looking for an emperor. 

And even in the history of the church this can be true, when we have tried to retroactively ennoble the Christ child in our imagination–ensconcing him in gilt and velvet and crowns, sometimes forgetting that these are subversive symbols of how he turns earthly values on their head, not actual depictions of his birth and life. 

But thankfully, blessedly, try as we might, we cannot escape the fact that he was not born as an actual king—and we are reminded in the Christmas story that God did not enter creation through the ornate front doors to be greeted by the servants, as it were, but instead came in the back way, through the service entrance, seen only by those who tend the sheep.  

And what good, good news it is that this is so. 

Because it means, for average people like you and me, that God was never interested in being unattainable. God was never interested in being insulated from us. God never wanted to be known as someone who is too busy, too important, to notice and regard with care the details of our lives. On the contrary, God was born in such an ordinary way to signify that it is here, in the midst of our vulnerable, complicated, boring, unimpressive, precious little days that he desired to make a dwelling place. 

He wanted his own life to be as plain and sweet as ours sometimes can be—a life of both chores and of chocolates—because he is Emmanuel—God WITH us—and that means with us through all of it: the good, the bad, and the long stretches of the simply OK. And thanks be to God that he visits us there, because most of our lives are made up of the simply OK, and I, for one, long to be known and loved even in those moments where I feel entirely uninteresting. 

The manner of Jesus’ birth is good news, also, because it means that we need not become impressive, powerful people in order to take part in God’s life or God’s mission. No matter what family we were born into, no matter how much money we make, no matter how many times we have failed or fallen down, we have not missed out on the chance to participate in the things that God truly cares about, because those are, in the end, quite ordinary things—feeding, clothing, visiting, listening, forgiving, remembering, grieving, rejoicing. They are the things that you can do wherever you are, no matter who you are. And the day that we realize that these things are all that God requires of us, that they are the elements of a truly important life…that is the day we are free. 

Let that day be today, this eminently ordinary day, as you gaze at a baby in the manger, with common shepherds as your companions. Let God’s humble birth, his little bed of hay, his quiet Mother, teach you that your life can be enough, will be enough, humble and little and quiet as it, too, might be, if you will only give over your love, your heart, to be pierced and shaped— not by the Savior we expected, but the Savior that we needed. The Savior of the everyday.

It is for him we say:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,” AND glory to God in the lowliest birthing place.

“On earth peace,” AND in our ordinary hearts, peace, this Christmas day, and every day to come.